Monday, July 22, 2013

"They will say 'How his hair is growing thin!' "

We begin here:

As to atheists, there are multiple types just as there are multiple types of Christians. One dichotomy is between those who lack a belief in god or gods, having lost faith or never having it, and the anti-theists, who actively deny that gods exists. Applying the term 'religious' to the former is akin to calling bald a hair color. The latter do seem religious in your sense.
Which got me thinking about the word "atheist."  What follows may be rank conjecture, as I haven't even consulted my OED (although I may before I'm through)  but when have I ever let that stop me?

At one point in Western culture (Europe and the North America) "theism" was the presumed default for everyone.  It didn't take commitment, affirmation, even confession:  you were presumed a theist.  Most accepted that state of affairs even if they were, as some pastors now call their congregations, "baptized heathens."  Kierkegaard railed against the lack of discipleship (to use Bonhoeffer's term, and tie this conversation completely up in anachronisms as soon as possible) in "Christendom," but he wasn't assuming an antipathy toward the basic assumptions of theists. Atheists were soon prominent enough in 19th century Europe to challenge the entire premise.

They were not disinterested, shrugging off theism and all it entailed like an outworn coat:  they were anti-theistic, ripping and tearing at the very fabric of theism as part of the established social order.  Even the atheists of the 19th century who decided religion was all a bit of social immaturity and a lingering sign of the coming of age of humanity which must inevitably occur, feared the widespread loss of theism would lead to social disorder.  They reasoned that it was fear of God, rather than fear of the state, which kept most people in order (especially the Babbitry of the middle class; yes, another anachronism, but bear with me, it's a blog post, not a scholarly treatise), and a lack of a deity meant a lack of respect for...well, the intellectuals comfortably pronouncing all things religious to be all things foolish.

This state of affairs continued for a long time.  It's no accident Bertrand Russell fell compelled to explain why he was not a Christian, and also no accident almost no public intellectual since has felt it necessary to make the same claim.  I have heard a pastor who was now a businessman explain that he "hid" his ordination from his European business contacts because religion in Europe, at least among the people he worked with, was considered such a negative, to explain his religious convictions would actually cost him money.  (You may admire that, or not, as you choose).  He felt he was in a better position appearing to conform to the European norm, and for him that norm was either non-theist or even atheist.

That doesn't yet get us to the distinction I want to make, but it illustrates how much the social default has been reset.  The expectation, at least among the people he knew, was for non-theism at least.

So when atheism was first identified, it was an opposition to the status quo.  Let me stop and point out this is where the philosophical question about the existence of God first gained prominence.  Yes, there are ancient examples, such as Anselm's argument, the one Kant dubbed the "ontological argument," but one has to note there are about 800 years between Kant and Anselm, and that most of the arguments about God's existence come from the 18th (among philosophers) and then 19th century (among intellectual generally).  It was in this period that atheism was identified as a legitimate intellectual stance (and not just a word for condemning the unbeliever, levied by a predominantly theist social order).  Here I will stop and invoke the OED:  "Atheism" is defined by the OED as a doctrine denying the existence of God.  The first use of it is in the mid 16th century, where it would have been used against a non-believer as a condemnation, not merely a description.  The "atheist" is defined as one who denies the existence of God, or who denies God's existence and so is not bound by morality.  Again, the reference is to the mid-16th century, and the presumption is that morality comes, not from human society or individuals, but from a deity.  (We cannot escape a certain amount of anachronism in this discussion; but we can try to identify it.)

So atheism begins with those who deny God's existence, but that argument doesn't get its own status against the status quo until after the Enlightenment, and by the 19th century it is fairly clear that the question of God's existence is the central question of atheism, and atheism itself becomes a legitimate, if still controversial, public stance.  Russell, as I said, felt the need to clarify his atheism in 1927.  He was arguing against the social norm.  Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the last Christopher Hitchens have similarly argued against what they perceive to be the social norm, but their arguments are altogether more limited, blasting, as they do, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism as they define it.

