Is there an “Orthodox Atheism”?  

Is there an “Orthodox Atheism”?   March 25, 2019

Editor’s Note: Hang on to your hats as this Clergy Project member and “secular chaplain” lets loose with his feelings about what he calls “orthodox atheism.”  Then hang on again, because in a few days, fellow TCP member and harsh “Christianity debunker”, David Madison, will respond to this post./Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

The Quaker preacher and abolitionist Lucretia Mott followed a guiding principle throughout her life advocating for freedom and freethought:

“Truth for authority, not authority for truth.”

People in Lucretia’s time and many today still get distracted by philosophical and religious debates over the meaning of truth. What we don’t have much problem with is identifying authority. An individual or group that claims to be an authority or the primary authority in some area must be open to question and additional knowledge, since truth is living, and like a forest, must continue to add new growth.

Being a practicing freethinker I can’t help but challenge orthodoxy and self-assumed authority when it comes to either faith or atheism.

Now and then people on “both sides of the aisle” (it’s not always a huge gulf between) react to my cooperative, collaborative approach to the Theism/Atheism divide. I can tell thirty years of stories proving there is common ground where believers and non- believers meet, talk, walk, work with and even befriend and love each other. Decades of evidence, stories from chaplaincy showing that people can get along, if they actually try (realizing that many in the non-faith world don’t “get it” any more than the faithers).

Of course, if one chooses not to care, not to even attempt to rationally communicate, I can’t speak to that. It just seems petty and pointless.

I’m not trying to make any atheists mad here (from the sound of it, many are already pretty mad), but when I hear the raging rhetoric of many of the anti-faithers I feel compelled to ask:

Does it preach?  You remember, don’t you? When some of us were in ministry we’d come up with some wild notion or heretical thought and a colleague would say,

“Yeah, that’s nice, but will it preach?”

So, I ask fellow non-supernaturalists, will the irascible attacks and mean-spirited memes “preach” to anyone but those caught in the echo chamber or the bubble of unbelief? Seriously, who are people talking to, if anyone other than the online “atheist crowd”? Who’s even hearing MY voice right now? A select group of Patheists (Patheos readers)?

In my view, few religious people are listening. Why should they? Those who listen at all either take the “bait to debate” or assume all atheists are SOB’s. So, I ask again, what’s the point?

When I left my ordination I stated to my congregated clergy colleagues (mostly shocked or yawning) that the Church was exhibiting a kind of mental illness, speaking only with itself. Is this true for many non-believers as well? If so, intervention is called for, don’t you think?

When I first walked out, I was disheartened and discouraged because I felt dissed. Why wasn’t my radical kind of chaplaincy (read: Jesus’ kind of work) supported by more churches and ministers? It was supported, but I thought the whole damn (damned!) Church should be writing big checks and joining me “out there in the real suffering world—with Jesus, by the way.”

With time and lots of hiking, I got over that profound pissed-off-ness. I stayed in relationship with a number of those inside the faith who stayed with me even as an outsider. Valuable friends. Reasonable believers? You betcha.

We all know the Christmas carol, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Do others in the secular world hear what I hear? You can “believe” that this is what believers are hearing:

  • What I hear: “Religious people are mindless sheep and faith is stupid.”
  • What I hear: “Real atheists have to belittle believers, telling them how ignorant and delusional they are.”
  • What I hear: “ALL Christians are….”; “ALL Muslims are….”; “ALL people in churches believe….” (reflecting an attitude that is essentially the definition of bigotry).
  • What I hear: “Religion has absolutely nothing positive to offer the world.”
  • What I hear: “You can’t have close, respectful relationships with believers and be a ‘good’ atheist.’”

Much of this seems to imply that Atheism—intractable Atheism—is “the answer,” i.e., the New Orthodoxy.

“We’re smart; they’re stupid.”

Now there’s a message that will preach or teach or reach anyone.  Not.

If this is what non-believing preachers are preaching, all they can come up with for their secular sermons, I’ll proudly be a double heretic—among the faithful and the faithless.

Many of the memes, cartoons and atheist graffiti posted around the walls of the Internet show a lack of broad knowledge of the history or daily reality of religion. And frankly, many reveal a lack of experience with a variety of religious practitioners. I find that level of ignorance inexcusable—given Google; given the mosque, synagogue or zendo down the street. There seems to be an almost adolescent need to ridicule and disrespect, which I fully understand if a person takes no thought for others beyond “winning the game” against some stereotypical scarecrow of the world of spirituality.

If we hear a non-theist say, “In my experience” or “as far as I know,” “it seems to me” or “people of faith I talk to,” when presenting a question or critique, that’s honest and worthy of consideration. Simply “bashing” and “blasting” some imagined boogeyman of faith just sounds like another “reality show” or FAUX News “discussion.”

There are atheists that I seriously doubt are freethinkers.

I hear people say,

“THEY do it! Christians do it! They’re attacking us, it’s a war and we’re gonna fight back!”

Well, have at it, but don’t count me in. I don’t hang with nasty people on either side of that border wall. Let’s be serious:

Using Godlessness as a weapon is no better or worse than using God as a weapon.

The “War on Christians” or “War on Religion” is about as nonsensical and pointless as the “War on Christmas.” Tell me: who wins, and how does winning look to you, feel for you? In my view, a portion of what I hear borders on hate speech.

On the other end of the spectrum I’m increasingly hearing news reports that use more balanced language, such as events or actions with “interfaith and community groups.” We should be encouraging this, and offering more inclusive language, than playing into the hand of the “faithophobes” and other polarizers.

Some in atheist circles don’t seem to like these progressive steps toward mutual respect. One accused me of being—horror of horrors—“pastoral.” I took that as a compliment. Another questioned whether I really am an atheist since I have “warm relationships” with believers. This made me think of some religious folks who think I never was a believer, never “gave my heart to Jesus.” Can’t really argue with any of these people. They’re all non-believers, I guess.

When I think of it, I would much rather stand on a stage or in a classroom or even a sanctuary beside people of faith than a whole lot of the “psychic cyclones” stirring up hate in anti-faith circles.

