Will The Real Atheists Please Stop Kneeling

Earlier this week I mentioned the rumor being spread that the New Atheists are the new prophets.  Well now we can add the following bold conjectures from friend of Camels With Hammers, Clergy Guy:

The church has deteriorated over the years to where we have a great number of thumbsucking, overindulged, lazy people who want somebody to pay for a professional to take care of the religious work.

You know, I have become friends with a few atheists recently, and I much prefer them to many of the “elect.” They often have a real passion for truth that I find lacking in many church members. They are often quite idealistic (even if they won’t admit it). I think Jesus probably prefers them, too—although don’t tell my new friends that because it will start a debate for sure.

If you ask me, the real atheists are often sitting in the pews. They don’t believe. They just want. They’re not racked with guilt; they’re soft with spoiled living. And they whine if things get too uncomfortable.

What do you think?  Is the grass just greener on the other side?  Or are the people in the pews the most cynical forms of atheists in their hearts?  Or is Clergy Guy an atheist in his heart and the only way he knows to express it is to identify us atheists as like him rather than himself as like us?

I can’t seem to find the passage in the books I have handy, but if I remember correctly it was Paul Tillich who noticed that all the great reformers get called atheists at some point—most famously possibly in the case of Socrates and possibly the most ironically in the case of Jesus.  This makes plenty of sense to me.  Each religion (or at least each monotheistic one) has a nasty, exclusionary, and arrogant habit of defining truth as the dogmas of its particular cult and morality as identical to its rules and dictate.  Anyone who challenges either the actual moral virtue of the institution or (worse) the rightness of its moral ideals or its theology rejects morality and god himself in the process.  And so, to deny the religion’s instantiation in practice and in teaching, identified with absolute truth itself and with God himself, is tantamount to evil and atheism.

The reformers of morality always look evil by the standards and custom practices of the reigning morality they seek to criticize.  How does one criticize a morality without sounding immoral, at least to the ears that accept that very morality?  How does one criticize a conception of God without sounding like an atheist to those for whom that conception of God is the necessary meaning of the word “God” itself?  And when actually is an atheist in a predominantly theistic world, how can one not be and be perceived as the enemy of the very traditionalism that most people take for morality and for which most people instinctively feel the most irrational tendency to veneration?

And, yet, as those willing to slaughter sacred cows on principle, standing for an anti-traditionalist standard of truth and ethical evaluation, the reformer, the atheist can cut a heroic figure for her willingness to sever all the safety nets of tradition and demand a new, untested future.  And for those who see the reinvigorating, reforming possibilities in such habit-denying feather ruffling and yet who also want to remain in the faith and in the tradition, as Clergy Guy has intimated he does, it is only logical to desire more of the atheist’s spirit amidst the faithful.  But, in my view, the spirit of atheism in our day demands real atheism.  In past ages, being a deist was radical enough for Voltaires and Jeffersons and being radical immanentists was radical enough for the Schleiermachers and Harnacks to be genuinely scandalous reformers.  Today though, we’re in an age where the equivalently bold and revisionary spirits must go beyond the deisms and liberalisms that have been reduced to wishy-washy, mealy mouthed, empty cliche propping, and rather accept full blooded atheism (or at least strongly skeptical agnosticism) in order to provoke, reform, and help progress Western culture.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    Daniel, I’m going to have to read this again after I’ve had my coffee–there’s a lot to it.

    Just to clear up something, I’m not wishing I could find the nerve to become an atheist. I have some confusion about God, but I do not deny God’s existence. However, I do have some massive problems with the church.

    It was interesting how you said reformers have often been accused of atheism. I seem to recall in my Christian history class that the early Christians were sometimes considered atheists because they did not believe in the popular gods of the culture.

    As usual you have more to say than I can grasp in on sitting, so I’ll be back.


    • Daniel Fincke

      Well, I consider it a thing where you can keep calling us atheists really one of you as long as we can keep calling you really one of us. In a way it’s the highest compliment we can pay each other, no? ;)

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    Well, if you put it that way….

    And I did mean it as a compliment in my entry

  • http://atheistsandchristians.com Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Good post. I too will re-read it later.

    On a side not, I’ve had several Christian friends tell me that I’m still a Christian, which is interesting because I don’t believe any of the proper Christian things any more. I think they react this way because I still treat people with kindness, love and respect.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, I knew you meant to be complimentary Clergy Guy and so I took it flatteringly (insofar as I could presume I was among the new atheist friends to whom you meant to refer).