But that's a topic for another day:  the salient point is that atheism is not indifferent to theism, it is opposed to it.  You cannot deny the existence of God without being interested in the question in the first place.  It was, as I say, a burning question in 19th century Europe, and still a question in 20th century Europe, especially after the horrors of Nazism and World War II.  That war marked "paid" to the comforts of religion for most people:  Sartre may have been scandalous in an America that added "In God We Trust" to the coinage and "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, but by and large his atheism carried the day, and speaking in the simplest terms (i.e., using Sartre to stand in for many others), he turned us from theism not to atheism, but to what I would call non-theism (which, once you live in Sartre's world, and by and large we do, is now the default position.  You no longer have to posit a world without God; now the burden has shifted to the theists, and why God is necessary at all.  Sartre's position, that God is not necessary, has become the default.).

It's not such an difficult move to make.  Hemingway's justly famous story "A Clean, Well-lighted Place," is the best possible example of the death of theism but the absence of atheism.  The story carefully presents a world in which there is no third-party looking on; the story itself brilliantly avoids the use of the third-person narrative voice, though it seems to narrated by an omniscient observer.  This is quite purposeful on Hemingway's part:  he is parting ways with the old assumption that God is in the quad watching the tree when no one else is there to know it is present.  And the story line is a meditation on a universe that now has no deity in it (there is no straight line to Sartre here, but he symoblizes for many this line of argument).  The arguments for and against are set aside in the story; non-theism is now the given.  A great deal of the impetus of the work of the "Lost Generation," in fact, is the loss of God.  But that loss doesn't turn into atheism, into denial of the existence of God:  it becomes non-theism.  It becomes wrestling with the absence of God, wrestling with a universe in which only human beings and their ideas, can be said to exist (and do ideas really "exist"?).  I would not call the Lost Generation and those who came after "atheists," because for the most part they simply assume a new default:  that there is no God, and that issue is beyond argument.  It's how we continue on, which is the point.

Atheists, of course, still want to argue the question of God's existence.  If they don't, how can they be atheists?

Consider the example of the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose claim to fame was being a party to a number of suits to remove compulsory prayer from public schools.  Hers isn't even the case studied by first year law students, because the important decision on the issue was handed down in a related case considered by the Court at the same time (sic transit gloria).  I lived in Austin while Ms. O'Hair was still alive, and she could be found on the public access cable channel (those were the days!) ranting and spewing (there really is no other word for it; the woman was positively hateful) about anything and anyone she didn't like, and constantly pressing her opinions against whatever status quo she perceived to be relevant.  This was kind of odd because Austin was one of the least religious towns in Texas, even then.  I think more people went to Sunday brunch than any other town in Texas.  Had Ms. O'Hair really wanted to oppose Christianity, Dallas, then home to many TV evangelists (all gone, now) would have been a better place to be.  Still, opposition was her meat and drink, and she used her atheism to promote her protests to every subject that came to hand.

For the most part, of course, no one cared; and Austin being a largely more tolerant place for such ideas than Dallas, she was free to rant and rave as much as she wanted, because most people just weren't interested enough to be offended.  I find, more and more, that the questions of theism are no longer live questions for most people.  I teach a variety of college and high school students (and many Freshman who are just out of high school), and the prevailing religious sentiment is that of their surrounding culture. Most are still theists by default, although I've met more than a few for whom the Biblical stories (David and Goliath; Abraham and Isaac; Noah's Ark; Jonah and the Whale) mean nothing at all.  This may be because the popular churches, the ones with TV cameras and rock bands and exciting!, relevant! preaching about how to live! your! life!, don't dwell much on what was once standard kid's fare in church (I've never heard Joel Osteen mention one of those stories, but I don't pay attention to him, so that's no proof of anything).  It may be they simply don't go to church.  I have had students in that category, ones for whom the question of theism or atheism is as relevant as the question of racism or non-racism.   I think, and have long thought, President Obama was right in his recent remarks about an American generation that doesn't understand the race distinctions I grew up with (and tried to abandon).  I think the same thing is happening with issues of theism.  The difference is, we don't have to be racists; and we shouldn't be; but we can be theists, without being destructive to others or society.