Here’s something I’ve been preparing to say: for those of us who were once in the ministry, any ministry, I have to wonder what, if anything, has been “carried over.” Is there nothing to bring with us after years of human service (or at least Sunday School)? Have we carried over the “best” of what our faith traditions taught, you know, things like loving-kindness, compassion, and a sense of love for others? If we’ve thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and that baby was not just JC but the love of one’s neighbor and the “golden rule,” then I have to ask,

For Goodness’ Sake, Why?

It’s great to be “good without a god,” but let’s not forget the good because we’re so agitated about gods.

Those of us who have left the traditions of old need to present new ideas, fresh alternatives to faith. Simply arguing incessantly in an agitated defense of some imagined atheist orthodoxy is no viable alternative. Who really believes—and I think it does approach its own belief-system—that religion is dying, doomed and should be destroyed? Maybe you think or believe that, but is that your “gospel”?  Is this the best “good news” you can offer?

Let’s offer something better that works for all moderately reasonable people.

  1. There are no “sides.” There are some humans who have religious faith and some who don’t.
  2. How can we talk to each other?
  3. What do you have that I could learn from, and what could you learn from me?
  4. How can we work together to question and confront those who want to beat their theism or their atheism into swords?
  5. Since Orthodoxy means thinking my opinions are superior to yours, what can we do to move beyond the superiority complex?

I’m far from naive. I let go of pie-in-the-sky thinking a long time ago. But somehow I’m still hopeful—I still like pie! Perhaps that’s due in part to many years of baking without recipes—trying new ways of making things that might appeal to a variety of tastes (not trying to please everyone). This is an image of heterodox belief and practice—going a different way, trying something that might actually be better, choosing the happier heretic way. There are literally “other opinions” and “other paths to walk.” Many who believe and disbelieve will not walk with us. But I don’t think our walking (or baking) will be wasted.

I’m with Lucretia Mott. Let’s be freethinkers who side with truth as our authority, practicing a wisely humble heresy, wary of our own tendency to orthodoxy.


Bio: Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see

>>>>>>Photo Credits:  By Joseph Kyle (1815 – 1863). – Smithonian National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, ; Question marks — Image by © Gregor Schuster/zefa/Corbis photo credit: <a href=””>ccsdteacher</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

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  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    mean-spirited memes

    Uh, a LOT of the memes are simply painfully accurate, like:

  • Brian Curtis

    For centuries, religious proclamations were never challenged or even questioned. It’s important for religious proselytizers to be exposed to the simple fact that people don’t have to agree with them any more, and that their authority is no longer absolute. Even if they hate hearing it. And it’s also important for the general populace to see that such assertions can (and should) be challenged.

  • I think Chris’s point is well taken. When a meme tells us we’re morally superior to religious folks, it doesn’t have to be either fair-minded or factual. One guy at the Patheos Nonreligious Facebook group posted this meme asserting that religious folks just pray in lieu of doing anything good for society. Acknowledging that religious people do things like build hospitals and found charities isn’t exonerating them from blame for discrimination or anything.

  • Is there an “Orthodox Atheism”?

    No. Atheism is disbelief or a lack of belief in a god or gods. Anything else is not atheism.

    There’s a big irony connected with this idea that Chris Highland has about atheist “orthodoxy”, since, over the last few months, he has been desperately pushing his own brand of “kinder gentler atheist orthodoxy” on the rest of us, in various forums, as a counterpoint to “New Atheism”, which isn’t even a thing anymore – hasn’t been for a couple of years now, since Hitchens died, Dawkins fell ill, Dennett went quiet(er) and Sam Harris went off on an anti-SJW crusade against the political left. Heck, “New Atheism” wasn’t even a real thing while it was having its 15 minutes (all it really was was a PR idea to sell books and magazine articles), so I’m not sure why Chris Highland seems obsessed with it. He seems to consistently fail to understand that atheists can and always could draw from a massive variety of strategies and tactics to deploy in defense of atheism, without those things becoming some kind of “atheist orthodoxy”. Atheism can’t have an orthodoxy, because all it is is a statement of disbelief.

    If “New Atheism” (i.e. “in your face” angry atheism) is a new 21st Century phenomenon, maybe Chris should get in a time machine and explain that to Madalyn Murray-O’Hair, because I suspect she’d be surprised to hear it, as would Epicurus, back in the 2nd Century BCE.

    While I agree with Chris Highland’s idea that going with one “orthodoxy”, as he puts it, is a mistake, I think Chris needs to read his own text and apply his criticisms to himself, because it seems to me that what he is trying to do is impose his own orthodoxy on every other atheist. Chris refuses to see that a strategy or a tactic that works for one person might totally fail with another. Chris’s insistence that we use his approved strategy and discard others is self-defeating. You don’t catch all flies with honey, and speaking from personal experience, if my Christian beliefs had not been shaken loose by some harsh words back in the early 2000s, I might still be a Christian apologist now.

    In the fight against superstition, there must be room for all strategies and all tactics. In his attempts to stifle dissent and impose his own orthodoxy, Chris is not helping to make things better for atheists or for those mired in superstition and delusion.

  • Agree. And disagree. Proselytizing people and their “authority” need to be challenged. No question. And they have always been challenged and questioned–by heretics, by dissenters, by the freethinkers who rise in their midst.

  • Guestie

    On a scale of 1 to 10, this response is a 10. Bravo!

  • Tawreos

    I think we need to keep in mind that seeing statements out of context and absent their setting doesn’t help much. I realize that they look bad but not knowing where they were said and what they were in response to can make a difference. People can tend to talk differently in a place where it is mostly like minded people than they would in a mixed setting. There are some people that we see on Patheos that are usually fairly reasonable, but there are some topics that touch a nerve and will set them off. Like I said setting and context help a lot.

    I also have to point out that you might be a bit more sensitive on this issue than most of us would be. Your time spent as a pastor would have made you more aware that your every action and word is going to be more scrutinized than most people would be. Most of us don’t see ourselves as representatives of atheism, but your past might be more likely to make you think and act as though you are. I’m not meaning this in a negative way or as a way to belittle your argument. I simply think it might be a variable that should be addressed.

