Calvinists, Arminians, atheists and other sub-categories of non-Sheilaism

Does God Play Duck-Duck-Goose?” Richard Beck asks, critiquing the Calvinist doctrine of “double predestination.”

That’s the idea that “before you were even born, God had predestined you to either go to heaven or go to hell.” Beck notes that:

Double predestination has been roundly criticized, even within Reformed circles. But many people do subscribe to the doctrine. Double predestination is deemed to be a crude bastardization of Reformed theology, but crude bastardizations tend to be pretty popular.

He then goes on to explore the arguments that Calvinists use to distinguish themselves from double predestination, and how all of those arguments lead, logically, either to double-predestination by another name, or else to a form of Calvinism that turns out not to be very Calvinist at all.

Beck concludes:

As I see it, it really just boils down to this. You’re either an Arminian or you believe in double predestination, either the classic variety or the Duck-Duck-Goose variety. Because the election “in Christ” argument is either just more Duck-Duck-Goose or it’s the equivalent of Arminianism.

So either way, it boils down to a choice: Arminianism or double predestination.

Arminianism or Duck-Duck-Goose.

Yep. That’s the basic gist of the logic for why Christians like Beck and I can respect Calvin’s contributions without wanting to regard ourselves as Calvinists.

Like most non-Calvinists, I do not carry this picture in a locket worn around my neck.

My quibble here, though, is that I don’t think that makes us “Arminians.” This is a pet-peeve of mine. “Arminian” is mainly an in-group word for outsiders. It’s just silly to expect me, as an outsider, to embrace that word or to make the in-group categories my primary source of identity.

The picture there to the right is of Jacobus Arminius. If you didn’t recognize him, that’s OK — most of the people whom Calvinists regard as “Arminians” don’t recognize him. Or think about him much, if ever. But that has no bearing on the in-group terminology. Even if you’ve never heard of Arminius and have no idea what he believed, you’re still an Arminian, as far as the group is concerned.

That’s an annoying assertion. I suppose it is technically true, if by that label they mean something binary like “not one of us Calvinists.” But one of the nice things about not being a Calvinist is that one does not have to define one’s self primarily in relation to Calvinism. That’s actually one of the nice things about not being anything — of not subscribing to any given “-ism.”

Decades ago, Robert Bellah & Co. introduced us to “Sheilaism” — the idiosyncratic, solipsistic religious faith of a woman named, yes, Sheila. Given that Sheila herself was the sole proponent and adherent of Sheilaism, that makes the rest of us non-Sheilaists.

But of course that’s not how most of us think of ourselves. Most people in the world aren’t even aware that there is such a thing as “Sheilaism,” and so they would never identify themselves as non-Sheilaists. So while such a classification is, indeed, technically true for all of us (except Sheila herself), you won’t find anyone who primarily identifies themselves that way.

Thus while it’s not technically wrong to say that you and I are non-Sheilaists, it’s misleading to categorize us as mainly that or as only that. Those binary categories of Sheilaist/non-Sheilaist aren’t things we much think about or care about. We can be classified according to those categories, but they aren’t anything that interests us or concerns us in any meaningful way.

Such classifications, it seems to me, can be accurate if all we say of them is, “Here is a label that might be applied to you,” but it becomes inaccurate when we say, “this label is what you are.”

The latter seems reductive, misleading and irksome.

So here, then, is a question for those of my fellow non-Sheilaists who also are non-theists: To what extent do you find the term “atheist” similarly irksome?

This sort of thing can be more than merely irksome, too. It doesn’t really matter if Calvinists insist on defining me as an “Arminian,” since their choice of terminology doesn’t affect the parameters of my actual identity and beliefs, nor does it restrict my freedom. But when the in-group enjoys real privilege, then its redefining of all outsiders as primarily outsiders can become a way of enforcing and maintaining that privilege. And that is more than simply annoying — that is unjust.

This points us toward a larger problem, and a longer discussion, having to do with the ways such labeling can be used to maintain an imbalance of power — allowing one group to dictate the terms for everyone else. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it in a future discussion.

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  • Jay

     To the extent that America has proselytizing atheists, it’s mostly reactive.  When you live in a country where high school biology teachers are sometimes obliged to give equal time to the story with the talking snake, it’s not always possible to disengage and let the religious do their own thing.  Other public issues where atheists often disagree with some particularly unsophisticated Christians include environmentalism and relations with Israel.

  • Ross Thompson

    I don’t identify with organized atheism in any meaningful way, but those are separate issues.

    There’s organized atheism? Isn’t that what the phrase “herding cats” was coined to describe?

  • Tricksterson

    So have they ever said what they think you should call yourself?

  • Tricksterson

    Maybe it’s because we didn’t hear much about it here in the US but what you call “ostentatious religiosity” would probably get Blair accused of downplaying his religion here in political circles.  At least some political circles.

