You Might Be An Atheist Even If You Hate The New Atheists

There are a lot of people who dislike Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, PZ Myers, and other prominent “New Atheists” (or, as some prefer “Gnu Atheists”) so much that they do not want to be called atheists.  John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts had a post (and many remarks in the comments section beneath it) wherein he defended his decision to call himself a Militant Agnostic on what kept amounting to political grounds—he distrusted the atheist movement since it made things tribal.

Rather than offering particularly strong arguments to the charge leveled at him by myself (here and here) and others that he was a de facto atheist as a purely descriptive matter whether or not he liked the title, he persisted in treating the label as radioactive because apparently it would conscript him against his will into an unnecessarily adversarial relationship to the religious.

And tonight a friend on Facebook momentarily confused me for a lockstep New Atheist and railed about their tendency to think that dismissing the monotheistic, personal Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was all that there was to answering questions related to God.  What about deists and agnostics and a thousand other flowers of non-theists?

And a particular matter of tension here again was the worry that New Atheism was so thoroughly coming to define atheism that even though we can rightly classify agnostics, deists, and many others as atheists we cannot accurately group them in with New Atheists.  And if New Atheism becomes synonymous with atheism itself then more people like my friend on Facebook and like John Wilkins are going to be squeamish about calling themselves atheists because doing so will carry with it connotations they refuse.

I am partially sympathetic to this worry.  I have never joined a political party and no matter how undeniably leftish my politics is on many issues, I loathe the idea of being called a flat out Democrat or a liberal or a progressive.  I am an independent thinker.  It actually frustrates me to an extent that I find the right wing so toxic that I cannot feel more torn between the parties.  I recoil at Democrats who joke about wanting a Sarah Palin nomination because they want Obama to score a knockout reelection victory.  I genuinely yearn for a serious choice between two competent, moral, constructive, humane parties with competing promising proposals to choose from.  I really wish it was like that.

But to stay on topic, it is atheism is not just New Atheism and because of that New Atheists should be wary of saying broad unqualified things like “atheists believe” or “atheists think” as though they speak for all atheists.  Just say what you think from your atheist-influenced perspective (and, yes, sometimes one’s atheism does have implications for other views, even if it’s not a determinative factor by itself).

And so, New Atheism-haters, here are a few bits of advice:

Many New Atheists I read seem quite comfortable with deists and self-identifying agnostics and grasp that there is more to God discussion than crapping on the patently implausible and malevolent Abrahamic God all the time.  But they talk about that God in shorthand as though it was the only one because, frankly, that’s what most Westerners mean by God.  It’s shorthand.  And it’s important to attack this imaginary friend vigorously because it takes the debate to where most people really are.

Yes, there are other concepts of a source of all being or necessary beings that are more sophisticated and interesting.  Being an atheist in the practical sense—one who lives without the belief in personal, intervening gods—can still allow for open minded speculation about such philosophical concepts.  The New Atheists typically celebrate the deists of the Enlightenment as their own.  They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t understand this and feel some kinship with those proto-atheists whose beliefs were anathema to faith-based thinkers and worshipers who insist God is a personal, interventionist being.

Don’t confuse the shorthand use of “God” taken to refer only to the Abrahamic God as the limit of what New Atheists know about.  And, understand, for too long religious apologists have pulled off an infuriating bait and switch whereby they convince people of the apparent reasonableness of some abstract philosophical principle of divinity and then by sheer equivocation or the most superficial arguments claimed that this proved the personal, interventionist God of their own religious faith.  It’s absurd.

And atheists who allow this equivocation to go unchallenged and say, “yes, I see where God is an interesting metaphysical concept worth considering even if I reject it” get cut off at the pass while religions sell superstitions about human sacrifices of incarnated god men to pay off ransoms and intellectuals never bother to address the nonsense involved in that.

But even if your gripes with the New Atheists run deeper than this—maybe you’re worried about tribalism, maybe you think some of the common arguments or paradigms of New Atheists are flat out dumb, etc. then the solution is not to claim you’re not an atheist but to stand up and be counted as an atheist who disagrees.  This is not a religious institution.  There’s no pope to silence you.  No imam to issue a fatwa against you.  Go ahead.  Even the New Atheist PZ Myers made a pretty good list of gripes with common New Atheist memes he does not like (and most of which I don’t either).

And we at Camels With Hammers for have happily taken unorthodox stands for the New Atheist movement whenever they’ve seen right to me.  Just last week, Eric Steinhart explored a great variety of already existing, viable atheist positions on metaphysics and values, and then bashed materialism (which too often all atheists are naively assumed to affirm necessarily).

