Sunday, February 26, 2006

Atheism, still a hard sell

Throughout much of the Western industrialized world (the US is an exception) secularism is advancing. Fewer and fewer people regularly attend church. One reason for the growing conflict with the Islamic diaspora in Western Europe is that immigrants of that faith cling to older habits of religious observance, while the traditional citizens of the host society do not.

Even among secularists, though, atheism is today a hard sell. Why should this be so?


First appearing in France in the sixteenth century, the term athéisme served as an epithet to be deployed against scientists, religious doubters and critics, materialist philosophers, and others thought to represent a threat to established beliefs. The charge was almost invariably denied. And indeed, many, such as Thomas Hobbes, Baruch de Spinoza, and Denis Diderot, who were charged with being atheists, were not.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, atheism was ceasing to be a dangerous label that required denial, and was evolving into a position openly avowed by some. The first open denial of the existence of god and avowal of atheism may be that of Paul Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789) in his 1770 work, The System of Nature.

Afterwards, the French Revolution of 1789 catapulted atheistic thought into political prominence, and opened the way for the nineteenth-century movements of Rationalism, Freethought, and Liberalism. An early atheistic influence in Germany was The Essence of Christianity (1840) by Ludwig Feuerbach. He influenced other German nineteenth-century atheistic thinkers like Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In some respects atheism reached its high water mark in the nineteenth century, an aspect of the paradox noted at the outset.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the iconoclastic German philosopher, is well-known for coining the aphorism "God is dead" ("Gott ist tot"). Nietzsche held that Christian theism as a belief system had promoted an illusory system of values, which he scathingly characterized as a slave mentality. Even though this meant a venture on a journey with an unknown destination, it was best to abandon the illusion.

State support of atheism and opposition to organized religion was made policy in all communist states, including the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet Union. This commitment was, in the first instance, part of the heritage of Karl Marx. In theory and in practice these states were secular. The justifications given for the social and political repression of religious organizations addressed, on one hand, the "irrationality" of religious belief, and on the other the "parasitical" nature of the relationship between the church and the population. Up to a point churches were tolerated, but were subject to strict control.

To the dismay of some, the United States retains some theistic trappings. Its currency bears the legend "In God We Trust," and the Pledge of Allegiance now includes the words "one nation under God." While some secularists regard these affirmations as dangerous anomalies, most tolerate them as traditionalist survivals, of little practical consequence. Some American states, such as Massachusetts, retain blasphemy laws; however, these laws are rarely enforced, if at all.


Some proponents of atheism, and neutral observers as well, distinguish several major traditions. The first of these understands atheism very broadly, as including both strong atheists and weak atheists. Strong atheism, also known as hard atheism or positive atheism, is the belief that no deities exist. Weak atheism, sometimes called soft atheism, negative atheism, or neutral atheism, is the absence of belief in the existence of deities without the definite conclusion that deities do not exist. Some weak atheists hold that theism and strong atheism are equally untenable, on the grounds that faith is required both to assert and to deny the existence of deities, and as such both theism and strong atheism have the burden of proof placed on them to demonstrate that a god does or does not exist. Some also base their conviction on the notion that it is impossible to prove a negative. A difficulty with this dual typology is that weak atheism, as defined here, trenches on agnosticism, which many hold is a different matter altogether.

The second tradition understands atheism more narrowly, as the conscious rejection of theism, and does not consider absence of theistic belief or suspension of judgment concerning theism to be forms of atheism. Using this definition, "implicit atheism," lack of theism without its conscious rejection, may not qualify as atheistic at all, and the umbrella term nontheism may be used in its place. A third tradition, more common among laypeople, understands atheism even more narrowly. In this view, atheism is defined categorically as the belief that there is no God.

George H. Smith coined the terms implicit atheism and explicit atheism. Smith defines
implicit atheism as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it." Explicit atheism is defined as "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it", which, according to Smith, is sometimes called antitheism. For Smith, explicit atheism is subdivided further according to whether or not the rejection is on rational grounds. The term critical atheism is used to label the view that belief in god is irrational, and is itself subdivided into a) the view usually expressed by the statement "I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being"; b) the view usually expressed by the statement, "god does not exist" or "the existence of god is impossible"; and c) the view which "refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god" because "the concept of a god is unintelligible."