    This whole topic though does remind me of a conversation I had with a friend yesterday. We were talking about coming out of the closet and how much our attitudes have changed over the years about it. When I first came out I was very “in your face” about it and talked and acted very differently than I do 20 years later. I have to wonder if some of the rhetoric you see from atheists is not the same sort of thing. There is a power in finally being able to say something like “Fuck the oppressors” and having a group of people say “Yeah, that’s right”, it can make people say all of the things they have wanted to say. As we move forward though, that might diminish. I saw a survey recently that had people with no religious affiliation pretty much tied with evangelicals and catholics for the largest religious group in the country. If the “Nones” continue to grow, I think people will settle down and you will see the conversation style change. Until then, please feel free to point it out when people go to extremes.

  • Bruce Gorton

    Well, when asking “Does it preach” – did you go look up any statistics? I’m not seeing any evidence of that in your post.

    So far as I’ve seen in this era of combative atheism, the rates have gone up, and atheists don’t generally have a lot of kids.

    That change in demographics is deconverts, who’re saying all the stuff that they had been keeping in for years. Of course it is going to be combative, when the dam breaks it generally doesn’t result in a peaceful trickle.

  • If the essay really was about Chris Highland and his orthodoxy you’d have a great ad hominem point here. To write about what I’ve seen, heard, felt for years is, well, just that. There is no “new” atheism, as I see it. I refer to several prominent voices because they are still quoted and heard as “atheist authorities.” You may have others?

  • Stats for what I’ve heard? No. As I’ve said before, I’ve seen no “stats” proving that anti-theistic rhetoric is converting masses of people to atheism.

  • You raise some good issues and questions here. You may not be aware that many of us writing on Rational Doubt are indeed former clergy, so I would hope my experience has made me sensitive to how non-belief is being portrayed and communicated. Each of us may be “representatives” of secular viewpoints in our own contexts. I speak from my own.

    Yes, I’ve said before that I get it, when people “first come out” they express understandable anger. I agree with you that when people “settle down” the style can change. My intent in writing these last essays has been to try to temper those “extremes” that some seem stuck in.

    Thanks for the honesty.

  • mason

    Atheists may or may not be morally superior to theists, but we sure are mentally. 🙂

    Berry USA has articulated my other superior mental thoughts in the thread below. We former apostate clergy, not free thinkers especially ex Evangelical fundamentalists, know all too well how irrational religious beliefs can gum up the brain and rational critical thinking.

    Studies about intelligence of atheists vs believers should not include liberal believers because they are not even close to being the same mentally mutant species as Evangelicals. I’ve never known of a single liberal believer who had their intelligence and critical thinking crippled like the many Evangelicals I’ve been and am now acquainted with.

  • Yes, I would say that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Whoever made that apparently knows only one kind of believer.

  • abb3w

    I have to wonder if some of the rhetoric you see from atheists is not the same sort of thing.

    Ebaugh’s book “Becoming an Ex” addresses several sorts of role exit. The final stage she identifies is construction of a new identity/role as an ex-holder of whatever role. Clearly and “in your face” expressing the points of difference may be part of the construction — modifying people’s expectations of what you are likely to choose to do (regardless of their assessment of the moral preference of that choice).

  • abb3w

    Yes, I’ve said before that I get it, when people “first come out” they express understandable anger. I agree with you that when people “settle down” the style can change. My intent in writing these last essays has been to try to temper those “extremes” that some seem stuck in.

    The volume of loudmouths may therefore be a result of the number who are newly atheist. The rise of the “Nones” seems on a logistic curve trajectory against generational cohort; midpoint (and derivative’s maximum) may be when the 2008 cohort reach adulthood circa 2026. However, atheists and nones aren’t the same; if there is a similar curve for atheism, it currently looks to lag by something near a century. It may be quite a while before atheists in general settle down.

  • abb3w

    Atheists may or may not be morally superior to theists, but we sure are mentally. 🙂

    Cute, but raises a point.

    Some of the (religious people/Christians/Muslims) “are” claims “heard” by Chris may actually involve mishearing the more nuanced claim “tend more likely than others to be”; or, alternately, Chris may be accurately hearing the repetition of a claim that has had this nuance lost on the way from some original more exacting source phrasing. There seem to be a couple closely related concepts in psychology that may relate which involve tolerance of nuance, complexity, and ambiguity; and thus, how such may get lost.

  • Jim Baerg

    I am very much anti-faith.
    In the context of religion, faith seems to mean ‘believe something despite a lack of evidence for it, or even despite an abundance of evidence against it’.
    This makes faith a roadblock against correcting your beliefs that happen to be wrong.
    Dump faith & then you will be able to determine what is worth keeping & what is just dirty bathwater that should be discarded.
    This won’t suddenly make you infallible or immune to such problems as confirmation bias it will just remove one big roadblock to fixing errors.

    I will add that faith looks like dialing confirmation bias up to eleven & pretending that is a virtue.

  • abb3w

    There seems to be an almost adolescent need to ridicule and disrespect

    Given the shape of demographic trends, a major cause of this may be that many are adolescents.

    There may be other causes. Such ridicule and disrespect (“source derogation”, more generally and formally) is not always about communicating to the object of the ridicule, but communicating to others an assessment of tendency to lack-of-merit (by some measure) of that source’s message. Actually dissecting why the arguments lack merit takes far more time and cognitive effort (plus perhaps ability to effectively analyze and communicate the analysis), but may have little to no greater tendency to persuade.

    If you’re as likely to persuade Joe by taking five seconds to call Bob an idiot as you are by taking three hours to patiently dissect Bob’s argument (which Bob would not acknowledge), calling Bob an idiot seems more time efficient means to the same expected ends as measured by persuasive impact.

  • abb3w

    Eh; depends.

    I’d say faith involves conclusions believed independent of any prior premises. However, the Münchhausen trilemma seems to leave that (or a topological equivalent) some iota of it unavoidable. Admittedly, acceptance of the Axiom Of Unordered Pair (or the idea that “evidence has pattern”) isn’t as exciting as most points Christians take “on Faith”; nevertheless, it does seem to meet this definition.

