A- still does not imply Anti-


Freddie deBoer used to blog at lhote.blogspot.com, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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131 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    I don’t tend to see them as “atheists” but “post-Christians”. It’s the next step in the same busybody progressive protestantism that brought us Alcohol Prohibition.

    It isn’t enough that they don’t do these particular things. It’s a moral travesty that there are others in the world who do and, damn it, they will take up their cross and bring Christ to the Heathen because it’s the Right Thing To Do.Report

  2. zic says:

    Very nice, Freddie. I like your description of the emptiness of atheism.

    It’s an emptiness that living, observing, and learning fills with wonder and appreciation, that very feeling I think most people think of a spiritual.Report

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    This makes me outraged, Freddie.Report

  4. Good stuff. Very good stuff.Report

  5. John Howard Griffin says:

    “I find that the existence or nonexistence of God is utterly irrelevant to the question of how atheists should treat the religious.”

    Are you saying that this is just your view or that this is the view that all atheists should (must?) follow?Report

    • It’s what I think. I think it would be better, in some sense, if more atheists felt the same way.Report

      • John Howard Griffin in reply to Freddie says:

        I’m trying to follow along here. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it looks like this (to me):

        You have a certain view that “the existence or nonexistence of God is utterly irrelevant to the question of how atheists should treat the religious” and you talk about that view publicly by writing an article about it (among other things), with at least some of the purpose being to convince other atheists that they should feel the same way.Report

        • Sure. I’m not sure how this is different from any other thing I’ve written about, or from what people write about generally. I don’t think anyone “must” think anything.Report

          • John Howard Griffin in reply to Freddie says:

            No, it’s not at all different, nor do I think you are advocating that anyone “must” think anything.

            But, still, there are some similarities between your article trying to convince a group of people to think something and Dawkins interviews/books/articles trying to convince a group of people to think something. If Dawkins, et al, are really anti-theists (as you argue), then perhaps you are really an anti-anti-theist. However, both you and Dawkins are still atheists, regardless of the additional labels.Report

            • I see what you’re saying.

              What would you say, given his output, is his chief concern? Being without God? Or opposing the idea of God?Report

              • John Howard Griffin in reply to Freddie says:

                Oh, Dawkins is an activist first and an atheist second, I think (similar to evangelists of other stripes). I do not wish to tar you with the same (or even a similar) brush.

                Your disagreement with Dawkins using the atheist label seems to come from the view that it is a disservice to atheism to mislabel it in this way. I agree, and he should use both terms (atheist and anti-theist) to explain the differences. Yet, I still can’t shake the point of similarity that both you and Dawkins are A- and Anti-.Report

              • That’s true– there is a basic agreement between us that I shouldn’t ignore, or hide.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    The big questions that I, as an atheist, struggle with are “Are there Moral Imperatives?” and “If so, What Are They?”

    In a nutshell, the answer I came to was something to the effect of “pretend that there is a God worth worshipping” and “try to make Him happy”. (Well, actually, I put together something (I flatter myself with thinking that it is) much more robust and called it a vector morality but if I had a nutshell, it’d be that.)

    Freddie, you seem to have a host of Moral Imperatives that seem to extend into Positive Morality territory (not merely “thou ought not” but “thou ought”)… where do those things come from?Report

    • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:

      The ebb and flood of human life.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

        Could you elaborate?Report

        • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:

          If the question is whether I have any non-contingent or “true” basis for what I find moral, the answer is no. “Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.” But when you abandon the idea that anyone has a non-contingent access to what is moral or correct, and you presuppose that any moral position is contingent, your own contingent positions are no less valid for being contingent.

          I live my life and in the prosecution of doing so I come to view the world in a certain way and I come to think that certain things would be better, more useful, for most of us, and so I advocate them.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

            I totally understand “I have looked at the world and these are the conclusions I’ve reached”. Hell, I even understand the whole “this works for me, it might work for you thing”. Indeed, I even understand the whole “the following things are Good, the following things are Evil” impulse. (The vector essay!)

            I’m just wondering if you’ve put your finger on where these things come from. If so, what is it?Report

            • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

              My answer would be from man.

              But then think ‘god’ is one of man’s greatest creations, a framework for social groups to discuss moral imperatives, develop a consensus, and reinforce that consensus through generations.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to zic says:

                What about man? Merely his ability to say “this” therefore this?Report

              • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

                His ability, through the art of story, to maintain a social consensus of morality beyond any individual’s term of direct influence on the social group (in other words, beyond any individual’s lifetime).Report

              • Jaybird in reply to zic says:

                Call me a deontologist, but “social consensus of morality” strikes me as an oxymoron.Report

              • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, I’m no deontologist, so perhaps you’re right. But wouldn’t our civil rights battles including suffrage, racial equality and ending slavery, or marriage equality be settled by wise old wasps in their ivory towers? Aren’t these modern-day examples of changing moral values driven by changing social consensus? You know, it’s wrong to own other humans; wrong to treat woman as second-class citizens, wrong to deny gays the right to marry the partner of their choice?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                If social consensus defines morality, there is a point at which it was not wrong to own another human being and perhaps there will be a point in the future where, once again, it won’t be wrong.

                This strikes me as patently incorrect.Report

              • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

                What is religion, if not a form of social consensus, handed down through generations? An atheist might still ask, “why,” or “what’s right,” and might still agree to the morals of a theist, still participate in social events like weddings and funerals and Christmas parties and Passover dinners.

                As you suggest, what we agree today is ‘moral,’ may be immoral tomorrow, though I hope we don’t regress on slavery. But this suggests that the critical thing is change over time. That it’s a process for organizing collective thinking on questions of why, good, evil, and infinity. The notion is only ‘patently incorrect,’ is if morality is fixed, and isn’t.

