Atheism’s Little Idea

“God” was, once, a Big Idea—
Without a doubt, this is true;
So much of the world, we did not understand;
There was much that a god had to do.

In pieces and bits, we have gained understanding;
In inches and feet, we’ve gained ground;
And with each passing year, we’ve discovered
Fewer uses for God can be found

As God has grown smaller and smaller
Opposition to God also shrinks
And ideas that one were amazing
Are what pretty much everyone thinks

So atheist thinking, and atheist writing
Seems less than in previous years
As people just “fall into” godlessness…
That’s what happens, when God disappears

There are food snobs (I’m one), and music snobs (only sometimes), and fashion snobs and sports snobs and snobs of all sorts… so it isn’t really surprising that there are atheism snobs (Or purists, or whatever term you want–I honestly don’t think there should be a necessarily negative tinge to this). I found one here, bemoaning atheism’s “little idea” in comparison to the former big ideas of old:

I do apologize. It seems that everything I write these days is anti-atheist. And who can blame my unbelieving brethren for assuming I am fighting for the other side. Perhaps I should be, since modern atheism is hardly worth defending.

To be brutal, I cannot imagine a time in the history of unbelief when atheism has appeared more hamfisted, puling, ignorant or unappealing.

Oddly, I’ve got a bit from the Mikado going through my head now… “then the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and every country but his own…” Not that the author is an idiot–that just happens to be the lyric. But the complaint?

Atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important. And that is a shame, because God was a big idea, and the rejection of the existence of God was also a big idea, once upon a time.

Which, actually, is true–the thing is, this isn’t a bug–it’s a feature. Hoffman likes a positive view of atheism; I prefer a privative view. He makes clear in the comments that he does not like the negative definition–but that is precisely why he has the complaint that he does. Atheism, for him, is an idea–and a shrinking one.

God was a big idea. God had to explain so much, not merely the physical world, but our world of experience–our wonder, our awe, our very presence. And, yes, much of the writing of the Gnu Atheists has focused on how the physical sciences have no need of a god hypothesis–physicists and biologists seem to lead the way (yes, there are philosophers, but at least some of them are writing about the physical sciences too), and to the extent that God was an explanation for phenomena in their fields, God has shrunk. In my own experience, I think the psychologists have produced fewer successful books of the same sort (If I have missed them, point me to them, please!)–in part because psychology is such a broad discipline, and the experimental psychologists who have the best tools to answer the questions are not as accessible to the public as the pop-psych writers who may as well be making shit up.

But I digress. As I said, God was a big idea. So atheism, the “none of the above” answer to which god-myth was responsible for all these phenomena, was itself fairly radical and a big deal. But it was not a single, coherent, positively defined idea (this, of course, is where Hoffman and I disagree, and where I am right), let alone a Big Idea. There were magnificent atheist writers producing beautiful statements of atheist philosophy…but they did not, could not, speak for all of atheism. (I suspect there was also some real dreck being written on the side of atheism, but there is a reason good writing survives.)

And over the decades, the Big Idea of God started to shrink. The single best example, of course, was evolution rendering creation obsolete, but of course we find progress in physics, geology, astronomy, biology, psychology, anthropology and more, each chipping away at the mountain of stuff God used to explain. Nowadays, the faithful (well, some of them–it is as wrong to paint all believers with the same brush as it is to paint all atheists likewise) are reduced to saying “we don’t know what happened in the first picoseconds of the big bang, ergo Christianity.” Or that the observation of innate morality is evidence for, not against, god as an explanation for moral codes. And often as not, the claims are not even really representative of the proper science, but are arguments out of ignorance. “‘Science can’t study love’, ergo God”, for instance, ignores the fact that psychologists have been studying love experimentally for decades (true, you won’t find much on the actual research in pop-psych books, cos it doesn’t sell as well as Venus and Mars bullshit).

So, yeah, God has been shrinking for quite some time now. It no longer takes radical thought to dismiss God as an explanation for… anything. Which is a problem, for Hoffman:

My current Angst, to use that hackneyed word correctly, is that most contemporary humanists don’t know what classical humanism is, and most modern atheists won’t know the references in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.** Their atheism is an uneven mixture of basic physics, evolutionary biology, half cooked theories from the greasy kitchen of cognitive science, assorted political opinions, and what they regard as common sense. They fell into atheism; they did not come to it.

My goodness, what a wonderful thing! That religious faith no longer need be the default thing to “fall into”? This reminds me of acquaintances of mine who argued that it is better to develop an immunity to a disease naturally, by actually contracting the disease, than by vaccination (which would, of course, be simply “falling into” immunity).

Yes, the big questions are smaller now. We no longer have to explain how the sun climbs in the sky, now that we know the earth spins. We no longer have to explain why God allows suffering. We no longer have to explain a lot of the vexing questions that came about because of a flawed world view. If the questions are simpler now, it is at least in part because the questions were wrong, before. And if that recognition isn’t terribly romantic, I can live with that.


  1. Joan says

    Great essay and great arguments. Having not read his screed first hand, I’m not really sure what his problem is. Is it that the arguments for being an atheist are no longer necessary or that there are not enough big fancy intellectual arguments for being an atheist, (uh Hitchen, Dawkin, Dennet and Harris, need more company?) or that he feels the young’uns don’t work for it and ‘fall’ into it without struggling through religious doctrine and ultimately rejecting it. Many don’t go to church, and they just don’t think about it. For that matter, the current grasp of any history at all, let alone religious, seems a bit lacking in many graduates. Anyway, that’s another gripe for another day. I would argue that God is not a big concept but a simple catch-all concept used to ‘splain everything and that Atheism is a big concept hopefully requiring one to examine many reasons for being one.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Actually, Margaret, you may be more in agreement with Hoffman than with me! (I don’t say that as a negative; it’s simply a matter of definitions, and different definitions may be perfectly fine for different sets of philosophical assumptions.) The privative definition of atheism (which I favor, but which, for instance, PZ does not care for) makes no claims that atheism is associated with knowledge, per se. The changes in knowledge over the centuries, while compatible with atheism and incompatible with many religious views (though not all), were not driven by atheism’s ideas. They were driven by science, or by philosophy, or by any number of related and unrelated events, and they ate away at religious “explanations” but this was not an expansion of atheism, just a shrinking of religion.