  • abb3w

    Contrariwise, the shift in demographics appears to have started well before the current “era of combative atheism” was noticed to have begun. As such, the combativeness may as well be an effect of the shift rather than a cause itself.

    Nohow, the shift appears logistic, as with the spread of a new mutation through a population. As such, it may be that the ultimate underlying causal factors (from changes in social environment and from introduction of new ideas) are on the one hand concealed by the shift being self-catalyzing, and on another now lesser than the self-catalyzing effect.

  • Mark Rutledge

    There are many “believers” whom I admire. Martin Luther King and William Barber are just two examples of ministers “doing good” because of their faith. I teach classes on re-imagining religion in non-supernatural ways to many religious “believers” who are searching for better ways to self-identify. It takes respectful dialogue. I share much in common with actors for social justice who may have theistic beliefs. In some ways how one acts (for kindness, love and justice) is more important than what one believes anyway. Power to you Chris!

  • abb3w

    It seems hard to even establish correlation, much less causation. Furthermore, it would seem hard to even measure the levels of anti-atheist rhetoric over time.

    Google’s Ngram tool might be of some use, but it’s not clear how to define the phrases to search in sufficiently general fashion for “anti-atheist rhetoric”. The particular phrase “God Is Not Great” massively spiked after publication of the Hitchens book of that title, but there were other phrases before. A (case insensitive) search for “anti-theist” itself would suggest (if taken as reliable) that we are merely returning to levels that had been reached circa 1970, yet still well short of the levels in the “Golden Age of Freethought”.

    Based on Ebaugh’s “Becoming an Ex” book, I suspect that any increase in the rhetoric merely increases the number of people who have been at least superficially exposed to (atheist) ideas that compete with their own (theist) ideas, which in turn increases the number who may seek to explore those ideas if-and-when their own fall short of expectations.

  • alwayspuzzled

    It would be interesting to know if those atheists for whom hostility toward religion is an important identity marker had hostility toward atheism as an important identity marker during their religious phase, if they had one. Human nature being what it is, it may well be that some individuals need to be hostile and their opposites on the belief spectrum are convenient targets.

  • mason

    Personality and past experience are always major factors

  • mason

    King was a hero as a political crusader for civil/human rights; as a moral husband example he was a zero.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Mark, you say, “Martin Luther King and William Barber are just two examples of ministers “doing good” because of their faith.”

    I’d say they are examples of ministers using their faith to do good. They can rally liberal religious people behind them and can get public attention because of their supposed connection to God and their effective use of religious themes.

    You don’t really even have to be religious yourself to know what will appeal to religious people and what will encourage them to do the best thing for society. There are some still active members of The Clergy Project who are promoting social justice in their churches right now.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Good point, Mason — if it were King’s deep religious beliefs that made him good, he would have been good all around and not broken his wedding vows.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Maybe these perspectives are both true. Yet I’ll wager that King’s passion for social justice flowed from his Christian faith.He certainly drew strength from his faith during the dark times. And he was a preacher like his father–he was formed in his family as well as his intellectual and scholarly life. As to his personal morals–name one person you know who is perfect.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Again name me a person who is perfect and without flaws–either believer of not. I am not a “believer” and I am not perfect. And I’d bet that Clergy Project members who are active for social justice have the same human flaws as do we all. As Reinhold Niebuhr said: sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.

  • Mark Rutledge

    So non-believers who engage in action for social justice are always perfect? I know very few people, believers or non-believers who are perfect or consistent in all ethical areas of their life. Do you? We are all flawed human beings.

  • alwayspuzzled

    That is a good point about the moral and mental claims. Christians claim moral superiority. Atheists claim mental superiority. That is probably one of the factors that engenders mutual hostility. Of course, it is entirely possible that both claims are completely delusional.

  • mason

    I just find it deplorable when any person touts lofty ideals of justice and then on a personal family basis commits the most egregious injustice and dishonor upon a spouse.

  • mason

    Reinhold was silly. Sin is a stupid theistic concept of humans doing things that are offensive to a non-existent deity. The point here is that although King was a political success and martyr for social justice, he was a failure when it came to decency, respect, and justice for his spouse. My point is that his religious belief wasn’t worth crap when it came to being a decent human being on a personal basis. Saying humans have flaws as a red herring from my point doesn’t fly. Real decency on a personal basis with a spouse reveals the true character of a person, and just because they love the public spotlight, being the grand orator, and adored by followers doesn’t mitigate their personal indecency one iota.

  • ElizabetB.

    Well…MLK’s one of my all-time heroes… I’ve read a bunch of his writings (I wasn’t familiar with his economic and philosophical ones), and don’t really think he loved the spotlight. In one talk, he described how scared he was for himself and his family and felt he just couldn’t go on; and he had to know in speaking against the Vietnam War he was risking death by the Right — it was almost a year to the day after his Riverside speech that he was shot. I don’t know the infidelity details, but I give people passes for failings of the heart, especially when they’re on the road and in danger. I think he was more a UU-type Christian… when he described that crisis moment I just mentioned, he felt something saying, “Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth.” [“Strength to Love”] Anyhow, that’s how I see him!

  • Linda_LaScola

    Of course I don’t know anyone who is perfect, but in our society, to say someone is a “man of God” or “deeply religious” or even just a minister, implies that he is superior simply for being close to “God” while he may have many of the failings of other humans.

    Meanwhile to identify someone as a humanist, atheist or freethinker doesn’t have the same kind of clout and could even be seen as a negative.

  • ElizabetB.