Atheism is often decried as promoting immorality. However, this contention is in dispute, and some would assert conversely that atheism, by encouraging a realistic view of the world that is free of illusions, actually makes individuals more moral. Be that as it may, these considerations have nothing to do with the plausibility, or not, of atheism as a doctrine.

Nonetheless, it has proved difficult to purge the term atheism of its aura of disparagement. One of the reasons for the popularity of euphemistic alternative terms like "secularist," "empiricist," or "bright" is that atheism still has pejorative connotations arising from attempts at suppression and from its association with the everyday perception of atheism ("godless" is still used as an abusive epithet).

Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, the originators of the term "Bright," made this position explicit in a 2003 essay:
"Our personal frustration regarding labels reached culmination last fall when we were invited to join a march on Washington as "Godless Americans." The causes of the march were worthy, and the march itself well planned and conducted. However, to unite for common interests under a disparaging term like godless (it also means "wicked") seemed ludicrous! Why accept and utilize the very derogatory language that so clearly hampers our own capacity to play a positive and contributing role in our communities and in the nation and world?"

Somewhat similarly, Gaskin abandoned the term atheism in favor of "unbelief," citing "the pejorative associations of the term, its vagueness, and later the tendency of religious apologists to define atheism so that no one could be an atheist."

Agnosticism is clearly distinct from strong atheism. A problem with the concept of weak atheism, though, is that it tends to overlap with agnosticism, disregarding the often strongly held view of agnostics that they are not atheists.

Ignosticism (a neologism) is the view that the question of whether or not deities exist is inherently meaningless. It is a view that is common among philosophers known as logical positivists. Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer held that talk of gods is literally nonsense. According to ignostics, "Does a god exist?" has the same logical status as "What color is Saturday?"; they are both nonsensical, and thus have no meaningful answers. The use of the word "god" is simply a matter of semantics to ignostics, confronting us with relatively trivial problems of word use and technicalities rather than with existence and reality. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer stated that theism, atheism, and agnosticism were equally meaningless, insofar as they treat the question of the existence of God as a real question.

Some further, perhaps scholastic definitions follow. Agnostic atheism attempts to fuse atheism or nontheism with agnosticism, the epistemological that the existence or nonexistence of deities is unknown (weak agnosticism) or unknowable (strong agnosticism).Agnostic atheism is typically contrasted with agnostic theism, the belief that deities exist even though it is impossible to know that deities exist, and with gnostic atheism, the belief that there is enough information to determine that deities do not exist.

Agnostic atheism's definition varies, just as the definitions of agnosticism and atheism do. It may be a combination of lack of theism with strong agnosticism, the view that it is impossible to know whether deities exist to any reliable degree. It may also be a combination of lack of theism with weak agnosticism, the view that there is not currently enough information to decide whether or not a deity exists, but that there may be enough in the future.

Antitheism typically refers to a direct opposition to theism. As such, it may be regarded as a form of critical strong atheism. Antitheism may sometimes overlap with ignosticism, the view that theism is inherently meaningless, and may directly contradict apatheism, the view that theism is irrelevant rather than dangerous. However, antitheism is also sometimes employed, particularly in religious contexts, to refer to opposition to God or divine things, rather than to the belief in God. Using the latter definition, it may be possible to be an antitheist without being an atheist or nontheist. Antitheists may believe that theism is actually harmful, or may simply be atheists who have little tolerance for views they perceive as irrational. Strong atheists who are not antitheists may hold positively that deities do not exist, but not regard theism as directly harmful, requiring antagonistic opposition.

Whew! Enough of that.

