The problem with atheists.


(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.

30 thoughts on “The problem with atheists.

  1. Mike July 10, 2011 at 00:02

    I believe you are recognizing the nature of many atheists’ minds. We often discuss the effects of religion, science, and politics because we are all concerned about the effect these things will have on all other people. Instead of limiting ourselves to caring for one religion, society, or country we see the problems people face around the world as things that can be recognized, studied, worked on and perhaps solved. The “profound ambiguity within atheists’ thinking” stems from our shared ever inquiring minds. We wish to know the answers to the mysteries of the universe and the solutions to humanities problems, and we will never share exactly the same opinions of things, but we will each strive to understand the universe and our possible future of a united peaceful earth. This movement is much more of a public outcry for logic, humanity and exploration instead of faith, God, and country.

    • Francois Tremblay July 10, 2011 at 00:05

      So I see you are on the side of atheism as positive. Do you resolve never to claim that atheism is a negative position again?

  2. Rohan Sood July 10, 2011 at 02:07

    From what i understand, your definition of a negative position is a lack of belief in something. In that case, atheism is surely a negative position. But I don’t think that for there to be an atheist movement, atheism needs to become a positive position. The basis for the movement will be disbelief in god and religion. People who are a part of this movement, need only share this disbelief. Some may be fundamentalists propagating the separation of religious institutions and the state, or maybe even abolishing of those institutions altogether. Others may be liberals, who are tolerant of all religions. As far as issues not involving religion, like politics or anti-abortion, are concerned, both atheists and religious people are free to have any views that they choose on them.
    So, I don’t see any contradiction in atheism being a negative position and there being an atheist movement. For instance, I don’t feel that atheists need to give up their negative position to argue that genocide is not associated with atheism. My argument for this would be that ethics and morals are inherent in humans, irrespective of their religious beliefs (or lack of them). It’s true that religion can give a boost or extra incentive for those morals, but it sometimes can also misguide people into doing terribly wrong things. Atheism just removes this added influence, and forces people to reason on their own. It however, does not guarantee that people will never become corrupt, or do anything wrong. It is wrong to blame atheism for any wrongdoing by an atheist, just like it would be wrong to blame religion for say, a priest molesting children. Atheists blame religion when it directly causes someone to do something wrong, an extreme example would be people committing suicide and blowing up office buildings because they believed in paradise after death and actually felt it was the right thing to do!

    • Francois Tremblay July 10, 2011 at 02:10

      So you’re agreeing with my proposed solution of having different factions of atheism then. Very good.

      “It is wrong to blame atheism for any wrongdoing by an atheist, just like it would be wrong to blame religion for say, a priest molesting children”

      I think you need to read this entry: https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/05/29/how-should-we-attribute-blame/

      BTW, if atheism is a negative position as you claim, then it can’t be blamed for anything, because it is fundamentally nothing. But then you can’t use nothing as a basis for a movement. There can be no such thing as an “atheist movement.” There can however be factions which do their own thing.

  3. James July 10, 2011 at 04:47

    I suspect that what we experiencing transition in the meaning of “atheist” from being a designation for someone who maintains a certain philosophical view (thus a term like “Kantian” or “metaphysical naturalist”) to a Culture War identity badge: i.e. someone who doesn’t believe in God, really hates and fears the religious right (and maybe certain politicized forms of Islam as well), and is willing to make a public fuss about it.

    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.

    Yes, and it’s stupid. That’s because politics is stupid.

    The tragedy (one of a long, long list of tragedies of human existence) is that there seems to be no way out of the stupidity. (There’s always extinction, of course.) The second reader on my dissertation committee had an old saw she was fond of when people complained about the inevitable moral and intellectual corruptions that go along with political engagement. “You might not be interested in politics, but unfortunately politics is interested in you.”

