We Have Always Been Leaving Omelas: The Humanist’s Infuriating Desire for a Better World

We Have Always Been Leaving Omelas: The Humanist’s Infuriating Desire for a Better World August 18, 2019

NASA, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This one is Ursula K. Le Guin’s. It’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), and it was inspired by The Brothers Karamazov–specifically, Ivan’s discourse on the immorality of heaven.

The “plot” of Le Guin’s story is simple: we’re introduced to one utopia, Omelas, where all is as splendid as splendid can be. Then we’re introduced to the secret to this community’s prosperity: a social contract that compels one child to suffer horrifically, that everyone else might live in abundance and joy and peace.

Some can live with this contract. Indeed, as Ivan noted in his version, which recounts for his brother wrenching stories of human depravity, that’s what many Christians assert when they invoke the idea that all tears will one day be wiped away. They are suggesting–though surely not all of them mean to be–that there exists some domain of peace that could ever make conscionable the present suffering of even a single child.

But then there are, as Le Guin’s title notes, “The Ones Who Walk Away.” The folks who, upon realizing what the contract entails, refuse to rationalize its injustice further.

That’s us. That’s humanism.

And that… leaves us with the one question Le Guin’s story refuses to answer:

What in blazes lies outside Omelas, for us even to consider walking toward?

The Annoying Humanist

As I near a year with Patheos, I’ve been processing the significant differences between writing fiction, which should not need to be explained, and writing argumentative essay-posts, which intrinsically invite conversation, debate, and dissent. And then there’s that third pesky realm–the real world–as a site of enacting humanist beliefs. It, of course, has challenges all its own, as I’m discovering during my time in Comuna 8 of Medellín.

One complaint I’ve routinely received here, though, is that I ask too much of humanists–that I charge them with the responsibility to walk away from more than is realistic. I’ve been especially fascinated by those who regard these posts as lectures from some higher-than-thou mount of moral authority. (I agree, that sounds super annoying.)

The trouble is, basic atheism doesn’t intrinsically stand for anything–it can’t. It’s a null position, remarking only upon what one does not believe. And so while I have been an atheist my entire life, I have never been satisfied with the label. An atheist can be a critical thinker; they can value empiricism and careful pragmatic applications of reason to others’ claims; they can be ever-on-the-lookout for their own slips into fuzzy thinking in other discursive realms. Or… they can be the opposite. They can be eminently satisfied with themselves for being in the right “tribe”; they can contend that it’s only other people who ever need to change; they can set up new “sacred cows” in the old ones’ wake.

I aspire to the former group–with the strong addition of humanist empathy to my “careful pragmatic applications of reason to others’ claims”–and I do so with myself first and foremost. I am not a “good” person. I carry within me thousands upon thousands of foolish and selfish and reckless mistakes that have done harm. I have emotional allegiances to complicated people, too, which makes it more difficult to act with full moral consistency. And I belong to information silos that breed in me, as a first reaction, sheer incredulity that anyone could ever hold an opinion opposite my own.

These are significant hurdles. Worse still, they attest to one element of humanism that even fellow atheists sometimes find suspiciously like religion. They involve fixation on the idea of transformation, of working to be better than we are.

When someone comes from a background and cultural context in which street and church preachers alike, as well as their own parents and close community, are emphatic in their belief that humanity is scum, that human beings are the antagonists in their own stories, that we are all depraved and fallen creatures in need of salvation… of course that is going to inform how that same person interprets even a secular person pushing for fellow humanists to rally to improve the world.

How exhausting. How annoying.

After perhaps a lifetime enduring religious bullying, isn’t there anywhere in the secular world a body can simply be?

Existential Buddhism vs. Secular Humanism

It’s no surprise to me, then, that secular folk find a great deal to enjoy in Buddhist philosophy. After dealing with so much awful rhetoric from the big three (Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent Judaism), who wouldn’t resonate with the idea that “suffering is other people”? (Or rather, that suffering is a consequence of the bonds we form with other people: our connections are investments in this world, and those investments are the sites of all our agony in striving and grief in failure as in loss.)

And yet even Buddhism, as adopted by Westerners, is political. It’s a flight from a particular context, a choice to Walk Away that requires relentless upkeep in a culture of immense commodity and entitlement buy-ins. (Plus, it’s easy for many folks who admire Buddhism in principle to end up “consuming” it as a new series of status objects, with strong classist components that many Western practitioners also fail to address.)

No position is easy, in other words. Life is exhausting, for those of us who live it with any sense of wonder left at all.

North American Political Discourse, and Humanism

To this reality, too, is added a further complicating factor for many of my fellow atheists in North America. I’m talking, of course, about the current frustration–and I will say this and stand by it!–of being a white masculinized person, and as such often seeing no place for oneself in much of our discourse about how to make a better world. Of seeing oneself positioned, instead, as a literal embodiment of the world that needs to be left behind. For those atheists familiar with similar rhetoric from the evangelicals spouting off about intrinsic damnation, how is this any different?