Ideally, to be sure, such issues should be discussed in a calm atmosphere of making distinctions and clarifications, seeking to enable the parties better able to understand one another. Many, however, are not prepared to leave the matter at that. The horror expressed towards atheists by adherents of established religions has been a constant. This point does not require further elaboration. More surprising, however, is the stance of some strong atheists, who vociferously insist on the unique truth of their own position. In this way, they mirror, perhaps unintentionally, the exclusivist fervor of their main opponents, the theists. These militant atheists tar all who do not subscribe to their views with the same brush, demanding that their opponents provide "proof." For theists that question may be appropriate. It does not apply, though, to agnostics, ignostics, and others who adopt an intermediate position—these people have nothing to prove. Rather, in my opinion, it is the militant atheist who must prove his or her stance.


The above discussion derives from several sources. Some of it (and there is much more to be said) may be regarded as hairsplitting. Despite the growth of secularism, there is still much social disapproval of atheists, especially in the United States. Hence, the effort to rebrand, as seen in the term "bright." (I note parenthetically that such attempts at label switching may be unintentionally revealing. In India, the Untouchables are now known officially as the Harijan, or "children of God," but the stigma unfortunately remains.)

Still, some contemporary defenders of atheism have sought to grasp the nettle unflinchingly, advocating some version of strong atheism, sometimes fortified by other elements, such as the evolutionary-psychology approach.

Daniel Dennett, a well-regarded contemporary philosopher, has just published a book entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett approaches the matter from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. In earlier stages of human existence, religion, though an illusion, was nonetheless functional. Today, in vastly changed socioeconomic circumstances, religion lingers as a holdover. Dennett’s hypothetico-inductive approach has not been well received. Still, if the problem of belief in gods is to be resolved, some application of historical psychology is mandatory.

In an Internet colloquy I broached the matter of why strong atheism, assuming that it is self-evidently true, still meets so much resistance. In this light a comparison with cosmology came up, as an paradigmatic instance of how older inadequate views were overthrown and replaced with correct ones. In fact the comparison of heliocentrism (the belief that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun) with atheism, proposed by an Internet colleague, points to some sobering conclusions regarding the logical status of atheism in our society. During the Middle Ages--prior to Copernicus--Dicuil and Nicolas Oresme formulated theories positing the revolution of the earth and the planets around the sun. Their conclusions, while correct, had no resonance. That is because knowledge is socially defined. After experiencing a century of great resistance, Copernicus' findings achieved consensus, indeed overwhelming consensus. The trajectory of strong atheism is not the same.The concept of the test of time is all-important. Heliocentrism passed this test long ago; strong atheism has yet to do so, despite some adepts’ peremptory assurances to the contrary. Drawing up such a historical balance sheet is not simply a matter of saying that "the doctrine with the most votes wins." Heliocentrism not only has the most votes, it is supported by every competent expert. Most importantly, the assumptions implicit in heliocentrism have proven remarkable fertile, leading to many other cosmological discoveries. Strong atheism, by contrast, does not seem to lead to anything.

One reason why conclusions in this realm are premature is the fact that we live in what is possibly the most exciting period in the entire history of physics. With string theory, multiverses and other foci of investigation, it is a period of extraordinary ebullition--and uncertainty. For that reason it is premature to don a mask of certitude regarding the ground of being of the cosmos.

Recently, and in part for the reason just mentioned, the emphasis has shifted away from the battleground of the proof/disproof of the existence of God so dear to many. The interest now is how humanity could have entertained these ideas with such tenacity. This issue is pressing whether or not the propensity is hard-wired or not (as is, mutatis mutandis, the issue of homosexuality). Any valid diachronic study of religion would have to start by forgetting about the relatively provincial, johnny-come-lately views of Abrahamic monotheism, and confront the fact that, prior to Akhnaten (d. ca. 1352 BCE), no one has ever been identified as having departed from polytheism. One must also address such perplexing issues as the near universality of such imperatives as taboo and mana (dangerous and charismatic sites), animal sacrifice, and the like.

Understanding the history of religion requires specificity. That is the reason why the hypothetico-deductive method, as espoused by Dennett, is as such inadequate. Still, it seems appropriate to try to understand the origins and appeal of religion, instead of simply denouncing it.


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