                When I was a child, it was okay to pour used motor oil on the ground; my dad used it on the dirt road in that bisected his farm to keep the dust down. Now, it would be immoral because it’s violation of our environmental laws. That’s changing morality. Many of my evangelical friends think it’s immoral based on their view of Christianity and the sacredness of the earth. My environmental friends hold the same view — that it’s immoral and a sacred earth they want to pass on to future generations — though most wouldn’t attribute it to a religious belief. That changing view is the ‘ moral consensus’ part of the process.

                And it’s a view of man, not of some outside source. In another 500 years, should civilization last that long, I’m sure the moral of not pouring motor oil on the ground may well take on religious tones, as I already see in some of my evangelical friends.

                Turning this back to Freddie’s discussion, I’d suggest the ‘a’ is comfortable with letting religious belief shape the process; the ‘anti’ isn’t.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Oh, I know that *RELIGION* is a social consensus.

                I just don’t know that “morality” and “religion” have anything close to a 1:1 relationship going on.

                I also suspect that owning slaves was wrong even when nobody knew it was wrong. (Note: There were probably people who *DID* know it was wrong at the time, but they probably didn’t have a whole lot of political power.)Report

              • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, I’m still hoping we’ll decide that canola oil’s a sin.

                I agree, there’s no 1:1 relationship. There never is with biological processes, they work in analog, not binary. But that is the initial point, “god” is a creation of man, improvised by man’s ongoing search for social consensus on unanswerable questions. The many other uses man has made of his creation still exist, and morality frequently has nothing to do with those uses and much to say about them.

                But what do I know, I’m just an atheist who’s happy to condemn religion to the dustbin of outdated biological functions, and thus obviously lacking a moral compass.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Hey, I’m not saying you’re lacking a moral compass. Your moral compass points in the direction that most folks’ compass points in.

                Had you been born 300 years ago, your compass would have pointed in a different direction.

                And if you were going to be born in 300 years, you could look back at your current moral compass and say something to the effect of “that poor, poor, ignorant person… he thought that it was appropriate to have rain gutters on his house.” (or whatever… surely 300 years from now something that you consider not even worth thinking about will be considered something that only backwards hillbillies would even consider defending in theory.)

                I take the tack that there might, in fact, be a moral fabric to the universe. It becomes very, very important to me that I know of what it consists.Report

              • Bob in reply to Jaybird says:

                “Most ancient writers considered slavery not only natural but necessary, but some isolated debate began to appear, notably in Socratic dialogues while the Stoics produced the first condemnation of slavery recorded in history.”


              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Huh. Those wacky Greeks. Next you’ll tell me that some of them didn’t believe in protecting traditional marriage!Report

              • Bob in reply to Jaybird says:

                Those Greeks may have had some different ideas regarding traditional marriage, getting some on the side. I’ll check Wiki and let you know.Report

  7. North says:

    Good article. I’m a little surprised though, your writing and thinking processes seem to me to believe is so many things so very emphatically that I always assumed you were a believer faith wise. Where does agnosticism lie in the definitions you lay out?Report

  8. EngineerScotty says:

    Perhaps, rather than trying to coin a new word, we should simply speak of fundamentalist atheism, or evangelical atheism, for those folks who can’t let a day pass without telling believers what utter idiots they believe them to be?Report

    • EngineerScotty in reply to EngineerScotty says:

      Reflecting further–why do Dawkins et al command so much media attention in the first place? There are numerous others who take extreme positions on religion and theology who the media pretty much ignores–sedevacantists, for instance (Mel Gibson nonwithstanding). Yet like clockwork, somebody shoves microphones into the faces of guys like Dawkins, and what happens? The Christianist base gets all hot and bothered, thinking that Richard Dawkins is gonna swoop down and close their churches and re-indoctrinate their children, when in reality, his actual contribution to US polity is pretty minimal.

      Actually, I think I just answered my own question.Report

  9. Bob Cheeks says:

    “If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.”
    The truth of man is revealed in historicism ?
    I liked this, Freddie. but my argument would be that the derailment is as it always is in the refusal to grasp the significance of the tension. That is the failure to see the relationship between Reason (nous) and existence in openness to the ground. And, once we embrace the closure of existence (obstruct openness) we are engaged in a existential disorder by the closing of the ground of reality.
    What man is, the truth of man, was known one hundred years before the classic philosophers.Report

  10. I dislike being a foot soldier. I cannot work my mind to the headspace necessary

    If your heart’s not in it, you’re unarmed.Report

  11. ThatPirateGuy says:

    What preciesly are the anti-theists doing that is beyond the pale?(not counting random internet yahoos, you can always find one of those to shock yourself on any topic.)

    All I can see is criticism of someone elses ideas with some occasional harsh language . I look forward to better understanding where you are coming from.Report

    • Freddie in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

      I’m afraid that I don’t follow you. I didn’t say that they were beyond the pale; I said that they were appropriating a term that is not well-suited to their ends.

      As far as my divide with antitheism goes, I’ve written about it at length before. I don’t think that the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a God means that we should denigrate those who believe that there is. I also think that, on the level of manners and tolerance, it’s better when people allow others to observe their own religious beliefs without derision, while in no way backing down from the belief that church and state should be absolutely separate. Here’s a fairly overheated by accurate summation of my views on the topic.