    Maybe an example of the ideal envisioned here might be the surprise this week of hearing the Very Bad Wizards podcast (a prof of philosophy at the U. of Houston & a prof of psychology at Cornell) discuss the book of Ecclesiastes. Usually they do a professional journal paper, neuroscience, movie, short story, etc. At the end they said this was the first time they’d picked something from the bible — that they don’t think of themselves as religious — the philosopher says he grew up attending Jewish High Holy Day services, the psychology prof, among 7th Day Adventists, I think — and what surprised me was their saying that after exploring Ecclesiastes’ nihilism, carpe diem advice, anti-natalism (better not to have been born!), and contradictions, they were struck by the bible being a rich source of philosophy, art, beauty, and questions that can make your life richer. Philosopher said sometimes you go through an atheist phase as he sort of did when you think of the bible as stupid stories that make people do bad things, and psychologist said he grew up the other way, where you read in order to prove what you already believe, which necessitates a lot of mental gymnastics — & they agreed either way makes you miss out on some things that are deeply wise and questions to ponder about the meaning of life. They said maybe they would do the book of Job some time — if their listeners don’t hate this one too much! Their attitude makes me think of Chris’ happy heretics, on all sides : )

  • Bruce Gorton

    When did the era of ‘combative atheism’ really start though?

    Looking at the US, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was frequently accused of being very combative, and okay Gallup’s polling only shows a decade before her era, but I’m not seeing much of a growth trend there.

    Around the decade of her death – the 1990s, I see no growth at all, and the trend picks up again in 2002, after 9/11, which was pretty much the motivating point of the “New Atheism”.

    I don’t think we can reliably say ‘combative atheism’ is the cause of the growth, I think your criticism of that position is accurate, but I don’t think there is the data to say the reverse either.

    To successfully argue one or another requires data, and from what I can see, the very limited data we’ve got more leans towards a more combative approach, but much more work would need to be done to conclude that.

    And I think there is also a mistake in thinking that the goal of a lot of the memes being employed is to convert people. I think a lot of the time, they’re to raise awareness around specific issues.

    Below Shem showed off a meme about how religious people pray to help, and act to oppress – but look at the picture on the oppression side and it is anti-LGBT activism.

    Is that meme trying to motivate people to become atheists, or to shame those who protest against gay rights? And with the religious left, to show that they’ve got to work to show that they aren’t like that, they have to rise up and oppose the religious right if they do indeed oppose them?

    It is very easy for the religious left to say “Hey don’t paint us all with the same brush” – but when the religious right come out with “In God we Trust” and “This is a Christian nation” – that’s exactly what they’re doing in order to build the impression of consensus around their oppressive views, and all too often it seems to me that those who don’t share those views don’t stand up and say so until stuff like these memes come along.

    And that actually is something that also bothers me with this kind of article, it is an uneven demand.

    A lot of the time the atheist activist is required to mute their objections to religion, but the religious activist is expected to trumpet their religion – and that is not marching shoulder to shoulder as equals, that is being placed in a subservient position.

  • Brian Curtis

    And if that were the goal of anti-theist rhetoric, then it would be a strike against it. Confronting theists also doesn’t cure cancer, but that’s not the point either. “Converting” people is a leftover assumption from religious training, and it’s not what anti-theists are trying to accomplish. They don’t want to win converts the way missionaries or evangelists do; they want people to start thinking and questioning, even if they wind up in a different place than the atheist him/herself.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Right, we are all flawed, but as per my comment above, openly religious people still get credit in our society for being “close to God”, while non-religious people, even if doing the same kind of good works, don’t have the backing of the big guy upstairs.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I don’t deny the value of King’s good works or his use of religious language to achieve some of them. His human failings, as far as we know, are ordinary ones. He shouldn’t be written off because of them, but they shouldn’t be ignored either, because he was so good in other ways.

    And I wish people like Niebuhr could express themselves just as eloquently without using Christian doctrine as a base.

  • Ray Lee

    I’m probably missing something here… I don’t follow online atheism, except for news related to 1A issues, etc. But I’ll attempt to contribute something to the conversation anyway.

    1. There seems to be more than a little strawman arguing here. A lot of quotes that may or may not be actual quotes from some presumed speaker, Mr. Orthodox Internet Atheist. (Not to mention a liberal use of “scare quotes.”) Who is the author speaking to, or about? Is there someone out there who has made an actual argument that the author is protesting?

    2. Some terms, like atheist and freethinker, are used here in a way that suggests to me that the author believes they are nearly equivalent, or at least overlapping. Atheist, freethinker, skeptic, humanist… These things often intersect, but are not necessarily related to one another. I believe I was a freethinker even as a believer, which eventually lead to atheism and skepticism. But we can’t assume that a member of one camp is also a member of another.

    3. Following that: Why shouldn’t an anti-theist spew venom at the believing masses whenever the mood strikes? Because it won’t change anyone’s mind? So what? Maybe that was never the intent.

    4. As someone else noted in the comments, it feels very much like the author is arguing for a particular orthodoxy (some way that atheists should be) while arguing against an orthodoxy which may not even exist. Since when is orthodoxy defined as the perceived behavior of the most vocal members of a group?

    5. I’m not sure if there can be an “orthodox atheism,” anymore than there can be an orthodox theism. Atheism is simply a position on the existence of gods. That’s all. There is nothing else that can be assumed from that. Atheism is not a worldview. There are no other required beliefs or behaviors in order to be an atheist. You’re not even required to accept the term “atheist” as a label or personal identity.

    I have no objection to atheists working with theists to achieve common goals, if and when they choose to do so. I wish you all the best in your chosen endeavors.

    I do have some objection to any suggestion that, as an atheist, I should be some particular way.

  • Sounds like this was at least an attempt to look at these things in un-orthodox ways, Elizabeth. We can’t always be happy heretics, but keep a smile.

  • Interesting point. I sometimes wonder too.

  • Makes some sense, Mark. Seems we have a parallel approach to these things. Might be why we’re teachers? Cheers.

  • Yes, but IF atheists really want people to “start thinking and questioning,” they/we might take the time to communicate better, present a positive alternative to certain belief-systems. This is one reason I’m a teacher, not a preacher (any more). I still don’t think being “anti-theist” is helpful, useful or wise.

  • Could be correct. Sometimes what I hear from the “newly atheist” (or those who are “finding their voice”) sounds similar to some of the younger XYZ Gen who reduce “communication” to a tweet or text.

