What Atheism Is

I explain my concept of atheism. A lot of people are going to hate it.

Transcript below the fold.

Several weeks ago, I got a question here in the comments, and I’m finally getting around to addressing it. It’s this one:

Have you figured out what atheism is yet?”

I didn’t feel any particular rush to answer that since I recognized the name: Gerry Wallington has a history of trolling, for example…

Charming, eh? Dawkins Fanboi + misogynist + fatphobic. Don’t try to harass him, even though he included his twitter handle — he was suspended long ago. He’s also blocked on Pharyngula, and has been blocked on this youtube channel.

So enough about him! What’s the answer to his question?

Yes, I have figured out what atheism is about for me. Actually, I figured out my personal understanding of atheism decades ago, and yes, I am a militant atheist. These are MY views, though, not necessarily representative of all atheists, although I do feel free to judge you negatively if you disagree substantially with me, just as you can feel free to hate me reciprocally. I do know that many do, and aren’t shy about telling me.

So let’s start with Diderot, the French encyclopedist from the 18th century. I think we’d get along famously if he weren’t dead and I spoke French. He’s probably best known for this aphorism:

Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

I agree with the sentiment, but not with the metaphorical violence. Unfortunately, he didn’t say it. It’s one of those fake quotes, a paraphrase by a contemporary. He did express a similar sentiment in a poem, though. I’m not even going to try to say the title, having no French.

Les Éleuthéromanes
If mankind dared but to listen to the voice of its heart, changing suddenly the language,
It would say to us, as it would to the animals of the woods:
Nature created neither servant nor master;
I seek neither to rule nor to serve.
And its hands would weave the entrails of the priest,
For the lack of a cord with which to strangle kings.”

That’s lovely. I know, everyone will focus on the last two lines, but I think the penultimate pair of lines is just as important.

“Nature created neither servant nor master;
I seek neither to rule nor to serve.”

No gods, no masters. I’ve heard that somewhere before. It’s a call to break down the hierarchies that dominate us.

I can’t leave Diderot without mentioning another quote I favor. It’s from his book, Philosophical Thoughts.

“We are constantly railing against the passions; we ascribe to them all of man’s afflictions, and we forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures … But what provokes me is that only their adverse side is considered … and yet only passions, and great passions, can raise the soul to great things. Without them there is no sublimity, either in morals or in creativity. Art returns to infancy, and virtue becomes small-minded.”

Well, that’s one the Logic Bros will hate. Feelings and emotions are important, but I know…they aren’t objective. Somehow, though, we evolved an atheism that denied our humanity in the name of some rigid science-worship. I know, here I am, a biologist telling you that science isn’t the be-all and end-all of human experience, and that even science is soaking in the subjective.

So that’s Diderot. How does that reflect my personal views? It’s pretty close.

Like Diderot, I’m an anti-clericist. I think that’s an important distinction — not so much anti-theist as anti-priesthood.

Like Diderot, I oppose these artificial hierarchies that limit human potential and cram us into little boxes that tell us what we are supposed to do.

Like Diderot, I think there is more to the fully human experience than math and science and a pretense of objectivity. Art and poetry and music and culture and society are also essential ingredients in the recipe for a more humane atheism.

So yeah, I figured out what atheism is already. I’m not even original in my conception of it, since others were developing it over 300 years ago. So much for the “NEW” in “New Atheism”.

I can interpret what my interlocutor was trying to say, though, because it’s a common refrain: atheism means only a disbelief in gods. Nothing else. How dare you try to suggest that there are implications to the non-existence of deities, you are not allowed to think beyond the premise. The assertion of atheism is sufficient, and no further extrapolation is permitted.

This is not a very scientific way of thinking. A hypothesis does not stand alone; it must be integrated with other existing facts and it must be tested. Only as part of a whole, with a context and predictions and as a path to further questions and hypotheses. What these other atheists are insisting is that atheism must be an unquestioned dogma with the only implications allowed being ones that preserve the status quo.

We’ve all seen this trope caricatured before. Yet it never seems to sink into its proponents.

