Truth-seekers and god-slayers


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.

Comments

  1. Len says

    It’s also worth noting that people may shift from truth-seeker to god-slayer (and vice versa) depending on the circumstances or the company they’re in. No-one is 100% truth-seeker or 100% god-slayer but neither are they always in one place along the spectrum.

  2. exi5tentialist says

    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.

    Such a “god-slayer” is the type of atheist I respect the most. Such a response would be the very definition of atheism, far more than the wishy-washy “lack of belief in god” version which is really just agnosticism by another name in my view, although I expect to be thwacked with a dictionary for saying it.

    But you don’t have to be an alpha-male to be such an atheist, clumsily described as a “god-slayer” in this scenario. It’s a philosophical position, not a testosterone-driven dynamic. And actually to characterise a person with such an approach as being akin to the enemy or self-defeating is a miscategorisation.

    Nor do I think that this mix-and-match approach to god-slayer characteristics and truth-seeker characteristics is helpful either. It’s a just a way of being dismissive of people who don’t fit in. Fine if they’re misogynists or racists, it’s just that when you become too confident in that approach you end up excluding people (eg the Left) who are actually more sound on progressive politics than you are. It’s a dangerous ideological path to start taking.

    I don’t think there’s any way of explaining the problems of the atheist community in terms of atheism. I’d like to think there’s an honest way of explaining the slyme-SJ dichotomy in terms of atheism alone, but any attempt to do so is doomed to failure. I acknowledge the truth-seekers and god-slayers explanation is such an attempt, I just think it’s wrong.

    It may be that atheism itself needs to become subordinate to another ethical philosophy. In which case, atheism will already have reached the limits of its possibilities in terms of social change. It’ll be a wrench, but we might just have to accept it.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Well, I’d definitely agree that it’s open to discussion. I think in some ways you’re highlighting the fact that oversimplifications like this are inevitably going to have issues. And I think one of those issues may be just what you’ve suggested: that the problems in the atheist community are bigger than just atheism, which is why they also appear in the gaming community and the tech community and in politics and in religion and in business and so on. But I think it’s interesting to look at that portion of the problem that does fall inside the domain of the atheist community, and I think there are some significant tensions that tend to circulate between the god-slayer influences and the truth-seeker influences, hence my post.

  3. says

    In truth, atheism absolutely does have implications beyond mere absence of belief in supernatural father figures.

    No, it doesn’t. Atheism is simply disbelief in deities. The problem PZ and others like him run into is trying to make it more than that. Instead of asking the awkwardly phrased Why are you an atheist? (and subsequently fighting tooth and nail that it is not) I suggest they try something like What are you, besides being an atheist?

    Because “elevator-gate” or “gamergate” are far more important issues to discuss than fighting to co-opt what being an atheist should additionally entail, e.g., “it follows from the endemic misogyny in religion that as an atheist you should…”

    • Deacon Duncan says

      If we want to be strictly dictionary-only, then any atheist movement is an attempt to co-opt what being an atheist should additionally entail. After all, if “atheist” means only “lacks belief in gods,” then there is no implication that atheists should not be put to death for their unbelief, or beaten, or denied access to basic food, shelter, employment opportunities, political office, etc. If we can stand up, as atheists, and say, “we demand fair treatment as unbelievers,” and if that’s not co-opting the atheist movement for something more than the bare minimum of what a reductionist definition entails, then we can also say, as atheists, that we should bestow upon each other the same rights and respect as we demand for outselves. A movement that mistreats and marginalizes its own members is a movement with serious problems, and it is absolutely appropriate for the movement to address those problems.

      • says

        After all, if “atheist” means only “lacks belief in gods,” then there is no implication that atheists should not be put to death for their unbelief, or beaten, or denied access to basic food, shelter, employment opportunities, political office, etc

        I think that is accurate. Likewise, that there is no implication that atheists should not be put to death for their unbelief…political office, etc. To me that makes another argument to move beyond co-opting dictionary definitions.

    • John Morales says

      Shripathi:

      In truth, atheism absolutely does have implications beyond mere absence of belief in supernatural father figures.

      No, it doesn’t. Atheism is simply disbelief in deities.

      Your contention that disbelief in deities holds no implications is not at all supported by that non sequitur.

      (Or: yours is an assertion without justification)

      • John Morales says

        Shripathi, do you now deny that you asserted that atheism does not have any implications, and that the basis you provided for that is that it’s simply disbelief in deities?

      • Len says

        I think we’re in danger of falling into the label trap. Atheism (ie, the position of not believing in deities) means that you don’t believe in deities. That’s it. Anything else is something else.