  4. Miles July 10, 2011 at 06:29

    Viva rationalism, empiricism, and humanism! Or reason, evidence, and compassion for the down to earth types :)

  5. Jeff July 10, 2011 at 06:32

    Why does any group of people petition the government? If Christians petition the government for more religious involvement in the public square, why shouldn’t people in disagreement rally behind the opposing cause (many of whom happen to be atheists)? If Christians try to argue that America is a Christian Nation, why shouldn’t some atheists speak out and say that some Americans are also nonbelievers? This isn’t anything against atheists organizing themselves into groups specifically. This is just general anarchist opposition to groups, governments, and organizations at all. And at the end of the day, what does this anarchist spirit do for anyone?

    • Francois Tremblay July 10, 2011 at 12:43

      “Why does any group of people petition the government?”

      To play the stupid politico game.

      “If Christians petition the government for more religious involvement in the public square, why shouldn’t people in disagreement rally behind the opposing cause (many of whom happen to be atheists)?”

      Then stop pretending to be a negative position.

      “This is just general anarchist opposition to groups, governments, and organizations at all. And at the end of the day, what does this anarchist spirit do for anyone?”

      You do realize this is an Anarchist blog, you moron?

      • Jeff July 10, 2011 at 13:16

        “Then stop pretending to be a negative position.”

        Can’t change what atheism is. I fail to see how organizing or rallying changes atheism into a “positive” position by your definition. Atheists are allowed to gather together for social change, even if atheism is an ideology based on what isn’t.

        “You do realize this is an Anarchist blog, you moron?”

        Yes, but I fail to see what point you’re making other than if you try to play society’s game, you’re a “problem.” I can shorten your post to say that the problem with atheists is that they aren’t also anarchists. Problem solved, right? Unless I’m missing something about what your specific gripe is?

        • Francois Tremblay July 10, 2011 at 13:17

          “Atheists are allowed to gather together for social change, even if atheism is an ideology based on what isn’t.”
          What “social change”? There is no “social change” for a negative position to preach for. That was the whole point of my entry.

          “I can shorten your post to say that the problem with atheists is that they aren’t also anarchists. Problem solved, right?”
          False. I already provided a solution at the end of my entry. It is now very clear that you didn’t read my entry at all. Stop wasting my time.

  6. Xujhan July 10, 2011 at 09:47

    This entire objection is made immediately moot by simply calling “the atheist movement” instead “the secular movement”. Which I suppose is an argument that could be made, but if you’re going to make it then you should admit up front that you’re just quibbling over terms. People who share a negative philosophy can easily come together and find that they have many other things in common; I’d hazard a guess that atheism became the defining title of the movement simply because it’s the most antention-grabbing, at least in the parts of Jesusland where it’s most needed..

    • Francois Tremblay July 10, 2011 at 12:45

      “This entire objection is made immediately moot by simply calling “the atheist movement” instead “the secular movement”. ”

      What? How does that change anything?

      “Which I suppose is an argument that could be made, but if you’re going to make it then you should admit up front that you’re just quibbling over terms. ”

      You can make the argument, but it’s still semantics bullshit.

  7. Alejandro C. Patagnan July 11, 2011 at 00:46

    Try Objectivism as an atheist philosophy.

    • Francois Tremblay July 11, 2011 at 00:47

      Sorry, I already did… it didn’t work out.

      • Alejandro C. Patagnan July 11, 2011 at 18:16

        You mean you did not get the whole idea of objectivity.

  8. yb July 11, 2011 at 04:53

    Atheism simply is a negative belief. As others have said, there’s no getting around that. The only thing that the existence of the Atheist movement means is that many atheists also have positive beliefs that are often related.

    Atheists lack belief in a god and a certain subset of them share a belief that religion is harmful or has too much influence over society. The lack of belief is negative. The rest is positive.

  9. Alejandro C. Patagnan July 11, 2011 at 18:21

    So if atheism is negative or lack of belief or a rejection of theism or religion then what is the alternative in morality, politics or the whole philosophy. Most atheist who reject religion but have the same moral principles like altruism then it is useless. Why reject religion when you accept their moral principles and political ideas?

    • Francois Tremblay July 11, 2011 at 18:22

      Actually, if you read this blog at all you would know what my alternatives are. And if you look up to the top of this blog, you can see the basic premise behind all these alternatives.