It’s true. Atheists participate in society. That should mean that we ought to have social goals to accomplish. Atheists are part of society, and unless you are planning to retreat to a hermitage and never interact with the world, we have social obligations.

So let us consider “society”.

This is a simplistic cartoon of a western medieval notion of society. I’m not trying to show all the details, and reality was far messier — for instance, many historians will portray the church as a parallel axis of power, working with and sometimes against secular rule. Take it with a grain of salt, treat it as a crude approximation.

At the top of the pyramid of power are the rulers, the kings and queens. They are supported by claims of divine favor, reinforced by the priesthood, and also by a crude hereditarian fallacy about bloodlines and authority justified by lineage.

Below them, and possibly in parallel or even the power behind the throne, are the priests who justify their existence by invoking the will of God, which, conveniently enough, they are in charge of dispensing to the citizenry.

Then we have the aristocracy, a class where individuals accumulate wealth in the form of inherited lands and property and privileges. Again, this is justified by some imaginary virtue of heredity.

Then below that we have the great mass, which I’m not going to try to classify to any significant degree. We’ve got our shopkeepers and middle managers and people who directly serve the wealthy aristocracy, and we’ve got the laborers and craftsmen, and then we have an underclass of people living hand to mouth, often oppressed, who are often exploited to serve the needs of the aristocracy.

It’s never this simple, and the boundaries are never this sharp, but let’s roll with it. Several concurrent processes have occurred in the modern era to restructure the pyramid.

We’ve had the successes of science to undermine belief in god. Materialism seems to work so much better, you know? So atheists and agnostics and even some religious freethinkers managed to mostly kill god.

Then we started to get rid of kings and queens. Here in the USA, we made it explicit and threw them out with a revolution, although other countries seem to have succeeded without the bloodshed, creating constitutional monarchies, or reducing their monarchies to an entirely ceremonial role, or just squeezing them out altogether with legal forms.

And then the priesthood was diminished in power. We didn’t quite carry out Diderot’s suggestion, but instead set them to the side of the main axis of power (which also could be argued was a medieval idea, too), essentially leaving them alone but simply leaving out of the chain of commands. Again, the US was explicit in our Constitution, but other countries effectively did the same thing by, for instance, setting up an official state religion. The US solution was not very satisfactory, since at the same time religions were granted incredible privileges, like freedom from taxation and policies that look the other way at outrageous violations of common decency.

So here’s where we stand now. No gods, no kings, the priests are still around and some are constantly pestering everyone to reinstate a theocracy, to varying degrees of effectiveness. We’re still left with an aristocracy of wealth. Here in the US, that’s also implicit in the Constitution — it was originally intended that America be ruled by propertied white men. Our reverence for a kind of pseudo-capitalism has meant that the fortunate few with vast amounts of inherited wealth can make that wealth vaster and vaster. Why, hello, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Bill Gates, you parasitic scum.

The American revolution, and the evolution of democratic societies in other countries, will not be complete until we clean this all up. It ought to be part of the atheist agenda to participate in this transformation — but keep in mind, there are also many theists who will agree with my priorities. That we can find common cause with believers does not mean this isn’t an atheist project, too.

So I’m going to specify four very broad atheist objectives — also very difficult objectives, I’m not pretending it’ll be easy. We could also lose.

First, abolish the privileges of religion. No gory stranglings required: just strip religions of things like tax exemptions or the absence of scrutiny of their so-called charitable works. Almost every atheist can get behind this one: we have organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists who are happy to martial legal opposition to the erosion of secularism. And don’t forget Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which is NOT an atheist organization. This one is easy to convince atheists of its importance — I bet even Mr Wallington is all for it.

Part of the program of reducing the harm of religion would also involve greater support for good, secular education.

The second one is obvious, our kneejerk capitalist/libertarian colleagues will gasp in horror. We need to eliminate the privileges of excessive wealth. Billionaires, and the unregulated capitalism that produces them, must be taxed out of existence. If we must, I guess we could demand that they produce lengths of intestine that we can use on the repulsive preachers of the prosperity gospel. Ha ha, just joking. Tax ’em all.

