The Homogenous Group with Nothing in Common

picture-of-molly-ringwald-emilio-estevez-judd-nelson-ally-sheedy-and-anthony-michael-hall-in-the-breakfast-club-large-picture-650x453If one engages in discussion with a self-identified atheist, it isn’t likely to be long before one is told that atheism is simply “a lack of belief in God or gods”. In general, one will be told that each atheist is as unique as a snowflake, and that it is silly to criticize secular philosophies as if that has anything to do with atheism.

In the past, I’ve criticized this view for its over-simplicity; it falsely assumes that the uniqueness of individuals means that there are no general statements to be made about a group.

I’ve also been bothered by the fact that the group seems to lack these scruples when it comes to religion, which is spoken about as if all theists believe the same things, and that these are the things Richard Dawkins thinks we believe.

What I’ve not done yet is point out how limited a view of atheism is held by such people. Many who push the idea that atheists are all different often have no idea how different atheists really are. Such people tend to think that a lack of respect for religion and a belief that there is such a thing as a “scientific” approach to life somehow automatically follows from atheism.

Perhaps the fastest way, then, to convince the New Atheists that they have particular beliefs (which, according them, ought to be supported by evidence) is to point out the things they say that other atheists patently reject.

Let’s start with Micheal Ruse. As an avowed atheist, he had this to say about Dawkins and his fans:

Humanism in its most virulent form tries to make science into a religion. It is awash with the intolerance of enthusiasm. For a start, there is the near-hysterical repudiation of religion.

Ruse goes on to argue that the New Atheism has quite a few of the same characteristics it criticizes in religion. This is not new; many have made such observations. Yet many of Dawkins’ fans have, after reading this, expressed serious doubt over whether or not Ruse is actually an atheist.

If he “lacks belief”, I often ask, what is the problem?

The problem is that he doesn’t, so the New Atheist line of thinking goes, properly understand how “scientific” it is to hate religion, how demanding evidence has shown theists to be silly and deserving of ridicule, or how religion is the real source of suffering that merely looks political and social.

And this strikes me as pure dogmatism. Even if these things were true (they aren’t remotely), anyone wanting to insist that Ruse is less an atheist, or less clear about what his atheism means, than Dakwins is claiming that there is more to atheism than “a lack of belief”.

That being the case, those that do so need to defend that “more”. They need to show, not merely assert, that religion is terrible or that there is a real conflict between science and religion (as opposed to the much more bland claim that certain theories conflict with certain understandings of certain religions).

That is, the group can’t be both sensational about their atheism and insist that it is “merely a lack of belief”.

In fact, if this isn’t a group that has enough continuity to speak of as a group, then it doesn’t deserve recognition in the public sphere. “A place at the table”, after all, is reserved for views popular enough to bother considering on a national level. If atheists agree on nothing to do with policy, then public discourse should ignore them.

And this is one of the main reasons why, traditionally, atheism has been ignored–it isn’t a political position. Certainly, it can affect one’s political position. This is precisely what the New Atheist insists upon in demanding “a place at the table”, but then denies when he demands that theists ought to be willing to vote for openly atheist representatives.

Atheism, traditionally understood, is the belief that there is no god. This is a clear position that is neither political, nor without content. And it is a clear regression to attempt to strip the word of any theological content (i.e. “merely a lack of belief”) while, out of the other side of one’s mouth, assuming that atheists are a united group which has a common set of opinions that need to be considered.

Personally, I sense the pressure turning up on atheists to chose one narrative or the other, and am curious to see which will turn out to be the more popular among them.



10 responses to “The Homogenous Group with Nothing in Common

  • DUH'Merica

    Nice post, your bring up some interesting points here. Well done.

  • David

    Here’s the thing, if there wasn’t religion, there would be no such thing as atheism. Atheism does not actually make any claim. Yes, many atheists agree with Dawkins (Harris, Dennett, etc.). The drive to “unite” is mainly to try to get representation in government. There is power in groups. However, uniting to educate people about what atheism is and why we think what we do is not the same as uniting as a religion.

    There is a large sustainability movement going on. There are rallies and regular meetings of people with a similar belief and goals. Yet I doubt anyone would try to consider sustainability as a religion. Atheism is the lack of a belief. We don’t have to disprove anything, we don’t have the burden of proof.

    • Debilis

      I’m not sure I understand this one. I didn’t claim that atheists were uniting “as a religion”. I claimed that many (not all) atheists are uniting–and that anyone asking for representation in government must agree on some things.

      But I can’t seem to find the place where the New Atheists have offered support for those things they want to push via representation. This is odd for a group that insists that claims should be backed by evidence.

      And that is the final thing. I’m not insisting that atheists disprove anything. I’m asking that they offer some support for the things they do believe. That is the problem with the “lack of belief” meme; it is simply false to say that atheists don’t have beliefs–or that groups of atheists shouldn’t support their views, particularly when they expect support from others.

    • Frank Morris

      David, I disagree with you on at least two points. One, atheism is not merely a “lack of belief”. The dirt on my shoe has a lack of belief in God, but it isn’t atheist. Atheism is an expressed claim, not a lack of a claim. Atheists claim there is no God. Denial is a claim.

      And two, since it is a claim, the claim requires support.

      Especially if you are going to claim that science supports your beliefs. This is your chance to step up and show your hand. Yet instead of the promised evidence, all I hear on these blogs is that you just “lack belief” and don’t have any evidence or need of it.

      Sounds to me like you are zero science and 100% unfounded belief.

      • David

        I think you do not have an accurate view of atheists (or at least atheists such as myself). I would happily change my world view if there were sufficient evidence to support the existence of a god. I honestly and sincerely do not claim there is no god. I don’t see evidence (or a need) for a god, so I personally don’t think there is a god. But I cannot prove there is no god.

        I will not deny that there are atheists who truly claim there is no god (though they are in the minority). But I would express exactly the same amount of skepticism towards their claims as I do towards religious ones.

        Simply put, I don’t know the true nature of the universe (heck, I’m not even sure if it even is knowable, which is another question all together). However, since I do not see a need for nor evidence of a god, I see no reason to believe in such a deity.

        If you choose to keep insisting that the majority of atheists are making the claim that there is no god, we are at an impasse due to your misunderstanding.

  • believeordoubt

    Your first sentence is so true. I wish atheists would be upfront about it.

    • believeordoubt

      Oops, misunderstood. But what really bothers me is when atheists don’t tell you what the mean by “atheism” and insist we presume they are right.

      • Debilis

        I’ve encountered that.

        I’ve also encountered a lot of mystery around the word “evidence”. I have a lot of it, based on the dictionary definition. But there’s some other version being used to say that I don’t have evidence–and no one will tell me what that definition is.

        Frustrating indeed.

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