Now, in actuality, it’s not that dire–but I 100% agree, we’re at a point in the discursive process where a lot of glib social-media/infotainment shorthand makes it sound as though individual white masculinized persons are flawed-Omelas writ large.

Within communities advocating for change, I promise you that’s not actually the stump speech–but the challenge being set at all our feet is going to appear much higher for some, because on the surface it means choosing to give up far more.

There is a strong sense, for instance, that those of us who benefit from being seen as white have to choose to walk away from those benefits. What benefits? Well, they’re obvious enough in police encounters, when the white mass shooter of black church members gets Burger King from the police taking him in alive. However, they’re more mercurial for individuals who do not see those racial benefits economically. (How can that be, others wonder, when household assets for our demographic are staggeringly higher than those of, say, black estadounidenses? Well, just remember that class-based income disparity among white persons is staggering, too–so many white folk cannot see all the ways we still better navigate the economic world on whole.)

We have to walk away, too, from entitlement. We have to choose to put ourselves in harm’s way more often–and not in condescending displays of “white knighting”, but in ways that help reduce the violence endured by marginalized communities striving to have their voices heard in the systems that we share. We also have to remember the unjust economic playing field whenever we triumph within it, and avoid perpetuating the myth that our success could ever be due solely to hard work in a realm where many won’t even get call-backs due to the “colour” of their name.

And that’s an incredibly tall order–on par with walking away from Omelas, because again, what manner of life lies beyond these benefits is unclear.

How exhausting, yet again.

How annoying, to be encouraged to regard a lifetime of uncertainty as the destination.

To be asked to start walking, and keep walking, for the whole of our fleeting time alive.

But most importantly… how bloody hypocritical, no?

Because here’s the thing: none of us ever walks away from Omelas.

Omelas vs. Reality

Le Guin’s thought experiment is brilliant, but it breaks down as a direct correlate for the real world, because in the real world… people can’t just walk away from the system. In a more realistic Omelas, you’d instead get people writing to their local representatives and journalists, or using public broadcasting networks to rail about the injustice of the system on whole. You’d get people marching on the streets. You’d have people trying to charge the horrific dungeon where that one, suffering child is kept.

You’d have people, in other words, trying to improve their utopia from within. People who do not accept the terms of the contract but who are also not going to walk away from their only home.

And that’s where the whole exercise would gain the sort of insincere pushback we see in the real world, too. Omelas would get its own industries of punditry, fake-news spinmasters, as well as heightened security for the dungeon. Those pundits would point to any violence or disruption on the part of the protestors to illustrate that they, and not the original social contract, are the real problem. Omelas would thrive on the tension created by social discord, and turn that tension into a part of its success as an institution.

That’s where we in the secular humanist community are, too: not free from religious discourse and its implications for public policy, but at least with our own stumps and stomping grounds, our own media networks and positions in the farce.

For individual atheists, too, I’d wager that’s a large part of the reason compassionate and global humanist rhetoric is so frustrating. We got out, didn’t we? We stepped out of a way of talking about world that relies on stories we regard as pure mythology. So why does it always still feel like we’re stuck in the muck of bad social storytelling? Why isn’t it ever enough that we’re striving to live the best individual lives that we can?

…Oh, Hi Colombia!

I’m a perfect poster child in this regard, too, because in one very literal way, I did “get out” of a piece of this larger social contract. I no longer live in the country of my birth, a country with many successes and comforts built through ongoing histories of suffering (whether among the indigenous peoples of Canada, for centuries, or regarding the more recent genocide in Yemen that Canadian arms trades have propped up).

But even here in Colombia, my work within Omelas hasn’t changed. The project of trying to live in a way that improves the world goes on, and on, and on.

What has changed, granted, is that here in Colombia I get to look at another slice of the broader social contract with fresh eyes. In the last couple weeks, for instance, the Colombian government has both asserted its desire to naturalize all the children of Venezuelan refugees born after August 18, 2015: an Herculean process, when the waves of displaced number over a million, but also the most humanitarian–a way of reducing poverty’s brutal social consequences in the future. Moreover, Colombia recommitted, firmly, to keeping its doors open to immigrants, and doing its best to ensure the access of basic health and social services to those arriving with such immense need.

This, of course, is happening at the same time that I’m reading horrific news not just with regards to how the U.S. government is continuing its brutal deportations, maintaining its border camps, and even reducing social supports for legal immigrants (with an obvious mind to encouraging self-deportation and a limit to new applicants), but also how white-nationalism is on the rise in the U.S. and Canada alike. And so it’s incredibly easy for me to have zero patience for those who entertain the idea that North America is “at capacity” or “doing the best it can”. Clearly, that panicked saturation rhetoric and xenophobia is not well contextualized against other strategies and beliefs in practice globally.