Thirdly, it ought to go without saying that the humanist mission ought to be to uplift the poor and oppressed. Atheists ought to support a universal basic income. We ought to be lining up to agree that Black Lives Matter. Equality for women. Trans Rights. Removing the knees of the jackbooted thugs we call police from the backs of the people. End the drug war. Universal health care. I told you none of this would be easy, but it’s all part of the idea that the nonexistence of gods leaves us all obligated to rely on our fellow human beings and build communities that provide a moral framework for our lives.

Fourthly, we must protect and sustain the environment. It’d be a shame if something happened to the planet and all of us atheists ended up dead — that would be an effective way to prevent thos objectives from being accomplished. Right now it seems our society is mainly geared to protect and sustain the extraordinarly rich. We need to shift our priorities.

You can ask me what atheism is, and this is my answer. What atheists should do is not unique to atheists, but a shared goal derived from our common humanity. Shoulders to the wheel, everyone, we must get these things done.

At the last, let me leave you with a few words of wisdom from the brilliant Peter Kropotkin. One of the accusations often leveled at atheists is that we lack a basis for morality…but here’s a challenge to that idea.

Men passionately desire to live after death, but they often pass away without noticing the fact that the memory of a really good person always lives. It is impressed upon the next generation, and is transmitted again to the children. Is that not an immortality worth striving for?
― Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist

In the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.
― Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Pay attention to Peter.


  1. whheydt says

    The Poetic Edda contains the same point as the first Kropotkin quote…and it’s far older.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    (Swedish edda translation by Åke Ohlmarks)
    “Fä dör, fränder dör,
    själv dör du likaledes
    Ett vet jag som aldrig dör;
    dom över död man”.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    When Pyotr Kropotkin dog ca 1920 he was followed to the grave by tens of thousands.
    It was the last major act of protest to the communist party right up to the pperiod immediately before the collapse of the Soviet Union seven decades later.
    I recommend reading his books, including the surreal account of the difficulty getting a permit from the central imperial bureaucracy for building a fire station in the Siberian town of Tjita.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Before Kropotkin, there was the French anarchist Proudhon.
    (Warning; Proudhon was a misogynic motherfucker)

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Epicuros got slandered by the Xians, but he got it right. He said people should enjoy life, but with moderation. He did not advocate the klnd of excesses today’s cocaine-snorting rich assholes are into.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Epicuros was an atheist. We only know him from references by others, but he seemed like a clever old greek.

  7. rockwhisperer says

    I’m not a smart person, though I’ve had the privilege of living and working with many such people over the years. My background is in computer engineering and geology, pretty humble fields (and don’t let the mostly-jerks who’ve made fortunes on Silicon Valley stock options tell you otherwise). In the last few years, medications to address chronic illnesses have robbed me of the sharp edge of my cognition, such as it even was.

    I’m not ‘woke’. I’m white, 62 years old, and spent my formative years in a city with large nonwhite populations, and saw how systemic racism affected my neighbors, my classmates, my friends. It’s gotten some better. It could do with getting several orders of magnitude better.

    My mother was Catholic, and so I was sent to Catholic schools. Mine happened to be run by a liberal US West Coast order of nuns, who were all about social justice as they conceived of it in the 1970s. It was a no-brainer to extend those teachings to other marginalized groups. I met gay people, and obviously those people deserved to be free of personal and institutional bigotry. I met trans people, same deal.

    As an adult I came to understand the politics that desired to limit women’s bodily autonomy, and decided to be actively pro-choice. But even as a high schooler, not understanding the argument, I remember that someone at my Catholic high school distributed plastic bangle bracelets to the students, advocating an overturn of Roe v. Wade. I was one of the few students who refused to wear one. I felt that I simply didn’t understand enough about the fight, and I refused to be browbeaten into choosing sides. Perhaps it helped that in the window of a women’s topics bookstore my bus passed on the way home from school, there was a sign that said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

    All of this stuff has struck me as obvious, once I got tuned into the details. As obvious as the lack of evidence for deities. As I finished growing up in my twenties, my high school experience of nuns who advocated social justice, freed from religious trappings, just got expanded to include everyone our society who isn’t actively trying to trample the rights of others. Why is that not breathtakingly obvious, even to non-smart people like me?