        The fact that many (most/all) atheists also believe in/fight for/work towards (for example) social equality is often a result of the thinking through that usually accompanies the adoption of an atheist position. But it’s an extra step – often triggered by an atheistic position (or starting point) but not necessarily dependent upon it. Many theists/believers are also for social equality (as far as it fits in their belief system). The difference with atheists is that we tend to not judge others based on old magic books, so we’re (hopefully) unencumbered by prejudices that those books contain (because those prejudices were seen as the societal norm, or perhaps the religion-based norm, when the books were written).

        Trying to lump all we do under a single label can be dangerous. Like when evangelicals say that atheism is a religion – so they can then disprove something they ascribe to our religion, therefore “disproving” atheism.

      • John Morales says

        Len:

        I think we’re in danger of falling into the label trap. Atheism (ie, the position of not believing in deities) means that you don’t believe in deities. That’s it. Anything else is something else.

        Agnostics don’t believe in deities, either.

  4. exi5tentialist says

    @Deacon Duncan – In that case I’d say I agree with the attempt to subdivide atheists, but rather than God-slayer I’d say God-denier, and rather than truth-seeker I’d say objectivity-seeker. This reframing fits better with the dictionary definition of an atheist as someone who “denies or disbelieves the existence of God”.

    If you’re on the disbelieving side, the objectivity-seekers, which is sounds like you are, then you’ll have a vested interest in trying to denigrate the denial side of the community. Hence you introduce the macho concept of “slaying”, which automatically triggers negative associations in a social justice-orientated community, and which has the effect of denigrating God-deniers.

    From my point of view, the social justice tendency is better served by an absolute and emphatic denial of the existence of God, because of its total rejection of a major source of authoritarianism, than by the objectivity-seekers, who seek a version of objective ‘truth’ that can only ever be a model of objectivity because we are all inescapably subjective beings. And I think there is as much anti-feminism in the “truth seeker” side of the community as there is in the denial side. Incidentally I think a lot of truth-seekers have co-opted feminism for authoritarian ends. For example, islamophobic apologetics often masquerades as feminism, and such masquerading is often accompanied by a righteous objectivity-seeking absolutism.

    So again, I don’t think there’s much hope of finding any resolution to these internal atheist conflicts in the denial/disbelief dichotomy that you seem to have posited, admittedly not in so many words. I’m beginning to think atheism, because of its intrinsic limitation by the subject of god, needs to be subordinated to a bigger ethical philosophy. In which case atheism as a movement has gone pretty much as far as it can go, and its only future now is decline.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      It sounds like you’re proposing a couple of contrasting viewpoints that are somewhat different from the two I’m proposing. Take the “God-denier” designation you propose, and consider it in the context of an atheist meeting a real, live, actually divine deity, and defying Him. Denying the existence of something that’s right there in front of you, and that you’re consciously interacting with, seems a rather pointless and foolish exercise. All you would be doing is manifesting an inability to concede the facts. That kind of denialism, I submit, is just as pejorative as “god-slayer,” and doesn’t really account for why the atheist would want to defy a genuine God to His face. “God-slayer” is already adverserial and goal-driven, and focused on the power of conflict, fair or foul, as a means of resolving theological issues. I think that makes it a better fit for those whose tactics include deception, threats, harassment, slander, physical assaults, and so on. And by the way, those who resort to such offenses as their primary strategy are already creating negative associations for themselves far beyond anything I could accomplish by merely noting their tenor. I hope, however, that by drawing attention to it, I may persuade some people to at least consider expending more energy on their truth-seeker side, and indulging less in the god-slayer mentality.

      Also, as I alluded to before, we have barely begun to explore the social, cultural, economic, and political implications of the non-existence of the gods. We who are in the forefront of recognizing the true condition of man would be derelict in our moral duties if we did not also lead the way in discovering how best to live and function in a godless world. So I don’t think it’s time to tick the “Done” box next to the atheist movement just yet.

      Anyway, I’m going to have to think some more about the dichotomy you propose, because I’m not sure I’m understanding it quite right. But I think your dichotomy is something different from what I’m talking about.

