Atheism and Antitheism

Pic: Rod Fleming

It’s quite obvious that there is a huge amount of real hatred for atheists amongst some groups of people. American Christians in particular seem to be particularly virulent—which is not to say there are no American atheists, there are plenty. But they are definitely are in the minority and are frequently victimised.

I live in a country where that simply does not happen. France takes its secularism seriously, and I sometimes wonder if that is the real reason for the resentment so often shown by Anglo-Saxons against France and the French. But that is for another day. Here, nobody cares if you’re an atheist. In fact it’s the default position. People, generally, at least educated ones, will assume that you’re an atheist, or at least a secularist, without asking. France actively excludes religion from all State functions, including schools, and has even curbed the most offensive of public religious displays.

It’s not as if the UK is so very different; the lip-service paid to religion by the State is just that and while I think it’s both a dishonest and a dangerous position, which I would very much like to see ended, I was never ashamed of my atheism when I lived there. While the presently incumbent pair of clowns may have drafted an unelected religious czar, Baroness Warsi, into service, only an idiot could fail to see that this is just a desperate sop to religious conservatives in a desperate attempt to avoid a wipe-out at the next election.

Americans are different and I wonder why. One thing I have noticed is that for me and I suspect most Europeans, the default position here is sceptical. We see being religious as an active statement. It’s a position one adopts that sets one apart from others. Clearly, however, the inverse is true when talking of Americans. For them the default position appears to be one of religion, and not having one is a pro-active rejection of it.

But that makes no sense. An atheist simply does not have belief in gods. That’s it. I don’t believe in leprechauns, Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy either; so what?  Not having a belief is hardly a big deal. Is it? Is not having a dog a social stigma? Are there dog owners out there who want to tar and feather me?

I think part of the problem lies in the definitions, and that they were clearly written by theists. So ‘atheist’ is conflated with ‘anti-theist’. Like atheists are out to get them. Well we’re not. There are anti-theists, and I must admit I am close to being one, but being an atheist, at least when seen from an atheist point of view, doesn’t necessarily imply a hostility towards theism; it’s just a state of non-belief. (I am a militant secularist, but that’s a different thing altogether.)

This is not the same as agnosticism, an archaic position which is really being squeezed out of existence anyway. Here’s what the Oxford English has to say about that:

Pic: Rod Fleming

‘agnostic: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.’

Well, no, that’s bullshit. If there’s a god, then it must be possible to know this, to prove it somehow. We might never be able to disprove it definitively, but if you are to argue that there is a god, then you’d better be able to prove that using the same methods we prove everything else with. No get out there, and to argue—as some do—that there is definitely a god but we can’t know anything about it, is just plain silly. A god either exists or it doesn’t, and if it does, it must be possible to confirm that. I mean in a proper way, not because your old book says so.

And atheist?

‘a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods’.

That is in no way pro-active. It’s the very opposite, it’s passive. Atheists are not saying ‘god does not exist’, they’re saying, ‘we don’t believe god exists.’ How does this get to be offensive?

What about antitheism? Well, the OED doesn’t define that, but the web definition is

‘Antitheism is active opposition to theism… in secular contexts, it typically refers to direct opposition to organized religion or to the belief in any deity’

Now that’s a pro-active position and I could see how a theist might get upset by it. But people like me, who insist that theists justify the demands they make on the rest of us by demonstrating that the god they say exists actually does, are simply not, or at least not necessarily, in that camp. We’re not trying to close down churches or make religion illegal; we’re just saying ‘You can’t do certain things, like preach your creed to our children, or make demands on the rest of us to accommodate your beliefs, unless you first prove conclusively that your god exists. If you can’t, feel free to go on doing your thing in private, but stop interfering in the broader society, don’t expect any help from us, and accept that the laws of our culture apply to you too.’

The active part of being an atheist is not in trying to destroy religion, but in protecting ourselves from the beliefs of others, beliefs which they cannot prove to be true. This, however, is anathema to the theist, who can suffer no questioning of his or her conviction that there is indeed a god. And for monotheists its worse: it has to be the one they believe in. Not any of the more than 1 million other gods humanity has invented. Oops.

But it gets worse, in a bizarre twist: many theists, including monotheists, believe that any faith is better than no faith. Really? Including Scientology and Mormonism? What about the Moonies? What about the Javanese sects who believe that in order to become a man, a boy must ingest (orally or anally, depending on the tribe) the semen of an older man? Or the Polynesian Cargo Cults? Really? Any belief will do? You sure?

Of course. You see, for theists, the very act of believing is the crux of the matter, rather than what you believe in. Sure they’d rather you were on their team, but as long as you’re on someone’s team, it’s OK. Just for goodness sake don’t be thinking for yourself. That’s probably why there are so many American conspiracy-theorists, and why flagrant charlatans like von Danichen and Sitchin have done so well there.

I wonder sometimes if some people are just profoundly insecure and being so, can stand no criticism, either of themselves personally, their professed creed, or their very need for religion itself.

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