  • At the risk of quoting St. Hitch, “religion poisons everything.” Not much nuance there. If and when we’re really listening to what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, we may have a better sense of who might or might not be listening, and for what reasons. My concern is in part what is being communicated, if anything, by those who “represent” (or are venerated for their) non-theist views.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Niebuhr wrote in the 1940’s. Contextualize that. Ever know an atheist who cheated on his or her spouse?

  • Mark Rutledge

    Niebuhr’s concept of “sin” had more to do with human nature than anything to do with a supernatural god..

  • Mark Rutledge

    There are ways of imagining god other than as a supernatural being. I imagine god as justice and love. These are processes that we humans have to work out. Just as children, when they stop believing in Santa Claus as the source of gift giving, they notice that somehow gift giving goes on.

  • Mark Rutledge

    I wish for more parity between those referred to as “people of god” and people who act for justice who self-identify as humanists, freethinkers and atheists. May our society wise up sooner than later.

  • Mark Rutledge

    By definition, faith simply means trust. In what do you trust?

  • See Noevo

    … if my Christian beliefs had not been shaken loose by some harsh words back in the early 2000s, I might still be a
    Christian apologist now.

    Will you give us a peek at those harsh words?

  • skl

    In the article and comments here are many atheist uses of ‘the good’. For example,

    It’s great to be “good without a god,” but
    let’s not forget the good because we’re so agitated about gods.

    I think a true atheist, an “orthodox” atheist, would hold that there is no such thing as “good” (or “right” or “moral”),
    there is only what you like.

  • abb3w

    Around the decade of her death – the 1990s, I see no growth at all

    Please look again at a more specific focus.

    A logistic curve trend to increased irreligiosity with later generational cohorts can be seen in GSS data for the 2010s, 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. Direct measure of the growth of atheism is not possible that far back due to limits of sampling size error, but unaffiliation provides a convenient proxy. Convenient variables of interest are RELITEN (recoded to linearize from unaffiliated, not strongly affiliated, somewhat strongly affiliated, to strongly affiliated) versus COHORT (recoded by decade) controling for YEAR (also by decade). These may be examined by the Berkeley SDA interface to the GSS.

    Within cohorts, it looks like the Religious Right did have a temporary impact (on all cohorts) starting circa 1980 that faded circa 1995. However, the underlying sea change is older than the earliest GSS data set.

    I think there is also a mistake in thinking that the goal of a lot of the memes being employed is to convert people. I think a lot of the time, they’re to raise awareness around specific issues.

    So, more specific persuasion, rather than general. I don’t see a big problem with that — aside from the question of how much intentionality is actually involved, particularly in a reflective sense. Cue Heath Ledger “guy with a plan” scene.

    A lot of the time the atheist activist is required to mute their objections to religion, but the religious activist is expected to trumpet their religion

    …and cue digression back to Hume on “ought” (although a visit to Haidt’s research might provide more practical illumination.).

  • abb3w

    Not much nuance there.

    True. That, however, would seem in the “Religion has absolutely nothing positive to offer the world” category — which thesis I would also disagree with — rather than one of the two I alluded to.

    Then again, the lack of nuance (and even hyperbole) of such messages may be a technique necessary to have any significant prospect of communicating persuasively with those who have low tolerance for nuance. In a more nuanced take on nuance, having multiple voices attempting to persuade at multiple levels of nuance may be more effective than the same number all at a single level.

    If and when we’re really listening to what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, we may have a better sense of who might or might not be listening, and for what reasons.

    Which in turn seems to implicitly raise the question of to what ends/purposes/reasons are we expressing ourselves; and on what basis do we expect which means to be most effective to such ends.

    My concern is in part what is being communicated, if anything, by those who “represent” (or are venerated for their) non-theist views.

    For myself, my instinct is to greater concern with some aspects of the tendency to “veneration”.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I don’t see that you’re missing anything — thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Or maybe rather than a “need to be hostile” it’s a real feeling of hostility toward certain ideas or people.

  • Linda_LaScola

    We agree!

  • Linda_LaScola

    You imagine God that way, but many – maybe most – others do not and it’s said that someone is a “man of god”, the image is of the guy in the sky. Otherwise, you could just say he’s a really decent person, or exemplary, or anything that compares the person favorably to other people.

  • abb3w

    Twitter seems a bane for deep reflective consideration and communication.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I’m glad his serenity prayer has helped people – and glad to hear that there are now some AA-type groups for atheists who can’t get on board with “Let go, let God.”

  • abb3w

    I still don’t think being “anti-theist” is helpful, useful or wise.

    Are you familiar with Christopher Silver’s research on atheism, and with Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways” framework?

  • Linda_LaScola

    Hey — all kinds of people cheat on their spouse. It’s pretty common.

  • abb3w

    I think a true atheist, an “orthodox” atheist, would hold that there is no such thing as “good” (or “right” or “moral”),

    That might be the Christian stereotype of one. It seems more nearly that that there is no orthodox agreement on from what axiomatic basis to derive “good”.

    Slightly more broadly, the basis for good seems the fundamental question of morality. Atheism per se seems about the existence of God, which would appear more an empirical “is” versus “isn’t” question. While there seems some degree of orthodoxy on “is” questions, there seems rather less of one on “ought” questions. (Cue Hume, yet again.)

  • See Noevo

    I think Chris’s point is well taken. When a meme tells us
    we’re morally superior to religious folks, it doesn’t have to be either
    fair-minded or factual.


    You seem to want to appear to be fair-minded and factual, and not appear to
    be morally superior. You seem to want to invite dialog.

    So, why don’t you allow my comments to post on your “Driven to Abstraction”
    blog? They’re still in “Pending” status.

    Same goes for a Patheos Nonreligious blogger you appear to admire – M.L.
    Clark. About four days ago I submitted a post on Clark’s blog complementing you on a comment
    you made at

    I just wrote: “As a Catholic and conservative I say: Well said.”
    That was the entirety of it.

    Do you know why M.L. Clark (and you) doesn’t even allow my comments to post,
    why they’res still in “Pending” status?

  • ElizabetB.