In my own writing here, I have characterized only lack of belief in gods as the inclusive requirement for atheism, I have explicitly noted that even though evolution by natural selection makes a personal God highly unlikely, it leaves the door open for non-personal God conceptions, I have criticized Aquinas’s views on God but again explicitly left room for a plausible “source of all being”, and I have convinced myself that there can even be something called true religion” (and “true spirituality” too).

I have also disapproved of unnecessarily abusive language, jocular attitudes, and anti-religious prejudices among atheists (while nonetheless defending “militant” New Atheist activism and, with nuanced qualifications, some forms of mockery and embarrassment of religion, some forms ofantagonistic “blasphemy“, and nearly all art that challenges religious ideas and symbols).  And despite a highly Sam Harris-influenced stance against all religious moderates early in my blogging career, I have since made some explicit concessions to their value too.

And just you wait for the posts I have lined up this week to make party-line New Atheists recoil!

In sum, my advice to atheists who object to the New Atheists:  you’re atheists regardless of what you say, so you should just stand up for your interpretation of atheism as such or for the best values or metaphysics you know of, rather than try to do linguistic gymnastics to deny the lexigraphically and socially obvious.

Your Atheism?

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://duellingdeist.blogspot.com/ Bill Baker

    Um, my thoughts? I see what you’re saying. I don’t refuse to call myself an atheist because of the new atheists{whom I don’t hate all of nor all of their polemics or views; just well..it’s complicated and off topic}..bgut because I am NOT an ‘atheist” period. I’m not embarrased by that label, I happily and comfortably called myself one for awhile because I had drifted from my deism to agnostic-atheism intellectually, I never stopped claluing myself one because of “the new atheists”,lol! I stopped claling myself one because I was no longer an “atheist” but agnostic-deist again and have been since.
    Deism is NOT a form of atheism{just because we live life practically w/no divine commands/interventions}, anymore than it is a form of theism{because it asserts the exiatance or probable existance of a “god”- to use the conventionsl term for it}.
    The atheists that respect the enlightenment deists do so exactly because they think deism is longer viable “since darwin”{though he himself was agnostic-deist} and it was valid to be opne “till then”, but they do not understand that deism has EVOLVED{since it is a progressive freethinking category of belief/opinion} and has even birthed sub-categories, deists are more freethinking and non-uniform than ever, though we are starting to unite in a sort of deist movement like atheists have.

    Deism is NOT a form of atheism, deists are NOT a form of atheist{not theism/theists}. For centuries theists and atheists have both either tried to apporporiate it/us as part of their movement or to denounce it/us as of the enemies camp{or for some other reason}.
    I maintain and always will that the term “non-theism” is useful here and that it exists for instances like this, for vierws that are neitjher theistic nor atheistic. And I will continue to maintian that deism and deists not be usurped/co-opted nor denounced as the enemy.
    same with agnosticism/agnostics for that matter; especially since agnosticism allows for LEANINGS[agnostic-atheist, agnostic-deist}, though one can be dogmatically middle ground Agnostic between atheism and deism{to me, they hold the logical default; allthough given my leanings I think agnostic-deism comes in second, ~wink~ lol}}.
    Thing is also that some deists are sympathetic to liberal theists and some are sympathetic to atheists{I myself am more sympatjhetic to atheists believe it or not; in that I think atheism is more logiocally valid than theism; but I wouyld’nt count pantheism nor even some form of soft polytheism outa the running neccaserily, though unlikely}. I will work with both atheists{including “new atheists” ooohh} and liberal theists for progress. All the while challenging any and all hypocriisy in either or even amongst deists{like STRONG dogmati classical deists; of which there are VERY few, and I mean that; the deist movement has far elss of these than even the new atheiost movement has of dogmatic atheists..and not just ebcause we have smaller numbers in general, but even by ratio I think}

    Anywho, I still don’t think it is logical to call deism or agnosticism[as in modern agnosticism- the position, not the “without knowledge” definition alone} forms of atheism or theism. Deists and Agnostics wil continue to sympathise with whichever side they wish{though not agreeing completely of course w/either}or neither side…and we will continue to assert our independence as a philosophy/movement/etc.

    If I am a de-facto anything it’s de-facto agnostic, but I’m relatively convinced by arguments and evidence for deism.

