Thomas Wells explains why he rejects the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett:
The fundamental problem with all this is that the new atheists accept that religion is important enough that it matters whether one has the right or wrong beliefs about it, and have specific views about what religious beliefs one should hold. What separates them from me is that I don’t consider religion worthy of rational dissent, and I don’t consider that true freedom from religion would require me to rationally justify my lack of belief or interest in it. Of course god doesn’t exist. So what?
There are many supernatural things that some people believe in that I don’t, including Santa Claus, UFOs, crop circles, witches, ghosts, homeopathy, gods, fairies, and astrology. I see no particular reason to select out my non-belief in gods from that list of non-beliefs for special attention and justification. I see no no more reason to describe myself as an atheist, than as an afairieist, ahomeopathist, etc. To put it another way, my non-belief is apathetic: the nonexistence of God/Gods is a matter of great insignificance to me.
A reader objects to Thomas Wells:
I don’t know what kind of bubble he’s living in, but he’s completely dismissing (or outright missing) the social context of religion. Wells wrote:
I see no more reason to describe myself as an atheist, than as an afairieist, ahomeopathist, etc. To put it another way, my non-belief is apathetic: the nonexistence of God/Gods is a matter of great insignificance to me.
Well, I do see a reason: there are not billions of people who identify as members of “fairieist” or “homeopathist” institutions. Like the other examples in his list – UFOs, crop circles, ghosts – they are regarded by our society as the harmless delusions of an insignificant minority. Religion is categorically different.
I am an atheist, but religion is important to me because it is important to virtually everyone I interact with in my community; because it is important to the people who write my laws and run my country; because the faith-based method of forming beliefs and making decisions affects me and people I care about. There’s no corresponding phenomenon of astrologist families disowning their gay sons and daughters, or Santa Claus extremists flying planes into buildings. Come on.
The “So what?” from that Thomas Wells excerpt angered me, as the reason God’s nonexistence matters more than that of fairies or UFOs is quite clearly the fact that nobody’s trying to legislate based on the latter. But clicking through and reading Wells’ full essay reveals that he addresses that point by distinguishing secularism as a broader (and, to him, more laudable) category than atheism. So, anger abated.
But reading his piece got me thinking about when and why I moved from his casual brand of non-belief to feeling a need to call myself an atheist and to tell others (politely!). I can remember the moment clearly. It was a December, early in the Clinton presidency, and I was watching some Xmas special broadcast from D.C. on television. Hillary Clinton was onstage, reciting from a prompter, saying something about her faith in Jesus. Her line reading was so stilted, and her “faith” so transparently part of a political as well as a literal script, I turned to my wife and said, “I’ve never believed in God, but now I’m an atheist.”
In that moment, the dispassionate silence Wells advocates and I’d always practiced struck me as deeply misguided – not because I thought it was my duty to change the mind of anyone who had beliefs I lacked, but because so many of those people took it for granted there was only one way one could or should think about God that expressing faith in Jesus had somehow become a requirement of running our country. For me, saying “I’m an atheist” is an important reminder that believing in God is not a requirement of citizenship.
But a third reader agrees with Wells’ criticism of the New Atheists and offers an analogy:
I deeply dislike soccer. I think it is boring. I think the culture is bizarre and unappealing. I don’t like it every four years when the World Cup gets everyone excited for a couple of weeks; I don’t like it when my friends play FIFA on Xbox; I don’t like it when I watch it with my Latina girlfriend and her family. I didn’t like it when I lived in Amsterdam and my friends would go out to watch Ajax matches. I have tried over and over to give it a chance.
And I just don’t care. I am “asoccer.” Maybe I will give soccer another chance. I mean, spectacle is exciting in general, and I like to think I take interest in my friends’ and family’s interests. And, getting to my point, I will definitely give theism many more chances. But I am without God. I am an atheist. I don’t care.
