We have all heard it over and over, “atheism isn’t a belief; it’s a non-belief.” Well besides the obvious blunder in that statement – since atheism, while a lack of a belief in God, is commonly also a belief in a state of affairs in which it is improbable, or even impossible, for God to exist – it also seems strange to even call it atheism, or an adherent and atheist. We more often than not, describe objects, ourselves, or our beliefs, by ontology – what they and we are – not by what is not. I do not call myself an Arussian – I’m an American. I do not call myself an Aliberal – I’m a conservative. I do not call myself an Ablonde – I’m a brunette. And on and on. While I am not the kind who believes that words intrinsically create reality, I do think that words reveal our real (and often subconscious – something like a Freudian slip, minus the phallic obsession) thoughts about reality - what we label things reveals sometimes as much about us, as the thing we label. In the same way that I believe in universal moral objectivity (and that everyone else does to, regardless of how much they may protest) by the fact that every person uses objective moral language of obligation, I also think the way we label ourselves reveals what and how we think about our own worldviews. Even though “atheism” may technically amount to simply a lack of belief in a deity, the fact that atheists commonly label themselves “atheists”, (and ascribe attributes to such a label, such as rationalism, empirical validity, etc.) reveals that functionally speaking “atheism” may in fact actually be what people say that it isn’t – a belief; a system of thought. And if they treat it as a belief, then so will I. What’s good for the goose…
However, what I find most bewildering about this kind of hermetic statement is the sheer unassailability of it. It is declared in such a way as to isolate the speaker from any scrutiny of their own and actual worldview. While atheism, strictly speaking, is not a worldview, terminologically speaking atheism has come to be nearly synonymous with philosophical naturalism, empiricism, scientism, or materialism (or some abominable Frankenteinean amalgamation of them). But this blending of lexicography is not only found in Christian or theistic literature and thought on the issue. If you were to ask an atheist what their worldview is, they often label themselves as “atheists”, as if the nomenclature of “atheism” defines who they are and what they believe – a role classically and principally held by one’s worldview. They will not say, “I am a philosophical naturalist”; they say “I am an atheist”, unless pressured during a debate to defend their position – however since “atheism” tends to be their instinctive result, it again shows that they themselves think of it, practically speaking, as a belief or a positive position. This linguistic slight of hand however, has the desired effect of deflection away from any real scrutiny of their position, let alone their worldview since supplanting “atheism” for “philosophical naturalism” and then calling “atheism” a non-belief makes it seem as if the atheist has no worldview to assail – that they are the pillars of objectivity with no presuppositions or assumptions to scrutinize. It is reminiscent of the Obi Wan mind trick – “this is not the worldview you are looking for” – even though it undoubtedly is.
So what comes of this? Well the atheist gets to treat their atheism as a worldview from which to launch assaults on theism or supernaturalism without fear of reprisal or even the slightest whiff skeptical examination. They get to hold their atheism dogmatically and even possibly “religiously” – having conventions, conferences, publishing journals and periodicals, dedicating books, marketing for the belief in unbelief, forming societies, having weekly/monthly gatherings (worship services?), all while saying that it is not actually a belief. (I wonder if Christians could so easily self-insolate their beliefs if we start calling ourselves “A-atheists”, and positing our beliefs as simply negations of other beliefs/non-beliefs. We would then be able to object “A-atheism is not a belief – we simply reject the rejection of God” and declare all objections henceforth hum drum and be on our merry way. I can see the vein on Hitchens’ forehead throbbing already.) There is even the formation of something like a shared language and mythos - Atheistamese – common clichés, verbiage, and talking points started by the canonized Apostles of Ditchkins (Terry Eagleton’s conflation of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), Harris and Dennett and company, which has trickled down to the teeming masses of sophomoric bloggers and countless skeptical acolytes - we are on the verge of something like confessional atheism replete with orthodoxy, creeds, apostates and inquisitors. Add in a healthy scoop of social liberalism, a lavish portion of assumptive scientism, and a pinch of western, upper to middle class elitism, and we have the tell-tale savory taste of fundamentalist stew.
Many people have pointed out the absurdity of the position that atheism is not a belief. A common statement, I believe first coined by Dinesh D’Souza, is that I don’t believe in unicorns, but I don’t go around writing books like “Unicorns are not Great” or “The Unicorn Delusion.” No, I simply continue on my way as if unicorns do not exist. I can hear the rumblings of the atheists now. “But no one really believes in unicorns! We write and meet because people still actually believe in God!” Even in my weaker moments, where I am tempted to see the logic in this objection, I still have the intellectual honesty to simply say, “Who cares?” I am not a conservative because other people still actually believe in liberalism, I am one because I believe in conservative principles. As noted above, we never identify ourselves or our beliefs by what we don’t believe. Atheists are not philosophical naturalists or empiricists because there are people who believe in theism, but because they have read too much Hume (or maybe not enough), Dawkins, Harris, or, possibly even too much modern, anti-intellectual, Pelagian, fundamentalistic Christian authors -nothing kills belief in Christianity quite like a healthy dose of irrational, self-righteous, legalistic and explicitly anti-scientific Christianity-lite. But the fact still remains, we simply do not identify ourselves by what we don’t believe - I am not sure why this case of atheism should be any different.
We form social groupings around things that we have in common. It is possible for us to form communities around shared distaste for things – like the Klu Klux Klan’s distaste for other races or the Nazi distaste for Jews – but there is almost always a shared belief – like, again for the Klu Klux Klan and the Nazis, the superiority of the white race. While atheists may say that they gather together for shared unbelief, I suspect that it is actually the sense of shared belief in naturalism that has the strongest pull. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Singer, Dennett and others, are widely read because people want to disagree with what they disagree with, but also because there is a community of belief implicit in the writer-reader relationship. It is shared belief, not unbelief, that gets us to pick up a book and nod our head along with the author when they express more eloquently than we ever could, our very own thoughts and presuppositions – when what they say has that good ol’ ring of truth in our ears.
I have seen this with many of my friends on various blog sites – post after post is dedicated to knocking Christians, religion, faith, the Bible, or those who would disagree with him – but rarely (I am tempted to say never since so long as I have been on here I have not witnessed it) do any of them post anything on what they positively believes. We only can infer what they believes based on what he rejects and by gathering fragmented statements throughout the threads – by the philosophical naturalism that oozes between every letter like the grout that holds tiles in place. Maybe this is like the elementary boy likes girl syndrome. Since he doesn’t know how to express his affection for God, he lashes out in fits of rage. The more vitriolic it gets, the more impassioned he actually becomes; the more he wants to sit at her table the more alone he feels and thus the more he lashes out – just a thought. But then again, why would someone actually publish their worldview and leave it open for scrutiny when they can simply attack someone else’s, forever sheltering themselves from any kind of honest reflection or hostile examination. It is the irony of the skeptic that they are skeptical of everything except their own skepticism, that they demand empirical evidence for everything except their own Empiricism. This is just one more example of the Bible’s true insight – the atheists may want to claim that atheism is not a belief, but we really will know them by their fruit.