      I don’t think there’s a God, but prudence and friendliness tells me that this is insufficient cause to insult anyone who does.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

        You may find that they lack common courtesy, but that doesn’t give you the right to dictate that they label or describe themselves one way and not another. Would you welcome such a controlling dictum from another person who felt that you were pursuing a cause of yours in a way they didn’t want to be associated? The mere fact that you may agree with others on a substantive point doesn’t mean you have to be associated with all their tactics, and it certainly doesn’t give proprietary rights over parts of the language. The fact is these people may be antitheists, but they are most certainly atheists. You should condemn their excess all you like, but that is fact you have to accept.Report

    • North in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

      What are they doing? They’re calling themselves athiests, which is slightly inaccurate and lets them paint normal indifferent athiests with their rather rather agressive and evangalitical brush.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to North says:

        Not unlike what fundamentalists do when they appropriate the word “Christian”, implying that to be religious is to believe that anything that contradicts their particular literal reading of the Bible is false and in fact evil. I’d be pleased if the Dobsons and Dawkinses would go off and fight a cage match somewhere, leaving the rest of us to respectfully disagree with each other.Report

  12. Bob says:

    “…but give us back our word.”

    WTF? As best I can tell “atheist” is still acceptable, even preferable.

    Mountain — molehill.Report

  13. Herb says:

    I think you’re splitting hairs here, Freddie. Any difference between atheism and anti-theism, as you describe it, seems incredibly minor, more a question of volume and intensity than philosophical disagreement. So you’re not writing books on the subject of atheism and giving interviews to sell it. This does not make you an arbiter of the “true” atheism and Dawkins a cheap hawker of semi-religious snake oil.

    It’s also useful to consider the context which brought us Dawkins and, though they’re not mentioned here, Sam Harris and PZ Meyers. If we hadn’t been attacked by religious extremists on 9-11, Sam Harris’s book probably wouldn’t have made it out of the slush pile. If there wasn’t this “war on science” thing going on, Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers probably would have contented themselves writing on science, not dipping their toes into the religion mess.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Herb says:

      I’m sorry, but this is not correct. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris have as their explicit goal the end of religion. There is a positive value in antitheism towards the elimination of religion. This is not the case in atheism.Report

  14. Bob says:

    “But there is an elementary consonance between evangelist religion and evangelist antitheism that I find inarguable, that both insist that their adherents have duties and responsibilities that are a product of their theological stance.”

    As you say just prior to the quote above you find such thinking lazy, yet you engage in said thinking without offering one quote from Dawkins or any of the so called “new atheists” to backup your assertion they are imposing? suggesting? “duties and responsibilities” on their congregations. Where is the Atheist Bible, or the Atheist Catechism, what is it that we atheists are to take on faith? What is our “theology”?

    I’m surprised that you parrot this meme. It is common to read such criticism coming from the right and the religious. It’s silly when they assert it, it’s sad when you assert it.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Bob says:

      Consider, say, this interview with Sam Harris.


      • Bob in reply to Freddie says:

        I just viewed the video with Harris and Maher, I had seen it before. I really don’t see how anything Harris said supports your view. He says early on that atheism has “no content.” So where does Harris put forth any
        “duties and responsibilities?”Report

        • Freddie in reply to Bob says:

          Ahem. “Religion has been the only game in town, and we need to overcome it.” “And we will.”

          Bob, listen, I’m willing to have a sympathetic viewpoint of these people. But I really feel like you’re being deliberately ignorant of the content of many of their books and interviews. You can’t have read “The God Delusion” or “God is Not Great” without having read Dawkins and Hitchens explicitly and unapologetically endorsing a goal of ending religion as we know it, and certainly of ending them as a majority phenomenon. You’re being a little too cute about the basic content of these people’s commentary.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

            Even if they said that they would like to see religious belief pass from the Earth (I don’t have each of those books committed to memory, so I can’t prove to you what isn’t in them, but I would be very surprised if any call for the end of religion therein were anything other than the expressed hope that through dialogue and discussion people’s individual outlooks would evolve away from belief in what the authors view as false), that does not mean they are trying to conscript you into an anti-theistic army for their new holy war.Report

  15. Herb says:

    Then I guess I don’t get the distinction you’re making between these heretical atheists (or anti-theists, as you call them) and the pious atheists like yourself. I haven’t read the books by Hitchens or Dawkins, but I have read Harris’s book and the guy is more of a Buddhist (so I think he knows a thing or two about this glorious emptiness you’re talking about) and he doesn’t seek the end of religion. He seeks the end of religion based on FALSE PREMISES. I suspect that Dawkins, with his neuroscience background, would have no problems with a SCIENTIFIC God. (He may be militant, but has he shown an aversion to verifiable evidence? Not that I have seen. Have the Creationists? Oh yeah, big time.)

    In fact, I’d wager that if Jesus (or Odin or any other vaguely divine figure) descended from the clouds and said to any of these anti-theists, “I am the Lord,” then every single one of them would fall to their knees and change their name to Paul the Evangelist.

    But you’d have me believe they would shake their head and say, “Sorry, God, but I’m trying to end this religion stuff…” I’m not buying it.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Herb says:

      No, that’s not what I would have you believe. I wouldn’t have you believe anything. What I am saying is that there appears to me to be a logical turn that is taken by contemporary atheism as natural and inevitable when in fact it is not– that the lack of belief in a concept or entity leads one to convince others that the concept or entity does not exist. I don’t believe in Santa Claus; this lack of belief does not in any sense compel me to eradicate that belief in others.

      That is not to say that it is illegitimate for people to try to eradicate belief in things that they don’t believe in, and I have not said that it is illegitimate. I have said, though, that the assumption that one leads to the other is not logically or philosophically sound. I have also said that we have a prefix “a-“, and a prefix “anti-“, and that they conventionally have different meanings, and that in the interests of consistency and mutual intelligibility we should preserve those meanings.Report

      • Bob in reply to Freddie says:

        “…as natural and inevitable….”