    I keep thinking of a conversation among my sister, cousin, and me. Cousin is liberal-minded… but when my sister said, “I guess I’m an atheist,” our cousin chided, “Oh, R, you’re not an *atheist*. We didn’t pursue, but tone of voice was that my sister is too great a person to be an “atheist.” I think of that when contemplating how far non-theism has to go in the U.S. to be not negatively charged.

  • mason

    I don’t think there is anything like a true or orthodox atheist; that would be a subjective label an atheist might adopt or a theist might stick on them. Atheists have all kind of ways of thinking and ideas about morality, ethics etc. It seems like an almost hopeless task to convince people that “atheist” only means non-belief in any deity. Nothing more. Some atheists believe in supernatural creatures, but no deity God of the Universe.

  • mason

    You’re not missing anything; others are adding red herrings, straw men, false equivalencies, absurdities, fake definitions, subjective judgments, and definitions from their own parochial personal dictionary of English words.

  • mason

    that is so off the subject it’s immeasurable …

  • mason

    After reading this article I kept thinking about Don Quixote and the windmill giants.

  • alwayspuzzled

    Are psychological needs not real? Generally, psychological needs are real, their expressions are real, and their outcomes are real. The issue might be whether or not the psychological needs and their expressions are regulated by reason.

  • ElizabetB.

    Yes — I’m still not always sure I’m correct about the term “atheist” — It means one is without belief in a “theo,” right? Is it correct that “atheist” does not indicate whether or not one thinks gods might exist? If that’s accurate, one could also say that that person could be termed an “agnostic atheist”?

    Is there a term or description for an atheist who not only has no belief in a god, but who goes beyond that and thinks no gods exist?

    If so, then could you say that one way to classify atheists is between “agnostic atheists” and “whatever-that-second-descriptor-is atheists”? Whew Thanks!

  • Ray Lee

    Theos = God
    Atheos = No God

    I think the distinction you’re aiming for is between negative/ weak atheism and positive/ strong atheism.

    I could be wrong, but I think you could put it like:

    Agnostic: “I don’t know if any god exists.”
    Weak atheism: “I don’t believe any god exists.”
    Strong atheism: “No god exists.”

  • Linda_LaScola

    Atheist: “I don’t know if any god exists — there’s no way of knowing. I don’t believe/think that any god exists”

  • Linda_LaScola

    I’ve been in the same sort of situation and truly think it takes a lot of good people, like me and your sister, to claim the term atheist, otherwise, the negative image will persist.

  • Ray Lee

    For myself, I would take the weak position, “I don’t believe any god exists,” and leave it at that.

    If someone asks, “why not?” I can reply that I’ve never seen any evidence for it. But I don’t see any reason to waiver on, or qualify my position.

    I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods.

  • mason

    the so called “strong atheist” could say “no God exists, but you can’t prove a negative”, but we all can say what we want … agnostic, weak atheist, strong, atheist, vegan atheist, … all are non-believers in any of the deity nonsense

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    Then defend that position with data.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    We already have words for justice and love (which are conflicting concepts, by the way).

    Why introduce any ‘god’ nonsense?

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    “All heroes have feet of clay”

    And until you can demonstrate this ‘god’ of yours, ‘sin’ is a null concept.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    Statistically, fundamentalist theists are more likely to cheat on their spouses, despite claiming that a supernatural power will punish them for it.

    So yes, it happens, but per theists, THEY shouldn’t have it happen at all, while atheists don’t make any such supernatural claim.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower


    Faith is trust WITHOUT evidence.

    Or don’t you believe your own bible?

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    That kind of believer would dismiss those who aren’t as fervent or ‘on fire’ as not believers at all, VERY publicly.

    We can only comment on what is said and not vigorously decried by a group.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower
  • Linda_LaScola

    I would take the same position but wouldn’t call it “weak” – it’s simply factual.

    Applying it to religion, saying “I believe in God” does not appear in any way weak — it’s what most people say. You might occasionally hear someone say “I KNOW there’s a God because ….” but they are really expressing the strength of their belief. They can’t “know” any more than atheists can – it’s a belief.

    I have never once heard an atheist say they knew there was not god, but have often heard believers saying that atheists think that (and how stupid it is, because how can you “know” for sure) I think it’s one of the things they learned in church, or from other believers, to make atheism sound stupid. It’s why I think we need to be more vocal about what we believe.

  • carolyntclark

    Bart Ehrman “An “agnostic” is one who says s/he does “not know” if there is a God (the literal meaning of that term; it’s about knowledge, not faith). And so they are dealing with two incommensurate entities: faith (atheism) and knowledge (agnosticism).”

  • Linda_LaScola

    because our society is such that when you mention god, it’s usually viewed as a positive.

    That is changing.

  • Linda_LaScola

    FYI: Mark does not believe that the Bible is the word of God.

  • David Evans

    And a true theist (of a certain kind) would hold that there is no such thing as “good” (or “right” or “moral”), there is only what God likes.

    (I thought your straw man looked lonely out there, and in need of a companion).

  • ElizabetB.

    That’s such a helpful article, with helpful links — many thanks!!!!!!!

  • ElizabetB.

    Carolyn, thank you so much for the Ehrman quote!! That is really helpful!!!!

  • ElizabetB.

    So, Linda, would you say that the way you see it, there can’t be any kind of atheist other than “agnostic”?

    These definitions in this thread are really helpful. It sounds like “atheism” is a term with many connotations, which depend on the one who uses it. ….I ask myself why I’m not a TCP member, because there are so many ways in which I am an atheist. I’m thinking tonight that maybe it’s because 1) I am so thoroughly agnostic about life in general; 2) I can’t shake the feeling that atheism makes a statement about what does or does not exist; and 3) if “a-theism” means “without god” and if “god” is understood as “love” or “justice” or “serendipitous creativity” as Mark sometimes says, then I think I AM surrounded by those things, and I do believe in them. So I continue to appreciate hugely being able to learn and interact on RD. It’s a huge help trying to figure out implications of all these questions!!!!!!!

  • ElizabetB.

