To Anti-Theist or Not to Anti-Theist, That is the Question

To Anti-Theist or Not to Anti-Theist, That is the Question January 4, 2017

The debate about anti-theism should not divide humanist atheists from anti-theists, who fundamentally agree on their shared goals.

Image credit: Martin SoulStealer, CC 2.0.

I’ve been lying low during the recent War of the Patheos Nonreligious Bloggers. In fact, I jokingly wondered on our private Facebook group if I should buy a flak jacket to protect me from stray shrapnel.

In point of fact, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the controversy stirred by two of Martin Hughes’ recent posts–one renouncing his former antitheism and another admitting to constructing an atheistic version of God to pray to during a difficult time. (And here’s his follow-up defense.)

Luciano, Jessica, and me
Objects in the middle are shorter than they appear.

Monday, however, my thoughts began to crystallize as Keith chatted with Sin/God‘s Luciano Gonzales and his girlfriend Jessica Romero over Chinese food in Chinatown. (Insert favorite Chinatown quote here.)

Luciano called himself an anti-theist. And my impression–coming from someone who grew up outside of religion–is that deconverts tend to be more anti-theistic than those of us with a secular background. That may seem strange to deconverts, but for a person like me who never had faith forced down her throat, it feels natural to treat religion as if it were secondhand smoke.

Just keep your smoke away from my section and you can eat your lungs away to your diseased heart’s content.

Of course, smoking sections are never really very effective. Cigarette smoke cannot be contained; it drifts with the wind and contaminates the air wherever it settles.

That phenomenon permeates Margin of Error‘s Kaveh Mousavi’s responses here and here, as well and Danthropology’s Dan Arel’s opinion that his humanism requires him to be an anti-theist. (Across Rivers Wide‘s Galen Broaddus’ ambivalent reaction is closer to my own.)

I find Dan’s post interesting, since my initial take on Martin’s anti-anti-theist post was that it was a deeply humanistic approach to the subject. Basically, he’s saying that many people’s lives are so painful that they need God to provide them comfort. And who are we to criticize them for it?

Martin used his mom’s crippling health conditions as an example. In the second post, he admits that his shift was also motivated by his own need to pray to a self-constructed non-God God.

I don’t really understand where Martin is coming from about his praying to an imaginary god-like entity for comfort–to me that’s like putting out cookies to Santa Claus. (I will delve into this subject in an upcoming post.)

But as someone who has faced more than her fair share of serious health conditions, I’d like to examine more fully Martin’s assertion that most anti-theists are arrogant in criticizing the need for the succor of faith.

To me, I don’t really care if people want or need to believe in a Great Big Genie in the Sky. Go to it and good luck…as long as you keep it to yourself (and out of politics and the schools).

Yes, faith that a fundamentally good personal God (despite all evidence to the contrary)–who will make everything turn out right–is comforting. And, no, I’m not arrogant for saying I don’t need that invisible security blanket.

Think about it. That proposition boxes every atheist–whether they identify as an anti-theist or not–in an impossible position. The very fact that you don’t feel the need to believe in God makes you implicitly critical of the emotional needs of the faithful.


For me, mani-pedis are a waste of time and money. Nail files are good enough for me. Yet many women wouldn’t dream of living without perfectly painted nails.

Does my attitude implicitly put down women who feel naked without a coat of nail polish? And is the only way to avoid the appearance of bias against nail-painters to paint my own nails too?

To me, that absurd example is the equivalent to what Martin is arguing. Though he does mention some caveats, he’s lacquering the atheist community with a awfully broad-tipped brush.

Kaveh accused Martin of employing the very patronizing arguments he was criticizing. I think he has an excellent point. Yet I would also add that the only way to counter the accusation of putting down the hunger for faith among the poor and afflicted would be to embrace that need myself.

The fact that I don’t feel that desire personally is not being “prideful” about my own psychological strength. (The very use of the term pride as a calumny is way too Christian for my taste.)

However, I have pointed out that as an atheist, I have no choice but to accept the uncertainty of life. And there is a lot of scary uncertainty in my life.

I’m nearing the end of the 2-3 year period in which sufferers of dermatomyositis have a significantly increased chance of being diagnosed with cancer, though the risk will never return to baseline. (It’s an unknown chicken-or-egg question whether the cancer triggers the autoimmune disease, or vice versa.)

Though I may have dodged that bullet, I’m scheduled to be retested early for signs of muscle damage, since my creatine kinase level jumped up 200 points in my last regularly scheduled test. (My CK level jumped 1000 points when my dermatomyositis muscle damage was at its height.)

Assuming that was a blip caused by a temporary issue, for the rest of my life I will nonetheless live with the threat of relapse. And don’t forget the Legionnaires’ disease–which triggered my coma and strokes–was caused by immunosuppression from the prednisone I would have to go back on if I ever relapse.

Isn’t it fair to say by not feeling the need to pray for the intersession of an all-powerful deity under such terrifying circumstances makes me a bit emotionally stronger? (But I also don’t begrudge those who do. To each their own.)

Friendly Fire

It pains me to even mildly criticize an argument from someone I like immensely and consider a friend. The fact of the matter is that we have more things in common in our attitudes about anti-theism than we have differences.

I don’t personally self-identify as an anti-theist, so I imagine Martin isn’t talking about people like me. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to make a blanket accusation that anti-theists consider theists emotionally weaker (and therefore inferior) simply because atheists face the same challenges without leaning on an omnipotent Fairy Godfather.

And, yes, I’m aware that my mocking suggests that I’m more anti-theistic than I think.

Yet it’s important to remember that most anti-theists were once theists themselves. They know how painfully difficult deconversion can be after a lifetime of indoctrination, with all your friends and loved ones still among the faithful.

In Kaveh’s case, I can’t even begin to imagine living as an atheist in a totalitarian theocracy such as Iran. The very thought reminds me of how extremely privileged atheists are in the US.

I suspect my attitudes about theists would be quite a bit different if I risked a beating if I showed a bit of ankle.

In the end, this whole anti-theism kerfuffle is nothing more than a tempest in a Russel’s teapot. We all have basically the same values and aims.

Perhaps we should leave the doctrinal wars to theists.

80 Years War
The 80 Years War. Hopefully, this current dispute won’t drag on so long!

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