Varieties of atheistic experience

There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.

  1. “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
  2. “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
  3. Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, which is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise.

“Smarter than you” atheism sometimes incorporates elements of protest atheism in the form of a moral or political critique of the effects of religion. But that aspect is grounded in the basic assumption that religious beliefs are false and therefore holding them makes you stupid — meaning, as a corollary, that you do stupid and destructive things. By contrast, the smart atheist, free of the blinders of religion, has arrived at the best and truest way of life: secular liberal capitalism. So the end result of being really smart, unlike those religious freaks, is conformism, leaving us to wonder whether all the harsh rhetoric and college dormroom “gotchas” were worth it in the end.

Protest atheism, for its part, always threatens to collapse into “smarter than you” atheism when suffering and injustice become steps in a disproof of theistic beliefs rather than representing a genuine and heartfelt outrage. Even so, protest atheism at least preserves the sense that the world is not as it should be — and unlike the impoverished social critique of “smarter than you” atheism, it does not scapegoat some particular group or belief system (“If only we could get rid of those idiot religious people, we could have our utopia of reason!”). This scapegoating instinct is another element in the elective affinity between “smarter than you” atheism and racism.

18 thoughts on “Varieties of atheistic experience

  1. I kind of think New Atheists on Islam is like the Dems on Putin. It isn’t that they are wrong (they are probably wrong) so much as getting all worked up is going to end up in some sort of war somehow.

    Would like it if you could say you were an atheist and still get elected president or whatever.

  2. Adam, is there a correspondence between these forms of atheism and paralleled theisms? Here, we would, then, be dividing up theism in the same ways and noting that the type of theism that is interesting is one which touches the “protest” column.

    Or is it naive to posit such correspondences (something that is often done with certain religious fundamentalisms and “Smarter than you” Atheism)?

    I suppose I wonder about this way of conceiving things because I have lately only found theisms that could be paralleled to protest atheism genuinely interesting.

    Eh, after writing this I’m not sure if it will contribute, but figured I may as well post anyways.

  3. Yeah, I think you could do a similar typology for theism — there are definitely protest theisms, as well as “matter of course” theisms (yup, there’s obviously a God, no big deal). And of course there are self-satisfied theisms, as we’re all well aware.

  4. It is a good note that atheism is a potential slide to group labeling (p.c. racism) – that engaging on a notion viewed as ridiculous by one side can only end in ridicule by that side. This is how the “smarter than” group fails to be smart enough to see only disastrous endgames for engaging on a topic where there is no common ground, no synthesis even available.

    Minor quibbles on secondary thoughts in this post. I’m not sure about the political jump to “secular liberal capitalism”, simply by finding the category of God wanting (is this simply “then no available alternatives to neoliberalism?”). Nor that justice is tied to either the divine or monotheism – these days it’s become a very plural, ground-based, democratic notion (legal, in fact – since we now have plenty of case law not grounded in religion). I’m sure you have more glue behind these thoughts, which would make for interesting follow-on posts (or links back to them).

  5. I’m describing the actual practice of New Atheists, not positing some kind of necessity. The very fact that there are varieties of atheism should indicate that I’m not putting forward some lockstep unavoidable sequence that follows from the rejection of God. Nothing in particular follows from a negative statement — for instance, Buddhism does not accept the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, but that true statement does not give you any real foothold to learn anything interesting about Buddhism nor indeed to guess what Buddhism is concretely like at all.

    Nor is justice necessarily tied to the divine. Some concept of justice has surely always existed. It’s just that monotheism staked its religious claims on the notion of justice — that was its historical innovation (see Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism). Again, not claiming there’s some necessary tie between God and justice, only that protest follows in the tradition of linking the two precisely by protesting against the lack of a link between the two.

  6. “protest follows in the tradition of linking the two precisely by protesting against the lack of a link between the two” is a striking sentiment – especially in this new American age of (likely) great protest. Everyone understands fighting for America. Being abstracted from the fray, “smarter than” those others, is to negate reality in a way that has existential consequences. Anyway, it’s a parallel that resonates for me.

