"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What Kind Of Atheist Are You?

It’s a sign of the times that non-believers are being taken seriously when we see that the category ‘Atheist’ is being broken down into subcategories. According to Andrew Brown (The Guardian 7.16.13) there are now six types of atheists listed by the author and annotated by me:

Intellectual Atheists – We’ve all met them. They nod politely at those who profess religion, keep their heads high when grace is said but respectfully so, defend the spirituality of Tibetan sages and the ‘progressive’ but secular views of Jesus Christ.  They have considered God and followed the logical arguments of Aquinas and Augustine but rejected them, logically.

Anti-theistsAnti-theists have an axe to grind. They are aggressively godless and are on a mission to show how religion is the opiate of the people, the principal cause of war, and a means of sucking money from the faithful. These non-believers probably had a Catholic priest up their knickers at one time, or were hectored from the pulpit about masturbation and dirty thoughts.  Their frustrations finally found vent, and they spew vitriol.  They are less about believing in nothing but about exposing God for the sham He is. Bill Maher, for example, who has made a fortune bashing religion.

Non-theists – For Non-theists religion is simply irrelevant.  While they understand the role religion plays in both world politics and American social life, they are totally indifferent to matters of salvation, damnation, sin, or redemption.  They are not feminists who bridle at the male image of God, nor laugh at the Bible-thumping of hinterland hillbillies, nor shake their head at the church parking lots filled to capacity.  They simply don’t care.  There is not a scintilla of a chance that there is a God, and therefore there is not much point in pondering the mysteries of religion and secular observance. Sunday is just another day.

Ritual Atheists – “They overlap quite a lot with "Seeker-agnostics", both of whom might be targeted under the marketing category known as "spiritual but not religious". What defines them is the ability to treat religious practices as something like acupuncture or Chinese medicine: something that works even though the explanation is obviously nonsense”. They are not really atheists because for them there may actually be a God. Granted, not much of a chance, but one shouldn’t be completely dismissive.

One of the defining characteristics regarding ritual atheists/agnostics is that they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions. They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation. Ritual atheist/agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual.

Activists – Environmentalists and other secularists who believe that there is some sacred in creation, whoever was behind it. Although Brown makes no reference to the Maya believers – those who believe that the Earth is a living, spiritual organism which feels pain whenever we rip out a tree without asking – Activists take atheistic secularism to almost religious heights.

I frankly don’t believe that there are any true atheists in the world today.  How could there be when one is surrounded by believers?  Especially in America where over sixty percent of the Christian population is fundamentalist of one stripe or another, it is impossible to escape religion. There is the neo-Crusade against Islam; invocation of Biblical injunction against abortion, same-sex marriage, concubinage, and blasphemy; the aforementioned Sunday crowds; the sanctimony of politicians; the Armaggedonists; and the nutcases walking in circles on Broadway with multi-colored beanies shouting "Jesus is the Lord”.

At some point in this religious barrage even the most committed atheist or the most indifferent non-theist must privately ask, “What if there is a God?”.

Most atheism seems to be sour grapes, a militant atonement for a bad experience in childhood, a resultant hatred of priests, pastors, and ministers; or anger at the self-assured and sanctimonious rectitude of religious absolutism. Who can forget the twisted foster father of Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August who tried to beat religion into the boy but who turned him into a murderer?. Or the repressive, intolerant minister-parents who people the work of Tennessee Williams?

The greatest sign that today’s atheism is a religious wannabee is the various societies, clubs, associations that have arisen.  Atheists, it seems, are not content to simply live without God, but need to go on the hustings to codify his non-existence. The Atheist Alliance of America (AAS) is one of the most prominent groups:

A shout out to the godless!  Atheist Alliance International is proud to support its Affiliate, Atheist Alliance of America, and its 2013 Convention.  
Featuring speakers including Dr Steven Pinker (recipient of the 2013 Richard Dawkins Award, which honors an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the non-theist life stance), Paula Apsell, Seth Andrews, Mary Ellen Sikes, Seth Andrews, Maryam Namazie and many more, this weekend will be a great opportunity to hear about atheist and secular issues around the world and enjoy the company of rational, like-minded people (http://www.atheistalliance.org/)

In other words if you really don’t believe, then you hardly need the support of like-minded non-believers.  You must have some doubt and want to hear from the likes of Steven Pinker, well-known scientist and academic, to calm your jitters.