Mr. Wells’s article spoke to a lot of emotions I have felt about atheism/theism, and, even more so, about the New Atheists. Why do these people so intent on their own atheism spend so much time talking about God? They sound like jilted lovers dishing dirt on how they’re “better off anyway.” Get over it. Move on. These folks have chosen to define themselves in opposition to something, and in the process necessarily must legitimize the very thing they are disowning. It’s just loud madness, and it’s become the face of atheism.
I want to admit to my friends and family that I am an atheist, but the New Atheists are making it harder. They’re contrarians. They’re dickheads. Imagine if I brought up my dislike of soccer to my friends, not just every time soccer came up, but every time sports came up. After the Super Bowl. Every Wiffle ball game. Every time a coworker caught a falling pen.
I don’t know, maybe the analogy is breaking down, but I don’t understand why someone would force themselves to see the world through the very thing they detest. The great thing about not liking soccer is that I don’t have to think about soccer. The great thing about being an atheist is that I don’t have to think about God.
Another steps back:
You know, I’ve seen readers criticize the Dish with statements like “I never read your Sunday posts” because of all the God talk. They should maybe reconsider, because every Sunday you seem to have plenty of atheist talk as well. And I really appreciate both.
A reader writes:
First, thank you for giving atheists a say in your conversations about religion. One of your readers referred to atheists like me as “dickheads” because he gets tired of us constantly talking about our disbelief in gods. Okay, I’ll happily join the ranks of feminists who were dickheads about getting the vote, African Americans who were dickheads in the pursuit of equal rights, and those dickhead gays who demand respect and the same rights as heterosexuals. I only want my government to respect my right to not believe the existence of a god, to remain neutral when it comes to religion, to not push Christianity as a national religion, or give special privileges to religions. I want a social climate where atheists are not stigmatized.
A number of friends and relatives have told me in private that they, too, don’t believe in the existence of gods but either cannot or prefer not to make that public. I want that to end someday. I want to see a day when people believe or don’t believe because it makes sense to them, not because everyone else believes it, or that’s what’s expected of them.
I speak out so that our leaders understand there are atheists out there who feel just as strongly about our belief as they do about their religion. I never want another person to experience what happened to me a few years ago. When my wife’s sister collapsed and died suddenly, her whole family was devastated. At the funeral they were still reeling. My wife’s family is devoutly Catholic and she never told them that I was an atheist (she’s accepted it). During the Catholic service honoring her sister’s life, the priest spoke highly of her sister’s service and devotion to the church, that she is now in a better place with Jesus, and how Great our Lord Jesus is. To reinforce this, he exhorted everyone who believes in the love of Jesus to stand up. My wife and I were seated near the front of the church and I quickly had to decide what to do. I chose not to stand. Everyone saw this and it just added to the pain of the moment for my wife. (I might add that I am not the same race as her family, which added to the awkwardness.)
I want religious leaders to understand that exhortations like this can embarrass those who aren’t Christians, and in some cases it can break up families and marriages. If the priest had just asked those who believe to say “Amen” few if any would have noticed those who said nothing. This has left a lasting scar on my marriage and my relationship with my wife’s family.
I honestly don’t care if people believe in a God or not. I never talk about people’s religion or try to convince them there is no God unless they bring my atheism up first. I’m only a dickhead when people force their religious beliefs on me or on my government. I want people to understand that there are a lot of atheists out there, that we are sane, moral citizens with rights we are willing to stand up for.
I don’t think New Atheists are any more militant or angry than other minority advocacy groups, but I can freely admit that there is some actual anger, and that there are some pretty legit reasons for it. There is a large segment of the population that believes that an atheist is inherently immoral because humans are incapable of having a moral compass without divine belief. There is the mirror belief, even among agnostics, that being religious is somehow an indicator of higher ethical standards. Given history, a lot of atheists find this annoying, dismaying, and at times infuriating. Does not every minority encounter and react to these sorts of morally superior arguments and broad based but inaccurate characterizations and assumptions? Why is the bar for anger and militancy set so low when discussing the godless? And I have not even touched on religion’s extraordinary influence on the culture wars and politics, which Thomas Wells makes only the briefest mention of before dismissing it.
