Monday, July 11, 2005

Internet atheism

I've been visiting religion and politics message boards for several years. Given certain definitions of the term atheist, it is a label with which I have at times self-identified. It isn't particularly important to me which label people use, however, so much as what it means to them, both in the patent and latent sense. I have frequently critiqued various theists and their assumptions, so to be fair, and as a service to those who could use the clarification, I here give a brief critique of internet atheism.

In the superficial usage, one typically finds atheism as described as a lack of belief in a God. God is typically defined as a Sentient Creator Being who made and controls the Universe, though variations on the exact nature and indentity of God vary from group to group and sometimes person to person. However, despite the repeated claim that atheism is "JUST a lack of belief in God", "just a lack of belief in GOD", "just a LACK of belief in God", "just a lack of BELIEF in God", and "just a lack of belief IN God", it is also true that far more often than not this position regarding the existence of God is frequently accompanied by several other positions or attitudes, including:

  1. anti-spiritualism: rejection of spirituality, often accompanied by prejudice against any form of spirituality and varying degrees of snobbery toward those who embrace any form of spiritualism. In general, spirituality entails a sense of connection, either or both immanent and transecendent, to other people or to all of existence. It involves seeking the nature of meaning in a shared but personal way and a rejection of strict nihilism. Part of the rejection of spirituality from certain atheists comes from beliefs frequently associated with (yet not essential to) spirituality, including the concept of an immortal soul or the existence of a God. In short, it is associated with what we often label superstition and supernaturalism.

  2. anti-religionism: rejection of religion, often accompanied by prejudice against any form of religion and varying degrees of snobbery toward those who embrace any form of religion. Religion is the mediation of cultural knowledge and spiritual awareness, but it is typically identified by association with certain descriptive features, such as:

    • involves ceremonies commemorating/sanctioning events like birth, marriage, death
    • involves belief in supernaturalism
    • involves a code of conduct
    • involves a belief about what happens when our bodies die
    • involves belief in a God
    • involves a meatphysical explanation of the universe
    • involves a set of beliefs about the purpose or meaning of life
    • involves a set of beliefs that are poorly supported by generally accepted factual knowledge

    Depending on who you ask, some combination of these features are either necessary or sufficient to deem a particular insitution or group a religion. Part of the rejection of religion from certain atheists comes from bias towards one or more of these features, which are often taken to be representative of virtually all religions. This includes a need to try to malign or discredit practices associated with religion, such as meditation, prayer, use of religious symbols, etc.

    Moreover, because of the importance of religion in human life, it has been used to inspire and justify great and terrible things, which is often sloppily reduced from a complex correlation of several aspects of human nature and society to a simplistic "religion causes bad things" formula. It is especially ironic that many internet will claim to pride themselves on spotting weak arguments and over-generalizations when critiquing their opponents but will rarely call each other on such gross mischaracterization of the sophisticated interrelationship of religion, politics, history, and human nature. I always take the time to applaud those who do so, though my own interjection and objections are often overlooked.

  3. anti-fideism: rejection of faith, often accompanied by prejudice against any form of faith and varying degrees of snobbery toward those who express any form of faith-based practice. This comes from equating faith with being anti-rational and presuming that reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth and knowledge in the human condition. This is generally expanded into the idea that faith means using wishful thinking or fables in place of logic or empirical evidence. In fact, there are those who do so, but it is a very unfair characterization of the importance and application of faith. It is more accurate to say that faith and reason compliment one another, and that faith treads where reason, logic, and empiricism cannot.

    In some cases, people have used supersitition in the name of faith to fill in the gaps where logic and empiricism once could not go, but which now they can. Creationism is a good example. But there are places and aspects of our existence which will never make sense unless we trust first and experience them freely beyond the limits of certainty. And hence there will always be a need for trust. Calling all faith "blind supersition" is like defining romance as "cheap sex"--it may be true for some people but it hardly does justice to the concept.