        I really doubt that any atheist, and certainly not Dawkins, would agree with “natural” and “inevitable.”

        Dawkins and evolution reject any sort of design or designer. Perhaps the only thing Dawkins would agree is invitable is change.Report

        • Freddie in reply to Bob says:

          You’re being coy, Bob, and I don’t think it is fair or beneficial to elide a metaphysical sense of inevitability in the physical world with my use of inevitable in a logical arena. Dawkins and Dennet most certainly invoke the terminology of inevitability when they talk about what they see as the logical and philosophical underpinnings of knowledge that lead them to antitheism.

          Consult “The God Delusion”. There is no doubt that Dawkins considers a lack of belief in God to lead to a desire to end that belief. That’s a logical move that is in fact neither certain nor inevitable, which I see you have not bothered to dispute.Report

          • Bob in reply to Freddie says:

            Am I being coy by sending a link to the definition of coy?


          • Bob in reply to Freddie says:

            “Consult ‘The God Delusion’. There is no doubt that Dawkins considers a lack of belief in God to lead to a desire to end that belief. That’s a logical move that is in fact neither certain nor inevitable, which I see you have not bothered to dispute.”

            Again, Freddie, you point but do not provide any substance as to what you say Dawkins is saying. I read “God Delusion” when it was published and I do not recall anything in there that remotely supports your original assertion equating atheism with religion as to dogma or “theology.”

            I think you are avoiding my questions. As I said above, the video link you provided did not answer the questions I asked.Report

      • Herb in reply to Freddie says:

        Fair enough. Again, though, I go back to Sam Harris and the point of his book “The End of Faith.”

        Take your example:
        “I don’t believe in Santa Claus; this lack of belief does not in any sense compel me to eradicate that belief in others.”

        When we’re talking about something as benign as Santa Claus, true, there is no compulsion to eradicate this erroneous belief. But what if the belief is “blowing yourself up in a crowd of infidels gets you into heaven?”

        Should we not feel compelled to eradicate this belief?

        As to the proper application of Latin pre-fixes…okay. In addition, I propose we go back to the Latin definition of “faith,” fidelis, which was more like loyalty (in this case, a particular doctrine) rather than its current definition: “believing in things without evidence.”Report

  16. Michael Drew says:

    This piece invents a perjorative term and applies it like a scarlet letter to certain intellectual activists, while also purporting to deny those peoples’ right to the use of a general term describing a particular belief of theirs. I almost wouldn’t be able to believe what I’ve just read, if this were not such a common tactic these days. This argument evinces what should be a disturbing authoritarian impulse that I hope you seriously examine and reconsider.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Also, I realize your view is that “it’s always the same,” so you can simply refer to all the other times when Richard Dawkins has called for the extermination of religion and the belief in God, but I defy you to provide one quote in the interview you link that could conceivably be rightly described as anti-theistic.Report

  17. Michael Drew says:

    FWIW, the definition I get when I plug “antitheist” into dictionary.com is “a disbeliever in the existence of God.”Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      websters-online-dictionary.org, too.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Anti-theism carries connotations, for me, that atheist doesn’t necessarily.

      An anti-theist is someone who is actively bothered by the idea that someone else would believe in God. They enjoy quoting David Hume to Focus on the Family types.

      “Atheist” doesn’t necessarily carry this connotation. It’s merely someone who does not believe in a theos.

      Or, in brackets, (athe(ism)) vs. (a(theism)).Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

        If you want to be in the business of imposing common-noun labels on others against (or at least regardless of) their will — ie be the language police — then the real meanings of those words are pretty germane.

        None of which changes the even more central point that however much Freddie doesn’t like their project, these people are not not atheists. They are atheists engaged in a project of which Freddie, also an atheist wants no part. Freddie should oppose the project on the merits if he wishes but should not employ misbegotten semantic sophistry to police the use of a term of general meaning.

        This does not of course mean he can’t himself call them antitheists; merely that he can’t demand they ‘give him back’ the rightful use of a term that objectively and obviously applies to them.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Oh, I’m down for the whole “meaning is use” thing when it comes to language.

          I just think that the more words we have that make more distinctions, the better. I daydream about people knowing exactly what I mean when they read a sentence of mine.

          It strikes me that thinking otherwise would be double-plus-ungood.

          That said, I am down with people calling themselves whatever they’d like. That’s probably how they see themselves. I, however, am allowed to come to different conclusions (see, for example, people who categorize themselves as “protecting traditional marriage”).Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

            When one is fighting about precise use of words, as Freddie began doing here using a completely broken distinction, meaning is not use. Otherwise, we are just fighting in dark with no rules. As I say, Freddie can call anyone anything he wants by the meaning-is-use standard, but he can’t then turn around and say that others are somehow objectively using words wrong by an objective standard. Especially when he is wrong about that standard wrt those words.

            In other words, if you’re in a group of people who are jointly trying to get to the heart of some problem, then absolutely make up words and meanings and use them all day. But if you instead want to hurl epithets over the wall at the other group, and especially if you’re going to do it from a position of ostensible authority on right use of language, then you well better be right about the language you’re correcting, Freddie is comically wrong.

