PZ Myers is annoyed by the fact that, when it comes core, fundamental, human values, many atheists are as bad as believers, if not outright worse. In the eyes of some, “atheism” means only “lack of god-belief,” which means atheism cannot imply anything more than that, which means that atheism implies some kind of amoral anarchy, above and beyond mere unbelief. So which is it? Does atheism imply nothing more than absence of belief, or does it imply that “they’re right and you’re wrong?” You can’t have it both ways.
In truth, atheism absolutely does have implications beyond mere absence of belief in supernatural father figures. A world without gods to take responsibility for everything is a world where we ourselves are responsible. Atheism implies that we have work to do, morally, socially, and scientifically. And maybe that’s the reason why some unbelievers would rather not acknowledge anything more than just the absence of gods. But I suspect it goes deeper than that. I think what we’re seeing today is the emergence of two broadly-defined tribes within atheism, two different types of atheists, whom I designate as truth-seekers and god-slayers.
Naturally, any such broad, either/or classification is an oversimplification, but I think it might be useful as a general framework we can use as a point of departure. With that caveat in mind, then, I would characterize the truth-seeker atheist as someone who comes to atheism because they care about what’s right and what’s wrong. They’ve taken an honest look at the facts and found religion wanting. The truth-seeker rejects the idea of gods, not out of spite or any anti-social motivations, but because the evidence is not consistent with any of the theistic religions being true. It’s a question of right versus wrong, and theism just isn’t right. Therefore, atheism.
The god-slayer atheist, by contrast, cares less about right versus wrong, and more about winning versus losing. To the god-slayer, it’s all about dominance, and power; and for such, the appeal of atheism is not so much that it’s right, but more that it provides the tools with which to destroy the beliefs and credibility of others. God-slayers are iconoclasts, “alpha males” (whether or not they have penises), renegades, and outlaws. The god-slayer is the atheist who will proudly proclaim that, if they ever did encounter an almighty God, they would flip Him off and tell Him to go screw Himself, even if this defiance led to their immediate destruction. It’s not so much about being right, but about being non-conformist, and defiant, and victorious.
Like I said, these are archetypes, not real people. Nobody is 100% truth-seeker and 0% god-slayer, or vice versa. And yet we see certain social dynamics tending to cluster around these two distinct centers. We can talk about truth-seekers and god-slayers as though they were real people, and gain some insights into how our community functions. For example, the truth-seeker never stops seeking truth, and their search for right answers eventually leads them to discover that religion, per se, isn’t actually the original source of all human ills, not even for those ills that we typically associate with religion. Rather, in any society of human, there are forces rooted in selfishness, prejudice, superstition, and so on, that create conditions that are noxious and subversive and harmful to society and its members. To the truth-seeker atheist, the pursuit of social justice is merely an extension of the same thirst for truth that led them to atheism in the first place.
And yet, the discovery that religion is not the root of all ills implies another discovery that we need to make. If social ills arise from something deeper than religion, then those same forces can operate outside of religion just as easily as they can within it. The same motives and psychosocial mechanisms that lead some people to join barbaric religious groups like ISIS can lead equally well to unjust and abusive practices in secular institutions and communities. The institutions themselves, whether religious or not, are merely channels for expressing the hostile and predatory impulses of their baser members, and truth-seeker atheists will naturally find this as offensive within their own ranks as within the church. And in taking offense, they are expressing their own view that the right-versus-wrong axis is more important than the winning-versus-losing axis.
Meanwhile, the god-slayer atheists will resist the truth-seeker atheists because they (the god-slayers) perceive the truth-seekers as weak and compromising, and besides, they (the god-slayers) actually prefer the image of the amoral, self-seeking atheist because it fits better into their preferred narrative of the atheist as a dangerous and unpredictable outlaw that nobody dares to mess with. On the axis of winning-versus-losing, it’s preferable to be the bad-ass that doesn’t give a shit about right versus wrong, because that’s what gives you the greatest freedom to do whatever it takes to come out on top.
The gotcha here is that the god-slayer approach works best when atheists are a tiny minority of isolated individuals building islands of local dominance within some particular social setting. The god-slayer can feel comfortable being the “evil-doer” here because there’s no real competition. It’s a loner role in a loner’s world. In a small, local environment, the renegade unbeliever has the advantage because his or her opponents are superstitious and inconsistent in their beliefs. Believers may have numerical superiority, but the atheist can always derive satisfaction from how easily their beliefs can be shown to be self-contradictory and ignorant.
Unfortunately, as the atheist community grows, the god-slayer loses that special quality of unique non-conformism that gives them their own special “brand.” As the importance of the community grows, so too the importance of right-versus-wrong takes precedence over the strategy of win-at-all-costs. The playground is stronger than the bully once everybody realizes they can band together and overcome their oppressors. The god-slayer loses his advantage over his neighbors once they become unbelievers too.
The god-slayers know this, and they’re not happy about it. This makes them go back to their roots, back to their core beliefs about winning versus losing, and they try to apply the same tactics of abuse and oppression that established them in their roles as atheist bad guys. And that only strengthens the resolve of their victims to unite and overcome, by pursuing what’s right over what’s wrong. The pursuit of right over wrong is ultimately a pursuit of truth—an ongoing quest for practices and conventions and obligations that empower both society and the individuals who participate in it. The win-at-all-costs approach can only reject the right-over-wrong approach by deliberately choosing things that don’t work as well, which is why win-at-all-costs inevitably fails over the long run.
“Elevator-gate”, “GamerGate”, and a host of other major and minor scandals and abuses, are all manifestations of the eons-long conflict between the truth-seekers and the god-slayers, and they’re only becoming more prominent now because of the rise—and successes—of the truth-seekers. And to be honest, the victory of the truth-seekers is not guaranteed. But that’s the only victory worth pursuing, because that’s the victory that will bring the most benefit to all of us. Nobody is 100% god-slayer and 0% truth-seeker. We all mingle the qualities of both, to a greater or lesser degree. But recognizing this, we can also recognize that the truth-seeker side is the side to encourage and promote. The god-seeker side is ultimately self-defeating. And the sooner the better, too.