Anti-Theism or Pro-Atheism?

Anti-Theism or Pro-Atheism? July 26, 2009

A reader of The Daily Dish writes the following in reply to remarks by Andrew Sullivan’s under-blogger and temporary fill-in lead blogger, Patrick Appel:

Almost every conversation about atheism on the Daily Dish seems to be confusing two very different sets of views — largely because both groups self-identify as atheists. I’m an atheist, and would describe atheism as not believing in god, or believing there is no god. I think atheists are prone to criticism of organized religion; it is easier to see the negative effects these organizations can have if you’re not part of one. But to carry that view to a fundamentalist extreme, to believe all religion is inherently evil, to believe all religions do nothing but harm, and to attack anyone who has faith of any kind — that isn’t atheism. It’s anti-theism. With Andrew happily using the term Christianist to distinguish between Christians and the dangerous type of Christians, I’d like to see him using anti-theism to distinguish between atheists and the kind of people Christianists claim all atheists are.

A few remarks are in order.  While anti-theists are indeed a subset of atheists and do not speak for all atheists, it is also important to stress that not all attempts to raise consciousness among atheists boil down to anti-theism.  In Daniel Dennett’s recent, controversial attack on the “belief in belief” of those that Jerry Coyne calls “faitheists” (which caused such a stir on The Daily Dish last week) he does not even make any Christopher Hitchens-style argument that “religion poisons everything”.  If you read closely, all Dennett is really doing is assuaging fears of those who don’t believe that if their unbelief spread it would destroy the world or ruin their believing neighbors’ lives.  Richard Dawkins routinely remarks that his primary goal is less to “convert” people to atheism than to raise a consciousness among atheists that they are not alone.   There is so much religious propaganda about the necessity of religion for morality that before we even get to the question of whether “religion poisons everything,” it is invaluable that atheists stand up for ourselves and for our approach to reality and make it socially acceptable to deny the dogma that “lack of religion poisons everything.”

But, amazingly, Dennett posts an article, reassuring his fellow atheists not to see their rejection of theism as a disease to avoid infecting their neighbors with and it causes an uproar as a discourteous anti-theist screed.  For that, see Hitchens, Christopher.

I have made other posts where I have argued against religion itself in ways that may be taken to be anti-theist (insofar as by theism we mean religious theism, which contains sacred texts, encourages authoritarian patterns of argument and justication and, to that extent, threatens political, epistemic, and moral forms of tyranny which would stifle freedom of thought and action.)  But I also wrote the following:

I, as a convinced secularist, can concede that it is quite possible that even though I think your religious beliefs false in content that they can both as myth and as discipline provide you with a comparable or better set of virtues than my own (assuming that the disadvantages of intellectual vice don’t detract from your gain in virtues over me) and also as long as your participation in religion which is edifying to you does not promote institutions which are for others the route to intellectual vices and spiritual confusion. I think it’s incumbent on tolerant, moderate religious people to make a concerted, active effort to combat bad intellectual and spiritual habits of their more fundamentalistically inclined fellow religionists.

So it is possible to make anti-theist points without denying all the possible relative goods of religion for particular people in particular contexts.  And both of these points are distinct from the New Atheists’ constructive pro-atheism cause that they are trying to get their fellow atheists to come along with. It is a distinct and distinctly valuable project to make the case that there can be a commitment to value without belief in God, that atheism is not incompatible with (but even a superior route to achieving) a broader humanitarian mindset towards those beyond your national or group borders, and that it is consructively important to care about truth itself and to vigorously oppose it when people mix facts with fiction in ways that confuse billions.

I also recognize that the ways that human needs for rituals, meditation, community, traditions, meaning constructs, and morality all must be addressed with sophistication by secularists to match the satisfactions in these areas of life that people get from religion right now.  Insofar as religion meets these needs, it’s providing some people valuable services.  I can say that while still arguing that that “relative” good is poisoned by the ways in which those goods come with too heavy a cost to epistemic and moral clarity from authoritarian habits of religious thought.  If that makes me an “anti-theist”, sobeit, but that does not make my criticisms unfair or biased, and nor does it mean that I do not appreciate the possible joys of religious life.   Nor does it even mean that I hope for the worst things to be true about religions, and nor does it mean that I think religious logic must lead to the worst possible conclusions. And it certainly does not mean that the goal is opposition to religion whenever one makes an effort to create a self-conscious, constructive atheist community.

Unfortunately, since atheism unites atheists precisely along the one axis of our larger identities and ideas that is inherently hostile to religious belief—our very rejection of it—inevitably talk of atheists organizing will risk sounding like anti-theism the way that rejections of anything are understood only in terms of their oppositions to those things they are rejecting.  Those who oppose anything and gain a group identity around that opposition are by definition understood as hostile to that which they oppose.  Even a benign atheist is against the beliefs of the theist at least insofar as he thinks them false.  This is inescapable.

But this does not mean that whenever those of us defined by the negative do anything constructive that the spirit is entirely anti-something else.  In some ways inherently we will be opposing theism by offering an alternative way of thinking and acting and we will be making our anti-theist cases as to why you should think like we do on the few relevant points of disagreement with religions.  But in other ways, we will simply be trying to carve out our own constructive space for a robust secularism that can lead our culture away from its feeling that it needs superstition and other forms of irrationalism or it cannot have all the good benefits of rituals, aesthetics, community, meaning, and morality.

Essentially it’s about standing up for people like this next reader from The Daily Dish:

Your atheism posts are rubbing me the wrong way, including your implication that agnosticism or pantheism have anything to do with the issues of atheists (there are some pretty glaring inconsistencies there, most of them named “god”).

From what I can tell, you’re telling us atheists to just shut up and go along to get along.  You’re saying that it’s more civilized, more polite, to put up with people who preach at us about “God’s plan” or who try to comfort us that deceased relatives are “with God”.  You’re saying to keep it inside, because it’s just too rude to tell someone “I don’t believe in that, and please stop shoving it on me”.

Atheists can take it, you know.  We can live in a culture where this supernatural imaginary being has occupied some strange cultural sacred space.  We can deal with seeing this mass delusion unfold in the public square again and again, spilling into public policy and our lives no matter what we do.  But you’re missing the flip side of that coin, which is that in personal interactions with others, I am NOT going to just shut the hell up when they try to argue using theological fallacy, or when they try to impose their religious viewpoint on me.  They get to yodel their belief 95% of the time, across airwaves and political petitions and now carving things on monuments (like we don’t have enough carved monuments).  The other 5% of the time, they get to respect MY beliefs.

Sure, maybe Dennett is a little more strident.  But hey, I was ripped apart for almost a DECADE with the knowledge that I didn’t believe in some overarching god.  During that time I allowed myself to be dragged to church because “it’s family time” and sat in the pew feeling physically ill and hypocritical.  I had to fight with my parents every flipping holiday about whether or not I believed.  My mother guilt-tripped me with rants about how she worried about my soul.  I was actually AFRAID to tell people I was an atheist until literally a decade after I stopped believing, and even then it was because an aunt unexpectedly outed me to a third party during a conversation about religion.  And she said it so calmly and easily, and it was like a weight lifted right off of me.  Because it was okay not to hide anymore, I wouldn’t get considered rude and nasty and be shunned.

So, no, I do not think we atheists need to hold up our end of the mass delusion.  Not just for ourselves (for whom it definitely rankles), not just for others (who could stand a few uncomfortable moments in someone else’s shoes), but for all those hesitant atheists out there who are still being browbeaten by the vocal believers in a big imaginary best friend.

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