The Take-Away

You’re asking too much of humanists is the refrain I have heard a great deal this past year, a tremendously enlightening time for me at Patheos. But let’s be clear here: Colombia is by no means perfect. It still has five active conflict zones in its borders. Indigenous social leaders are assassinated on a heartbreakingly common basis for trying to protect their communities from predations that, in part, signal that past-president Santos’s peace plan did not sufficiently protect against dissident FARC members taking the lull and proffered government resources as an opportunity to regroup. Cocaine growth and export is up. And a child dies violently every 3.3 days here–with 55 sexually assaulted every day, too.

Colombia is not Omelas–not even when it does exceptional things to try to extend dignity to people fleeing Venezuela. But… the difference seems to be that it knows it’s not Omelas. It’s not under any illusions that it has ever been, ever is, or ever will be a utopia. And that reality… gives it space to focus less on idealism and more on the immediate, day-to-day need to improve.

Meanwhile, we in North America and other parts of the Western world have always been leaving Omelas… because we keep trying to pretend that’s where we ever lived in the first place.

How much easier it becomes–how much less frustrating and annoying humanist rhetoric becomes–when we secular folk especially are ready to embrace that never was there any such thing as a heaven, not even here on Earth.

There is only the world we have, rotten as so much of it is, and the possibility that, with enough due diligence, we can aspire to greater decency for all others trapped alongside us in it… ‘ere into that great stardust oblivion we all so imperfectly go.

 


 

NB: General update. I had a bit of a posting gap there while my work schedule underwent another massive upheaval. Such is the nature of teaching in scattered waves of classes! I now have a run of workdays where I spend 6 hours in transit between three or four worksites (out the door at 5, back at 9 to 10), followed by two whole glorious days off (something called a “week… end?”). So when I first landed that glut of second-novel-writing time, I used it to excess. Now, though, hoping to return to my original twice-weekly posting schedule (with two posts queued every weekend, fingers crossed!).

I also have a new story published, at The Future Fire, if anyone’s interested. I talk a bit about the history of “And You Will Know Us by Our Monsters” in this Patreon post–but wouldn’t you know? A fellow Patheos writer, Jeana Jorgensen (Foxy Folklorist), is also in the issue, with a poem called “Walking on Knives.” Total fluke, but a fun one!

Happy creating, all who do–and thanks for sticking around.

I’m looking forward to a smoother ride at least until year’s end.

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  • Chuck Johnson

    “The trouble is, basic atheism doesn’t intrinsically stand for anything–it can’t. It’s a null position, remarking only upon what one does not believe.”

    We are all immersed in a religion-informed world.
    What religion claims fills libraries.
    Rejecting the claims of religions is most certainly not a null position.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    First, you’re “shape-shifting,” IMO, as the header says “humanists” not “atheists.”

    Second, Buddhism is a religion, contra Robert Wright et al and it has no interest at all for this second humanist. I can also say that, within religions, karma is as bad, or worse, and as or more offensive than original sin, AND the Buddhist version of karma is worse than the Hindu one. https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/03/karma-as-offensive-as-hell.html

  • How on Earth is that shape-shifting? I explicitly said that “atheist” was insufficient as a label, and explicitly expounded on how *humanism* is what does the active advocating for a better secular world. You’re reading in bad faith again. Why the animosity?

  • That may well be your perspective, Chuck, although you are uncharitably reading that sentence as if it stops at the word “position”. Did you grow up with religion, and have to reject it? That might explain the difference in worldviews, because I was an atheist from birth, and religion first came to me through the reading of classical myths and legends, and then exploring religious texts primarily as literature. It was a default /not/ to believe in a god, or a heaven and hell, and it remains so today. Cheers.

  • Major Major

    Certainly a good point about Omelas. It can certainly feel overwhelming at times, especially as a citizen of Empire USA. It can be difficult to know the way to go, how to extract ourselves from foreign wars, and how to be an actual force for good in the world. Also to provide for all of our citizens, not just those at the top. Had I not gotten married, I may have too have left.

  • jkcmsal

    @Chuck Johnson said, “Rejecting the claims of religions is most certainly not a null position.” I think what you said is wrong.

    A. Rejecting claims are irrelevant to a position.

    1.Religious people reject religious claims all the time.

    2. Atheists may, and often do, reject religious claims also. So what?

    3. 1 & 2 imply that rejecting claims of religion has nothing to do with atheism or theism as a position.

    B. Null Position

    1. Theism is not a null position. Theism means at least one religious claim is held regardless of how many are, or are not, rejected. One is greater than null.

    2. Atheism means no religious claim is held regardless of how many are, or are not, rejected.

    3. No claims held is equivalent to a null position.

  • jkcmsal

    Wow. I have read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas so many times and have reflected on it often. You have provided me with a whole new perspective on it. Muchas Gracias. I am a little too overwhelmed to write more now. Maybe later. I do agree with so much of what you wrote.

