Lack of belief as an identity

Brendan O’Neill himself does not believe in God, but he has written a piece entitled How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet – Telegraph Blogs.  After rehearsing the various ways atheists have become obnoxious, he offers a rather penetrating analysis of why that is:

So, what’s gone wrong with atheism? The problem isn’t atheism itself, of course, which is just non-belief, a nothing, a lack of something. Rather it is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life, which gives rise to today’s monumentally annoying atheism. The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity. Where earlier generations of the Godless viewed their atheism as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever, today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare “I am an atheist!” as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t. The utter hollowness of this transformation of a nothing into an identity is summed up by the fact that some American atheists now refer to themselves as “Nones” – that is, their response to the question “What is your religious affiliation?” is “None”. Okay, big deal, you don’t believe in God, well done. But what do you believe in?

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?

It’s true that for earlier atheists not believing in God was just a part of an alternative belief system, such as Marxism or Humanism.  But today such belief systems are not tenable either.  (Revolution of the proletariat after the fall of the Soviet Union?  Faith in the human spirit after the 20th century?)

I suppose what comes closest to an alternative belief system for today’s atheists is Darwinism.  But “Nature red in tooth and claw” doesn’t work all that well as a  guide for life.  It’s hard to get from Darwinism to benevolence or hope.  It’s even hard to get to causes dear to the heart of today’s progressives.  What’s the Darwinist case for gay marriage?  Or helping the poor?  Or world peace?

Conversely, belief in God is not enough.  What God do you believe in?  What do you believe about God?  Where do you stand with Him?   We all need a religion, a revelation, a theology.

And neither atheism nor theism can be mere intellectual opinions about whether or not something exists.  Both are dispositions of the soul.


About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.