Varieties of Atheism #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another interview with David Newheiser (personal webpage). This one goes into more depth on the philosophical history and “varieties” of atheism. See the New Books Network –  The Varieties of Atheism: connecting religion and its critics.

I loved the books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, even some parts of Sam Harris, when they first came out — but in the interview I found myself in agreement that those works represent a kind of two-dimensional atheism. It’s as if they say that all it means to be an atheist is to reject the idea of god and to continue with life as if nothing else needs to change. (And usually the type of religion they attacked was the fundamentalist variety — which is not wholly satisfactory.)

When does atheism become “an identity”? In what social and political contexts? Atheism surely involves an emotional engagement and outlook to life and how the world could be. Atheism changes things on an ethical and political level.

David Newheiser is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of Hope in a Secular Age: Deconstruction, Negative Theology, and the Future of Faith.

The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics (U Chicago Press, 2022) reveals the diverse nonreligious experiences obscured by the combative intellectualism of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. In fact, contributors contend that narrowly defining atheism as the belief that there is no god misunderstands religious and nonreligious persons altogether. The essays show that, just as religion exceeds doctrine, atheism also encompasses every dimension of human life: from imagination and feeling to community and ethics. Contributors offer new, expansive perspectives on atheism’s diverse history and possible futures. By recovering lines of affinity and tension between particular atheists and particular religious traditions, this book paves the way for fruitful conversation between religious and non-religious people in our secular age.

New Books Network –  The Varieties of Atheism: connecting religion and its critics.

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Neil Godfrey

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20 thoughts on “Varieties of Atheism #2”

  1. “It’s as if they say that all it means to be an atheist is to reject the idea of god and to continue with life as if nothing else needs to change. ”

    Yeah, that’s a very superficial attitude. Does giving up god mean giving up the soul, identity, morality, values? Those who just answer with a complacent “no” haven’t thought things through.

    I sometimes describe myself as an atheist, but usually that’s just shorthand for “belong to no organized religion”. If it’s organized, it’s not religion. Sometimes I call myself a gnostic – I think the universe is infinitely mysterious.

    1. Soul *maybe*, but identity, morality and values are not dependent on being religious. That’s just another lie religious people tell to justify their special pleading for extra rights and privileges.

      And the special pleading is so pervasive and so common-place that we often don’t even see it. For example:

      “It’s as if they say that all it means to be an non-Elvian is to reject the idea that Elvis is still alive and to continue with life as if nothing else needs to change.”

      Of course that’s what it means. Not accepting a ludicrous and clearly false claim does mean to continue with life as if nothing else needs to change. There’s *nothing* more to a belief in gods than there is in believing that Elvis is still alive or that there’s a city on the far side of the moon where Bill Gates hosts interstellar parties for visiting ETs.

      Sticking “religious” onto something nonsensical shouldn’t make it any more respectable or less comical, no matter what the people involved say. Jesus coming back to life and Elvis working in the chipshop would both be equally comical, except that no one has murdered millions of people for saying that the first one isn’t true.

      1. I asked a rhetorical question – I didn’t mean the answer had to be Yes. But preserving some ideals without belief in god requires rebuilding foundations, which is something the New Atheists haven’t attempted.

        1. I don’t need them to. Socrates and many other thinkers have addressed the issue of what makes right and wrong without resorting to “Because I say so”, which is essentially religious people do. I’m even capable of giving it some thought myself!

          Your comment seems to assume that for any given person religion is the foundation of their value system; to take away religion is to take away that foundation too. Yet it seems to me that most religious morality is itself usually founded on human empathy of one sort or another. The religion itself is needed for social control much more than for ethical and moral guidance. For that matter, religion has always done a terrible job at ethical and moral guidance, especially monotheism which makes “getting all the answers right” such a hugely important matter that it motivates a great deal of evil. It doesn’t matter what the book says about being nice if it also says that that foreigner talking to your kids might cause them to be tortured forever because they believed his stories about gods instead of your story about God. Parents will do anything not-nice to protect their kids from that, by and large.

          Religion (ie, the religious) claims but does not in fact have any special place when discussing morality. It’s more special pleading.

  2. In his small, decidedly non-academic little book “The God Desire”, David Baddiel (a UK comedian & novelist, if you haven’t heard of him) talks of the Dawkins-Hitchens brand of atheism as “Macho Atheism”. He writes:

    “Some atheists divine – correctly – that what religion provides for human beings is comfort, and then, in a way that can feel a bit adolescent, they feel impelled to say, essentially, ‘Comfort? That’s for babies.’”