  8. billseymour says

    That was a pretty good description of the way I feel.  I don’t have a priest telling me how to behave, but I still need to get through the day without being a jerk.

    Probably because of the way I was raised (I’m no ethics expert), there are a couple of principles that I treat as if they were axiomatic:

    1.  People are more important than things.
    2.  It’s not all about me (and by extension, not all about my tribe).

    I think the moral suggestions you made follow from that.

    I do want to quibble, though, with describing our current economic system as “capitalism” since it’s pretty much exactly what Adam Smith was railing against in The Wealth of Nations.  I’m for an economy similar to what they have in many Nordic countries:  capitalism (i.e., private ownership and competition) with a government that passes regulations that keep the rentiers from cheating and provides common goods in those cases where competition doesn’t work well.

  9. hemidactylus says

    Must say the corticosteroids are really lasering your focus, but I’m detecting a bit of red tint in the beard and side hairs. Video artefact?

    Diderot sounds better in outlook than deist Voltaire and was friends with atheist D’Holbach. From Wikipedia: “In a frequently narrated story about a discussion that had taken place in D’Holbach’s salon, David Hume had questioned whether atheists actually existed whereupon D’Holbach had clarified that Hume was sitting at a table with seventeen atheists.” I wonder if his salon served as a model for Habermas’ public sphere.

    Anyway on the strangling royalty thing didn’t Diderot become acquainted with enlightened despot Catherine the Great? Sure she wasn’t technically a king. But she was part of a hierarchy (atop your pyramid).

    The separation of the priesthood across Jefferson’s semi-permeable cordon sanitaire was an echo of Roger Williams’ “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world”. This separation ironically via disestablishment allowed for a viral proliferation of religious diversity to flourish.

    A political hierarchy seems built in with the Senate versus House tension analogous to Lords vs Commons across the pond. Some want to repeal the 17th amendment (a travesty for sure).

    The tax exemption thing seems reasonably tied to the Johnson amendment (faltering). If tax exemptions were removed could that entangle the gov’t more into church…ummm…business? Exemption is a separation, plus ideally churches do good works with tithes and don’t purchase luxury items [just being devil’s advocate].

    I would go more for steeper tiered taxes on income, wealth, capital gains etc than the end of annihilating the rich. Rawls maximin?

    UBI is great. But Milton Friedman and Charles Murray concur! Why? Perhaps it justifies gutting social benefits as welfare transfers sustained by bureaucracy (libertarian bugbear). Bill Clinton already helped kill AFDC and replaced it with workfare TANF. Be careful who you agree with, though BOTH-AND of benefits transfers and UBI would be great.

    Yes end stupid Drug War and make single payer replace Obamacare bandaid.

    The Kropotkin call for intergenerational responsibility is apt. Too bad Boomers helped gut our means of that. Though he was an associate of Peter Thiel, Bruce Gibney‘s A Generation of Sociopaths is an eye-opening if hyperbolic read.

  10. John Morales says

    hemidactylus, the devil deserves better advocacy.

    The tax exemption thing seems reasonably tied to the Johnson amendment (faltering). If tax exemptions were removed could that entangle the gov’t more into church…ummm…business? Exemption is a separation, plus ideally churches do good works with tithes and don’t purchase luxury items [just being devil’s advocate].

    I don’t get what your basis for this claim might be. Actually, it seems to me that exemptions are very much a partaking of the public sphere — the very opposite of separation. Especially when codified in legislation; it’s a form of regulation.

    Also, I see tithes are a form of panhandling, at best, and of extortion, at worst.
    As for charitable work, well… you should distinguish between general religious exemptions (apparently, religious beliefs are a privileged form of beliefs) and charitable tax exemptions (which apply to secular charities as well).

  11. lochaber says

    I’m here for the strangling of billionaires with the viscera of other billionaires. Or boot straps, really whatever’s at hand,

    Or making the guillotine trendy again.

