Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On New Atheists and Anti-theists

I have long argued that there is a difference between atheism and anti-theism,  a movement that is not so much atheist as anti-religion.  You know, Dawkins and his ilk.  I have little time for people who define as atheists just to bash religion.  Fine, faith not your bag.  No problem, but what's it to you if some people spend Sunday in a cloud of incense?

Reza Aslan is on the same page :
What Harris, Dawkins and their ilk are preaching is a polemic that has been around since the 18th century – one properly termed, anti-theism.

The earliest known English record of the term “anti-theist” dates back to 1788, but the first citation of the word can be found in the 1833 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as “one opposed to belief in the existence of a god” (italics mine). In other words, while an atheist believes there is no god and so follows no religion, an anti-theist opposes the very idea of religious belief, often viewing religion as an insidious force that must be rooted from society – forcibly if necessary..... 
Anti-theism is a relatively new phenomenon. But atheism is as old as theism itself. For wherever we find belief in gods we find those who reject such beliefs.....
So where does the anti-theist come from?
[Scholars] trace the emergence of atheism as a distinct worldview to the end of the Enlightenment era, which, not coincidentally, is also the time that anti-theism first arose. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on skepticism, reason and scientific advancement posed a direct challenge to religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
But here's the kicker:
That makes sense when you consider that Christianity was not only the sole religion with which many Enlightenment thinkers had any familiarity. It was an all-encompassing political presence in the lives of most Europeans, which is why the atheism of the Enlightenment was grounded less in denying the existence of God than in trying to liberate humanity from religion’s grip on earthly power.
And that's the crux.  Once  Christianity became entangled in the power of the State, resistance to that power became entangled in the language of belief.
[I]n the century that followed the Enlightenment, a stridently militant form of atheism arose that merged the Enlightenment’s criticism of institutional religion with the strict empiricism of the scientific revolution to not only reject belief in God, but to actively oppose it. By the middle of the 19th century, this movement was given its own name – anti-theism – specifically to differentiate it from atheism.
He points out that Stalin and Mao were not atheists, but anti-theists.  A pushback against the identification of religion with power.  And in our era, I think very much a pushback against fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist CHristianity, with its own form of fundamentalism.
Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community.
Exactly. The anti-theists have a made a religion out of opposing religion.   I know some of these people, and they burn with the fire of a fanatic in their opposition to religion.  But by far the majroity of non-believers simply don't care.
One can certainly be both an atheist and an anti-theist. But the point is that the vast majority of atheists – 85 percent according to one poll – are not anti-theists and should not be lumped into the same category as the anti-theist ideologues that inundate the media landscape. (A diverse community being defined by its loudest voices? Imagine that). In fact, let’s stop calling New Atheism, “atheism,” and start calling it what it is: anti-theism.
Here's the thing, though.  The religious fundamentalists  in the US punch way above their weight, and attempt to push their religious view into the secular polis.  You know, opposing reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and environmental skepticism.  This generates a backlash. We know that the largest increases in religious identity is the Nones, and we also know that the Dones are a looming class, those being the people who have left religion.  Indeed, ex-Roman Catholics would be the 2nd or 3rd largest denomination in the country. 

I'm not a fan of the New a(nti)theists, being a church-going atheist myself, but I certainly understand from whence comes their frustration.

Check this out for the 6 kinds of atheists.


John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

I love atheists—mainly because you all tend to be people who think things through, are rational, and have intellectual integrity.

But I'm always curious, and I always want to ask, "Which '-theos' are you "a-" about?" because nine times out of ten, the 'theos' you deny turns out to be the same 'theos' that I (a practicing Christian) would deny! I always want to ask,"Who's your 'theos'? Tell me about the God you don't believe in." And I have a hunch that I probably don't believe in THAT God either.

And that tends to be reliably true because the God I believe in cannot be described—so as soon as you describe a God you can't believe in, I'm on your side: I don't believe in a desirable God either!

Love your blog—as I assure Jake does, too.

IT said...

John-Julian, thanks for the kind words. I also hope Jake likes our blog! :-)

I've discussed at length my own non-belief. It's not that I engage in an active I-don't-believe-in-your-God. I'm not actively rejecting any concept of God in particular. I'm well aware of the complex and ineffable ways by which some Christians experience God-ness, especially you Episcopalians. (Its no surprise that you are the ones I am most at home with.)

But the key here is that my lack of faith is not a reaction against a specific idea of a God. It's an absence of any sense of any kind of God at all. It's as though my brain is simply not wired that way. Maybe you perceive something I don't. Or, maybe I perceive something you don't. Works both ways. it simply is what it is.

JCF said...

"Maybe you perceive something I don't. Or, maybe I perceive something you don't."

Or perhaps some of each?

If a blind person were to tell me "visual perception doesn't exist; it's a mental-illness caused delusion", I would respond "so I just happened, due to delusion, to point these round gelatinous exterior organs (aka "eyeballs") in the direction of the setting sun, and utter 'Look at the gorgeous colors!' merely on the basis of regularly timed delusion?"

...but at the same time, I can accept that blind people may use 4 (or more?) senses in way I can't/don't, while I'm directing my eyeballs at the setting sun.

I don't think it's an Either/Or.

John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...


Typo in last comment: "I don't believe in a desirable God" should be "I don't believe in a describable God."

I'm truly ENTIRELY happy with your atheism—and I'm sorry to have brought it up when you had already dealt with it earlier on (I just joined the blog recently)—and my questions are not meant to suggest that I have any wish at all to change you in any way. But I just love thinking about this stuff, and my curiosity sometimes boils over into what sounds like interference.

Partial explanation: I have just finished a new translation and extensive commentary on "The Cloud of Unknowing"—Paraclete Press, March 2015—and that two-year-long labor pushed me toward what certainly could be called an atheism—that is, a denial of what most people mean when they say or think "God". So I'm always curious to ask (when I encounter a friendly atheist) to know if s/he rejects even the concept of a non-material, immutable (albeit indescribable) entity.

But don't bother to fuss with me now—I'll just hang around and check in with you now and then...

John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

Hey, here's a good piece on atheists+Christian clergy:

John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

well, that didn't work. Just to "patheos.com"—good article!

IT said...

John-Julian, Yes, I saw that article. Certainly agree with it. Here's the link:

You ask,
if s/he rejects even the concept of a non-material, immutable (albeit indescribable) entity.

I call that concept, God as the "Force" .

And no, it doesn't work for me either.

Though it's probably the only one I could ever get behind if I were to suddenly feel belief.

IT said...

JCF, sure, both/and. This is why I don't use blindness as a metaphor, but color blindness. Because unlike other senses that have some physical basis (the presence of sound waves, for example), we describe color as a perception: how our brains experience exactly the same stimulus.

Color blind people perceive color (the world is not black-white to them), but they don't perceive it the same way as non-colorblind people. Indeed, there is now some evidence that some people are SUPER color perceivers, who can distinguish more colors than most (See news story on tetrachromats). So it does indeed work both ways.

For an example of how colors may look to a color blind person, see the image I posted
in a previous discussion .

Marshall Scott said...

You know, this got me to thinking about my life among the Buddhists. My wife is becoming a teacher in a local Zen community, one that focuses on Zen as practice, and so doesn't require or encourage a person to drop the theology with which he or she arrived. Buddhists are, by and large (or at least officially )Non-theists. I thought about them as Ritual Atheists/Agnostics, because ritual is central. On the other hand, I don't think they would think of themselves as RAA - or, really, Atheist/Agnostic in any meaningful sense, precisely because the question of the God-ness of God is irrelevant to the tradition. Just an interesting thought; for, after all, all systems of categories have their limits.