  • Chuck Johnson

    I would discuss this with you, but you would answer me with another dishonest comment. As such, this would be a waste of my time.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Did you grow up with religion, and have to reject it?

    I went to church and Sunday school until I was 14.
    This was an unpleasant experience for me, but my parents were drunks and they liked to scream and hit their children.

    I never had much belief in God, Magical Jesus, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but I was not allowed to say so.

    I am a scientist, and I thought scientifically even as a child.
    As a child, I had little use for the magical claims of Christianity.
    As I sat in church, I looked around and wondered how many in the room actually believed this stuff.

  • Chuck Johnson

    That might explain the difference in worldviews, because I was an atheist from birth, and religion first came to me through the reading of classical myths and legends, and then exploring religious texts primarily as literature.

    In grade school, I had courses in ancient mythology.
    I wondered how many people in ancient times believed that those crazy stories were actually true.

    But I didn’t ask.
    Making intelligent and insightful comments about religions was politically incorrect.

  • Oof, Chuck. I’m really thankful you shared your perspective, and deeply sorry for the pain you underwent to gain it. The “null stance” is quite a common framework for atheistic discourse–because no child is born believing in a god; that’s a story they’re given by their community–but I will make a concerted effort not to give it the straightforward gloss I did in this essay, in the future. It may be a null position theoretically, but holding that line in practice feels very much like taking a side. All best to you and yours. Hope you’re in a much more supportive community now.

  • I’m really thankful, Major Major, that there at least a few folks–like you!–with whom the conversation about how to better the world might be advanced. Thanks for your presence here, and I’m sure in your local communities as well. Those who stay and fight from within deserve the utmost admiration. All best wishes to you and yours.

  • Thanks for taking the time to write, jkcmsal–chuffed to hear you’re a fan of the story, too. And thanks for outlining what “null” means in this context; sometimes I’m so naturalized to a given argument, like that of theism making all the claims and therefore having the burden of proof, that I forget there might be atheists who haven’t heard the same. (But if nothing else, Chuck’s comment was a fascinating reminder of our diversity, as a secular sphere!) Warmest wishes for the week ahead!

  • jkcmsal

    For the record, it was an honest comment. Furthermore, having seen the dishonesty (or at least woeful, unfounded mistakenness) on one of your blog posts about karma, I am suspicious of your use of the word “honest.” It seems fitting to quote one of my favorite movies here,

    You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means. [Inigo Montoya]

  • Chuck Johnson

    You fulfilled my prediction.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Thank you.
    To me, it’s a matter of semantics and word definitions.
    Some uses of the word “atheist” can include a potato or the Hope Diamond as being atheist.

    Some uses can include newborn infants as atheist.

    Some definitions can only include atheists who are aware of the details of religions as atheist.

    When a word can mean more than one thing (this is true with most words), additional context and clarifications (explanations) are needed to reduce ambiguity.

    I consider the fact that newborn babies do not believe in any gods to be a well-known fact and usually not relevant to atheist-theist debates.

    If children should be raised as atheists, that’s what we should do.
    If children should be raised to believe in a God, that’s what we should do.

    I do not believe that the (by default) atheism of newborn babies is a “message from God” urging people to raise their children as atheists.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “Hope you’re in a much more supportive community now.”
    Yes, I avoid people who use religion as a tool for destruction.

    Have you seen Fred Clark’s Slacktivist blog ?
    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/

  • Chuck Johnson

    Worse still, they attest to one element of humanism that even fellow atheists sometimes find suspiciously like religion. They involve fixation on the idea of transformation, of working to be better than we are.

    That one element of humanism doesn’t bother me at all.
    I am a scientist.
    I understand that life on Earth (including human life) has a four-billion year legacy of transformation, of working to be better than in the past.

    These transformations are best understood by viewing them through the dual lenses of genetic adaptive evolution and cultural adaptive evolution.

    When viewed this way, “transformation” needs no supernatural mechanisms to make it proceed.
    Mutation and selection pressure are the non-magical mechanisms.
    They are quite effective.

  • Susan Calhoun

    Thank you for your post. I am so thankful for your posts.

    “The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas” hit me like a brick when I read it 25 years ago. I was surprised by LeGuin’s imperative that people leave Omelas and not just try to get that child out! I was raised in the Lutheran-Church Missouri-Synod and was taught that all people were born sinful and couldn’t do good of their own initiative. It is helpful to think of just walking away from that system, instead of trying to fix it.

    Al-Anon is the first spiritual organization that I have encountered that tells people to focus on themselves and figure out the path that they need to be living, instead of trying to change someone else. I think this is a very helpful and powerful orientation to have. It clarifies one’s direction from the beginning.