Theism, though, is gradually falling away as the default position of all people. In my childhood every store in town either closed on Sunday, or didn't open until noon.  Non-church goers didn't put their heads out until that time, for fear of the social shaming.  That may still be true in a few small towns, especially in the South, but that stricture is crumbling everywhere in America, at least where it hasn't vanished altogether.  And the ire of the public atheists, the Dawkins and Hitchens and Harrises, is aimed at fundamentalist Christians or Muslims and mostly concerned, not with the fact of their belief, but with the political actions arising from their beliefs:  from terrorism at one extreme to forcing the denial of evolution in public school curricula at the other.  Is that a different flavor of atheism from that of David Hume or Madalyn Murray O'Hair?  I don't think so.  I think it's just a recognition that the major battles (such as government demands for public prayer) have been won, and that Christianity in the public square (it was never really a question of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, to name three) is pretty much in retreat.

So is atheism an umbrella term that includes those without a theistic belief of any kind?  I don't think so, especially since theism is fading as the assumed position of everyone in American (and European) society.  Buddhism does not confess the existence of a deity, but I don't think one of the tenets of Buddhism is to deny the existence of God. It is not necessary to deny the existence of the god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or the gods of Hinduism, in order to be a Buddhist.  You can practice Buddhism quite well by simply ignoring the issue.  So it would be more accurate to call Buddhists non-theists than to call them atheists.  And many people who are not religious today (and who may have been in the past just as a matter of social comfort) are not really antithetical to the notion of God's existence:  they just aren't concerned with it.  We don't have a convenient term for such people, but they are, I suspect, becoming the default position of Western culture.  Perhaps, being the majority (if they are, or soon will be) they don't need a term.  Perhaps it is the theists and atheists who must identify themselves, but that doesn't get us away from the undeniable: the stance of atheism is to be against the confession and profession of theism.  Atheists deny the reality, presence, "existence" if you will (although the term is highly problematic, especially in this context) of God.  And you can't stand in opposition to something, make that a central tenet of your identity, and then say you don't really oppose anything, that the very questions of theism are of no interest to you.

In the 19th century, when atheism became a more or less respectable intellectual position, agnosticism was proposed as the reasonable alternative to the extreme affirmation of God, and the extreme denial of God.  That term illustrates perfectly the nature of the entire discussion.  The default position, as I say, was theism; any strong disagreement with that position had to take it into account, and so be antithetical to it.  Agnosticism comes along as the reasonable compromise between the extremes; but it is still interested in the question.  It is interested because it has to be:  the default is theism, you must define yourself against that if you are not for it.  What prevails now, I would argue, and will come to prevail, at least in Western culture, is non-theism:  people who, like the agnostics, don't know, but who, unlike the theists, atheists, or even the agnostics, just don't care.  In Western philosophical circles, the default position is either atheism (opposition to belief in a deity) or non-theism (the question is of no importance).  There are slippery distinctions, especially among the Continental philosophers:  Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew by birth, a non-believer by profession, was a philosopher of religion and credited with trying to develop what some called a "negative atheology."  He wasn't, however, an atheist:  he wasn't interested in philosophical discussions about the existence of God, and wrote lucidly about Kierkegaard and Abraham and Isaac, as well as about Christianity and Islam.

These are deep waters, and easy categories lead to easy errors.  My primary complaint against the latest crop of public atheists is that, like the late Ms. O'Hair, they are remarkably ignorant of subjects they profess to have so much contempt for; and they're contempt for it seems to be their raison d'etre; or at least, they're raison d'publish.  Their identity as atheists is to be in opposition to theists; but this isn't 19th century Europe (or, for that matter, America) anymore.  Most public figures do not have to assert their religious beliefs (if they have any) by now.  The default position is that we don't know if you attend church (Christianity is still the default; synagogue is invisible (the assumption is most Jews are cultural, but not observant) and mosques are scary), and we really don't care (except perhaps during political campaigns, and even then, absent the President, I don't see man politicians making much use of their regular church attendance, or lack thereof).  Are there people who don't share the interests of either theists or their opponents, the atheists?  I'm quite sure of it.  And I think it rather unfair to lump them in with the atheists whose entire point in identifying as atheists, is to deny the claims (real or imagined) of theists.