Lastly, regarding your reader who analogized atheism to his dislike for soccer, questioning the appropriateness of him constantly berating his friends and relatives if they ever watch the sport: Know what I do at the half-dozen events per month that involve someone telling us to bow our heads in prayer? I remain quietly respectful, as all atheists I know would do. Know what I do if someone asks me about my religion or what church I attend? I tell them I am an atheist. See the difference? The only time it may get a little tense is if I am baselessly accused of immorality, hatred of god, willful disobedience to what I “know must be true”, or encounter the justification of a preferred public policy decision because “its in the Bible.” You tell me who is being the dick in such a conversation.
Great thread, thanks. Let’s say the New Atheists are indeed “dickheads” and “contrarians,” as your writer argues. That’s even more of a reason to speak out, and do so with grace and kindness. One of the best compliments I ever received was from a Christian co-worker after she found out about my atheist activism, saying that my kindness disproved the stereotype of the amoral atheist.
The thread continues:
Although I am a Christian, I generally sympathize with the desire of atheists not to have religion assumed or forced upon them in various ways. But I have to respond to the reader who was embarrassed by Christian exhortations … at a Catholic funeral service. Perhaps one could argue that a funeral (or a marriage), bringing together many disparate friends and relatives of the deceased should be a more neutral occasion than a regular church service, but just how sensitive to the feelings of the irreligious do we need to be in our own houses of worship? Atheists who cannot deal with calls for affirmation of belief in a church probably need to think very hard about going into them in the first place.
Another is also incredulous:
Your reader actually suggests alternative things the priest could have said to allow the believers in the church to acknowledge their love of Jesus without embarrassing the non-believers in the room. Because that’s who’s important here – not the Catholic woman who died. Not the Catholic family who grieves for her. Not the friends and fellow congregants who are there to to pay their respects. But the non-believing brother-in-law, who chose not to inform his wife’s family of his beliefs, who chose to attend the funeral knowing it could get all Catholic in there (it being a church) and who lacked the common sense to realize that maybe just standing at that moment would prevent causing pain to his wife and injury to his marriage.
How would a better understanding and acceptance of atheism among the general populace have changed that moment?
A “non-theist” reader argues that the nonbeliever had less of a reason to remain sitting than a hypothetical Jew or Muslim would:
If he had an alternative religious belief, I could understand his refusal to participate (and I’m sure his in-laws would have too). But as an atheist – one who is “without god” – there’s nothing sacred that would be profaned by his participation in this instance.
I have no particular problem going along with religious gestures that don’t especially harm me, and don’t contravene any particular moral code I have, if it helps people in situations like this. In fact, because I tend to think of religion as a social phenomenon – as something that gathers together a community, regardless of the truth or falsity of the metaphysical claims behind it – I am happy to go along with these kinds of acts. That’s the rational response – the one that tries to understand the needs that these beliefs serve, rather than getting hysterical over the fact that other people have them.
Another shifts gears:
I think we need to make another distinction among atheists: by region. It was immediately clear to me that your first batch of readers to respond are not from the Northeast. I grew up in Connecticut and live in New York City, and the persecution or ostracism of atheists here is practically nonexistent. The most you will get is some disapproval expressed behind closed doors. I remember my pastor saying once that atheists had no moral framework, and I thought it was the most offensive thing I’d ever heard in my (fairly liberal) church. On the other hand, I frequently had to bite my tongue growing up Christian when friends would openly mock Christian beliefs and traditions. So I can relate to the idea of the new atheist; what I would call the evangelistic atheist. But I imagine things are very different in the South, where religion is taken for granted and is much more a part of public life.
