Thursday, March 22, 2012

Atheism: a couple of neglected points

In the wake of the books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, it might be thought that there is little more to be said about atheism.

Here, though, is a distinction that has rarely been noted: the difference between "cradle atheists," those raised with these convictions; versus those, probably a majority, who have adopted atheism as adults, having been previously brought up in religious households. In my experience, individuals in the latter group have a tendency to go hard core--to be "angry" and "pissed off," as a recent book has it. They also sometimes carry over aspects of their religious training, showing a missionary zeal to convert others. Some even attend quasireligious retreats, where catechisms are recited and atheist baptisms are practiced.

The cradle atheists are a mixed lot. Some may join the angries, while others just take the unbelief in stride and devote their energies to other things. Then there is a group of people who become apostates, some, like one of the sons of Madelyn Murray O'Hare, becoming fervent Christians. I confess that I was a cradle atheist, and was briefly tempted in adolescence to join the ranks of the believers. Instead I am an agnostic, a view often confused with atheism, though it is different.

Another consideration is this. Atheism, we are told, means that one is no longer burdened with useless illusions. By definition, one can then become a more effective person. Since cradle atheists have had a longer experience, they should be, on average, even more effective than those who have adopted atheism in adulthood. I don't know if there is any research on this question (even assuming, as is dubious, the point that atheists as a whole are more effective than theists).

Some atheists are simply indifferent to the God question. They consider it irrelevant and have moved on. But not all feel this way. Why are some atheists militant?

Their objection seems to be broadly cultural. In their view, theism is too influential in public life, leading to illiberal consequences. Yet the examples of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King show that religion does not always entail regressive consequences.

At all events, it seems to me that the militant atheists of this type have come to indulge in a category mistake. They confuse identifying the noxious effects of some believers in public life with the cognitive assertion of the nonexistence of God. One or both of these statements may be true, but they belong to different realms.

I have dealt at length with the negative effects of organized religion as most of us experience it at my allied site of

UPDATE (March 24)

I am told that today will see a rally of atheists and secular humanists in Washington DC, the largest in ten years, even though rain seems to be coming. Perhaps that event makes it appropriate for me to examine further a crucial discontinuity in the arguments of contemporary atheists. That discontinuity appears as we assess independently two different issues: 1) the evidence, or not, for the existence of God; and 2) the harmful effects of organized religion (especially the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the world as we know it. The mashing together of these two issues into a single purported whole is at the root of the category mistake I noted above.

The possibilities are more complex than is usually realized. Consider these four positions:

1) God exists, and he does more good than harm (the general view of Jews, Christians, and Muslims);

2) God exists, and he does more harm than good (Satanists and believers in the doctrine of the Demiurge);

3) God does not exist, yet believers in this nonexistent being do more good than harm (secular admirers of religious art and music; some ethicists);

4) God does not exist, and believers in this nonexistent being do more harm than good (most modern atheists).

Pondering this array, one can see that in addition to the usual contrast of positions one and four, there are two others.

One problem that I have with many atheists and secularists is that they seem to have very little aesthetic sensitivity. They do not have (or so it seems) any appreciation of the many beautiful settings of the Christian mass from Palestrina and Bach to Haydn and Mozart. In the visual arts, Chartres Cathedral and Michelangelo seem to hold no interest for them. They find no poetry or uplift in the Bible at all. Instead, these nonbelievers focus almost exclusively on a vast roster of injustice collecting, from the medieval inquisition and the execution of Michael Servetus to the Holocaust and the intolerance of modern evangelicals.

It takes a very steady gaze (one that I have not always achieved myself) to bring these positive and negative panoramas into a common synoptic view. But unless this synthesis is attempted, one's assessment must remain partial.


Greta Christina is a blogger popular in atheist circles. She has just published an ebook “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless” (March 18, 2012). Going straight to the point, the first chapter is entitled “A Litany of Rage,” and it offers a long list of atrocities, mainly those committed by Christians, though some Jewish and Muslim ones appear there as well.

After pondering the matter somewhat, I asked myself “what do these atrocities have to do with God?” A strange question you may say, because the one seems to follow the other as night follows day. Just a minute, though. In contrast with the combination “false belief in God + atrocities,” one might posit, as some Satanists and believers in the Demiurge seem to do, that indeed God exists, but he delights in tormenting humanity. Conversely, one might say that of course God does not exist, but the illusion generates as much good as harm, as seen in major contributions to social change (think Martin Luther King) and the vast profusion of religiously inspired works of painting, architecture, and music. (Apart from Richard Dawkins, most of the current crop of atheists seem deficient in the realm of aesthetic response.)