If you get out and protest against something that doesn’t exist, you really have a few loose wires that need attention:

The most ridiculous – but understandable – evolution of atheism is the rise of atheist churches:

The growth of atheist churches continues across the globe. With the London-based Sunday Assembly, a non-theistic congregation, coming to New York City later this month, it’s only one of the non-believing congregations operating — or planning to, anyway — on U.S. soil.

Take, for instance, Jerry DeWitt — a former Pentecostal minister — and his newest endeavor. This weekend, he took his atheism to new levels with the launch of the Community Mission Chapel of Lake Charles Louisiana (an atheist congregation). While the house of worship sounds like a traditional Christian church, it’s quite the opposite (www.theblaze.com).

You can take religion out of the man, but you can’t take the man out of religion; or so the saying goes.

“When an atheist leaves ‘religion’”, says DeWitt, “this becomes a void in their lives. I am founding this church and hosting this service to change that.”

I have no idea what these atheistic converts pray about – perhaps that there really is no God and that he stay away from their lives – but obviously people who have been believers all their lives cannot go cold turkey.

I know of only one ‘real’ atheist, a friend of mine who grew up in a household of atheistic, intellectual, secular parents. He never had to sit through Biblical orations, hellfire-and-damnation sermons, Sunday school, or prayer. Despite the rabidly religious environment of the United States, he has never really cared.

However, even for him atheism has many of the characteristics of religion.  He grew up with strict,elaborate atheistic teachings.  He was bombarded with humanism, secularism, the writings of Democritus, Epicurus, and the Atomists of the 4th Century BCE, 7tth Century Christian era doubters, Nietzsche, and much more.  If asked, my friend can give  an articulate defense of atheism as any pew-bound Catholic.  In a sense, he is just as religious as they are.

I once had a friend who was studying for the Catholic priesthood.  He was no religious fanatic, never completed the seminary, came out of the closet, and did quite well for himself in the art world.  He told me that bringing up my kids with ‘nothing’, regardless of the spiritual considerations, was depriving them of the long and rich history of European Christianity – our heritage.  He was right in one sense. Without a study and appreciation of Christian history, art, and culture, one would be quite adrift with no cultural moorings.  I took his point, but suggested that faith played no role at all in this.  You don’t have to believe anything to admire medieval triptychs or the Pietà.

There is a category that is missing from Brown’s list and that is Demonists.  One should never make too much of the heroic stature of Satan in Paradise Lost, but he cannot be dismissed entirely.  He rails against supreme authority, is tragic in fighting a fight he knows he must lose, insidiously corrupts God’s greatest gift to the world, Humanity, and is the most interesting character in the epic poem. 

Another is the Nihilists best represented by Nietzsche. “God is dead”, the philosopher famously said, and then went on to celebrate human Will as the greatest expression of Being there can be. Rise above the herd, he said, beyond good and evil, and live as a Superman in this exalted universe free from artificial constraints. Although Existentialists were also non-believers, they did not have the muscular defiance that Nietzsche had and therefore were nowhere near as appealing.

So, if I have to put myself in one of Brown’s categories, I am a Non-Theist.  Religion doesn’t feature at all in my life….unless I read Milton and Nietzsche. Non-theism then becomes too bland and impersonal.  But then again, maybe I am falling to the same religious trap.  If I consider Satan, I must consider God; and if I admire a Superman beyond Good and Evil, then I must have to wonder what came before. So, check back with me a bit later when the shadow of the Grim Reaper lengthens to see how atheistic I am.  

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