    I guess it’s about one’s approach to helping other people. I am with the Quakers right now and I really appreciate the attention we pay to listening. The work I do is helped by having a community of people, many of them Baby Boomer women who don’t seem to have any problem exercising their authority and do it beautifully. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of anyone to know what my impetus is–what pushes me forward, what I am trying to do in the world, but it seems necessary to have this kind of community for me to do my thing. I look to them to interact with me on the basis of the values we share and this makes real a way of living to me which becomes easier to bring into the rest of the world. (And, no, we definitely don’t have it all together, either, but what I like about this community is that we raise questions about what we are doing and whether or not we think it is best and then we try to answer those questions. And then we may do something differently.)

    So, I guess, in regards to LeGuin’s story, maybe a person has to acknowledge that the rules of Omelas are no good and work with other people who feel the same way to try to make a change in the system. And as we do that, we are still in the system.

    Thank you again for your post.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “I am not a “good” person.”

    You apparently are a good person.
    But what do those quotes mean ?
    What do you mean by “good” person ?

  • Chuck Johnson

    “The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas” hit me like a brick when I read it 25 years ago. I was surprised by LeGuin’s imperative that people leave Omelas and not just try to get that child out!

    I had the same initial reaction.
    Then I realized that the social satire and emotional impact that LeGuin wanted was promoted by leaving the child in that terrible situation.
    Using the literary tool of exaggeration, Ursula is able to accuse modern human societies.
    She wants you to feel bad.
    She wants you to open your eyes.
    She wants you to do something.

    This might be called a science fiction story, but it is also a fantasy.
    There is no scientific mechanism offered to explain how this social contract could work.

  • jkcmsal

    How so? I intend no dishonesty. I am open to correction. I am baffled as to what you consider dishonest. I am not perfect. I may well be mistaken about something.

  • Guthrum

    The libraries I go to have few religious books, compared to fiction, science fiction, juvenile, children’s lit, mysteries, novels, and non-fiction.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    The use of “atheism” here was in keeping with the pretty standard secular-community understanding of atheism as a null-state in theoretical discourse. And it is! There are no positive claims made in being an atheist. You can make active claims by being anti-theistic, for sure, but atheism is simply lack of belief. We weren’t discussing the morality of raising a child atheist or theist: only the fact that atheism is a default position, unlike theism, which /cannot/ be default because children aren’t born with belief. *Every* spiritual belief is the assertion of specific claims onto that default null-state.

    But again, I do understand that “atheist” can also be an active identity, especially when walking through the world, such that it certainly doesn’t /feel/ like a philosophical default. And I will keep that caveat in mind when using the standard secular-sphere shorthand for logical argument in the future. Cheers!

  • Chuck Johnson

    There are no positive claims made in being an atheist.

    From the dictionary:

    Atheist:
    A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

    Anyone who claims to be an atheist is making positive claims.
    They are claiming a lack of belief.

    Anyone who disbelieves (and understands that they disbelieve) in the existence of God or gods is making positive claims as to what they disbelieve.

    Anyone who has no idea what atheism or theism might be will be an atheist who makes no claims.
    Newborn babies are an example.

    People who grow up having no idea what theism or atheism might be are an unusual case.
    You, Margaret were such a case as a child.

    But not now.
    Your self-proclaimed atheism is a positive claim as to what you do not believe.

  • Chuck Johnson

    You can make active claims by being anti-theistic, for sure, but atheism is simply lack of belief.

    See my other comment containing the dictionary quote.
    Atheism is simply a lack of belief in specific cases.
    Atheism is more than simply a lack of belief in other cases.

    Here is Phrase A: ” A person who lacks any theistic beliefs”.

    If you want to convey that idea, then use Phrase A or a similar phrase. The word “Atheist” is not as specific.

    The English language (and all other languages) is full of words which are less specific that what we need.
    To convey exactly what you are thinking, additional explanation in words will sometimes be needed.

    Think about what I have just said here.
    So much contention and argument is caused by using words and phrases in a way that is not understood the same way by every observer of the conversation.

    That is a big part of the reason that Democrats and Republicans exist, along with conservatives and liberals, theists and atheists, etc.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Thank you.

  • Chuck Johnson

    The use of “atheism” here was in keeping with the pretty standard secular-community understanding of atheism as a null-state in theoretical discourse.

    As my earlier comment shows, I prefer the dictionary definition.

    Special secular-community understandings can be at variance with the more widely-understood dictionary definitions.

    Just compare standard dictionary definitions with the crazy distortions that Christian apologists and conservative Christians provide in their descriptions of what words and phrases mean.
    Their echo-chamber semantics produce fraud and brainwashing.

    I am a scientist.
    I try to leave behind echo-chamber style thinking and understanding.

  • jkcmsal

    The positive claim is about a null position. As in, “I positively claim a lack of belief.”