    As I say, it’s a short, decidedly unscholarly, emotionally honest, sometimes funny, little essay and I frequently found myself nodding, in a visceral “that’s exactly my feeling” sort of way. I guess that has a lot to do with having a similar background and politics to Baddiel: trad Jewish upbringing, but essentially atheist, left-of-centre politically, etc etc. Curiously even describing myself as “atheist” makes me feel uncomfortable – perhaps because I don’t want to be associated with the Dawkins brand.

    I’ve met a lot of people in my time who said “I believe in God but I don’t believe in organized religion” and I found myself thinking (and sometimes actually saying) “That’s funny, I’m the exact opposite.”

    1. This “macho atheism” phenomenon is a real issue going back to long before the New Atheists. There’s always been a side of atheism that basically boils down to the old “you’re not the boss of me” attitude where adherents feel the need to prove that they’re tough and manly and independent and don’t need sky-daddy either bossing them around or taking care of them anymore (which is often connected to certain strains of radical politics either on the extreme left or, more recently and even worse, the extreme right).

      A figure like Nietzsche really ties into this, where the rejection of religion is very much tied into the themes of masculinity and nobility and heroism that he’s so obsessed with.

  3. I think the statement, “I am an atheist,” and the statement, “I am a Christian,” are almost equally ambiguous. In both instances, you have to then define what it is you believe and don’t believe.

  4. “defining atheism as the belief that there is no god”

    That’s not how I see it. Atheism is the state of not believing other people’s claims that there are gods. There is a subtle difference, although I understand that those who had religion and rejected it may feel that the quoted definition is closer to where they are personally.

  5. The British philosopher John Gray has also written a book Seven Types of Atheism which seems to be along similar lines (I’ve read some of his other work but not that particular book). He distinguishes between e.g. the kind of scientistic atheism represented by the New Atheists; the atheism of political religions like Marxism; the “God-hatred” of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov (who argues that even if God existed he would be evil and worth opposing); etc.

    In recent years I have engaged a lot with Nietzsche, who is very caught up in this question of “if God is dead, then what?” Contrary to popular prejudice, Nietzsche was hardly satisfied with his atheism; while he considered Christianity false and repressive, he also believed that atheism could be a cloak for a kind of super-Christian morality that embodied the same repressive instincts in even more heightened form (see for example Beyond Good and Evil section 55).

    1. “…atheism could be a cloak for a kind of super-Christian morality that embodied the same repressive instincts in even more heightened form…”

      Yes! If we give up god, we’re obligated to at least rethink our ideals. But I do hope we come with something better than the doctrine of the Übermensch.

      1. The Ubermensch concept is rather ambiguous but it seems to boil down to something like this:

        If God can no longer supply us with values, then we can only supply our own. The problem is that ordinary humans are not actually up to that task. Therefore, humans first would have to work on elevating ourselves into the kind of being that would be capable of producing their own values. But this is itself a choice we have to make, as we could just as easily continue with the “herd” and let ourselves devolve into the “last men”. If everybody made that easy choice, there’d still be no God to tell us we’re wrong; there is no outside imperative to become the Ubermensch, whether we attempt it or not is completely up to us. If we choose that harder road, atheism could help us, but only if it is allowed to liberate us from the repressive baggage we’re carrying from the Christian era, rather than adding to that baggage. In any case, though, we don’t yet clearly know what such a liberated humanity would look like, so we cannot actually say what an Ubermensch would be like.

        1. “…we cannot actually say what an Ubermensch would be like.”

          Maybe I’m too cynical, but I always assumed Nietzsche thought it would be like himself.

          The idea that some people are so superior that normal rules don’t apply to them is extremely dangerous, and Nietzsche seems to have been oblivious to that. E.g., Trump, Musk, and the Rich and Powerful in general, seem to regard themselves as Übermenschen. I’ll take Christianity over that, even if it makes me an Untermensch.

          1. Nietzsche may have had a very high opinion of his own mind, but he also had to have been acutely aware of at least some of his personal limitations, given his lifelong struggles with poor physical health even before he went insane.

            In any case Nietzsche wasn’t necessarily contesting the need for rules in society to contain people like Trump or Musk – he was simply pointing out that those rules are of our own creation. If we’re going to judge them, we do so on our own account, not in the name of a God who doesn’t exist.

        2. Perhaps, rather, “ordinary humans” have evolved to be very adequate to the task of getting along as social animals. Perhaps we don’t need to think in terms of codes or systems so much as simply have a feeling of “oneness” with our fellows and do whatever is good for that relationship. We see other social animals doing well in that respect. There are enough of us with empathy for those who are having a harder time than others to give them special help.

          One thing that I find “striking” in listening to or reading many atheist works is the sense of social responsibility and care for humanity that so often shines through. That side of things was, as others have said here, missing or downplayed in the “new atheist” program of a few years back.

