If 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.