(from Mimi and Eunice)
One of the reasons why I have distanced myself from atheism is the growing realization that there is a profound ambiguity within atheists’ thinking, and attempts to organize atheism, which is very illogical and can only lead to more illogic. This profound ambiguity reveals a deep fault line below the apparently solid ground of atheism (note that I wrote, “the problem with atheists,” not “the problem with atheism”: the problem is in how atheists represent atheism, not in atheism itself).
This ambiguity is this: is atheism a negative position or a positive position?
This may seem like an easy enough question. If you ask an atheist who has any level at all of philosophical understanding, he’ll tell you that atheism is a negative position; atheism is a lack of belief in any god (or in God specifically), and does not put forward any alternative position or belief. All you have to do, to be an atheist, is to not believe in gods.
Which seems very simple. And it is an attractive proposition, insofar as no demands are put on the individual. You’re just part of the “sane” or “bright” minority which does not believe in bugaboos and in the complete insanity of religious beliefs. Fair enough, and I accept that.
But then, when atheists talk about their movement, or organizing a movement, or “advertising atheism,” suddenly the concept of atheism is completely different. Now atheism actually has something to sell, atheism becomes a rallying point and is even involved in political discussions. We’ve gone far beyond the realm of negative positions.
Atheism is associated with separation of church and state, for instance. Why is that? One can just as well imagine atheists who do not support the separation of church and state. In fact, there are right-wing atheists, as bizarre as that may sound. There are anti-abortion atheists.
We see this phenomenon in debates. The tiresome Christian says that Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists, and thus atheism does as much damage to the world as religion. The response by atheists is that atheism itself does not entail genocide, that there is nothing inherent in atheism that entails genocide, because atheism is only a negative position. But this attempt to distance atheism from genocide is itself paradoxical: if atheism was a purely negative position, then atheists should have no qualms in being associated with genocide, since there should be nothing linking any atheist to any other atheist. But of course this is unacceptable to people who want to promote an “atheist movement.”
And this is the source of the problem. The concept of reifying an ideology into a movement, with aims and leaders, goes against the concept of individual freedom of expression. Once you accept that you are part of a movement, you have to self-censor yourself so you don’t act against the interests of that movement. And more importantly, you must present the ideology of the movement in a positive light, even when said positive light has no relevance to the truth.
If atheism is a movement, then what are the aims of this movement? If atheism is a negative position, then no such aims can exist, since no belief or principle unites atheists. For any “atheist movement” to have aims, atheism must be defined positively. Hence, the paradox again. They want to eat their cake and have it too: to both have it easy in debates and in propagating atheism, and to have a tangible position to advertise and form a movement around.
The obvious solution to this ambiguity is for atheists to borrow from the religious rulebook and form ethical and political denominations. That way, they can keep the concept of atheism itself being a negative position, and join denominations which propose various positive aims for them to slavishly follow.