In Defense Of The “Village Atheist”

The thing about a village is,
There’s nowhere you can hide
Cos everyone knows everyone
(A point of village pride)

And should you act distinctively,
That act becomes your role
A label thrust upon you—
Wholly out of your control

If your label as an “other”
Is too difficult a test,
You will monitor your actions
So you blend in with the rest.

It’s how villages keep order
And maintain the status quo
You can risk a village label
Or be safe, and just lie low

Thus we find the Village Idiot
(With luck, there’s only one)
And the nasty Village Atheist
Who argues just for fun

But for groups in the majority
Whose thoughts and acts are shared
There’s no “other” role required
So that label they are spared

It’s a simple sort of governance,
Enforcing right and wrong
The “Village X” may live here,
But they really don’t belong.

So my aggregator threw an article my way, “Why more atheists need to speak out against village atheism” (written, I probably don’t need to tell you, not by an atheist but by a Christian apologist just trying to be helpful):

Over the last five years that I have been blogging I have noted the extensive presence of village atheism within the infidel blogosphere. While the blogosphere also has its share of “village Christians”, what is particularly ironic about the proliferation of village atheism is the fact that the online atheist/skeptic community persistently tries to brand itself as being especially rational, critical, and objective. And yet, the widespread and vocal opinions of the village atheists directly contradicts this lofty branding.

His concern is noted. He goes on to describe “village atheists” in great detail, and mentions a second time that there is also such a thing as the “village christian”, but does not describe or give examples.

Thing is, there really isn’t a “village christian”, not in this culture, not meaningfully. I did a search for “the village atheist”, “the village idiot”, and “the village christian”, and in the words of Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. You can go for pages and pages of “the village christian school”, or “the village christian daycare” or find the phrase “…the village. Christian…” as the juxtaposition of two sentences in a story. I have not found it used in the same sense as “the village idiot” or “the village atheist” yet.

And that’s because “the village X” is a designated minority role. It’s a way of othering, of dismissing with a label, of designating someone to be both part of the village and apart from the village.

We have village atheists because we have people who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of. We have a great many more Christians who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking on (we don’t have to look far). These are not “village Christians”, though–they are wholeheartedly welcomed members of the community. They are the village. It is not the fact that someone doesn’t have all the facts that makes them the “village atheist”; it is the fact that they are the atheist.

Interestingly (well, to me, at least), I did not run across any suggestion that “the village atheist” was meant to evoke comparisons to “the village idiot”. I really expected that the link was intentional and meant to disparage, but it appears that the terms are independent (I would, of course, defer to someone who can show otherwise, but I found nothing), both naturally occurring instances of an in-group labeling an out-group.

Lastly, to my mind the finest treatment of the village idiot ever (but see comment #4 below for a well-argued alternate choice)… though it never actually uses the phrase. The Beatles, with “The Fool On The Hill”:


  1. carlie says

    Is the idea supposed to be that a “village x” stays inside their own enclave and doesn’t interact with the world around them? Because that’s the only way I can even try to parse that concept of “village atheism” or “village Christians”.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Carlie–I’d say no–the notion is that, in a given community, the individuals are known. Those individuals who stand out as different in some manner are labeled; that label is their role. The village atheist, the village idiot… perhaps the village conspiracy theorist, the village tree-hugger, the village busybody, the village cuttlefish.

    It’s stereotyping, reducing a person to one role in a village that mostly does not share the defining characteristic of the Village X. Traditionally, the “village atheist” was seen as obnoxious and disagreeing, a wet blanket of a person, metaphorically pissing in the cornflakes of all the people who believed in such a foolish notion as a heaven, a god, an afterlife.

    Remember, the village idiot was labeled and described by others, not him or herself, so the characteristics include arrogance, ignorance, lack of subtlety, simplistic arguments and boorish behavior. (The fact that simplistic arguments were enough to make one a christian need not be addressed.) As opposed to the sophisticated, intellectual, polite atheists… the ones who don’t make waves or say mean things about believers.

    editing comment to add–this function of the definition (the othering and dismissing) is why the claims of “village Christian” ring so hollow. The term would not be used the same way unless the village were composed of mostly non-christians. Actually, come to think of it, the cross-bearing bible-thumpers who come to campus to argue would be an example that might fit–but note how much further out on the tail of the distribution you have to go to find a Village Christian–simply having bad arguments is not nearly enough.