A reader sighs:
Wow. These last few letters get to the heart I think of what drives so many of us non-believers crazy. Here we have Christians telling an atheist that he should make a mockery of the priest’s exhortation by essentially lying in a house of worship. Then we have another insinuating that non-believers aren’t welcome at church. I would remind those readers that it wasn’t the atheist who couldn’t handle the call for affirmation; it was the family who couldn’t handle his respectful honesty. The right answer here isn’t for the priest to change his tradition nor for the atheist to stay home or pretend he’s something he’s not. The right answer is for Christians like this reader’s in-laws to grow up and realize that atheists are everywhere, they’re not boogeymen, and being in the presence of one isn’t a reason to be upset. Ever.
What exactly did the brother-in-law do wrong? This isn’t a simple mid-week mass where it can be reasonably assumes that all attendees are Catholic. This was a funeral. Is it reasonable for the priest to think that all her friends and family share the same religion? Is it unreasonable to think that some non-coreligionists would want to pay their respects to the deceased or support her surviving family? It’s not okay for an atheist to skip the funeral of a loved one just because it’s held in a house of worship, and by the same token it’s not okay for the minister to ignore the fact that, at such times, not everyone will be members of their faith.
The story resonates for another reader:
Your readers’ less-than-sympathetic responses to the atheist who chose not to stand up to “affirm his belief” at his wife’s sister’s funeral reminds me of my mother’s experience with her church. She is not very religious, but a believer of sorts, and someone who really enjoyed attending church at Christmas and Easter. (She liked the music and the singing and the space and time to get in touch with god.) But about five years ago at a Christmas service, during the hymn where the congregation sings “We will raise him up, we will raise him up, we will raise him up in the highest,” the priest gestured in such a way as to indicate that everyone should raise up their hands while singing. Most everyone did this, but my mother was uncomfortable with this kind of outward expression and chose not to participate. She mentioned her discomfort to the priest as she was walking out of the service, and, as she tells it, he icily smiled at her and said, “There are plenty of other churches in the neighborhood at which you would not have this problem.” Or something to that effect. “I’ve just been excommunicated from my local church,” she thought. And she hasn’t attended that – or any other – church since.
These kinds of public expressions feel very coercive, if not downright creepy. Not just to atheists like me, or wavering believers like my mother, but, I would think, to everyone. If you don’t participate, or participate fully, you might be looked down upon, ostracized. In the case of my mother, its practical effect was to weed out the less devoted members of the congregation. I can’t help but think this is part of the ritual’s appeal. The true believers would rather not have the less-than-true-believers and non-believers around – not even at a Christmas service, or at funerals of their close relations.
Update from the earlier reader who spurred backlash from the in-tray:
I’m the “dickhead” atheist who wrote about my experience at the Catholic funeral for my wife’s sister. You printed some critical responses, which I read with interest. However, a few remarks smacked of the kind of religious arrogance that turn non-believers like me into “dickhead” atheists. One wrote:
Perhaps one could argue that a funeral (or a marriage), bringing together many disparate friends and relatives of the deceased should be a more neutral occasion than a regular church service, but just how sensitive to the feelings of the irreligious do we need to be in our own houses of worship? Atheists who cannot deal with calls for affirmation of belief in a church probably need to think very hard about going into them in the first place.
Perhaps a funeral or marriage should be a more neutral occasion than a regular church service? Why “perhaps”? Is it vitally important in a house of worship that all who enter must believe and act accordingly? In a church I bow my head during prayers, I open the hymnal to the page of the song, I kneel when everyone else kneels. I do this out of respect, and every atheist I know does the same. Is respect in a house of worship a one-way street? All I asked was that when there are two ways to ask those in attendance to affirm their belief in Jesus’s love, pick the one that doesn’t offend or embarrass.
Many atheists are still in the closet for practical reasons. I find it offensive that religious folks suggest that maybe atheists should just stay away from weddings or funerals in houses of worship if we’re worried that the priest or minister might force us to out ourselves, or lie instead.