  10. Arizona Atheist July 11, 2011 at 19:37

    Hi Francois,

    Good post. I agree that the very idea of an “atheist movement” is silly and contradictory, but at the same time I don’t see any problem with atheists speaking out about subjects that concern them, such as separation of church and state, the religious targeting of gay marriage, etc. Of course, in my opinion being an anarchist, if the state did not exist it would be much harder for these various religious-political groups to force their crap on everyone else. But back to the issue at hand.

    Perhaps the issue isn’t with what they’re doing, but how they present their actions as some kind of “atheist movement.” I think a more appropriate label would be free-thinking, rationalism movement, or something along those lines and leave the atheism label out of it.

    Just to show how fragmentary the atheist “movement” is just look at Rebecca Watson’s recent video about how some guy in an elevator “sexualized” her and the huge uproar that’s going on in the “atheist community.” This, along with the various political positions of some atheists as you mentioned, is proof that the people who make up this “movement” do not all think alike. The only thing they agree on is the lack of belief in gods, which is likely why so many disagreements crop up every so often and divide this “atheist community.”

    All in all, I think these atheists needs to rename their movement to something more fitting (and rational) and then this paradox wouldn’t exist.

    By the way, Francois, I replied on the Researching Anarchism post. Sorry it took so long.

    • Francois Tremblay July 11, 2011 at 19:53

      I agree with your analysis, especially of the Rebecca Watson incident. The atheists commenting about it are just disgraceful. I don’t want to claim any affiliation with those morons. And with Richard Dawkins, apparently, if he really posted the comments he’s said to have posted…

  11. Cat July 12, 2011 at 19:22

    Atheism is neither a positive position nor a negative position. It is the lack of a certain kind of position.

  12. orang July 16, 2011 at 09:25

    I think a lot of us secular folk find self-declared “atheists” are annoying and embarrassing for a few of reasons – at least as much social as intellectual.

    First is that while many want to use the term to define “negative atheism”, that simply isn’t how the term “atheism” is used or understood in the larger world. Try to explain you’re a “negative atheist” to 99% of the population, and they’ll say “Oh, you mean an agnostic”. Now I’ve been young, had an undergrad degree in philosophy way ba, and made all the arguments about why this common use of the terms makes no sense. But you know what – you can’t change language. At least not by writing blogs or fliers or arguing with friends. What the “negative atheist” means, is much more akin to what the “real world” sees as an agnostic or secular or non-religious. Just deal with it.

    Which brings me to the second issue. Those in an “atheist movement” or who find this an issue of self-description are almost always young and naïve. And they are, in fact, usually “positive” atheists. It takes a good helping of ignorance to think you’re going to change common language or make radical changes to culture, and that is associated with youth. No one wants to tell them this because it kind of bursts their bubble, and we all think youthful ideology and all are somehow beneficial. And hey, occasionally you get lucky and change happens as you want it, but that has a lot more to do with becoming, say, a popular sit-com writer than writing a blog. And it is this ignorance of youth that makes most older and more matured thinkers want to distance themselves from anyone young and naïve enough to call themselves an “atheist”. Even the older, established “atheist” writers are mostly, by the time they reach the height of their success, frauds just trying to cash in on youth readership (for money or influence depending on motive).

    Third is the rather sad background of the militant “atheist”. Those who grew up with a tolerant liberal surrounding may call themselves “non-religious” or casually use the terms “atheist” or “agnostic” – but the more outspoken atheists usually come from some rural, fundamentalist town in the middle-of-nowhere USA. These are people who feel they’re clawing their way out of oppression, and usually have the type of angry irrational rage associated with the angry-white-teenage-males who spent all day listening to heavy metal music in the 1980’s. They try to cover this social bent with pseudo-intellectual ramblings, but trust me, the reasonably educated grown ups out here, both “atheist” and “religious” know the type all too well. Who wants to be associated with these annoying folks who, to put it bluntly, are largely losers from nowhere, going nowhere. Non-religious folks in educated Paris or New York are much more likely just to call themselves secular, if asked, and leave it at that.