          1. Neil, you might be interested in this old Max Horkheimer essay that I’ve read and reread many times over the last decade. Horkheimer essentially argues that the great atheist thinkers of the past were indeed transparently motivated by the ethical spirit of the Gospels (they refuted Christianity in the name of what were de facto Christian ideals); that their efforts have paradoxically tended to deepen rather than lessen people’s interest in Christianity; and that the real outcome of this struggle has been that the opposition between theism and atheism per se has pretty much dissolved. Honest defenders of both are now essentially engaged in the same struggle to preserve what’s left of our collapsing moral universe in the wake of the World Wars. The common enemy is the power-worshiping followers of totalitarian ideologies, and it hardly matters whether the latter cloak themselves in religion or are forthrightly atheistic.

            Anyway, as for Nietzsche, he would agree that humans are pretty well evolved to get along socially – but the whole gist of his thought is that he believes this is not necessarily a good thing! Indeed, if all people want to do is get along, then they hardly need philosophers’ help. Moreover, he admits that most people may well be satisfied with such a life. Nietzsche is not, and he has little interest in people who are – he certainly does not feel himself to be “one” with such people. He sees himself as addressing a small minority who share his dissatisfaction, who he hopes will form an elite spiritual vanguard to develop a new high culture. Much of what Nietzsche says is rather disagreeable; however, not all he says can be easily dismissed as wrong – and at a minimum, the existence of a thinker like Nietzsche has to be accounted for and responded to.

            1. The publisher has just now given me access to a review copy of Varieties of Atheism — I see the same or comparable point is made there: that what was seen as atheist critique of religion was primarily about ethics, morality — not the existence of god.

              1. In large part I think this is a self-defence posture. Athiests, even among ancient pagan societies, have routinely been attacked as immoral. The accusation is that without god(s) there is no law of behaviour. Crowley of course took that and ran with it, but for many people it was important to show that rejecting, for example, the Gospels did not equate to rejecting ideas such as not killing, not stealing, and generally not being a git which Christians claim are founded there (albeit that that is a very questionable claim).

                And this is not just social banter around the coffee table. Appearing to not have a cosmic foundation to morality could be fatal for the societies that encountered growing empires from ancient Rome to the European empires of the modern age. Being labelled as barbarian in this aspect meant that your stuff could be taken, your land settled, and your people enslaved. Japan managed to avoid this fate mainly by inventing a religion which could be shown to the would-be American invaders (see Jason Ānanda Josephson’s “The Invention of Religion in Japan”). According to Josephson, this was done *specifically* because the Japanese understood that the religious would only accept a moral framework which they could recognise as religious in some way. If that framework wasn’t found, then Japan – bows and arrows against American cannons – would be wiped from the map like so many other nations. Atheists who refused to do the same had to fight tooth and nail to show that they could still be acceptable; if they failed they could be tied to a stake and set fire to. That’s some practical application of philosophy right there!

                So it’s a mistake to assume that atheists are inherently interested in reconciling their ethical views with that of dominant religions because they *want* to enter some sort of accommodation with them. It has often been a matter of life and death, and at least a matter of being excluded by the majority power brokers in society.

                Things today, at least in the UK, have moved on. I have no interest in anything the world’s religions have to say on morals or ethics and I don’t need to. A religious grounding is no longer needed to be in government, go to university, or be accepted in “society”. No accommodation is needed and therefore no struggle is required.

  6. I think there is an interesting discussion to be had between ‘born again’ atheists, (formerly religious) and ‘born’ atheists, (never religious) like me. To me it seems that often the born again atheist is carrying baggage from their old belief system, understandably, that can sometimes interfere with their values. Kindness, tolerance, acceptance and compassion are surely the ultimate ‘moral’ guidelines we could all accept? However it’s easy for me to say in a secular society where religion or lack of it is not a prerequisite for social inclusion and advancement. For those that live in a society where religion and politics are intertwined, such as Saudi Arabia, USA or China it would be far safer to keep such thoughts to oneself! We are obliged, where we can, to stand up for non-belief, if only to let others know that they too can reject the weapons of fear and ignorance that autocrats, (religious or atheist), rely upon to control the power structures that they benefit from. Reject Trump, the Pope, Putin, Ping and all those that think they have the right to decide what is ‘best’ for us! They will always stuff it up and can only survive through violence, 2000+ years of oppression and prejudice can surely teach us that ‘evident’ truth.

    1. Yes, Newheiser’s book has made me rethink those issues. I agree that identifying oneself as an atheist is more meaningful for a person who has left religious belief — as distinct from someone who has been raised in a nonbelieving environment from the get-go. It is interesting that you put the USA beside Saudi Arabia: I have been reading about atheists in Indonesia and have been thankful we do not have their “issues” in Australia — but I can understand something similar in parts of the US. We can have persons publicly known to be atheists become prime ministers but I cannot imagine such a scenario in the U.S. re the presidency.

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