    PS That’s probably why I like “freethinker” — no epistemological entanglements : )

  • Linda_LaScola

    Mark is a member of TCP. Mark may use the term “god” to imply or describe other things, but he does not believe in the supernatural, as he has stated many times. You may not be able to “shake a feeling”about atheism, but that doesn’t change the actual meaning of the word.

    TCP does not have any requirement about what members call themselves, but does have requirements for what members believe: As per the TCP website, it’s for “…religious professionals (either currently and formerly employed) who no longer believe in the supernatural.”

    More specifically, it’s for those who “…do not believe in gods, angels, demons, ghosts, a sentient universe, psychic power, divination, mystical forces, or practices that emanate from belief in mystical forces such as chi, astrology, or feng shui, or using prayer, crystals, or magnets as a method of disease prevention. This is not intended to be comprehensive list.”

    There’s even more specificity on the “Join” page at

  • Although I have no statistics, I have noticed that nice people, when converting either to or from religion, seem to become nicer. Mean people get meaner. The conversion/deconversion seems simply increase their motivation. Makes sense when ones brain is dwelling upon a subject so much.

  • alwayspuzzled

    “The conversion/deconversion seems simply to increase their motivation.”

    That sounds right. They may be at a better psychological comfort level after their switch, so if their proclivity is to be nice they will be nicer and if their proclivity is to be mean they will be meaner.

  • ElizabetB.

    It’s so interesting that I never before noticed that the description page does not mention “atheist” or “atheism” — I imported the term! Yes, I’ve known Mark is a member…. it would be fun some day to ask him how he thinks of “natural” and “supernatural.” I do think about what some call “chi,” or a “life force”…. Anyhow, I am very thankful for this forum and I thank you & colleagues for it!!!!

  • Ray Lee

    I would say that “good,” like beauty, is a concept and not a real thing. And all concepts exist only in the mind. Wipe out humanity and all “beauty” and “ugliness” goes with it. And you’re left with only what is.

    Someone who believes that it is more than a concept might think it is a category of things. That there are good things and bad things. But ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are judgments, not descriptions.

    I guess my position would be labeled moral relativism, but that doesn’t feel right to me. (Maybe someone better versed in philosophy can jump in here.) I’m not saying that morality is necessarily what you like, or that it can be anything you want. (Maybe yes, maybe no.) I’m saying that all morality is a subjective experience. It’s an internal, felt thing. Not an objective thing one can hold in the hand, or show proofs for.

    That being said… Haven’t the socialist and communist governments of the world been pretty strictly atheistic? And don’t they have some pretty specific ideas about “good” and “bad”? So, who’s to say which of us is the “orthodox atheist”?

    It’s not about atheism. It’s about values.

    A totalitarian dictator, of whatever persuasion (left, right, atheist, believer), has a vested interest in the masses accepting their standards of right and wrong.

    On the other hand, I’m not a political leader. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I don’t give a shit what you think is right or wrong, unless it translates into actions that have a real chance of impacting my interests.

  • skl

    I don’t give a shit what you think is right or wrong, unless it
    translates into actions that have a real chance of impacting my

  • Ray Lee

    And??? You agree, disagree, don’t understand???

  • Jim Baerg

    I trust that my senses are showing me stuff that is outside me.
    Determining what that stuff is from my perceptions is a non-trivial problem.
    Dealing with that problem is called ‘science’.

  • Ofinfinitejest .


    What I hear: “Religious people are mindless sheep and faith is stupid.”
    What I hear: “Real atheists have to belittle believers, telling them how ignorant and delusional they are.”
    What I hear: “ALL Christians are….”; “ALL Muslims are….”; “ALL
    people in churches believe….” (reflecting an attitude that is
    essentially the definition of bigotry).
    What I hear: “Religion has absolutely nothing positive to offer the world.”
    What I hear: “You can’t have close, respectful relationships with believers and be a ‘good’ atheist.’

    Unquote. I would to see about three examples of each of these from prominent atheists (this does not include the flotsam, attention-getting or humorous trivia of the internet), in order to evaluate whether or not Chris Highland is making an argument of value. As an atheist (which is not near the top of the ways I would characterize myself) I am interested in facts, evidence and logic in the evaluation of arguments, and I will respond further once he provides the evidence, and will also respond if he fails to provide that evidence.

  • Not all direct quotes, that’s why I didn’t cite them. These are what I hear in different ways from different voices, in books, on the net, in person. No chapter and verse. Two summaries might be, “religion poisons everything” and “the God delusion.” Do you “hear” what I hear?

  • Not sure where you got that idea, but let me suggest you meet more “good” people of all faiths and no faith.

  • Martin Zeichner

    Sorry, posted before I was done.

  • Martin Zeichner

    I think that you are correct and that you have gathered at least some people that are in agreement. Is it enough? I don’t know. I hope so but ultimately, it depends on how humanity survives, if at all.

    When I first saw the title of this post, ” “Is there an “Orthodox Atheism”? ” I thought, “I hope not”. If there is, then it is yet another failed attempt at characterizing our own vanity. There is no question that religion and religious thought has had a profound influence on all of us. But I don’t think that the answer to the question “How do I be an individual in a vast sea of humanity?” is to create yet another orthodoxy to compete with the ones that already exist. We are already individuals. Each with our own set of experiences. We don’t have to try to be more individual than we are.

    What is our common ground? We can start at the basics. We are all human. We all want to be considered to be authorities within our own experiences. Each of us is the star of our own story.

  • Martin Zeichner

    Do you “hear” what I hear?

    Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. A case can be made either way. It all depends on the entire context of how the person expresses themselves.

  • Martin Zeichner

    It seems to me that to cite:

    …a true atheist, an “orthodox” atheist…

    …is to impose a stereotype on a group of people. One that may or may not apply to all members of that group.

  • Martin Zeichner

    …a true theist (of a certain kind) would hold that there is no such thing as “good” (or “right” or “moral”), there is only what God likes.

    Thus ‘values’ are subjective. Whether they are about what god likes or about what some person (that thinks that they speak for god) likes.