  • Tricksterson

    I like the term “Freethinker”, which I define as someone, whether atheist, agnostic or theist (and of any denomination thereof) believes that the spheres of religion and politics should be kept as seperate as possible.  So I wouldn’t call Fred a secularist but I would definitely term him a Freethinker.

  • Zeno_of_Elea

    While I do know what you mean, the idea of an “atheist community” has always seemed a little bit funny to me. A friend once asked me, “well, what do atheists believe?” to which the only response is, “I don’t know, and that’s kinda the point. Also: sleeping in on Sundays.”

  • Parhelion

    Like a lot of the other atheists who have posted here, I don’t mind being called an atheist whenever people understand they’re talking about what I don’t believe.  I only get annoyed when the word atheist is supposed to describe what I do believe, or how I feel about my beliefs, or the way I’ll behave.

    Unfortunately, I’ve found theists are rarely interested in any of the finer points of my atheism.  Even those from non-evangelical religious traditions are much more eager to share the specifics of their belief with me than hear about my unbelief. But given that, from bits of conversation I’ve pieced together, a great many theists seem to believe the “denominations” of atheism are the Loud, the Bloodless, the Lazy, the Sheepish, and the Tortured, this lack of interest is not too surprising.

  • AnonymousSam

    You say “denominations” and I’m reminded of the people who think atheism is a religion, sometimes even complete with churches. Not to be confused with the atheist temple.

  • Hmmm… musing over Beck’s over simplification of soteriological positions and he misses the point.

    He may well be an Arminian but when Calvinists say Arminian they mean Pelagianism and Arminius wasn’t a Pelagian by any stretch (it’s not even clear that Pelagius was).

    But a couple of other positions a Christian may hold to:

    1. Jansenism – holds that God double predestines most of the damned but only single predestines the elect  so they can reject his Grace and be damned as well. Creepy. (Blaise Pascal was a Jansenist).

    2. Universalism

    Beck also misuses single predestination – at least according to my understanding of the concept.


  • Carstonio

    That sounds like the common jokes about Unitarian Universalists that imply that lack of belief is wrong. When told by non-UUs, they have the same tone as the common joke “Vegetarian: Indian word for bad hunter.” Ridiculous that anyone would object to either vegetarianism or lack of belief. Almost like they take it personally when others make different choices for their own lives.

  • mud man

    I think the problem is in identifying a tradition with (a point of) doctrine. Tradition includes literature, language, major figures, historical key events, and so on. And conversely, any interesting tradition will have ongoing conversation about what are the essential points of doctrine, the core definitions, and all the other touchstones.

    Here I go again, pointing to Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • Hth

    Paganism has a bit of the same problem.  I use the word because it’s the word we all use, but it really does bother me a bit, since it’s a word that only has meaning in the sense that it’s been historically used by Christians to mean “not Christian” — or more accurately, “not yet Christian,” since it’s rare for Christians to speak about pagans (current or historical) as anything other than a mission field.

    Like Fred’s technical Arminianism, I suppose I’m technically a not-Christian, but that isn’t a very descriptive word for how I think of myself or how I go about my life, as though my spiritual world were somehow centered around how I don’t feel about Christ.

  • I was going to comment pedantically that the standard term for someone who is uncertain about the existence of god(s) and/or considers it unprovable is “an agnostic,” but on reflection I think that “agnost” really ought to be the noun form of the adjective “agnostic,” just as “atheist” is the noun for someone whose beliefs are atheistic.  As far as I can tell from a quick google search, though, you may be the first person to coin that word.

  • What Becca said.  I am an atheist, but that fact alone is not terribly informative; Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, and Sigmund Freud were all atheists, but their worldviews didn’t have a lot in common with one another beyond that, nor do any of them have that much in common with mine.  Secular Humanist is a descriptor that indicates a set of beliefs, some descriptive, some prescriptive, to which I do in fact subscribe; atheism is only one of those beliefs.

    I’m also working on becoming a Bayesian rationalist, but I think I still have a ways to go to clear out all the mental junk that impedes my mastery of that art.

  • Fred might call himself a religious humanist, and I might so describe him as well, but he isn’t a secular humanist; secular humanists are a subset of atheists, and Fred is not an atheist.

  • But figuring out a way to not kill bugs, and still value myself and other people… that’s hard.

    For an individual it’s hard; for the human species as a whole, it’s flatly impossible.  We are in direct competition with insects for our food supply, and if we didn’t kill huge numbers of insects in defense of our food, the vast majority of us would starve to death and/or die of insect-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.  The carrying capacity of the Earth for humans-who-never-kill-insects is probably less than one hundred million, and the planet is currently (just barely) supporting over seventy times that number.