  3. Emu Sam says

    Compare and contrast “militant atheist.” Both are outspoken but not violent. Both are derogatory, but the village atheist perhaps less so (this is the first I’ve encountered the term, so I place my likelihood of being wrong high). The village atheist implies well known within a community. The militant atheist draws pictures of war, implying violence that does not exist. Thus, village atheist might be preferable even with the village idiot parallel.

    New Atheist also implies outspoken, perhaps pushy, perhaps anti-theist, probably anti-theos or anti-religious. It has no derogatory connotation that does not come from the word atheist.

  4. reinderdijkhuis says

    The Beatles song, good as it is, is not the best thing ever said about village idiots. This is:

    The idea that a truly blithering idiot can make bank is, I think, amply born out by talk radio.

  5. Menyambal says

    I can’t recall which Louis L’Amour book it was in, but he once wrote of a village atheist who knew more than the preacher did, and who probably just liked to argue.

  6. Die Anyway says

    I read the post and came away with pretty much the same impression as carlie (@1). The less erudite X, if he opens his mouth, will become the “village X”. This will leave a poor impression about topic X, therefor the more erudite Xs should repudiate and silence their less capable brethren. As if we had Atheist Erudition Police and the ability to control who is an atheist and who isn’t. Even Christians don’t have that kind of control over their “membership” (not anymore anyway). Which, I think, is why he mentions “village Christians”, i.e. ones who are not as good at apologetics as he is (in his own mind). Basically, his point is a non-starter. I’m sure that most affinity groups would prefer that their least capable member not become a public spokesperson.

    The other thought that comes to mind though is that some atheists do tell others to shut up. Most of the well known atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Shermer, Myers, etc.) all have their detractors from within the “village”. And any atheist who responds to blog posts with even the slightest variance from that blog’s norm is quickly told to STFU. So, in fact, our group, as loosely constructed as it is, does try to control the way atheism is presented.

  7. Anonymousrt says

    Please keep it up and continue your ignorant view towards atheists… At least we don’t believe and accept “Incest, discrimination towards other races, religions, creeds, selfishness, and ignorance”.

    Bible… world created by God… people first made… Adam and Eve… They had sex to have children… then their children had sex to create more kids… and the disturbing incest of Christians begin…

    Bible… Some crazy shit about a 7 headed Dragon… Sounds like the bible was the first go travel to Mordor and find a dragon or two…

    Bible… Anyone who doesn’t believe in “Lord Jesus and his Father God” will not be accepted into heaven and spend eternity in hell.. So in other words… you could spend your life using every moment and last penny helping others, but if you do not accept “JESUS!!” you will spend eternity in hell… Fuck you…

    Bible… Gay’s and Lesbians… Seriously? they are people just like Christians, bleed and breath and eat just like you… they have every right to be miserable just as any straight couple to get married and be together.

    Last but not least… Why the fuck do you ignorant assholes say you help others and do all you can to support the needy and helpless yet it took who knows how many Popes to have one that is actually trying to do what the original message of the bible held… help everyone equally, live humble, and be true to yourself…

    Even if he still has the same views as other Popes on homosexuality, that is only due to the extreme number of cases were pedophilia have been brought forth only to be dismissed due to the person being accused is a member of a major church with plenty of protection.

  8. carlie says

    editing comment to add–this function of the definition (the othering and dismissing) is why the claims of “village Christian” ring so hollow.


    That’s why I couldn’t reconcile it to the traditional interpretation of village idiot – it’s so far into opposite world that I have trouble believing that there are people who think that way. And yet, there they are.

    the characteristics include arrogance, ignorance, lack of subtlety, simplistic arguments and boorish behavior.

    So it’s the loudmouth, then? This guy is a terrible writer, given how hard it is to figure out what he’s saying!

  9. Blanche Quizno says

    Hmmm…let’s see. I’ll just answer random points from above.

    Let’s not forget that Christians have a real jones for persecution. Even where they are the privileged majority, they’re STILL trying to claim that they’re being persecuted, the poor dears. It’s really because they’re afraid they won’t get into “heaven” because their supposed Jesus supposedly said, “Ye will be persecuted for my name’s sake.” (Matt 24:9, Matt 10:22, etc.) Ain’t happenin’. So we get this:

    I was actually in a group of Evangelical Christians and Mormons once, and to a person, they agreed that “erudite” is an insult – to them, it means a pompous blowhard, essentially! I was floored!

    Now guess which one of these is the “village atheist” aka “militant atheist” aka “angry atheist” aka “New atheist”:


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