My wife needed me at that service. Even if I had known what was going to happen, I would have gone. By remaining seated I outed myself to people who didn’t need to know I’m an atheist any more than they need to know I’m uncircumcised. If I had stood I would have lied. There were other options that wouldn’t have put non-Christians on the spot, but then, as some assert, why should religious people give a damn about the irreligious in their house of worship?
To the writer who asked, “How would a better understanding and acceptance of atheism among the general populace have changed that moment?”, the “dickhead atheist” responds:
I don’t believe the priest in question meant to embarrass non-believers; he just lives in a religious bubble most of the time. A better understanding that there are a lot of atheists in the world, some of whom will likely attend funerals and weddings in his church might have spurred him to change how he asked people to show their love for his God.
Readers continue the thread with many wonderful emails:
I also relate to the brother-in-law who wanted to support his wife but did not stand in church because he doesn’t believe in God. I also attend church with my family during holidays, or Mass when I’m visiting my boyfriend’s family. But I don’t take communion or say anything that indicates I am a believer. Why? It’s not to be contrary; it’s out of respect. These are very real beliefs for these people, and participating to the point of lying is disrespectful to their traditions and faith (not to mention confusing for my family, who have been told and must continue to be told that I do not share their beliefs). Isn’t Revelations 3:15-16 applicable here? “‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”
Another broadens the discussion:
I think there’s something missing in these posts: an accurate label. Personal atheism is an apathetic stance, since it only describes one’s absence of beliefs compared to others’. But what is always referred to as New Atheism can better be described as anti-theism. It’s not just a statement of personal beliefs, but a political stance against religion as the basis for legal or political policy. Of course, being “anti” something carries a stigma (so that anti-abortion becomes pro-life, or anti-gay becomes pro-“religious freedom”). So perhaps New Atheists – or in my term, anti-theists – can call ourselves pro-secular. But somehow, that doesn’t have the same ring. My main point is that it’s a branding issue. How do you oppose conflating religion and politics without denigrating others’ beliefs?
Another notes, “Regarding Thomas Wells’ article, there’s already this term: Apatheism.” Another reader, less concerned about labeling, sees the value in being a gadfly:
I’m probably one of the “New Atheists” Thomas Wells dislikes or one of the dickheads your reader described. The reason why I’m a dickhead atheist relates to when I realized I was an atheist. Recently my brother entered into the seminary to become a Catholic priest. After a year, he decided he wanted to have a family and kids, quit the seminary, and got a degree in theology. After he graduated, we began to have discussions about religion and politics. We would get into heated debates while discussing topics like gay marriage and the contraception mandate (I support both; he is against). Every one of his arguments boiled down to “because the Bible says so.” As the arguments continued, I would attempt to use logic, facts, and scientific studies to argue my point. He just became condescending and argued I couldn’t understand his argument because I never studied religion and philosophy. To counter that “argument”, I began to study religion from both points of view (from Aquinas to Dawkins). After doing so, I realized two things:
1) I don’t buy into religion at all
2) I’ll never convince my brother his views are wrong.
I realize I’ll never be able to convince people like my brother there is no God, but I might be able to convince people who were like me. I think it’s important to express my point of view to make others think about their beliefs. Hopefully this can stem the tide of religion forcing its way into public policy.
When I was a New Atheist I was so angry at believers for needing God to explain the Universe and say what is right. And it’s easy to see the worst in religious people to confirm my views (See Westboro Baptist). Then one day, and I don’t exactly know why, I realized a lot of very good people found meaning in life from the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. They pray to God and find warmth in their hearts. Who am I to tell them that is wrong? From then on it was just as easy to find the good believers as the bad ones. It only depended on what I was looking for. This Onion article is probably the best way to explain it: “Local Church Full Of Brainwashed Idiots Feeds Town’s Poor Every Week“.