            Otherwise, there’s always the option to just go with clearly coined names of your own devising (ie perhaps ‘Antitheists’ rather than ‘antitheists’).Report

            • Freddie in reply to Michael Drew says:

              Look, I’m not going to bother to talk to you, because you insisted on announcing yourself as a child who is unready and unwilling to engage in the spirit of honest disagreement. But here’s a memo for you: when I say that there are a group of people who try to enforce a certain definition of what a lack of belief in God entails, and then I present my own vision, and you respond by flipping out and shrieking like a child, you are demonstrating my point. Your supreme sensitivity to anyone challenging your vision of what atheism entails is precisely the attitude that you are trying to argue doesn’t exist.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

                Yeah, that’ll help.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

                I`m pretty sure you just deviated from any semblance of civility, whereas I`m damn sure I did not and have not.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

                But to address your continued distortions, no one believes atheism is defined to include or necessarily entails these efforts you want to resist. I certainly don’t. Jaybird says it well: some atheists have this project of ridding the world of religion; others don’t. I’m fine with preserving the distinction between those groups. But that doesn’t mean words mean what you want them to. If a person believes there is no God, she is an atheist. And she is also an antitheist, by the definitions I have seen. Resist the project you wish to resist to the end of your days, please. But don’t arrogate yourself to head of the atheism division of the language police, especially if you’re going to muck the job up as badly as you did here.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

              Freddie, surely, can defend himself. Or attack on his own behalf instead. Whatever.

              I think it’s more interesting to defend the distinction between atheist and antitheist as a meaningful one.

              I mean, there are people who are atheists because they’ve never thought about it and don’t give a crap. There are people who are atheists because they have thought about it and came to the conclusion that the Christian God popularized by Evangelical Christianity is a lot like Santa Claus and merely don’t believe in the Christian God in the same way that they don’t believe in Santa Claus (and it doesn’t occur to them that there might be other (capital ‘G’ or lowercase ‘g’)ods that they could believe in). There are some people who are atheists because they are monists. There are some people who are atheists because they see theism as actively malignant and something that ought to be eliminated and evangelizing one’s atheism becomes a moral imperative for this type of atheist.

              This last of the four types (in *NO* way an exhaustive list) of atheists strikes me as meaningfully described as “antitheist” while the other three types aren’t.

              Hell, there are variants of religious belief that I find toxic and I think the world would be better off without it (Wahabbism, for example). Does this make me anti-theist? I’m down with the Sufis! Most Christianity in America strikes me as “mostly harmless for the most part”… but there are corners without which I suspect the world would be better. (For the record, I’m pretty sure that most on this board would agree.)

              But “anti-theist” wouldn’t be a good term for that, would it?

              But there are people for whom “anti-theist” is an apt label. I’ll defend it as a useful term.Report

              • matoko_chan in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m down with the Sufis!

                May I helpfully suggest that you know less than zero about sufism?
                Sufism is not Islam-lite……….it is Islam-extreme.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to matoko_chan says:

                Hello, Matoko!

                I was under the impression that Sufism is a variant of Islam that is not one without which the world would be better.

                Am I mistaken?Report

              • Cascadian in reply to Jaybird says:

                Can I be intrigued by Spinoza’s metaphysics, take my morals from Dionysus, Aphrodite and Pan, allow for Christians in the South and Islam in Pakistan and still escape the antitheist label (as if I actually care)? Or, do I just end up in the nihilist camp?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Cascadian says:

                Do whatever you want, my man.

                I ain’t gonna tell you how to live.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Cascadian says:

                “Atheist” is one of those wacky terms, though. It dates back to the time when the Greeks were running around. They used it to mean “people who don’t believe in *OUR* Gods”… whether or not they had their own.

                It got hammered out that precision demanded that the term be used only on those folks who were, seriously, without gods.

                I mean, sure. None of us on this board believe in Zeus or Thor or Brahma. The old joke to use against monotheists is “we’re all atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do”.

                But that’s not exactly fair either, is it?

                It seems to me that people who profess to atheism are far more likely to see something like community in atheism (e.g., “I’m an atheist too!” as opposed to “I’m not a theist either!”) which makes me wonder what is really going on here.

                I’m sure you’ve encountered someone who has said something to the effect of “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” with reference to their religion. I’ve no doubt that it was said sincerely.

                It makes me wonder if this new atheism that is going around isn’t pulling some of the same crap with their newer, smaller, plausibly denied “gods”.Report

              • Cascadian in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m having a hard time following this post, (might be cause I’m home sick). If what you’re suggesting that atheism might be reaching a critical mass where people are relating on at least aesthetic (nihilist?) grounds, I’d have to agree. Then, again, it might just be that people have had enough of the extremists and too little self correction from the supposed breadth of moderate practitioners. Did you catch Scalia’s cross argument recently?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Cascadian says:

                What I am suggesting is that American Protestantism is undergoing another, for lack of a better word, “Reformation”. I am suggesting an Atheist Reformation that will result in “the next step”.

                It’ll be post-Christian but all of the greatest hits will still show up. “You need to change your life and if you don’t we’ll pass laws to make sure that you do and it’ll be for your own good and you will thank us.”

                “Then, again, it might just be that people have had enough of the extremists”

                People have had enough of the old extremists. They’re champing at the bit to run with the new ones.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

              (And, in my experience, online dictionaries tend to be more appropriate for Scrabble than for philosophical discussion.)Report

              • matoko_chan in reply to Jaybird says:

                then take your own advice and stfu about sufism.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to matoko_chan says:

                Ah, an opportunity to tell a story. (I love these!)

                Back in the days of my yute (I don’t recall the exact date but I want to say that it must have been between 1994 and 1996), I was in the middle of what I had described at the time as my “Superatheist” phase (but, really, was just pushing the boundaries of my post-Christian anti-theism).

                Here in town, the local free rag had announced a “Freethinkers Meeting” and, wow! I was a Freethinker! I needed to go to this thing, I tell you what. After all, it was for Freethinkers.