    Consider using another dictionary like Merriam-Webster.

    atheist: a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods : one who subscribes to or advocates atheism

    The Merriam-Webster definition gives what is known as the weak atheist definition. The definition you gave above gives both the weak and strong atheist definition. ML Clarke seems to identify herself as a weak atheist (I don’t presume to speak for her so I may well be wrong here) and agrees with sources on the web written by atheists that this null position is widely held among atheists. Does this help clarify the differing views the two of you seem to have?

  • Chuck, I’m also going to respond to this part:

    “Think about what I have just said here.
    So much contention and argument is caused by using words and phrases in a way that is not understood the same way by every observer of the conversation.”

    Chuck, I am trained up to 4.5 years at a PhD level in the humanities, and that often leads people who don’t have the same exposure to the history of the English language to think I must be a prescriptivist… but if anyone who’s studied history and language /isn’t/ a descriptivist by the end of that course of study, they’ve received a very poor education indeed.

    There IS no universal term that will satisfy everyone. Everyone arrives at any given text (a blog post, a story, a movie, a news article) from a different prior exposure set (it’s called “affect” theory). For you, “atheist” is a term that somehow is not sufficient to explain “lacking belief in the existence of a god”–and you come from a specific background of exposures that makes this disconnect perfectly obvious to you.

    …But perfectly obvious to you is /not/ the same as universal, and it never will be. That’s why conversation is so critical; we grow mutually useful definitions–if we’re open, if we’re attentive–in the course of those interactions, and from those mutually agreed upon terms hopefully gain a better insight into each other’s respective foundational premises. But there is *nothing* we can say or write that won’t be misinterpreted by someone… especially someone who’s reading in bad faith to begin with.

    Okay, off for a bit now. Cheers!

  • Chuck Johnson

    For you, “atheist” is a term that somehow is not sufficient to explain “lacking belief in the existence of a god”–and you come from a specific background of exposures that makes this disconnect perfectly obvious to you.

    Yes, that’s true for me, but as I explained, I refer to the dictionary definition of atheist.
    Your original explanation is at variance to the most widely understood definition, which is from the dictionary.

  • Chuck Johnson

    I regard the fixation on atheism as continuing to play by the rules that theists set in public discourse–and that’s why I push so hard for a focus on humanism across the spectrum instead.

    Be that as it may, the theism vs atheism contrast and argument is with us and it will continue to be for some time.
    Making that contrast is still an important way to understand and argue the contrasting philosophies.

    I agree that humanism will, in the long run, be the important concept to understand, develop and promote.
    The atheism vs theism arguments will become obsolete.

    I base my humanist perspective upon my understanding of evolutionary biology.

  • Chuck Johnson

    . . . I think there is zero compelling evidence for the existence of every asserted god known to humankind.

    When I examine the evidence that God(s) exist using my own eyes and my own perspective, I see that the evidence that God exists is weak and that the evidence that God does not exist is every strong.

    Except that I do believe in the existence of “God the fictional character” and “God the human invention”.

    This is an important investigation for evolutionary biology.
    This promotes curiosity as to why such fictional gods have been with us for thousands of years, and why such belief is fading in the industrialized world.

    When I examine the evidence that God(s) exist using the perspective of theists, I can see compelling evidence that a miraculous God really does exist.

    By miraculous God, I mean a God who is anthropomorphic, who thinks, and who accomplishes things based upon his preferences and his nature.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Here is a reference to another insightful Canadian:
    https://www.grettavosper.ca/

    “Gretta Vosper is a minister and atheist. She is a Best-Selling author of two books and founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity.”

    So one version (at least) of progressive Christianity includes atheism.

  • Chuck Johnson

    As I said before, people hold a spectrum of ideas as to what atheism might be.
    Some of these ideas are quite different from each other.
    One definition will classify inanimate objects as atheists and this is a not-very-useful way to explain to someone what atheism is.

  • “Your original explanation is at variance to the most widely understood definition, which is from the dictionary.”

    It is most certainly NOT at variance to say that atheism is a null stance. Your contention is probably with the word “null” more than anything–I used it to invoke the very common philosophical discourse about positive and negative beliefs; you took it to mean a negation of the person, the atheist themself, when the person themself has to move through a tough world surrounded by theistic discourse. That’s it. That’s the essential contention.

  • Yes, I’m aware of Vosper. She’s not alone: the whole United Church in Canada is considered a culturally Christian institution where belief is not really necessary for engagement in community. So, not sure what that has to do with any of the rest of our conversation, because that’s entirely in keeping with my commentary on humanism.

  • Chuck, you’ve got a lot of different responses here, but it seems like the main thread in most of them is a desire to share your perspective and where you’re coming from as a fellow secular person. I appreciate that. It’s easy online to get caught up in disagreements with people who are little more than Usernames and Icons, but–if nothing else–I think you’ve given me a clearer sense of where your foundational premises and life experiences inform your reading. Thanks for that.