  7. Do you see a fundamental difference between protest atheism and protest theism? I’ve always thought of Moses in Exodus 32:32 as exemplifying protest theism. If this is what you’re going to do, then count me with the damned. But would he fit your example of protest atheism, insofar as he ‘calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world.” I know of many who would share this sentiment, would agree that “monotheism failed to deliver on its own promise”, but who might rightly pass at theists. They are still arguing, still protesting, thus still relating to God, sometimes even in communities with more or less agonized ‘theists.” I’m thinking of some examples in Zachary Braiterman’s book (God) After Auschwitz here.
    I’m wondering if you have in mind criterion for making a distinction here.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  8. I can understand why the third kind of atheism is interesting – it’s the only accessible kind. The first two depend on either righteous knowledge superiority or righteous moral superiority (“I expect proof” or “I have the courage to face facts”). The third kind on the other hand says “I want to live honorably in the face of No God”. Not much different, maybe not different at all, from saying “I want to to live honorably in the prescence of God”. All of the sudden there’s something to talk about.

  9. Protest atheism is definitely a paradoxical space to occupy, and I can see a perspective where it would be indistinguishable from theism in that sense. The Moses example is great and counterintuitive — everyone always thinks of Job, but inscribing the protest impulse into the very founder himself is great. I follow Assmann in viewing monotheism as always fundamentally protest monotheism (with the demand for justice, etc.).

  10. It had occurred to me that you may have had it in mind, it seemed too good a fit! His interlocutor should have doubled down using the deutonomistic paradigm, the fly that eats the poor boys eye was the result of his choice to drink dirty water or play too much Polemon Go or something.

  11. Your choice between matter of fact atheism and smarter than thou atheism seems false. Why can’t someone have a deep conviction that god doesn’t exist and also have compassion or respect towards believers? I’m just disagreeing with the idea that moderate atheists (if you will) lack conviction and therefore aren’t “interesting”. You seem to equate conviction with evangelical zeal, but what if a deeply held conviction leads to an attitude of “live and let live”? I personally have a deeply held belief that god doesn’t exist and I also don’t care what others believe as long as it doesn’t affect me.

  12. I would assume that in the cases you describe, the real conviction isn’t the negative claim that God doesn’t exist, but a positive corrolary like “this is all there is” or “we only have each other” or something like that. Atheism is a necessary aspect of that, but it’s not the real principle guiding your practice and thinking. The problem with smarter-than-you atheism is that the negative claim does become the guiding principle, which leads to nihilism and scapegoating of others.

  13. Mildly disappointed… I misread the title when I opened this. Thought it was going to be, Varieties of Aesthetic Experience… still taking in the loss of John Berger, I guess. :-)

  14. I appreciate you’re not aiming at a complete taxonomy of atheism in this (short) post (despite the apparent claim of the opening sentence); but two more varieties of atheism suggest themselves, One is that kind that exists between religion as a social praxis and religion as a set of metaphysical or spiritual beliefs. There are, surely, people who are very comfortable in the social context of church attendance, their Christian (or whatever) peer groups, their political and ideological church identity, who don’t necessarily ‘believe’, or much think about the metaphysical side of the question. And then there are what I suppose is a much smaller group of people who do the Zizeckian thing of taking atheism to be the secret truth of religious faith — I mean in the spirit of Chesterton’s striking argument that Christ’s ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani’ means that Christianity is a faith centred on a God who, even if only for a moment, disbelieved in God.

  15. I could see option one being a result of option three. The evidential argument from evil and the argument from divine hiddenness could both be interpreted as “failure to deliver” criticisms. And if you want to get Christian specific, arguments against the resurrection (either by constructing an alternative scenario or by pointing out Jesus’s failure to return within his generation as he prophesied and the disciples expected) also fit the bill.

  16. I think the more fundamental problem of Number One is that it’s simply wrong. The problem is at least two-pronged:

    1. There are extremely fundamental things that are not well explained by natural science: among many others, what’s going inside human heads. The attempts to dismiss these as explainable solely by natural science have never been as successful as they would need to be. Then, the attempts by analytic philosophy to get around this problem have been, at best, no more than admirable partial efforts whose results are pretty fragile.

    2. Once we recognize the situation in my point 1, the problem becomes that most philosophers systems need an Unmoved Mover or First Cause to explain extremely fundamental concepts (Aristotle, obviously but most others as well).

    That doesn’t entail that positivism (since, in the end, that’s what we’re talking about) is impossible. What it does mean is that anyone who wants to take positivism seriously needs, at minimum, to recognize the current fragility of his positions. They have to be really serious about aggressively reasoning about this. Since the vast majority of class 1 atheists aren’t serious about this, their positions are ultimately uninteresting.

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