    I don’t much care how we get rid of them, so long as they stay gone.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Billseymour @ 9
    Your description of well-functioning capitalism in the Scandinavian countries is apt (not that I can take any credit for that).
    It works well enough that there are -per capita, at least – extremely many new billionaires and plenty of innovation, while keeping social and economic equality.
    I think a big part is, politics is done by people you would describe as middle class, it is not the preserve of millionaries.
    And the political parties get public money support in proportion to their share in parliament, they are not dependent on predatory corporations for donations to keep the organisations going. This avoids the blatant corruption we see in Britain and USA.
    It is not paradise as people inevitable screw up on a grand scale, but the scandals are at a level that does not put a crater in the GNP or in democracy itself.

  13. John Morales says


    I don’t much care how we get rid of them [billionaires], so long as they stay gone.

    Waiting for them to die of old age satisfies your requirement.

    (Best of all, it will inevitably happen, in due course. No actions need be taken to achieve that goal!)

  14. hemidactylus says

    @11- John
    I am going on vague recollections. Exemptions may predate the US Bill of Rights 1st amendment by far (cue Tradition from Fiddler on Roof) but one SCOTUS decision [Frederick WALZ, Appellant, v. TAX COMMISSION OF the CITY OF NEW YORK] has this part:

    First Chief Justice BURGER: “We find it unnecessary to justify the tax exemption on the social welfare services or ‘good works’ that some churches perform for parishioners and others—family counselling, aid to the elderly and the infirm, and to children.”

    But then: “Determining that the legislative purpose of tax exemption is not aimed at establishing, sponsoring, or supporting religion does not end the inquiry, however. We must also be sure that the end result—the effect—is not an excessive government entanglement with religion. The test is inescapably one of degree. Either course, taxation of churches or exemption, occasions some degree of involvement with religion. Elimination of exemption would tend to expand the involvement of government by giving rise to tax valuation of church property, tax liens, tax foreclosures, and the direct confrontations and conflicts that follow in the train of those legal processes.”…” The exemption creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state and far less than taxation of churches. It restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.”


    Kinda not my forte so not deep diving into that decision.

    A perhaps biased source:

  15. kingoftown says

    “Again, the US was explicit in our Constitution, but other countries effectively did the same thing by, for instance, setting up an official state religion.”
    I don’t understand this, how does setting up a state religion diminish the power of the priesthood? In the UK we have an unelected head of state that’s also the head of England’s state religion. We also have a bunch of Church of England bishops that get automatic seats in the House of Lords. They mightn’t have the power they did in the 16th century but I think the Church of England have held on to power at least as well as the aristocracy.

  16. PaulBC says

    I explain my concept of atheism. A lot of people are going to hate it.

    It seems reasonable to me. Thanks for providing a transcript.

    Re Diderot and passion:

    Well, that’s one the Logic Bros will hate.

    The brain does a lot of interesting things, and logic is something we can impose on it when we want to use it to understand how we reached conclusions, and test their validity. But it really does amount to running it in slow, safe mode. I normally ask what’s at stake first. Often very little. I think it is useful to be able to separate beliefs that arise from passion from those that arise from logic.

  17. hemidactylus says

    @16- kingoftown
    Establishment seems to increase the power of a singular priesthood, but disestablishment, if I recall correctly, seems to have resulted in proliferation of priesthoods in explosive plurality as a religious marketplace. In the US we had a burned over district.

    It wasn’t ideal given bigotry against Catholics which was allegedly a rationale for the state level Blaine Amendments, but it diverged from cuius regio, eius religio heritage in parts of Europe or the Swiss canton thingy. I think Maryland started off Catholic but that changed.

    Fun fact:
    “In 1833, Massachusetts became the last state to end state support for churches. Nine years earlier, the state had adopted a measure allowing officially-recognized religious societies, not only the official Congregationalists, to assess taxes on all church members.”

    But compared to European countries with stronger traditional state establishments of religion, the US with its separation clause (coupled with free exercise) seems less secular.

  18. whheydt says

    I see a problem deriving from tax exemption of religious organizations. It is pretty straightforward, if insidious. It means that the IRS is in a position to decide what is or isn’t a religious organization by determining their tax status.