  5. says

    I resist labels because I’m naturally suspicious of them but I like your approach to analyzing what’s going on with the popular tide we loosely call “atheism” I’ve always thought it made most sense to be skeptical about everything, which means that once religion (which is one of the more obvious cons) is dispensed with, economic systems and government legitimacy are equally inviting targets for destruction. For more or less the same reasons: they are founded on lies and manipulation in the service of a narrow often hereditary elite. If you even let your thoughts flicker across economics and government, then social equality comes out as the underlying principle that demands to be addressed. And that is why I agree with some crazy right-wing preachers that “atheism leads to anarchism” – because, really, it does. Actually, the underlying problem that’s left once you get rid of god is unfairness! It’s that or nihilism, deciding, “what’s for lunch?” is all that matters. And, of course, a few of those nihilists will turn mountebanks, and seek an opportunity to attach themselves to a trend in order to get plaudits or to prey on the trendies.

  6. says

    atheism, because of its intrinsic limitation by the subject of god, needs to be subordinated to a bigger ethical philosophy

    I agree. Atheism is ultimately a rejection of one form of authoritarianism. Once you reject that form, if you look at the other forms equally worth rejecting (main force, illegitimate government, economic coercion) then you have to decide whether you’re for them or against them — and the ultimate question they all raise is equality and the value of the individual against the needs of the collective, and the establishment of that balance. The latter point will (I argue) inevitably lead you to social justice.

      • exi5tentialist says

        That’s just playing with words though. Among other things, atheism is the body of atheists. Sometimes I think if we all discarded the word atheism and its derivatives altogether, everybody would make a lot more sense.

    • John Morales says

      Marcus:

      Atheism is ultimately a rejection of one form of authoritarianism.

      Unlike you, I see atheism as an ontological belief.

      (Incidentally, not all goddism is authoritarian)

      • says

        Incidentally, not all goddism is authoritarian

        Since it all relies on assertion without evidence, it’s authoritarian. Or are you familiar with some god belief for which there is evidence?

      • John Morales says

        Marcus, you are using an idiosyncratic sense of authoritarian; if your contention is that it’s not empirically justifiable, then of course I don’t dispute that.

    • Ben Finney says

      Atheism is ultimately a rejection of one form of authoritarianism.

      And, as Matt Dillahunty puts it, atheism is “a position on exactly one question. That question happens to be the easiest question in the world to answer, so getting it right doesn’t make you especially clever.”

      Getting that question right is sufficient for soemeone to identify as atheist, and for us to observe that they are, in fact, atheist (even if they don’t like the label). It implies nothing more about their beliefs. They remain atheists no matter whether their beliefs on other questions are morally praiseworthy or foolish or reprehensible.

      Once you reject that form, if you look at the other forms equally worth rejecting

      Ah, that is exactly the trouble though: many people are atheists and fail to look at social justice issues with clear eyes.

      Just as a person can be a woman and reject feminism, a person can be correctly described as atheist and reject racial/sexual/socioeconomic/etc. justice causes.

      I agree that atheism has implications, both normative and empirical, for many other issues of social justice, but those are external to the question of whether a person is correctly described as atheist.

      We shouldn’t be trying to say “atheism entails all this stuff” because it’s trivially easy for people who don’t like discussing that stuff to show counter-examples. Rather, we should be saying “I’m an atheist, and therefore I am also working for progress in these areas of social justice”.

      The talk about atheism just should be less interesting than the talk about what to do. Let the nay-sayers call themselves atheists, agree they’ve got one trivially easy question right, and then embarrass them by publicly working to make the world better.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I agree that atheism has implications, both normative and empirical, for many other issues of social justice, but those are external to the question of whether a person is correctly described as atheist.

        That’s true, but a little puzzling. Who on earth is saying or implying that anyone is “not an atheist” unless they support social justice? I’ve seen a lot of people saying that atheists should cooperate in making life better for everyone, but I’ve never heard anyone claim that failure to do so means one is not an atheist. There are those whose attitudes and behavior are so poisonous to the atheistic community at large that they are making themselves unwelcome as members of the community, but in that situation the key term we need to define is “community,” not “atheism.” There’s a lot more to being part of the greater atheistic community than just being an atheist.

  7. says

    OK, here’s another way to express my point. Accept for the time being that it is meaningless to adhere to the dictionary definition for an atheist. Fill in the blanks. A complete list, please.

    “You are an atheist if and only if you disbelieve in deities and __________________________________________________.”

    Then, start an organization with those being necessary membership requirements.

    • John Morales says

      You are still confused; no one disputes what constitutes atheism per se, the issue at hand is what that position entails.

      To indulge your misapprehension, I here give you an instance of the type of example you seek: “You are an atheist if and only if you disbelieve in deities and ” therefore you don’t accept the epistemic validity of any claim made purely on the basis of purported divine authority.

      • says

        That is simply restating what atheism is, more verbosely. Rejection of deities. If you reject the existence of a deity you reject that a deity does anything as well.