                Anyway, we had a “lecture” (which was indistinguishable from a sermon, if you ask me) about how great it was to be unshackled from the bounds of theism and it was full of anecdotes from the speaker in which his grandmother was mocked for being a theist who had silly views.

                Not being anywhere near as enlightened as I ought to have been, I was sitting there thinking “this (redacted) is mocking his gramma in front of a group of strangers”.

                I was turned off, to say the least.

                Anyway, afterwards we had cookies and fellowship and a couple of Muslims from the local hippie college came up to witness to me. One was 6’2″, between the ages of 24 and 27, barrel-chested, Arab, full beard, white shirt, white pants, and you just thought “dang, that’s a big guy”. His associate was a 5’8″, Caucasian, slight, polo and jeans, looked like he would have fit in perfectly at a Unitarian Service, between the ages of 23 and 25. They tried to explain to me that my embrace of atheism completely misunderstood my own Nature. They asked me about the nature of my heart, they asked me about the nature of my kidneys, they then (HERE’S THE BIG FINISH!!!) asked me about the nature of my *SOUL*.

                Well, they were floored when they found out that I was a materialist.

                I started asking them about their faith (a favorite tactic against Christians) and we started discussing the five pillars.

                When I got to the one about saying the affirmation that “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet”, the big guy clenched the fist on one hand, put the index finger of the other hand into my face and told me, in no uncertain words, to never say the name of his Prophet ever again.

                That’s the story that your post here reminded me of.Report

  18. Jaybird says:

    The provenance of Morality question is one that I find eternally fascinating.

    I mean, I’m pretty sure that everybody on this board would agree that there are Matters of Taste and Matters of Morality (well, the nihilists might argue that there are only Matters of Taste… but bear with me).

    The issues of why to categorize this or that as a Matter of Morality and that other thing as a Matter of Taste is where the *MEAT* is.

    Homosexuality is a fun place to start. We’ve got Leviticus 20:13 over here and Olivier’s speech regarding oysters vs. snails over here (wow! of course it’s online!!! http://video.aol.ca/video-detail/spartacus-1960-film-oysters-and-snails-clip/72057638329036785/?icid=VIDURVENT06 )

    Good, honest, progressive folk like us know that Olivier is right.

    That said, there *ARE* areas where even good, honest, progressive folk like us say “oh, this is totally a matter of Morality”.

    I’m always interested in finding out what standards they’re using and why those as opposed to these. It strikes me that we are all Deontologists (unless, of course, we are nihilists).

    “What are the rules?”
    “How did they get there?”

    Those are the two questions I want to see answered.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      To bring us back around, I always find it the most interesting when atheists (and, specifically, anti-theists) answer those two questions. Most theists can answer “God” to the second question which makes the answer to the first question strangely irrelevant (Leviticus 20:13).

      It’s when the non-nihilist atheists (and, especially, anti-theists) start answering (or avoiding) those questions that gives a great deal of interesting discussion fodder.

      In my experience, anti-theists are indistinguishable from rival theists when it comes to the vehemence with which they attack/defend Matters of Taste/Morality. Non-anti-theist atheists tend (TEND!!!) to be distinguishable (more members of the set ‘Matters of Taste’ rather than (seriously, quite minor) reshuffling between the two sets).Report

      • Murali in reply to Jaybird says:

        Theists dont have to be divine command theorists either. I mean it becomes if morality is a matter of logic, then if logic holds regardless of God, so does morality. Atheists shouldn’t have a problem here. If morality is such that it is a more divine dependent part of the fabric of the universe (whether it be because logic depends on God or because morality is more than mere logic), atheists don’t have a particular problem there either. They are already satisfied with an explanation of the physical world without recourse to God as an account of origins. Why should they look for any special account for the origin of morality?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

          “Why should they look for any special account for the origin of morality?”

          Well, from my perspective, it seems to me that morality existing independently of perspective would provide an “ought”.

          Everything else, it seems to me, would be a “because I said so” form of morality (which immediately invites the question “so friggin’ what?”).Report

          • kenB in reply to Jaybird says:

            Well, even if there is a Big Book O’Morals out there somewhere, it’s inaccessible to us, so in effect everything *is* a “because I said so” morality. Except that in many cases we can avoid coercion by applying moral reasoning to shared (though unproven) fundamental beliefs.

            When we do decide to coerce, it’s essentially because certain of our normative beliefs are so important to us that we’re willing to hold others to them even when they disagree. Notions of an absolute morality are just rationalizations.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to kenB says:

              “it’s essentially because certain of our normative beliefs are so important to us that we’re willing to hold others to them even when they disagree.”

              Do you see how someone, in theory, might be less than impressed with how important your beliefs are to you?Report

              • kenB in reply to Jaybird says:

                Of course. But simply claiming with no evidence that my own beliefs are written into the fabric of the universe doesn’t seem any better, if the object of my coercion doesn’t agree.

                If we all acknowledged the absence of a universal standard, perhaps it’d make us a little more careful when deciding to force unwilling others to follow our rules.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to kenB says:

                An opportunity to pimp an essay I wrote on the provenance of morality!


                Yeah. I suspect that there is an underlying moral framework (or, at least, I hope there is). That’s what I came up with for what it might look like in the absence of a deity.

                I don’t mind the whole “this is my morality and you will follow it because I SAID SO!!!” thing, really. I just would appreciate it more if those who had this as their foundation would come out and say so rather than appeal to morality.Report

  19. aboulien says:

    ‘There is a freedom that is breathtaking and terrible in spiritual and theological nihilism that I find singular.’ — excellent, but Freddie, atheism entails work — If when you die you cease for ever to exist, if you believe this, how should you live your life? (accepting we cannot answer, ‘Invent a god’) is a question that makes different demands of us but makes them still. Your ‘comfort’, too, I cannot share — that moment that I suppose is the last of many lives — when one knows one is now dying — as much I do dread.