  1. After all that, I could simply say: "Atheists need theists in order to be atheists; but theists don't need atheists in order to be theists. And everybody not concerned with either position doesn't even have to be an agnostic."

    But then again, if I said that without the above, it might not be all that clear.

  2. I like the shorter version, which I think is quite clear. :-)

    1. I do tend to go on, don't I?

  3. Interesting essay, I'll have to read it a few more times (more than the twice I have). I think that a lot of the 19th century atheism, of the British-scientific kind, was an extension of the endless quest to rid themselves of the obligation to feed, clothe, house and heal the poor. I think that has a lot to do with why they attacked Christianity and the reason that it is all the rage among the post-liberal liberals on the blogs.

    But it's complex, a lot of it bound up with the disrepute that Christians over the long centuries and today - really the baptized heathern - who have brought shame and disrepute to the word "Christianity". But the opposition, it's often remarkably stupid. There is this

    In which it is claimed that "Jesus promised to get rid of all the wicked people. Odin promised to get rid of all of the ice giants" And this on a blog which carries the claim that its owner is "Undermining the Patriarchy Every Chance"

    As opposed to Jesus (though I don't recall that part of the gospel) Odin ain't exactly my idea of a non-patriarchal figure. I'd say there was a far better case to be made that the patriarchal content in Christianity came in with Greek and other European Pagan infitration. I suppose it's more fun to figure neo-Pagans are persecuted and to act the victim than it is to look at history and the archeological record (all those women murdere to accompany Odinic chieftans into Valhalla) and the detailed eye-witness record of one of those murders.

    Forgive me, but I could go on on that.

    Maddy O'H, I am glad you put me on the right track with her. I'd always figured she was just the flip side of Jimmy Swaggart, a comic figure. Ironically, some of those who hated her the most were her fellow atheists who she robbed and sued (her trying to get hold of that legacy is a story in itself) and who figured her vulgar attention-getting were giving them a bad name, back when they saw that as a bad thing. I found it ironic that it was one of her employees at Am. Athe. who killed her so he could get hold of her money. And her pathetic son and hapless granddaughter. Now I know she was a truly evil person whose ego destroyed and oppressed everyone she could dominate, totally amoral. I can't recall which of The Nation's (or maybe it was Mother Jones) atheists it was who wrote about how she was morally superior to religious people because she didn't think there was anything in it for her.

    As I said last year, I'd much rather have the problem of evil to deal with than the impossibility of materialism to hold a durable belief in morality. I think it always goes back to personal gain and gratification for materialists. As an Irish Catholic (lapsed) who was brought up with a deep sense of moral shame - and I don't mean over sex but real moral lapses - it was always so funny to me, the accusation that religion is a crutch for the weak and who couldn't face death. In my upbringing, death was only the beginning of the worry. Though I've come to more of a universalist position on that.

  4. For more about O'H's epic lawsuit-money-grab.

  5. Welcome to that particular club. Sometimes I run a post through a word-count but usually I don't dare. Of course, it's the three sentence blogs that get the hits but they don't say anything.

  6. Maddy O'H, I am glad you put me on the right track with her.

    She was a bitter, nasty person when I knew of her. Her local access show was mostly about spitting bile and venom at anyone within her ken.

    And as I recall from Con Law (this is going back in memory almost 30 years now. !!!!!), there were three cases taken up by the Supremes on the question of compulsory prayer. They were consolidated and one opinion issued for all three (or was it one opinion and the other two just decided summarily in its wake? Anyway....) O'Hare's was not the "main opinion" case, but the publicity she wrung out of it would make you think she alone had stood before the forces of religion and thwarted them.

    Her self-aggrandizement, IOW, was part and parcel of her personality. It was an important decision, but it wasn't important because of her efforts alone. In fact, it probably would have happened without her, unlike, say: Gideon; Loving; Brown v. Board (and the power of Thurgood Marshall), etc., etc., etc.