My sense is that in works like that of Greta Christina, we are confronted with a category mistake, in which by a kind of sleight of hand attention shifts from the cognitive issue of whether God exists to the cultural and historical questions pertinent to the behavior of believers.

In terms of the history of ideas, these are indeed two separate discourses. The first began with Anselm’s Ontological Proof of the existence of God, first enounced about 1078. As far as I can tell, this preoccupation with such proofs is a specialty of Western Christendom during the last millennium. It has no real counterpart in Eastern Christianity, Judaism, or Islam--not to mention Buddhism and Hinduism.

The second discourse starts much later, with such 18th-century Enlightenment figures as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, who hoped to prepare the way for a better society by exposing the mass of error and superstition that they believed Christianity had engendered. Voltaire and Gibbon were not atheists, but deists.

In my view, writers like Greta Christina do a disservice by simply fusing these two discourses. To be sure, Christina has some well taken complaints that are very contemporary: that atheists find it hard to get their organizations recognized in the military and in schools, that in some cases parents can find the custody of their children threatened because of their beliefs, that substantial majorities of voter say that they would never vote for an atheist.

This complaints, which are legitimate, indicate that atheists need to organize to achieve equality. Here they should take a lesson from the gay and lesbian movement, where the appeal is to all persons of good will to recognize the need for equality. Despite claims to the contrary gay men and lesbians never sought to “convert” straights to homosexuality. All too often, however, atheists come across as proselytizers, viewing the conversion of the majority of theists as essential to the achievement of their rights. This perception does not help their cause.

I would be perfectly OK if the level of religious observance in the US would plummet to the level that it has sunk to in Western Europe (even though this is unlikely). Couldn't militant atheists, though, profit from attending to the Rodney King principle: "Can't we all just get along?" Instead, they seem to insist on trying to dislodge theists from their faith. In this way, they are imitating the more hardcore religionists themselves, who insist that we all should be believers.

Some should, if they wish, be believers; others, if they wish, should be nonbelievers. But it is time for a moratorium on efforts on either side to pulverize the other.



Blogger Burk said...

Thanks for a senstive exposition of the phenomenon.

I agree that atheists tend to be pissed off not because others have dubious beliefs, but because those beliefs lead to harm, political coercion, etc.

Can one argue with religious people about the derivative harms? Typically not. Gay marriage is bad because the big guy says it is, end of discussion. Trying to get into scriptural exegesis on these questions is a mug's game, since scripture is Rorschachian projection, more than an external prescription.

So the best way to call all the crap into question is to attack it root and branch. Is that "militant"? Is it rude, aggressive, and "arrogant"? You bet. But taking the clothes from the emperor takes a bit of effrontery, which has been effective in weakening the religious presumptions in the US. The bizzarre counter-refomation of the Catholic hierarchy and the GOP during this campaign season speaks for itself.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Dinh said...

The reasons for which atheists feel anger is myriad, but usually lead to some sort of perceived harm done to humanity as a whole.

I myself, am most interested in human empowerment. I'd like to see grow the list of things that people may know or do. Religion, as argued by many others, endorses willful ignorance whenever knowledge clashes with scripture. The inherent authoritarian nature of supernatural belief is dangerous.

Let me tell you how I see the religious.

Let's pretend there are a bunch of people who die and they all go to heaven. Some were atheists, some were followers of the Abrahamic religions. The atheists start panicking. They believe they are going to fall through the clouds and plummet to their spiritual deaths. Given that it is the afterlife, and there doesn't seem to exists gravity, don't they seem odd? Now, let us suppose they start butchering the souls of others (let's just pretend you can do that to souls, this is the afterlife after all, nothing has to make sense!) to salvage material with which to fashion wings. After all, we need something to generate lift. I suppose soul-stuff would be pretty sturdy? The atheists would be rightfully considered absurd to make judgements based on beliefs that aren't congruent with the reality at hand. They're trying to apply natural rules to the supernatural. That situation, in reverse, is how a believer acts in a natural world. They're trying to make judgements based on a supernatural view when they're in a natural environment.

10:41 AM  

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