    The other issue I see with attempting to separate church and state is one where the churches keep crossing the line, and the state (in the form of the courts) refuse to hold the line. That is, churches are allowed by the courts to enter into bankruptcy. In theory that means that the court is running the church. That’s a clear violation of the separation principle. To adhere to separation, all bankruptcy petitions by churches should be denied on the grounds of church/state separation.

  19. PaulBC says

    whheydt@21 I don’t see how tax exemption follows from separation of church and state. You should be able to determine if the church is effectively a for-profit business (or a ponzi scheme) without making any judgment about their beliefs. How are non-religious charities defined?

    I also believe government should stay out of the bedrooms of consenting adults, but that doesn’t mean you don’t pay sales tax on condoms. While in practice, it would be an uphill battle to eliminate religious tax exemption, it seems to be an historical artifact rather than a clear consequence of church and state separation.

  20. unclefrogy says

    just who are theses boomers any way?
    all those born after WWII are I think what constitute Baby Boomers. Is that who you are pointing your finger at?
    It is sloppy thinking at best or just scapegoating bull shit to use that kind of simplistic language and thinking
    no arbitrary age group has ever been so monolithic as to fit that kind of blame game.

    I never tried to put my ideas into a simple organized form as that list but every bit is very familiar and comfortable with me
    thanks for the effort I hope your questioner chokes on his reaction to it.

  21. hemidactylus says

    @22- PaulBC
    The reason may be specious, and @21 whheydt makes a good point about determining a religion, but the tax exemption is a part of SCOTUS jurisprudence:

    “Using the secular purpose and effect test, Chief Justice Burger noted that the purpose of the exemption was not to single out churches for special favor; instead, the exemption applied to a broad category of associations having many common features and all dedicated to social betterment. Thus, churches as well as museums, hospitals, libraries, charitable organizations, professional associations, and the like, all non-profit, and all having a beneficial and stabilizing influence in community life, were to be encouraged by being treated specially in the tax laws. The primary effect of the exemptions was not to aid religion; the primary effect was secular and any assistance to religion was merely incidental.3… For the second prong, the Court created a new test, the entanglement test,4 by which to judge the program. There was some entanglement whether there were exemptions or not, Chief Justice Burger continued, but with exemptions there was minimal involvement. But termination of exemptions would deeply involve government in the internal affairs of religious bodies, because evaluation of religious properties for tax purposes would be required and there would be tax liens and foreclosures and litigation concerning such matters.5”

    Of course McDonald vs. Chicago is settled too 🥺

  22. kingoftown says

    @20 Hemidactylus

    I think the extreme religiosity of the US is a weird anomaly that isn’t entirely explained by it’s secular government. European countries with a long history of secularism like France don’t have the same problem. I think it’s more to do with the extreme income inequality, lack of social safety net and unaffordable healthcare in America making people feel less secure. Resulting in people turning to religion in a way more like a much poorer country.

  23. hemidactylus says

    @23- unclefrogy
    I said Boomers helped gut the New Deal/Great Society progress towards intergenerational responsibility they were born into though not laying it solely on them. Maybe too harsh, but given the attacks on snowflake millennials “Ok Boomer” is almost like “Ok Dad”. And I did say I thought Gibney’s book hyperbolic, but is a counter to Coddling the American Mind and others like it. I took issue with some of his treatment of deferments during Vietnam, but that stuff that I find very understandable reflected privilege. Let the generation wars begin.



  24. hemidactylus says

    @25- kingoftown
    Yeah the effect of income inequality on religiosity may be a huge factor.

    But with France those who are religious are largely Catholic. In that milieu has there been a huge proliferation of religious diversity? Maybe too long ago to be relevant, but look what happened to the Huguenots. In France there seems outside of secularism a religious monoculture with some non-Christian religions having migrated in—Islam from N. African former colonies and Buddhism from Indochina (SE Asian former colonies). And of course there’s been a long standing Jewish contingent with some number being practitioners of Judaism.

