Defining Anti-theism

by John C. Snider © 2009

It’s official.  American Freethought is now a “prominent atheist website.”  So implies Robert Wright in his latest essay, “End Times,” part of his guest-blogging stint at Andrew Sullivan’s “The Daily Dish” blog at The Atlantic.  Who am I to argue with him?  :)

“End Times” is Wright’s latest volley in the general direction of so-called “New Atheists,” which I’ve said repeatedly (and may continue saying until somebody corrects me) is a squishy term that is not embraced, as far as I can tell, by any atheist organization; has no self-identified membership or tenets, and is really just a term latched onto by the media ’cause all of a sudden they discovered atheism is sexy.  (Of course, we all knew that already, didn’t we?)

New Atheist = Atheism + Anti-Theism?

Wright’s conclusion, in short, is that New Atheism = Atheism + Anti-theism.  Wright never defines anti-theism explicitly, but he says it involves “the idea that religion is the cause of conflicts that involve religion.”

I suspect Wright’s definition of anti-theism would be something like “the view that theism is inherently bad.”  Wright may not be aware that Christopher Hitchens often refers to himself as an “anti-theist”; in fact, he wrote, in his book Letters to a Young Contrarian (published in 2001, well before the term New Atheist came on the scene):

“I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful. Reviewing the false claims of religion I do not wish, as some sentimental agnostics affect to wish, that they were true. I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.”

Hitchens sets himself apart from atheists who accept their unbelief, but grudgingly admit that they wish it were true that there was a loving God who rewards the righteous with an eternal afterlife in some heavenly utopia.  (Of course, if heaven were an unremitting state of bliss, cocaine high, or perpetual orgasm, who would turn it down?)

People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, it’s fair to say, generally share Hitchens’ stance, although they might word their objections differently.  Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, despite being branded a New Atheist and one of the Four Horsemen to boot, readily admitted in a New York Times interview, “Sometimes I go to church for the music… Churches have given us great treasures.  Whether that pays for the harm they have done is another matter.”  It’s hard to imagine any of Dennett’s fellow Horsemen darkening the door of the local chapel to enjoy the choir–which further reinforces my point that “New Atheism,” whatever it is, isn’t very monolithic.

How do you like your Anti-theism: Hard or Soft?

Wright is probably finding out, based on the tsunami of feedback he’s been getting from the freethought community, that freethinkers are by no means groupthinkers.  There are atheists who believe that the ill effects of religion–practiced benevolently–are trivial; atheists who see religion as a mixed bag; and atheists (like Hitchens) who believe that “religion poisons everything” (and mean that quite literally).

I would daresay 100% of atheists agree on one thing: that theism of any stripe is mistaken; that it is an incorrect model of reality.  In that sense, all atheists are also anti-theists.  It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that if you believe there is no god, you also think those who believe there is a god are mistaken?

I will go farther and dare to say that no atheist would claim to believe that there are no ill effects due to religion.  I know that treads right up to the line of non sequitur, but I find it very hard to imagine someone who would believe that a mistaken worldview is a completely harmless worldview.

In short, I believe anti-theism can be divided into two camps: soft anti-theists, who believe theism is a mistaken worldview but does not necessarily lead to disaster; and hard anti-theists, who see theism as both mistaken and inherently harmful, and something that should be actively opposed.  What Wright and others have been calling “New Atheism” is actually “Hard Anti-theism.”  Not as catchy, but in my opinion more accurate.

New, or just new to some?

Even so, there’s absolutely nothing new about the existence of hard anti-theists within the atheist community.  They have always been there and they will continue to be there.  People who say that this is “New Atheism” are the same kind of people who will tag some singer is an “overnight success.”  Only, there’s nothing overnight about it: when you look into it you find out he or she has been paying dues, toiling in obscurity for five, ten, twenty years, until they acheive a broader success.  Just because you, Mr. Journalist, just found out about it doesn’t make it new.  And while talking only to hard anti-theists makes for great theater, it makes for piss-poor journalism and gives the public a skewed impression of reality.

I have no illusions that I’ve put this debate to bed once and for all.  It will probably take all of 15 minutes for a fellow atheist to challenge or dismantle my notions of hard and soft anti-theism.  But I am always open to modifying my views given new information, something that the partisans of theism are far less likely to do.

Confused?  You can follow this thread (it’s not really a proper debate) by listening to/reading the following links in chronological order:

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