A- still does not imply Anti-
I suppose I could tie this post to this latest interview of Richard Dawkins in Salon.com, but I don’t really need. It’s just the same; it’s always the same. Honestly, I really wonder about Salon sometimes. You can find at fairly regular intervals, in their archives, near identical interviews with the usual suspects of aggressive antitheism. They’re like the identical interview, every six months. I can’t imagine what Joan Walsh or whoever thinks the website or its audience is gaining by repeating the same interviews with the same small group of people and the same inane questions. But perhaps I am just exhausted by it all.
It is antitheism. Anti- and a- are profoundly different prefixes. If I tell you I am apathetic towards something that is denotatively and obviously very different from if I tell you that I am antipathetic towards that something. Dawkins et al are not lacking theism, they are oppose to theism. They’re entitled to it. But in the interest of a certain respect to the English language I think it behooves that movement to name itself correctly. Language indeed evolves, but I don’t think it has evolved or should evolve to the point where a- and anti- become synonymous prefixes. And so antitheists they are.
The louder proponents of antitheism are quite hostile to the idea that they operate similarly to religious evangelists. And, yes, I find those conflations to often be lazily applied. 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. I chafed early and often against the social expectations of atheism for a simple reason: I dislike being a foot soldier. I cannot work my mind to the headspace necessary to believe that emptiness insists that we must be conscripted into a grand cultural war. I have said before that the real benefit of being an atheist is that you never have to get up early to go to church or temple. I say that only partly in jest: to me, what makes atheism attractive as a practical matter is that it requires nothing of me. It asks me to observe no sacraments. It imposes no ideology on me. It provokes me to do nothing and leaves me only to live in a way consonant with my conditional and contingent values.
And, yes, those values compel me to oppose the influence of religion on government and public policy. Those are values that are shared by many who are religious and practicing. Indeed I have found in the experience of my own life that one person more dedicated to the separation of church and state than anyone else I know is a Congregationalist minister. This is again the simplest grace of democracy: that for all of the ways it fails in this, it offers at least the prospect of commensurability that is dependent on ideas and not on identity. A belief in the egalitarian necessity and pragmatism inherent in a rigorous separation of church and state is not necessarily a product of any particular inclination towards theistic claims. It is this, in part, that inspires a belief that tends to get me in the most trouble among other atheists: I find that the existence or nonexistence of God is utterly irrelevant to the question of how atheists should treat the religious.
Atheism is not a project. It proceeds towards no goal. It involves no work. Atheism is absence, an emptiness and, often, a comfort with that emptiness. If you are preoccupied with these questions, if you are like me and you find that you cannot pause waiting for the toaster or for the bus to come without questions of the natural universe and your place within it, the freedom of actual emptiness… . There is a freedom that is breathtaking and terrible in spiritual and theological nihilism that I find singular. But it is not an experience I share with antitheists; they are too filled with their belief in being unfilled, too bent by the force of what they are rejecting to understand or enjoy the awful quiet of actual atheism.
The antitheists can and should proceed with their project with all the force and lack of apology that they are allowed by the laws of our country and by the principles of democracy. I find many of them startlingly naive about just how quickly their minority complaints could become majority oppression; these things I know, that 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. But perhaps I am being unfair. Whatever the case, speak loudly, sometimes angrily– but give us back our word.