    And as religion shrank, it no longer needed big ideas to displace it.

  3. leftygomez says

    Hoffman reminds of computer programmers in the 70’s who resented high level languages because “real” programmers worked in assembly language, or older folks of every generation for whom popular music has gotten “so much worse” since they were young. He’s been writing the same cranky stuff about the gnus for years; he seems bitter that atheism no longer requires the journey he made.

  4. Margaret says

    I hope I’m not in agreement with Hoffman (who I haven’t read) but that I just wrote an obscure statement trying to be “cute”. I think religion is basically “Goddidit “, which is another name for ignorance, and that ignorance is definitely not a Big Idea. I think the scientific method (or skeptical inquiry, or whatever you want to call it) is the Big Idea, and that leads to knowledge of the universe, which makes the wiggle room for the existence of any gods smaller and smaller, which leads to the trivial conclusion of atheism (a trivial conclusion is a little idea, not a Big Idea). My silly comment above was just trying to play some word games with this.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    That’s what I get for reading a paragraph’s worth of comment out of a brief sentence! I need my cute-ometer recalibrated!

  6. Dave Mabus says

    most of you will not survive Armageddon!topic/alt.prophecies.nostradamus/Czf7l8637ow

  7. Cuttlefish says

    Heya, Dave!

    I certainly hope this comment falls within the terms of your probation; I sincerely don’t want you to do anything that would get you into any trouble. Please, please, do what you need to do to take care of yourself–it would be a shame if the people you attack are once again the ones responsible for getting you the help you need.

  8. says

    I don’t mind people “falling into” their atheism. I just want them to think deeply about it once they’re there. I have ostensibly atheist Facebook friends who’ll post atheist memes and then turn around and post new-age woo crap about vibrations and homeopathic healing. To me this is a clear statement that they haven’t thought about the issue. So if you just happen to fall into it, that’s great. I pretty much did, was raised nominally Hindu but never very observant, so it was just easy to fall out of religion and atheism was there to catch me. It was a little step that Hoffman so derides. But the big ideas didn’t really come until later, until I’d thought about what my nonbelief meant for other issues like women’s/LGBT/human rights, why science provides defensible positions that religion does not, how no god leads not to nihlism but to a requirement to be engaged in this world, etc. Atheism itself might be a simple little proposition (“there is no god” — seriously almost typed “dog” there), but it’s where big ideas come from.

  9. Cuttlefish says

    I get what you are saying, nkrishna, and by some people’s definitions of atheism that is absolutely correct, but in my privative view, atheism is actually not at all where big ideas come from–for the most part, those big ideas come from one or another science, or from one or another philosophical stance. It does seem as if atheism is where some big ideas come from, but that is an illusion brought about by the fact that religion has been the source of so many bad big ideas, and when jettisoning those ideas leaves us back at point A it feels like we’ve progressed.

  10. Psychopomp Gecko says

    I’m not entirely sure I get what he’s getting at here, but it almost sounds like he preferred a more top-down atheism where it came from the study of a few philosophers and other such great minds, instead of a bottom-up atheism based on widely-available scientific data disseminated through the internet, as well as an environment more suited to the general populace expressing disbelief. That also misses the widely-disseminated philosophical arguments too (Maybe he preferred atheism when no one had heard of it, like some sort of atheism hipster?).

    Perhaps there’s also a little bit of angst, to use that hackneyed word, over people seemingly Measuring the Marigolds (to put it in Trope terms) with atheism based more on cold, hard facts than beautiful arguments.

    Still, the important thing is that without having read the rest of it, this is more a comment than an argument against him.

  11. says

    Skepticism may be the big idea, with atheism just one little inevitable conclusion.
    I prefer to call myself ‘not superstitious,’ which excludes religion, homeopathy, ESP, ghosts and goblins, acupuncture, Reiki, jumping to the conclusion that coincidences are proof of a conspiracy, et cetera.
    There is no need for getting fancy with philosophy, but only a need for a level of evidence that is appropriate to support a claim – the saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” is important to understand (and Carl Sagan does explain it clearly).
    In stead, we make excuses for why our beliefs should not be subject to this requirement for evidence, and that our more extraordinary claims should have even less of a requirement for evidence.
    We want to believe. We do not want reality.
    This is not a big idea, but it is a big leap for many. We should not be upset that so much time is spent on explaining this simple idea to so many who blind themselves with belief.
    I fell into atheism in the sense that it just did not make sense. Does that make me a lower form of atheist?
    I was attending a religious school at the time, so I was exposed to the study of the religion I had been raised in. Does that absolve me of my simple rejection of superstition?
    I was raised to be superstitious by my parents, so I felt a tremendous sense of betrayal that they did not protect me from such vulnerability to manipulation. Does dealing with that sense of betrayal act as redemption, even if only partial?
    The only reason atheism is not insignificant is the religious people who repeatedly try to expand the effect of their superstition-based laws on the rest of us.
    Forgive me Hoffman, I have no need for atheism to be significant, or nice, or respectful of those who dress superstition up in pseudophilosophy.

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