    P.S. I peroanlly do not hate the ‘”four horsemen” of the atheist movement. I dislike certains aspects of each or their views and rhetoric/attitudes; however I appreciate some of what they say and do nonetheless. I am a big fan of the Hitch{these days mainly just for his infamous contrarianism ; ) being contrarian myself}, to Dawkins credit he aknowledged a couple years ago that a serious/reasonable case could be made for a deistic god{allthough he still has’nt denounce dhis calling deism “watered down theism” or pantheism as ‘sexed up atheism”ie: so-called sci-pantheism…which as far as I’m concerned DOES’NT EXIST, you’re a theist or not a theist period., nor his foolish assertions that Einstein was an atheist masked as a sci-pan.,etc}
    To his credit, Harris is open to extra sensory possibilities or exp[anded conciousness possibilities. They all have their likable traits and views. What irritates me about the new atheism is the crap that comes outa their herd mentality comformism and often simple mindedness.

    Anyways, that’s all for now. Thanks Dan for the article, it was a thought provoking one.

    Also I should add another thing that seperates deists from atheists, we reverance/have awe towards the deus{not servile worship of course, but an inner willful reverance/awe.

  • http://iconoclasm2000.blogspot.com/ ColdDimSum

    I personally really like the ‘four horsemen’ (and PZ Myers, and many other Atheists — which doesn’t mean we cannot disagree). They are brilliant in their fields and they present cutting arguments and write elegant books which I have great agreement with. So I have no problem with Atheists, per se.

    HOWEVER, I am Agnostic – with a capital A (for 30 years). But this is not the adjective that is bandied in terms like ‘agnostic atheist’.

    Agnosticism is a proper noun, it is a term coined by and specifically defined by Thomas Huxley to mean:

    Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively the principle may be expressed as, in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can carry you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty

    (see also, http://iconoclasm2000.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-agnosticism.html )

    This is, in many ways, what might be called scientism but it is slightly broader in application (the ideas of peer-review and consensus building are important additions to scientism). And scientism as a philosophy is really ill defined so it doesn’t seem a very good term to me.

    My MAIN beef with Atheism is that I really don’t wish to define myself solely in terms of opposition to a single proposition. As far as I am concerned the question of god is settled — there is no evidence, and there is no evidence forthcoming. I cannot say there are categorically no gods but that is irrelevant. I also recently realized that the concept of ‘god’ is very much wrapped up with ideas about the origins of whatever ultimate reality is.

    Imagine that tomorrow someone absolutely proves there are no gods — would you still identify as an Atheist?

    I would still identify as an Agnostic because, to me, it means that I hold that reason and evidence are the best tools we have for building knowledge and that would not change.

    The best reason (I can think of) to identify as an atheist these days is to yank the Theists chain. And I must admit, that in order to make my disbelief in THEIR god very clear I often identify as an Atheist unless the person I’m dealing with has at least a working knowledge of philosophy (similar to Russell).

    If you judge me by a single label alone you are probably missing the mark as my personal philosophy is more nuanced than any single label.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for your thoughts, ColdDimSum. As I define agnostic atheism, it is consistent with Huxley’s original definition. All it says is that for principled epistemic reasons, one refuses to form a belief on the God question and, in practical terms one is a de facto atheist, if not a knowing one in any sense.

      But as to this point:

      If you judge me by a single label alone you are probably missing the mark as my personal philosophy is more nuanced than any single label.

      I understand the spirit in which you mean this and in which you protest that you do not want to be defined by one proposition you deny.

      But here’s the point, to call oneself an atheist is not to define you by just one word, it is to define your position on one major question with just one word. This does not preclude in any way a number of other words defining all other sorts of things about you.

      Secondly, it does point out something important, more than just the rejection of one proposition to label someone an atheist. Whether it should be the case of not, the God question has major social ramifications and so a position on it is more important because of those issues, regardless of it would be in some theoretical universe in which it did not. We do not live in that other universe. We live in this one, so it matters to be an atheist and identify as one.

  • http://iconoclasm2000.blogspot.com/ ColdDimSum

    The ending was more of a general ‘please don’t assume you know me just because I identify Agnostic’. I’m about as hardline against religion and superstitious beliefs as you can get. We could probably find very few practical issues wrt god or religion where we disagree. So I’m aware that I’m putting a very fine point on it.

    As I said, I don’t have an issue with the Atheist label. My position is more akin to Bertrand Russell:

    I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

  • http://yahoo.com Mr Anonymous

    I agree. Good article. Myself I admit my atheism is rather weak because I still mix it up with some deism and agnosticism. But one thing I know; I dislike dogmaticism. Whether from some religious fanatic or a freethinking person. Don’t put our minds in some chains, please.

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