  4. anti-supernaturalism: rejection of supernaturalism, often accompanied by prejudice against any form of supernaturalism and varying degrees of snobbery toward those who embrace any form of supernaturalism. Despite the philosophical wrangling of some philosophers over the use of the term supernatural when discussing metaphysics, it has come to be associated with concepts and objects associated with supersition and the idea of a duality to existence into the natural (the everyday world) and the supernatural (the world of ghosts, angels, demons, etc). There have been many explanations put forward for why people believe such things, from the notion that they are true to the idea that they are particularly appealing to structure and format of the human mind, with its capacity for displacement, speculation, imagination, and extrapolation. When such objects and objects are discredited by reason through logic and empiricism, they are frequently guarded under the cloak of faith, hence setting up a conflict between faith and reason.

  5. anti-fanaticism: rejection of fanaticism, often accompanied by prejudice against any form of fanaticism and varying degrees of snobbery toward those who embrace any form of fanaticism. Humans tend to be gregarious and sort themselves into aligned groups. They can be rallied by a slogan or a cause and whipped into fanaticism through some ideal or emblem, and this idea or emlem, imparting a greater sense of identity beyond the individual, can come from philosophy, politics, religion, and even social activities like sports. Fanatics tend to accept the propaganda of their leaders unquestioningly. The idea that one should "get rid of religion because some groups can be overtaken by fanaticism", however, is as practicalor sensible as saying get rid of human nature and have people live as isolated individuals who only meet to mate. Fanaticism can occur in any group, even avowedly atheist ones, and should be opposed anywhere it arises.

So, then, an atheist can be spiritual, religious, faith-inspired, supersitious, or fanatical. Whether one thinks any or all of these things are good or bad is irrelevant. The point is that a combined anti-spiritual, anti-religious, anti-faith, anti-supernatural, anti-fanatic attitude is floating around on the net (and this is really just a reflection of society at large) calling itself/being strongly associated with "atheism". Moreover this association is typically carried and transmitted by atheists, rather than perpetuated as unfair stereoptypes. (I, for one, am pro-spiritual, pro-religious, and pro-faith, I don't accept supernaturalism, and I oppose fanaticism, for those who are curious.)

I have read some atheists who wish to label those who simply find insufficient reason to believe in a God "weak atheists", while those who actively disbelieve in a God are "strong atheists", and those who continually attack theism, spirituality, and religion as different facets of the same evil are "anti-theists". These terms have been in use for a long time. Ironically, some atheists will actually read tirades from fellow atheists about how any belief in God is delusional and no religion has any positive or redeeming value and *not* call it anti-theism, but instead find it a perfectly reasonable atheist position. I consider myself fortunate to have found here and there small pockets of fairly reasonable atheists (and theists) with which to converse.

Another term that has been gaining popularity is "nontheist", which has been defined in a dozen ways. I think it is gaining in popularity because of the large number of anti-theist types out there. I often use it to denote that the issue of the existence or non-existence of a God is not relevant to a particular issue or position. Unfortunately, the lack of a standard usage or widely accepted definition hinders the effectiveness of the term.

A while back someone posted on a forum I visit that she didn't intend to include me in a reference to atheists because she didn't think I was one. I asked her why that was. She said it was because she had received the impression that I have some sense of the divine. I think she's right. I'm sure that will fluster some folks, or make them question whether I actually secretly believe in (a) God. I'm sure they will be flustered more when I say that no, I am still a nontheist. That's OK. Let them be flustered. It might help to open their eyes.


  1. This one's a keeper. You hit so many nails on the head here, tinythinker.

    I think there's a bit of tactical sleight-of-hand by some internet atheists in how they describe their 'belief'... IOW, some define themselves in such a way as to try and neutralise an inquiry into the basis for their beliefs..

  2. The most common common denominator seems to be that most all of them (not qutie all) only pick on Christainity, even though they may express disdain for all religions. They also only know of one kind of Christianity (southern fundamentalism) and if you don't fit that in your doctirne, they somehow think you are cheating.

  3. I'm not a theist. I'm a panENtheist. I bet I confusse a lot of people with that too.

    good job Tiny.

  4. Except that in my book, classical theist, deist, pantheist, and panentheist are all types of theism, whereas agnosticism and atheism are examples of nontheism.


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