    Oh, unbelief is work. It’s this that drives most to another and easier, which is faith.Report

  20. Chet says:

    Freddie, it really blows my mind that people like you survey the evangelical/fundamentalist movement, in America and in other countries, in the form of Christian fundamentalism or even Muslim fundamentalism, and then you somehow come to the conclusion that the worst, literally worst aspect of religious fundamentalism is that they try to convince people to agree with them. And that, therefore, insofar as there is a movement of atheists that want to convince people to be atheists, they’re exactly just as bad. Exactly the same as the fundamentalists, to the extent that we should call such atheists “militants” and “fundamentalists” and “anti-theists”.

    It makes no sense, especially to read it from someone like Freddie, who tries to convince people all day long. What’s the difference, Freddie, between you trying to convince people not to be conservatives, and Dawkins trying to convince them not to be theists?

    I, frankly, think that the worst part of fundamentalism is the part where it gets people – compels them – to commit atrocities based on belief in absurdities. You know, the gay-bashing, the enslavement of women, the suicide bombing, the crusades and wars, that sort of thing. The killing. Since Dawkins isn’t strapping on a dynamite vest out of hatred for theists – he’s just writing books about theism being a net negative for human civilization and for the people who get wrapped up in it – I think the attempt to draw parity between religious fundamentalists and atheists (by saying things like “fundamentalist atheist”, for instance) is prima facie ridiculous.Report

  21. Bob says:

    There is a salutary side to Friddie’s meltdown – somewhere Helen Rittelmeyer is smiling.Report

  22. Paul says:

    I am somewhat taken aback by your mentioning “the history of humankind tells us that people do not get to equality and then stop but instead rather turn around and try to begin the cycle of oppression.” I assume you have thought that through enough to place that sentiment into any other religious, ethnic, or other minority. At the risk of stating the obvious, then, I find it odd and maybe a touch troubling that one group’s fight for equality needs to be tinged with the specter, unjustifiably I think, of becoming oppressors once that goal is realized. Seems to me to be yet one more double-standard applied to outspoken atheists. They must all be teddy bears and not think anyone else is wrong about anything if they are to be acceptable to the greater public debate.Report

  23. Dan L says:

    Freddie, did you even read the Salon article you linked to? It seems very odd, like you just saw that it said “interview with Richard Dawkins” and thought “he’s an antitheist” therefore the interview is about ending religion. And of course, it is true that Dawkins is antitheistic, and that he would want to end religion, but that is not at all what the interview is about. That strikes me as quite lazy on your part.

    The only other possibility I can think of is that you conflate not wanting creationism taught in schools with atheism, which has always been an incredibly odd connection that somehow is popular here in America. I very much do want people to make the case for evolution by natural selection as the only real scientific theory concerning how our species got to this point. Also I am an atheist. But this in no way makes me antitheistic. Now had Dawkins started out an interview talking about the evidence for evolution, and then let into a tirade on how we need to end religion, that would perfectly make sense of the rest of your post. Only the exact opposite is what happened.

    After discussing some basic questions about evolution, the interviewer asks “Do you think that it’s possible for people to be both religious and believe in evolution?”

    To which Dawkins responds “It’s an empirical matter that there are plenty of individuals who can manage to reconcile the two. On that level it clearly is possible, because people like Francis Collins do it. I find it hard to see quite how they do it, but that’s the topic of my earlier book, “The God Delusion,” rather than this book.”

    If you, as you claim to be, want atheists to slow down antitheistic stances, this response should thrill you. Here we have someone known to be antitheistic not taking the bait and ripping into religion, but stating that he doesn’t understand how the beliefs coexist, but there are many others that do.

    In short, this interview sticks to questions about his cause of teaching evolution, and Dawkins does not rage against theism, yet you claim it is the same old interview that Salon always does with an antitheist. Your response to this is just weird and off topic.Report

  24. Maneesh says:

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoy your writing. Just discovered you via Andrew Sullivan. I also appreciate how you respond to the comments of your readers. Wonderful discourse here.Report

  25. GBJ says:

    Poor Freddie. “… but give us back our word.” And please, homosexual people, give him back “gay”, too.Report

  26. Sum Bodhi says:

    While I do get occasionally annoyed at religious (or anti-religious) hucksters who regard it strictly as a business, I agree that being an atheist is a liberating idea that leads to freedom of thought, not a call to action.Report

  27. Patrick Oden says:

    Great article and ideas. I couldn’t agree more that a- and anti- are not equivalent. The a- in a-moral is not immoral.

    A-social is not anti-social.

    The list could go on and on.Report

  28. Michael Drew says:

    Here is a discussion of some of the conversations among atheists that have been going on in the wake of the rise to prominence of a more outspoken brand of atheism:

    There are a number of quotes from individuals who themselves have been quite active as normalizers and organizers of the non-theist viewpoint that demonstrate perfectly valid forms of criticism of the more aggressive approach. You’ll notice one thing in common among all these. No one is attempting to fine-tune the commonly accepted understanding of the term so as to definitionally exclude some from the rest of the community-as-such. They are merely rationally objecting to their approach in very effective ways. Just something to consider.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

      “Atheist community”.

      You’ve heard the old joke that “atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby”, right?