    Mike, I think the issue comes down to this: when someone is trying to claim you is it because they admire you (or things about you) and think that those traits should be associated with what they think is the truth and the good life, then yes, it’s a compliment and not something to be upset about. If they’re telling you you’re just in a phase then there might be a controlling attitude they have which is not coping well with your stubborn refusal to submit your will and become like them. (This door swings both for the atheist and the religious when telling the other it’s just a matter of time ’til they’ll come back—or come around for the first time as the case may be).

    Finally, apart from any virtues, I have a friend who teases me that I’m still a Christian simply because Christian structures of thought and Christian priorities (like to evangelize rather than just keep my beliefs to myself) and Christian guilt, etc. all are deeply engrained in me. While I became far, far more laissez-faire and changed many a philosophical, ethical, political, and psychological outlook when I left Christianity, there are some definite continuities of habit and attitude.

    And, as I’ve mentioned before, in this post http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2009/08/20/the-complicated-relationship-of-an-apostate-to-his-religious-friends-and-his-reilgious-past/ I have a friend who says my language drips with religious allusions more than anyone else he knows. And that’s almost always unconscious on my part. It’s just the way my mind works.

    • Mandy

      As to your last 2 paragraphs I know exactly how you feel! But I do think that having that tendency helps make a much stronger argument – especially in the area of ethics. I will definately be reading more!

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Mandy! It’s nice to see you here!

  • http://atheistsandchristians.com Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I do take it as a compliment, though I also try to point out how it could be taken offensively.

  • Boz

    ClergyMan said:

    If you ask me, the real atheists are often sitting in the pews. They don’t believe. They just want. They’re not racked with guilt; they’re soft with spoiled living. And they whine if things get too uncomfortable

    It sounds like ClergyMan is using the word “Atheists” in this passage as a derogatory term, to describe the slothful behaviour of church attendees.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I took him to mean atheists to mean the ones who don’t believe in anything. The idea was that the slothful self-centeredness of those in the pews betrayed a real lack of commitment to anything of higher importance. Then he contrasted these people with the actual atheists who by their passion for truth show they actually do believe in something of higher importance and in that way were less “atheistic” (where atheistic has connotations of nihilistic).

    All of which I think is somewhat true. If “God is truth” then it makes sense for Clergy Guy, if that is indeed his perspective, to surmise that the atheists who love truth are unwittingly closer to God than the closed-minded, apathetic, lazy Christians who don’t.

  • reason2live

    I just stumbled on this site and I finally feel I have found a “home” for my thoughts…I will be sharing this with my friends (lazy Catholics and zealot atheists)with the goal of finding my way away from Catholicism and toward my rebirth as a true Aetheist…or is that aethiest?

    The politics of God has always led to persecution of any of those who dared to ask questions framed outside of theological parameters. How many time can one person hear that “God works in mysterious ways” before you realize its just a shell game. There are no answers to be found any longer by looking to the church or its clergy. Only no one within these parishes will dare to stand up and profess their doubts because of fear. If nothing else, they simply do not want to take there bet off the table in case the ‘talking snake’ story is true. They religiously show up every week as though some deity is tabulating the time spent with their butts-in-the-pew for each Christian in the world. I wonder how different the world would be if collectively all non-believers got up off the kneelers and kept their money in their pockets.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    First, Dan, thanks for your pointer to ClergyGuy. I shall have to check out his blog, as he sounds like an interesting person whose thoughts i’d like to rad.

    On the issue of whether those wishy-washy, mealy mouthed pew-sitters (isn’t that Dawkins’s description of agnosticism?) are the real atheists, I think there’s a real difference between just not caring and caring enough to decide God doesn’t exist. There’s even an important distinction between the don’t-care brigade that seems to fill up every house of worship and agnostics, who have considered the evidence or the need for evidence and decided to withhold judgment on the matter for whatever reason. I would say that true atheists and the theists who do care about truth and the logical implications of their views (I’d count myself in that group, and from what little I’ve read of his blog just now, ClergyGuy as well) are much closer to each other than either of us are to the don’t-care brigade. Thinking of this topic, I’m reminded of Elie Wiesel’s famous quote, that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.

    Regarding your idea that everyone who cares about truth must become an atheist rather than simply a deist, I’m not sure I accept that analysis. For one thing, there’s the practical benefit of having people willing to work within a tradition to try to counteract the negative consequences of bad beliefs. Even the prisoner who escaped the cave felt the drive to go back into the cave to try to lead his fellows out. Setting aside the issue of whether religious traditions have any value in themselves (which you and I disagree on, and I don’t have time to go into anyway), I’d think you’d want people who could show the pew-sitter why truth was worth pursuing. That seems a necessary first step to being critical of the tradition, and those pew-sitters are much more likely to take the issue seriously if it’s coming from “one of them” than someone trying to tear down what they still hold precious.