    My firm reading of atheism is that of a null stance, a negation of another’s positive claims and not a claim unto itself–both by the dictionary definition and the definitions of common use within the most relevant given communities (i.e. in this case, an online secular community seasoned in the use of logical argument).

    I further firmly assert that it does no one any good to lament that everyone’s not speaking the same language by demanding that everyone adhere to the strictest interpretation of any dictionary definition, when dictionaries themselves are reactive enterprises, adapting to long histories of shifting common use.

    This should be especially obvious for the scientifically minded, because the world is our evidence pool. Language is not an abstracted good, formed and dispersed by committee, unchanging and impervious to variance in definition. Reading in context, in good faith, is the only way we can ever come close to approximating full understanding of how others use the same semiotic signifiers.

    Final word’s yours–but again, really glad to have gleaned a few more of your foundational premises. Many of ours don’t differ at all, but how we approach what language is and what it does definitely leaves room for future contention on future posts. So it goes!

    Cheers.

  • jkcmsal

    In this context, I do not mind being classified together with an inanimate object. I find the definition very useful as do many other people. So both myself and a rock and a tree happen to occupy/hold null positions. Why should this be a barrier to explaining to people what atheism is, especially since most atheists repeatedly say they hold a null position?

    A null position can be very useful and I so find it to be in this case. You say a null position is “not-very-useful” in this case. Do you find null positions useful in other cases? Perhaps I can understand your objection to atheist’s null positioning more easily with some other example in another context. Of course we can simply agree to disagree 😀

  • Chuck Johnson

    Why should this be a barrier to explaining to people what atheism is, especially since most atheists repeatedly say they hold a null position?

    Stop making things up.
    You should be more honest.

  • Chuck Johnson

    In this context, I do not mind being classified together with an inanimate object.

    It’s not very important that you don’t mind being classified this way.
    It’s more important that you are promoting the idea that a rock and a tree are atheists.
    You are being foolish.

  • Chuck Johnson

    My firm reading of atheism is that of a null stance, a negation of another’s positive claims and not a claim unto itself–both by the dictionary definition and the definitions of common use within the most relevant given communities (i.e. in this case, an online secular community seasoned in the use of logical argument).

    You once again show that you don’t understand the language or the logic.

    Atheists positively assert that they are not theists.
    Atheists positively assert that they are atheists.
    Atheists positively assert that they do not believe in any gods.

    Promoting (as you do) a single phrase or concept of atheism is dogma.
    The religionists do it, and now I see that you are dogmatic, too.

    You seem obsessed with proving that you are right and that I am wrong.
    This is a common human failing.
    This is especially common among people who have a rectangle with “Mod” next to their name.

  • Chuck Johnson

    . . . I further firmly assert that it does no one any good to lament that everyone’s not speaking the same language by demanding that everyone adhere to the strictest interpretation of any dictionary definition . . .

    I said in a previous comment that the various definitions available to us can result in atheists being inanimate objects, or newborn babies, or only those people who are acquainted with theism and reject it.

    Maybe you missed that comment.

  • Chuck Johnson

    It is most certainly NOT at variance to say that atheism is a null stance.

    Atheism is a null stance when atheism is defined in certain ways.

    When atheism is defined differently, then it can be seen that atheism is a positive assertion.

    Your comments make me believe that you are under the spell of some official atheist dogma.
    I would not like to see atheism in the form of just one more authoritarian philosophy.
    The religionists have too many of these to offer already.

  • Chuck Johnson

    . . . you took it to mean a negation of the person, the atheist themself, when the person themself has to move through a tough world surrounded by theistic discourse. That’s it. That’s the essential contention.

    No, I did not take it to mean that.

  • jkcmsal

    Atheistic, not atheist. Thought that would have been obvious from the context.

    Not promoting the idea. It is just not something I see getting in the way of explaining what atheism is. It may help actually – get people to think outside the box. Let’s try it:)

    Trees lack a belief in god. So do I.

    Hmmm … something to mull over.

  • jkcmsal

    What am I making up? The fact that atheists repeatedly say they hold a null position, or the equivalent? You think this view is confined to this blog? A cursory internet search will find that “lack of belief in god(s).” is a common atheist position. It is even a dictionary definition.

    If you claim there is something else I made up, please let me know:) I will do my best to substantiate my claim.

  • jkcmsal

    “Atheism is a null stance when atheism is defined in certain ways.”

    Using a common definition is not dogma.

    Pointing out that a different definition of atheism does not apply in a particular situation is not being under a spell.
    Why do you want to use a different definition?

    I would like not like to see another authoritarian philosophy either. Fortunately, atheism is not a philosophy.

  • jkcmsal

    Lol. Sorry, but this is getting too funny. She does not “understand the language or the logic”? Hilarious by virtue of its patent absurdity. If you are gaslighting, you are performing pretty well.

