So Close!

Andrew Brown, writing in the Guardian, notices some interesting stuff about belief and disbelief, and nearly gets it right. Alas, no–but it is instructive to look at the interesting stuff, though.

There are as many atheisms as there are gods. We spend most of our lives disbelieving in things without wasting time asking why, and quite right too. So what is it that makes some particular forms of disbelief intellectually fertile or socially significant? Nick Spencer’s short history of atheism goes a long way towards answering this question, and anyone seriously interested in religion and irreligion today should read it.

Well… yes and no. As both my regular readers know, I like the privative definition of atheism; by that definition, of course, atheists did not and could not exist before believers did. “Godless” presupposes a god. There are no “flightless tables”, even though no tables fly; there are “flightless birds”, though.

What Brown gets wrong, though, is that he confuses “nonbelievers in god X” with “atheists”. There is already a perfectly good word for non-believers in the Christian God: heathens. Non-adherents to Islam are infidels; non-Jews are goyim. These are not different types of atheist, though–a heathen may well be a Muslim; a Jew may be an infidel; Christians are goyim. Not all religions have this us-them binary, but clearly a great many do.

Over in Greece, the logical difficulties of an omnipotent and benevolent God were clear as soon as people got the concepts of omnipotence and benevolence straight. Everything you needed to be an intellectually fulfilled disbeliever in the Christian God was in place by the birth of Christ.

And everything you needed to not believe in Zeus was available the moment Zeus was. All you need is something to create the positive category, and the privative, negative category is the logical consequence. But Brown doesn’t see that.

One answer, Spencer suggests, is that important atheism is always secondary to theism. For any particular atheism to matter, there must be an important conception of God to be rejected; in that sense, atheism is closely related to blasphemy. And the concept of God is itself extremely flexible: some are so strange as to be unrecognisable as gods to other worshippers, which is one reason why the early Christians themselves appeared as atheists to the pagans around them.

Arguments against God’s justice, such as those we see in Babylon, are not arguments against his existence: they are arguments about his character, which presuppose that he has one. Modern atheism, in the sense of a rejection of Christian monotheistic conceptions of God, doesn’t really get started until the 18th century. But by the French Revolution, modern western arguments were clear except for the faith in science, which emerged in the next 100 years.

Yes, of course, atheism depends on religion, logically, as I said above. But atheism does not require a rejection, nor does rejection of a religion’s tenets equate to atheism. As often as not, those who disagreed with a particular tenet of Christianity simply started their own denomination. Martin Luther disagreed with the Catholic church; by Brown’s logic, that makes him an atheist? Joseph Smith–atheist? Oh, hell–here’s a list of founders of religions; by Brown’s logic, each of them are atheists about whatever other religions they might have followed but did not. “[A]rguments about [God’s] character, which presuppose that he has one”, are far more likely to be reasons for the splitting of and establishment of new religions, rather than reasons not to believe.

Of course, he is wrong. Being a non-believer in X does not make you an atheist. It makes you a non-believer in X, that’s all. Sometimes there is a label–heathen, infidel, goyim, or perhaps hundreds or thousands more–but there is no need.

The study of how these arguments spread and ramified into their modern forms turns out to be historical and political, rather than philosophical. It was impossible to separate a reaction against Christianity from a reaction against the Christian church, and so the forms this opposition took was determined by the role of the church in the societies involved.

“The” Christian church. See? He’s doing it again. There is not one Christian church, with those who do not believe all atheists. There are hundreds (or thousands, or tens of thousands, depending on how you define them) of Christian denominations, and they are not always even on speaking terms with one another. One can be a Christian and not believe that Catholics are, or that Mormons are. Or one can be a Christian and include those groups among one’s own ingroup. More importantly, one need not be an atheist to disagree with fundamental tenets of a religion. “[A] reaction against the Christian church” can lead to atheism, or to yet another version of the Christian church claiming to be the right one.

Too bad. His first two sentences showed promise. So close.


  1. CatMat says

    There are as many atheisms as there are gods.

    Eh, no.

    Compare to “There are as many sanities as there are mental disorders.”
    (aligning gods with mental disorders is almost entirely unintended)

    Although it is debatable if anyone of us is categorically sane, sanity itself cannot be defined without the concept of a mental disorder. This does not turn each individual lack of disorder to a separate branch of sanity.

    To repeat an earlier comment of mine:
    “Oh, so you’re sane. Which mental illness is it that you don’t have?”

    @Robert Canning,
    Is Zozluht the one that tried to prove His existence on February 14th, 1982 by sending a magnetic monopole through a detector but didn’t have the raw material to create another one and gave up?

  2. Ed says

    If atheism is taken to mean some sort of specific fight with a given theistic religion or philosophy, there are “many atheisms” and atheism is “secondary” to theism. But if atheism is merely a part of the rational empiricist program of not believing things for which there is no evidence, it is something that stands on its own.

    In the same way, my support for liberal democracy is the cause and source of my rejection of dictatorship. Rejection of dictatorship is not a stand alone position. I’m against it because it is incompatible with my values. I reject existing categories of dictatorship like absolute monarchy, theocracy or martial law, but also all hypothetical ones (president for life chosen by national lottery, rule by a committee of retired professional boxers). The same value system rejects all its possible negotiations. There is no need for separate theory of the open society for every form of authoritarianism.

  3. John Morales says

    Ed @4:

    But if atheism is merely a part of the rational empiricist program of not believing things for which there is no evidence, it is something that stands on its own.

    Atheism can be a consequence of rational empiricism, but it’s not a synomym for rational empiricism itself.

    Nor does it stand on its own; it is as a conclusion in relation to a particular category of claim, so that it stands on that claim.

    (Or, you confuse epistemology with ontology)

  4. jenny6833a says

    I like the privative definition of atheism; by that definition, of course, atheists did not and could not exist before believers did. “Godless” presupposes a god.

    To me, that doesn’t hang together. One need not have even one believer in a concept to withhold belief in the concept. For that matter, one need not even have a concept to withhold belief in said non-existent non-concept . I don’t believe in Kafoofledink, the god of semi-rotted, GMO-infected, ten ton tomato droppings, even though no one else does either. And I don’t beieve in Rattuhfaddlefartidink even though neither I nor anyone else has any idea what Rattuhfaddlefartidink might mean.


  5. Cuttlefish says

    You’ll note, jenny6833a, that there are no specific words (like heathen, infidel, or goyim) to describe your disbelief in those gods. Your mere mention of them logically generated a non-believer category, but before your mention (unless there are secret meetings of believers I had not been aware of) there was no need for the term at all. So, I would argue, your examples hang together perfectly with the privative concept.

    And I’ll quibble with one word from John Morales in #5–the word “conclusion”; the privative category (whether atheist, flightless, hairless, shoeless, childless) is the logical consequence of each positive category. I can see the word “conclusion” fitting, but my use of “conclusion” implies an active choice on the part of the concluder, whereas the privative category is generated, logically, whenever a positively defined category does not include 100% of a population.

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