Now, I think it’s best to be a silent voice in support of atheism. The believers that made me feel OK with other believers just did small, good, kind acts each and every day. So I can only do the same. The best way to convert a mad believer into an accepting one is to show that an atheist’s moral code is no different for how we open doors, care for the sick, or extend a hand to those in need. Maybe this is what Francis was talking about for how the believers and atheists can meet on common ground.
On that note, another reader:
Recently a young fellow who openly identified as atheist began attending the same church I do, and by attending I mean fully participating: small group meetings, community service projects, Sunday School – the whole nine yards. It turns out, he is there for much the same reason I am, because he needs friends and community and a church can be a good place to find it. He is welcomed with open arms and loved by everyone.
Fast forward to a recent Sunday meal with a young couple who also turned up at our church. When the question was asked how they found out about our church, the answer was through our young atheist friend. “We thought if you accepted him, then we’d have a place too.” As it turns out, our atheist has been the best recruiter our little church has ever had. I count at least eight regular attendees he brought with him. Some of them were already people of faith, some were searching, and others were just lonely.
I love that kid and the way he has opened up space in our midst. The church should be a place of refuge for everyone and when it truly is people just might start coming.
A reader speaks up for “church-going atheists”:
We are many. Just not all of us are open about it! I don’t like the term “atheist” (being freighted with Dawkins anti-theism); I prefer the term “non-believer”. I passed through my ex-Catholic/angry-atheist phase to a post-religion phase where I value what we have in common more than I care about what separates us. I go to church because 1) I married a woman of deep faith, and 2) because we found our way to a community that welcomes both of us, when she was effectively driven out of her cradle Catholicism by the horrors of California’s Prop8. In fact, I was lobbying her to become Episcopalian for years, as that seems the logical place for a Vatican II-style Catholic with progressive views of church and justice.
Mutual respect makes our inter-faith relationship work. My wife’s service in church (she’s now the Head Verger of an Episcopal cathedral) is a major part of her life, and I love her completely, so of course I support her wholeheartedly. And she respects who and where I am as well. I too was raised Catholic, so the ancient rhythm of the liturgy is familiar, and the music is simply amazing (thankfully she went “nosebleed high” when she swam the Thames). I guess I am essentially a cultural Trinitarian sacramentalist Christian, even if I don’t believe per se. So I’ll do gladly do Episcopal calisthenics on a Sunday, though I don’t pray, sing, or take communion, because that would be disrespectful of the community.
As the members of my church say, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome here.” Kinda restores my faith in Christianity.
Reading your most recent post on Apatheism, I thought I’d relate the following story of how politics have made this outspoken atheist into a staunch defender of religious freedom. I’m what you might call a “movement atheist.” I go to cons. I write for a well-known skeptical website. I am 100% for the complete separation of church and state. But in the last year I have found myself in the rather unexpected position of loudly and publicly advocating for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab, among other public expressions of religious values.
You see, I live in Quebec, where the separatist government’s proposed “Charter of Values” would ban public sector workers – which here includes all university and hospital employees in addition to your standard public servants and primary/secondary educators – from wearing any “ostentatious” religious symbols. This includes not only the hijab, but also the turban and the kippah for observant Sikhs and Jews.
The ban does not, however, extend to employees of state-funded Catholic parochial schools, which receive substantial government funding, or to the giant cross in the National Assembly, which is part of Quebec’s “cultural heritage.”
The brazen xenophobia of the whole endeavour is utterly repellant to me, especially given the province’s worrying history of anti-semitism, but the proposed charter is unfortunately quite popular with the general electorate outside of Montreal (where nearly all the affected populations live and work) and may in fact lead to the PQ winning a majority government in the upcoming election and forcing it through.
Should the measure pass, many committed atheists like myself plan nonetheless to wear banned religious articles in solidarity with our colleagues of faith. Needless to say, as an atheist activist, this is just about the last thing on earth I would ever have expected to do, but racist politics make very strange bedfellows.