  7. Oh, that link didn't work. I meant the thrown-out lawsuit she brought to get control of the 14-15 million dollar estate of a particularly putrid racist-antisemitic-atheist crackpot named James Hervey Johnson. She argued that since he wanted his estate to promote atheism and the only people with standing to manage the estate were religious SHE was the one who should get hold of it.

    I remember my mother was amazed at reading a news story about MMO'H's diary that was full of stuff about how she needed to get hold of more and more money - apparently it was her main interest other than being horrible to people. She was surprised at how mercenary she was an she wasn't exactly a fan.

    I got into a huge brawl at Orac's awful blog about her, one of the atheists claimed she was murdered by "Christians". That she was murdered by one of the murderers she hired to work at Am. Athes (her surviving son said she got some kind of gratification by hiring convicted murderers) apparently wasn't part of current blog atheist lore. Though I would suspect a number of the atheists didn't know who she was until they did a quick wiki-skim about her. I wouldn't have known about it unless your comment caused me to take another look at her. She was, truly, a pathologically cruel and evil person. I think her sons and her granddaughter might have been her most unfortunate victims.

  8. If memory serves (this is going back over 30 years now....), two of her sons were on the program with her; and it was about the time a third son (if she had three) became a Xian evangelist.

    The sons were pretty much props for Mom; pretty sad cases of arrested development, from what I could see on the TeeVee. It's armchair psychology to say so, and not really fitting, but she seemed to be quite domineering, and they seemed to be quite dominated, eagerly supporting their mother's diatribes with their passive agreement to anything she said.

    I was never impressed with her, it's safe to say.

  9. Oh, and Wiki tells me her lawsuit banned Bible readings, and came subsequent to the ban on compulsory prayer in schools by a year.

    Which explains why I read the ruling on prayer in schools in Con Law, and never one about Ms. O'Hair. By that time it wasn't all that important. (but her case was consolidated with another at the Supremes level, so that may be what my memory was trying to tell me.)

    Funny how she's attached to the earlier ruling in public memory, though.....

  10. It's been my experience that anything on Wikipedia of interest to atheists, materialists, "skeptics" etc. will have been "edited" so as to be entirely unreliable. There are blogs devoted to telling atheists, "skeptics" etc. on how to ideologically "edit" wikipedia. From what I've read the people with ultimate control at Wikipedia are OK with that ideological bias.

    I don't have any faith in the reliability of wikipedia or other such online venues open to that kind of manipulation. Another site tells people how to ideologically slant the ironically named "Web of Trust" site that ranks websites. I used to use it when I used Firefox until I realize that many of the sites I was interested in were ranked as dangerous, obviously on that basis.

  11. Anonymous3:55 AM

    I posted that comment on types of atheists. I don't know why OpenID didn't work properly with my AIM account. Just call me enonzey if it continues to misbehave.

    @ The Thought Criminal
    'There are blogs devoted to telling atheists, "skeptics" etc. on how to ideologically "edit" wikipedia.'

    Never heard of such a thing. Any links to back up this assertion?

    @ Rmj

    'And many people who are not religious today (and who may have been in the past just as a matter of social comfort) are not really antithetical to the notion of God's existence: they just aren't concerned with it. We don't have a convenient term for such people . . .' I've seen secularist used for such people. They are indifferent to the sacred.

    'Atheists, of course, still want to argue the question of God's existence. If they don't, how can they be atheists?' Simply by being non-theists but calling themselves atheists.

    How far do we go in accepting the labels people apply to themselves? There are certainly atheists who are indifferent to arguments about the existence of gods. If I understand your argument correctly, you contend that they have made a category error and should call themselves non-theists. But they don't.

    You've made an historical argument that atheists must be anti-theists, but that doesn't necessarily apply today. Things evolve away from their historical roots. See this for a taxonomy of movement atheists:

    Are Mormons Christians? Are Christian Scientists Christians? From a traditionalist Christian viewpoint, they can't be; they've diverged too much from conventional Christianity. But they certainly resist being labeled non-Christian or neo-Christian.

    And then there is the whole matter of ignosticism.