Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Atheism, New Atheism & Antitheism

Since we started this blog I have conversed with the atheist community like I have never before. That is to say: I never conversed with the atheist community before. The advent of social media has been a boon for all kinds of people to connect, but this is especially true for groups that are considered isolated. The simple ability to know that you are not alone in a sea of religion is powerful. For the most part my ideas of atheism in the past were, quite frankly, unrefined. I broke from Christianity (Lutheran) about 19 years ago when I was 15 years old (and that was not a sudden exit. I wasn’t buying it for a long time), but I did not always define myself as an “atheist.” Over these past several months I have seen an undercurrent of tension between different atheists. I suppose to some extent that is to be expected since we aren’t “joiners” and tend to be the equivalent of “herding cats” when trying to form a consensus. The tension stems from the simple question: “What is atheism?”

During a talk at the Humanist Canada/Atheist Alliance International 2010 Convention in Montreal, and subsequently on his blog Pharyngula, PZ Myers angered many atheists by stating that he can’t stand "Dictionary atheists” and that it amounts to a “superficial” and "shallow atheism."  Actually, PZ lists a couple of different things that some atheists say, but I’ll lump into the term “Dictionary atheist” since they all imply nothing more than a lack of belief in a deity is all that qualifies one to be an atheist.

The basis of PZ’s argument is that one arrives at atheism for specific reasons. There may be a litany of these reasons why one does not believe, whether they are scientific, philosophical, logical, humanist or even hero worship; however there is a reason nonetheless. This implies an atheist holds values where one actively disagrees with the positions and values of the theist. Atheism does not occur in a “vacuum” since “It's a consequence, not a cause.” Babies and those raised without religion are no more atheists than they are theists because they have not given the matter any consideration nor weighed the positive and negative values of either position. They may at some point, but until they have they made a conscious decision to believe or not to believe the definition does not apply. He also criticizes the popular atheist quotes “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings” and "I just believe in one less god than you do." His problem with these are that not all believers become violent fundamentalists in the first case and in the second case using a strict definition implies that theists are atheists as well. Just “99%” so since they reject all other gods, but their own.

In short, PZ’s position is that atheism is not a default. It cannot be simplified into a neat one sentence definition or quote that does not imply a positive value system.

Conversely, the “Dictionary atheists” fought back.  I’ll only link to one rebuttal since a) it would get out of hand otherwise and b) I thought this one was good. Vjack of Atheist Revolution counters PZ Myers with the view that Atheism does indeed refer to the absence of theistic belief. Nothing more, nothing less. Dictionary atheists agree that atheism itself does not exist in vacuum as a singular worldview, but atheists largely define themselves with multiple adjectives to address this, i.e. skeptic, humanist, naturalist, freethinker, etc. Vjack contends that atheists “do not believe” because they are skeptics and see no evidence, or because they are humanists who see religion as a poison holding humanity back. So on and so on.

So who is correct? Both of them. Neither of them.

As Vjack states they both agree on a lot - for the most part. Both sides (as defined by Vjack and PZ) see atheism as a lack of theistic belief resulting from other processes whether it is philosophy, science, humanism, etc. The obvious difference is in whether or not to lump all these “causes” into the “consequence.” For PZ, atheism encompasses all these things. He assigns the term “atheism” to represent a singular worldview based on the many components that would bring an individual to atheism. Vjack and the dictionary atheists do not agree that the term “atheism” should be used to define a singular worldview that acts as an umbrella definition for many things that run counter to belief, faith and religion. How are they both right and wrong? They are arguing over the definition and meaning of a word, but it is the wrong word.                       

The sometimes pejorative and sometimes welcome term “New Atheism” has been in use for about 5 years now. The recent rise in the success and distribution of books by atheist authors (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Stenger, etc.) as well as the explosion of atheists across the Internet has been the impetus of this term. However, is this an accurate term? Is this the term we should call ourselves?

Just about a month ago I posted a critique of a Christian apologist’s article entitled “What’s so new about the New Atheism?” I still think my points were valid in countering the apologists dismissal of the movement, however I now think that I should not have defended the term “new atheism.”  In my post I wrote:
What is new about New Atheism? Growing numbers and an unwillingness to sit quietly on the sidelines. That’s it, really. The “new atheism” has been labeled as such due to its less than accommodationist, if not openly hostile, approach. I believe this is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy by theists/religionists. The rise of fundamentalism and conservatism and their open and unjustified demonization of secular people and principles as well as fervent anti-scientific attitudes among the “faithful” have created more atheists and antitheists in recent years.  People really can see through a fence when they are close enough.  
As alluded to in my post I believe the so-called "New Atheism" is the result of theist self-fulfilling prophecy. The theists set up atheists and secularists as the cause of all that is wrong with the world. We are devils that allow homosexuality to exist and insidiously fight for homosexual's basic human rights. We speak up against theocracy and fight to enforce the separation of church and state. We use reason and the scientific method to answer natural problems. We reject a supernatural deity as the Creator. Evolution has shaped life on our planet. The universe is an infinitely complex place with laws that dictate its existence, none of which require a god to facilitate. A few decades later and here we are. What is now referred to as “New Atheism” and seen as an aggressive form of atheism is partially the result of intolerance, hate and anti-intellectualism and being used unwillingly as religion's foil. In a way theists created the new atheists.