    Fourth, and this is really related to both the youth and perceived-repression bias of the “atheists”, is the overwhelming arrogance on par with that of some of the more fundamentalist religions. Sure, religion is illogical, but to claim you know the answers (as most positive atheists do) or even that you know which belief is best for society (as most outspoken negative atheists do) is just showing your ignorance. We’re all just guessing here, and almost any religion actually might hold the key to the greatest happiness of the greatest number (or whatever your fundamental ethics are). Yes, you have to pick something, and the more you know, hopefully the better. But see that word “hopefully”? If you haven’t got to the point where you understand, and I mean deeply, why that word is in the sentence, you’d probably be better off not talking in public. And most “atheists” I know, haven’t a clue how much guessing they’re doing.

  13. John August 15, 2011 at 20:58

    THERE IS NO WAY TODAYS ATHEIST CAN KEEP QUIET.
    First, because the increase in human arrogance and the ME century upon us they are no longer afraid to speak out. After all..everyones a star on the internet.
    Atheists are banding together because their psyche’s demand positive reinforcement. Today it is possible for their fear of judgment to be squashed through constant biased buddies.
    The psychology of the matter is so obvious. They know if they are wrong– its the worst mistake in the history of mistakes. How does one live with such fear that they may be wrong? They surround themselves with themselves–sprinkle in some fun loving belittling of those who love Christ, telling them they are stupid and round the day off giving thanks to themselves for their superior magnificence
    Not only are some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen complete morons(Newton Augustine etc). But they call the Norm throughout all of history(which is belief in a creator) abnormal and delusional. In my studies of psychology the Norm is normal– and deluded are those who dont see what the overwhelming majority of humans in history clearly sees, in an instant, when they gaze at the universe.
    How does one combat the sheer weight of the math, both of the created universe and its inhabitants opinion? They seek out what their itching ears want to hear. An Atheist alone is a atheist waiting on destruction. Denial is very powerful but how much better with company. Sadly, your communing will not dissolve God into the nothingness you believe you sprang from. You Know that something created you but, because of fear of judgment, you believe That “something” was nothing.
    This is not about proof, doctrine, or history..it refusal to bow to God. Christs message is designed to penetrate Gods children to confirm that truth by direct communication with your creator. But the arrogant dont bow. They dont ask..so they dont receive and they’ll commune for all of eternity in everlasting regret that they feed their egos and attempted to sit on Gods throne instead of living with their everlasting Father who gave them life.

  14. yb August 16, 2011 at 04:45

    “You Know that something created you but, because of fear of judgment, you believe That ‘something’ was nothing.”

    You of course realize that the single stupidest way to try to convince someone they’re wrong is to do it in a way that shows you’re completely ignorant of how they think, yes?

    “But they call the Norm throughout all of history(which is belief in a creator) abnormal and delusional.”

    There was a time when the norm was belief in a flat Earth. There was a time when the norm was that diseases were caused by demons. Didn’t make them right.

    People like you are part of the reason there are so many Atheists: the things people like you say to try to argue for Theism are so often so blatantly asinine that one can’t help but suspect that all of the arguments for Theism are just as asinine.

    If you really want to convince people you’re right, do yourself a favor, and talk to some Atheists. Learn what we ACTUALLY think. The more you spout this nonsensical bullshit that has nothing to do with what we think, the more people are going to think religion has nothing but bullshit to offer.

    You think you’re fighting Atheism with this nonsense, but in all likelihood, you’re helping to spread it. I s’pose thanks are in order. Much obliged.

  15. Anthony September 14, 2011 at 21:01

    I never understood religion, but then again, I never understood atheism. Couldn’t atheism in itself be considered a religion, of course under the definition where religion is considered “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”? I, myself, consider religion and atheism one in the same, nothing more, nothing less.

    • Francois Tremblay September 15, 2011 at 00:09

      Atheism is not a religion any more than bald is a hair color.

  16. Anthony September 15, 2011 at 01:55

    I would beg to differ… it could be considered a ‘religion’ using that definition I have provided you with.

    • Francois Tremblay September 15, 2011 at 02:31

      Your “definition” applies to pretty much anything… so it’s useless. It has nothing to do with what we call religion.

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