    “Atheists positively assert that they are not theists.”
    You just restated the null position. Many atheists say they lack belief in common theistic beliefs.

    “Atheists positively assert that they are atheists.”
    Also equivalent to saying that atheists hold a null position using the definition of “atheist” in Merriam-Webster quoted above..

    “Atheists positively assert that they do not believe in any gods.”
    True. You are correct! Some atheists do so assert. Some do not.
    We are attempting to convey to you that, on this blog, it is okay to use the word, even define the words, “atheism” and “atheist” as holding a null position regarding theistic beliefs/claims. It is even okay to positively assert that.

    “promoting … dogma” … “The religionists… name.”

    It is fine for you to hold to your definition. I hope you can accept that a different definition, the “lack of belief” definition, is fine too.
    The definitions are different obviously. Saying they are different and saying what the differences are, as ML Clark has patiently done, is not dogmatic. She is just trying to explain how she uses the term.
    Seriously, you are so off base here it is just ridiculous.

  • Meena 2016

    An atheist is surely someone who is not a theist – and that’s almost all that can be said.

    I am an atheist and I do not know whether there is or is not a theistic god – or any other sort of god.
    I don’t have any belief one way or another – because I do not know (either way). I think there is no real evidence, either way, to hold either that there is or is not a god.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Hi jkcmsal,

    Super kind of you to pick up the thread after I ceded Chuck the final word. Not necessary, but I appreciated reading what emerged from that conversation. I was baffled by Chuck’s claim that describing my firm belief–in a response that also advocates for reading in context (i.e. relativistically)!–was the same as… imposing an absolute definition on someone else? In particular, on someone who was already so emphatic about me using his dictionary definition because he felt that discourse was too chaotic on account of relativistic language use?

    It’s a bundle of contradictions, in other words–but when I got to the comment about the “mod” label, suddenly it clicked. I realized then that his rhetoric is of a piece with something I’ve experienced a lot since I started posting here: folks who regard this site as reinforcing hierarchies, and who therefore read even comments /explicitly/ advocating for good-faith, deeply contextualized, open-ended discourse as… lecturing, hectoring, nagging, or otherwise oppressive. Someone who reviles the “MOD” icon on principle is coming into the discourse with a different sense of how power is meted out… and maybe even has the experience of being banned or silenced to match that distrust? So if I disagree with him on any point, I’m as good as dismissing him–and to hell with the fact that I already openly said I’d be a bit more mindful of one aspect of his objection, re: talking about null positions without acknowledging how active a stance atheism can nonetheless feel to those entrenched in theistic communities.

    In either case, I now understand Chuck’s approach to these comment threads better, and realize a wide berth is probably needed because nothing I say is going to satisfy–and quite a bit will only aggravate further. Thanks for helping sound out this matter, jkcmsal!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    We used to call that agnostic atheism when I was a kipper! (As opposed to gnostic atheism, where there *is* certitude.) The term seems to have fallen out of favour, but then again–language is just a set of tools. If you don’t feel the need to use a label, then no label required!

    Cheers, and thanks for writing!

  • P.S. Funnily enough, Disqus routinely flips me between my two accounts, so half the time I forget I’m not in my Mod account, and my other account’s comments get held in queue, awaiting approval because they use words on an absolutely ridiculous censor list. So I guess I oppress myself with significant frequency, too!

    Relatedly: if you don’t see your own posts, it’s only because Disqus has flagged them for silly words, too, and I just haven’t had a chance to clear out the queue. I think I’ve banned comments… twice for blatant racialized hate-mongering? But nothing lower-level than that.

  • jkcmsal

    Thanks for your insight. I think you are spot on. I did reflect after my replies the other day and you articulate well what I was feeling on some level below my conscious mind.

    The mod comment was new to me. The other accusations were even more surprising to me and a little creepy/scary. I really was shocked and uncertain how to take it. I chose to laugh in what I hope was a goodhearted way, but I fear I failed at that from Chuck’s point of view. Too easy to just see it as mockery. Sigh;

  • Jaime Ospina

    I raised my daughters without religion. They don’t miss it. It was not discussed at home except when they asked if I believed in god(s) and I explained why I didn’t. Ditto when they asked if I believed in aliens on earth. I guess I subscribe not only to the atheist “philosophy” but to the a-alienist philosophy as well. BTW, welcome to Colombia, a year late.

  • Jaime! Are you in Colombia yourself? Raising kids here without religion is an especially impressive feat–so congrats on managing it, if you did. A freethinking household that encourages the child to explore and inquire is well and truly my ideal, and for all the other problems I had in my family home, I’m thankful to my parents for that freedom, at least. No doubt yours are to you as well.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for reading. All best wishes to you and yours!

  • Meena 2016

    Thank you Margaret Leanne.