  • To what extent do you find the term “atheist” similarly irksome?


    I happen to not believe that any of the religions I have ever heard of are correct in their supernatural elements. I happen not to believe in any supernatural stuff at all. No fairies, no unicorns, no karma, no gods, etc. 

    So I call myself an “atheist” when it comes up. But simply happening to not-believe in gods or whatever is just not that important to me. It does not affect my life on a daily basis, and actually the only time it affects my life at all is online. I intensely dislike those celebrity atheists who like to call themselves the standard-bearers of some kind of movement.  I find that “movement” intensely unwelcoming to me as a woman and as someone who knows something about different religions and cares about lots of different religious people. The misogyny in it is much more dangerous than any anti-atheist crud I may come across in the U.S. Being a Democrat is more dangerous to me than happening to not-believe in supernatural stuff, and I’m not about to pretend that I’m particularly oppressed for being a Democrat. Being unpopular in certain social circles is not oppression.

  • Tricksterson

    Ask a dozen pagans to define the term and you will get a minimum of a dozen different answers.  Myself I define it as any polytheist, dividing them into traditional or “paleo” pagans which are religions like Hinduism or Shinto with an unbroken line going back for however long and neo which are either relatively new creations like Discordianism or attempts to recreate an old tradition like Asatru.  Wicca, IMHGO falls somewhere int between there.  Should stress that his definition is strictly for my own comfort, I do not seek to impose it on anyone else and won’t argue with anyone who has a differing definition.

  • The_L1985

     That, and there’s so much more to non-Calvinist forms of Christianity than just “does not believe in predestination.”

  • “Atheist” isn’t a problem for me.  While technically its defining someone by what they’re not, as a practical matter, in my cultural situation in my part of the world, it actually tells you quite a lot about someone.  In a different context it would probably be an unhelpful term, but as a practical matter I know that if I run into someone who calls themselves an atheist, we probably share a lot of experiences and views.

  • The_L1985

     As a Pagan ex-Catholic, I assure you that that “missing limb” feeling is also there when you convert form one religion to another.

  • EK

    Over time, I have grown increasingly wary of referring to myself as ‘an atheist’ – not because I’m in the least bit concerned about how other people will react to the word, but for personal reasons.  I find that calling myself “an [anything]” tends to be psychologically limiting – I start to accept or reject information not based on its merit, but rather on whether it fits with my sense of who I am.

    I’ve noticed an early warning sign, too – when I am presented with information that doesn’t fit my current beliefs, if I get a strong feeling of irritation localized around my temples and forehead (that has nothing to do with the manner in which the information is presented), that’s a red flag to me that I’m self-identifying too strongly with a particular belief.

    So now, if someone asks me, I’ll concede that the word “atheist” is technically accurate if used to describe me, but that I prefer not to call myself an anything.  I just want to observe the world and see what is in it – whether it turns out to be a god-haunted multiverse, an impersonal clockwork engine, or the dream of a butterfly – and not try to /tell/ the universe what I expect it to be by making my current working hypotheses a part of my identity.

    A wise friend of mine once said, in response to a conversation about the folly of pursing careers, “I don’t ever want anyone to ask me what I /do/.  I want them to ask me what I am /doing/.”  That’s how I feel about the word ‘atheist’ – I don’t want people to ask me what I /think/ about God, I want them to ask me what I am /thinking/.

  • LL

    I have no problem with “atheist.” It’s accurate. It’s reasonably non-offensive, in that it’s a descriptor, but it doesn’t necessarily imply a stigma, just an absence of belief in a higher power.

  • LL

    And various people’s attempt to make “atheist” a pejorative means nothing to me. It would be like being called an “Arminian,” comparatively. Other people’s (esp. fundamentalists) understanding of the term is irrelevant to me. Other people don’t know what lots of words mean. If that bothered me, I’d have no time to do anything but be bothered by how willfully, colossally ignorant people are.

  • mcc

    Here is a bit of a late response.
    “So here, then, is a question for those of my fellow non-Sheilaists who also are non-theists: To what extent do you find the term ‘atheist’ similarly irksome?”
    I find “atheist” problematic because I feel like I don’t know what that word means. It is like describing myself as a “socialist”– people seem to imagine different things when they hear that word. I feel like if I asked someone to define exactly what they mean by “atheist” and “agnostic”, I could be an atheist or agnostic depending on their replies, or could not exactly fit into either category. I don’t feel comfortable describing myself by a word when I am not sure exactly what I am communicating. I usually like to use a word like “nonbeliever” which is descriptive rather than identity-based for this reason, though I don’t complain if I get either of those other two labels.

  • Cephas

    I like your box example. It’s so true: those we see as “very different”, we’re so much put through so much more scrutiny, when we give them credence at all.