However, new atheism is not simply an aggressive form of atheism. That is a misnomer. How can one “aggressively” not believe in something? The so-called new atheism is antitheism. The majority of the people on the Internet, writing atheist books, participating in debates with theist apologists (and atheists who defend religion), writing blogs, and arguing on social media are antitheists. We are not simply atheists who lack theistic belief. We find that belief abhorrent and a negative influence on society and humanity. Are PZ Myers, Vjack and myself atheists?  Of course. Are we antitheists? If you read any one of our three sites then the answer is also a yes.

So, atheism - defined - is the lack of belief in gods. Nice and simple. No frills. There is no inherent philosophy behind it. No creed. It does not dictate your actions or beliefs in any way. It is devoid of doctrine.

Antitheism is a subset of atheism since it already implies a lack of theistic belief. We not only lack a theistic belief; we reject it. Religion is not something to be admired. It is not “sacred,” even in a non-supernatural sense. Faith is not just an irrational basis for belief; it is abhorrent. It leads to discrimination, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, lies, abuse, corruption, hate, and war. Its perpetuation is carried out by indoctrination, false education and the sword. Most of all it is simply not true.

So can we use the term “antitheist” as the umbrella to unite us? We should, but we probably won’t. Again, we are like herding cats. Also, the term once again implies a negative. People hate that.

A recent article by Brendan O’Neill entitled Who wants to go through life defining themselves as a 'non-believer'?  he states:
But if lots of non-believers choose not to tick “No Religion”, I won’t be surprised. Why? Because people generally don’t like to define themselves negatively, by what they aren’t rather than by what they are. “No Religion” – it sounds so passive, almost identity-effacing, like “No Comment” or “No Opinion”. The majority of non-believers, of which I am one, see our non-belief in God not as the be-all and end-all of who we are, not as the thing that defines us, but simply as a choice we have made.
Greg Graffin (lead singer of Bad Religion and PhD in life sciences and paleontology at UCLA) discusses the nomenclature and “False Idol of Atheism” in his book Anarchy Evolution. He also dislikes the term “atheism” because it is defining a negative and calls himself a “Naturalist.” Others call themselves Humanists, Freethinkers, or whatever. I agree that it is not very descriptive to simply call myself "atheist" or "antitheist" as a means to define me as an individual. It’s like saying I am a “not-Republican” or a  “not-engineer.” It sounds dumb and actually does not say anything about me. I am a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, loyal friend, metalhead, complete music addict, archaeologist, slacker, martial artist, video-gamer, Leftist, social media junkie, freethinker, humanist, Irish/Welsh/German/Danish/Lithuanian/Jewish-American, etc., etc.  What single term or thing defines an individual? It is a ridiculous concept. However, I will say this: you are what others call you.

Sometimes self-definition is masturbation ("Brights" anyone? So pretentious...). This is why people in civil rights "movements" sometimes refer to themselves as the pejorative/slur that the intolerant use. Nigger, faggot, atheist. These have been appropriated or “taken back” by those that they refer to. The term “atheist” or (even better) “antitheist” may not adequately define me, at all; but it does just fine to define me to anyone who thinks that being these things are bad. I'll know who my enemy is by the way the words rolls off their tongue.

Besides, calling oneself a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. is still a singular descriptor that is supposed to encompass the individual and no one has an issue with that. Also, it could be construed as defining oneself as a “negative” since they are all based on faith and is therefore “not factual” or “not based on any evidence whatsoever.” Yeah that was a snarky comment, but it also has the benefit of being correct.

While I agree that the overall "movement" would be better to focus on ourselves while developing science and secular institutions we cannot ignore those that wish to destroy reason and dominate via religion. This is not an overstatement or hyperbole. It is the stated goal of nearly all religions, especially the Abrahamic religions. Be fruitful and multiply. This is not simply an instruction to breed. This command is restricted the followers of Yahweh and there are ways of “removing” the unbelievers.  

For every diplomatic speaker who exemplifies a forgiving, calm, generous reason and rationality (i.e. Neil deGrasse Tyson) we need the "aggressive atheist" or rather the antitheist to hold back the tide and ensure the overall rights of society are not impeded upon by the fundamentalists of religion. We are not the fundamentalist acolytes of atheism as some claim, but we counter the fundamentalists of all religions and those that wish to impose their specific brand of totalitarian religion on the whole of society.

Darwin had his Huxley. From everything I have read I can safely and humbly say that I am no Darwin. However, I feel comfortable being one of the bulldogs.