      It only makes sense to me that Stamp !Collectors would consider themselves a community if stamp !collecting were, in fact, a hobby.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

        “-as-such.” I’m not big on the concept either, but in this case it applies as a construct for analysis because Freddie is seeking to define who is and who is not rightly covered by the term. In the blog post of his that he links to, in fact, he claims that atheism has expelled him. So we’re already well into the territory of thinking of it as a group that some are part of and others not. I agree I’d rather it merely be a term to denote a certain belief.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

          “I agree I’d rather it merely be a term to denote a certain belief.”

          My position is that it’s a term that denotes a lack of same.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

            You’re correct. It’s the lack of belief in the existence of deities, of which belief that they do not exist is a sub-case.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

            Does that bear on the link I provided at all?Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

              It actually does.

              Atheism, if you read it as “without theism”, does not lead you to, for example, going out of your way to stick your thumb in the eye of believers for the sake of sticking your eye in the thumb of believers (see, for example, the artwork where Jesus was doing his nails).

              If you’ve got the active belief that there isn’t a god, and more than that, the active belief that the active belief in god is something that needs to be stopped, and more than that, the active belief that, by god, you have to do something (for example, paint Jesus doing his nails), then we are well into “positive belief” territory that “without theism” doesn’t necessarily give you.

              I’ll point up above to the atheism vs. anti-theism discussion.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

                But as we discuss just above, the active belief that there is no god or gods still falls within atheism because it is consistent with a lack of belief that there is a god. So if an active belief that there is no god is what leads some to be obnoxious and stick thei thumbs where some would prefer they didn’t, then atheism (their version of it) is what leads them to do that.

                But actually that isn’t the case. Just as atheism doesn’t necessarily imply a active belief that there is no god, so an active belief that there is no god doesn’t lead to those behaviors. Personal choice about one’s conduct is what leads to that, and in no way implies that others with the positive no-god belief, nor other atheists, are in any way associated with that behavior. Obviously if there is concern about guilt by association, anyone an make clear they oppose the behaviors, deplore them, reject them, etc. But it is false to insist that those who engage in those behaviors are not atheists, if they do in fact lack a belief that there are deities.

                So while the title of the post isn’t incorrect, it is incomplete: atheism (a lack of belief that a god or gods exist) doesn’t imply anti-theism (which for the purposes of this discussion I take to be approximately an active belief that there is no god & some [specifically, provoctive] words or actions meant communicate that belief or convince others of it), but it (atheism) also doesn’t exclude anti-theism, or imply non-anti-theism, because a person can clearly with perfect consistency a) lack a belief that a god or gods exist, b) believe that no gods exist, and c) utter provocative words or take provocative actions expressing or those beliefs.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

                “But as we discuss just above, the active belief that there is no god or gods still falls within atheism because it is consistent with a lack of belief that there is a god.”

                Sure it does. But there are many, many, *MANY* sub-categories of atheist.

                Just like there are many kinds of muslims. Surely you’d agree that to categorize all muslims the same way (they’re all theists, man!) would be to do themselves and exploratory discussion a disservice.

                We have reached a point in the development of atheism where the old category names are starting to show themselves to be insufficient.

                There *IS* a difference between Wahabbi and Sufi Islam.

                There is a difference between atheism that doesn’t care what you believe and atheism that very much does (“let me have you read this tract, it contains the truth” vs. “brother! you should come to our meeting” depending on whether you are a theist or not).

                However ham-handed Freddie may be, it makes sense that he’d want to lay claim to the sterile descriptive term for his version.

                For the record, I tend to think that describing the more evangelical atheists as “merely” atheist will, at the very least, lead to confusion. That’s something worth avoiding.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

                You’ve got it backwards. It’s Freddie who has to leave room for all kinds within atheism, even while he can and should draw all distinctions he sees. But they’re all atheists who do not believe that deities exist, and he shouldn’t claim otherwise. Just as, yes, all Muslims (so far as I know) are theists, though that means probably less than nothing to them and to many, the differences within a meaningless analytical construct — and probably within Islam itself — are more significant than those commonalities.Report

              • Bob in reply to Michael Drew says:

                You have it exactly right. Freddie sought to exclude, and that is the nub of the dispute. Should atheism be defined narrowly or is there room for all kinds of differing interpretations and actions regarding atheism — as long as denial of supreme sky/extra-material beings is a bottom line.

                Freddie’s whine, “give us back our word,” continues to sicken me.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

                Did I describe them as “merely atheist”? I think I merely said that if they lack a belief in deities, then they are atheist, leaving open what other descriptors apply.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

                No, I would.

                Those who see their atheism as something akin to God’s love, once they’ve experienced it, they want to spread his love around, they want to pass it on… those folks are the ones that I would say are not merely atheists.Report

              • Cascadian in reply to Michael Drew says:

                What if you just like to watch Pharisees squirm? Ramen. Can I be more than an atheist?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

                May I suggest the freethinkers?

                They probably advertize in the local free newspaper that you can pick up at your local independent coffeehaus.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                And again, I don’t say they are merely atheist. But they are atheist.Report

              • Cascadian in reply to Michael Drew says:

                “May I suggest the freethinkers?”
                They don’t sound like the type that would accept Dionysians or Pastafarians.Report

  29. Bruce Smith says:

    What a paradox with religion that you have to believe in some invisible parent in order to parent yourself with regard to the need to act morally. Surely, we can work it out better by ignoring whether the invisible parent exists and see that we operate as creatures continuously moving from one end of a spectrum of self-concern and other-concern with points in between. We leave resolving the question of the existence of the invisible parent (or parents?) till our death.Report

  30. Bruce Smith says:

    Jaybird. Unconsciously I think, you’ve just confirmed my point about the spectrum.Report

  31. Bruce Smith says:

    Only in your case!Report