        But thanks for answering the question with your complete list.

      • John Morales says

        A single example suffices to rebut your claim that there are no implications to atheism.

        (And the rejection is not of what some deity claims, it’s of what some people claim some deity claims — which is why I wrote “purported divine authority”. People do exist, and those claims do exist.)

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I can leave out the “and ___” easily enough, and still declare that, as atheists, it is in our own best interests to pursue full equality, dignity, rights, and respect for ALL atheists. Why divide atheism into those who pursue their own best interests and those who, apparently, do not—or who even fight against them?

      • Deacon Duncan says

        On the contrary, since atheists *are* human, that means that atheists have just as great an interest in it as anyone else. That’s why it’s appropriate, if not downright imperative, for atheists to devote significant attention to it.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      How about this definition? “You are an atheist if an only if you disbelieve in deities and try to silence anyone who voices any complaints about any abuses perpetrated against atheists.” Which organization should I start that would meet this definition of “atheist”? And who would want to join it?

  8. Renee Kelly says

    And there are those atheists (such as myself) who simply do not believe in gods or goddesses. For me there is no moral obligation or imperative to go beyond not believing. It’s like not believing in Bigfoot. I don’t feel the need to push a lot of anti-Bigfoot initiatives or diatribes. I don’t believe I should start any moral, social, or scientific “works” because I don’t believe in Bigfoot. I simply do not believe. Why should being an atheist automatically assume you must foray into other issues? Makes no sense to me.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Wait until society starts discriminating against you because you don’t believe in Bigfoot. Then wait until there’s a community of non-Bigfoot-believers trying to work to restore equality and human rights to non-Bigfoot-believers. Then wait until that community, which you would like to be part of in order to further the rights of your fellow non-believers, begins to harass and abuse you for being the “wrong” gender or color or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever. If you recognize that such abuse and harassment is detrimental not just to you but to all non-Bigfoot believers, then you ought to recognize why it’s in the best interests of any community of unbelievers not to destroy its own members when they only want to help.

      • Renee Kelly says

        But here’s the funny bit – those who do not believe in Bigfoot aren’t going to take the time to tell you that you should do a plethora of other things that really have nothing to do with the disbelief in Bigfoot.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Under those circumstances? Really? Why not? People are publishing your home address, suggesting that you ought to be brutally assaulted and/or killed, sending you porn with your kids faces photoshopped onto the participants, etc., etc., and you’re not going to say that there’s anything wrong with fellow non-Bigfoot believers treating each other that way? That’s bizarre.

  9. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    I like part of this analysis very much. If I may rephrase, you are saying there are personalities that find deep satisfaction in the archetypal role of the lone warrior facing great odds, and atheism offers (or did offer) them an opportunity to assume that role in relative safety (in the United States and Europe, at any rate), not merely as a pose but with some effectiveness and genuine achievements. This clicks with what I’ve observed over the last couple of decades of following atheist newsgroups (really, plural decades!) and blogs.

    I’m not so clear on the archetypal model of your truth-seeker (Diogenes?), but I have never understood the insistence on “dictionary atheism”. There certainly is much, much more to say after one says “There is no god.” The whole of Existentialism is nothing but follow-ups to that statement! For a start, the inescapable sequel to “there is no god” is, “there is no other intelligence in the world but our own.” With that comes the crushing realization that “if we don’t understand it, then there is no understanding” and from that follows “if we don’t manage it, there is no management but physical forces and contingency” — where ‘it’ may be any part whatever of our surroundings, like the climate, or a random virus, or the sociology of fanaticism.

    This is the basis for, as you said, a conception of a world for which “we ourselves are responsible.” This seems to me a completely necessary outcome of the initial statement “there is no god.” But apparently others do not see that as a consequence.

  10. says

    Marcus, you are using an idiosyncratic sense of authoritarian

    The phrase “argument from authority” has never registered with you? Really? And you’re trying to say I’m idiosyncratic?

    Lacking empirical evidence religions rely on authority: either “because the high priest says so” or “because this book says so” with the implication inevitably that thise authorities have special knowledge.

    That’s bog-standard stuff. Why are you trying to oretend you don’t understand me?

    • John Morales says

      [OT]

      Did you read my entire sentence, rather than the snippet you’ve quoted?

      I understand what you mean; I am merely informing you that the rest of the world uses the term authoritarian to refer to the concept of authoritarianism.

      (So, what word do you use when you refer to that concept?)

      In passing, on what basis do you accept that a proton is composed of quarks? 😉

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