    Can the Christian sector monoculture be explained by French relative affluence or lack of inequality, or some sort of stubborn inertia? Catholicism seems more top heavy than the non-Catholic Christian sects that proliferated in the US. There could be a bit of freedom to find a faith that fits you in the US than accommodating yourself to a faith as seems the norm with Catholic doctrine, though the cafeteria thing is a way to make do in that case.

  25. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @OP: Your arguments on this topic constantly make me astounded at the utter inability of a lot of people to think past slogans.

    You’ve never said “Atheism means agreeing with me” or even “Atheism shares my values” . All you have ever said is “If you are an atheist, that has some implications”.

    I have had atheists try to deny that there is anything that atheism says at all about a worldview. But the absence of a god actually says a lot. I know that an atheist can’t think that the universe was made by a god, or managed by a god; maybe fairies or spirits or some creative force or whatever else, but not a god. (And, in reality, most atheists are also asupernaturalists, so… not even that).

    A lot of this comes about because of the bad faith (pun originally not intended) of religious defenders, of course. They will take the reasonable notion that ideas tend to cluster and run with it to the point that the moment someone is an atheist they are also a Muslim Communist Nazi. But the mistake there isn’t the notion that atheists as a group, today, in this specific era, don’t tend to have some shared ideas. That would literally be impossible: No matter what the atheist dudebros wanted to keep saying so they could keep their own mythology of being apolitical alive, the resurgence of public-facing atheism was a movement and a community, and movements and communities practically by definitions have some level of shared norms and values. The mistake that Christian apologists make is to be bigots: Both assuming generalities in a group that do not exist, and then hastily generalizing from an already flawed understanding when talking to an individual who may not share that trend.

    As everyone who doesn’t buy into the “Atheism has no implications, so don’t ask me my political opinion (though I will happily give it, at length, and not bother to differentiate my opinion on politics from my opinion as an atheist, and even imply that Good SkepticsTM should arrive at my conclusions)” con has always pointed out, no one ever objected in atheist conventions to the tenth billionth talk on science and evolution, or how anthropology disproves the Bible, or on some historical issue, or Jesus mythicism, even though none of those ideas or beliefs are either logically necessary or sufficient to be an atheist. Hell, people like Aron Ra could even usually get away, even with the dudebros, with pointing to conservative politicians… as long as he focused only on the most childish examples of ignorance from the most childish people.

    But the moment anyone wants to discuss feminism in an atheist context, or trans issues in an atheist context… suddenly that’s beyond the scope. And, weirdly, the circumscribed issues that should be beyond atheism’s scope are the same issues that mainstream broader society views as anti-conservative and so controversial!

    I know I’m not saying anything new, but it still remains shocking to see so many smart people (and, yes, some decidedly dull knives posing as smart people) be unable to say something as honest as, “I am not a feminist, so I don’t want to listen to feminist content and I don’t want to attend conferences where that is likely to be on the agenda because it just isn’t my interest”. That’s fine! That person is wrong, but they have the right to be. But that would require abandoning the pretense that they are just Skeptics(TM) rather than also having other beliefs that they’ve arrived at.

    @4/5/6: And Bakunin had some pretty ugly implicit anti-Semitism. But the anarchists still tended to be ahead of their time, as your Kropotkin example showed. They got the USSR basically right.

    @25: The story of religion here is complicated. I think you’re right on a lot of levels, but even if you go back to the 19th century, the fundamentalist revival and strong anti-atheist norm was still unusual. One has to add in that we’re a country that got founded in large part by religious refugees, and religious refugees are often quite fanatical; and that things like “frontier individualism” can further let fanatical groups continue to expand, and not have to deal with any pushback or moderation from society because they can just go west. There’s a lot more and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full history that encapsulates all of it, but in the modern era, it really is mostly about finding the best ideology to resist pushes toward equality.

    Regarding France and Catholicism: My Mom is Quebecois and so was raised Catholic. There was an abuse scandal, can’t say too much, but it ruined her faith. She is anti-clerical, but also has some Islamophobic views. There is a deep French anti-clericalism and vicious atheism that ends up doing a lot of collateral damage beyond trying to fight back against the Catholic church.

  26. chigau (違う) says

    I just reloaded this on my laptop.
    The ad on yutoob was for back-to-the-bible-dot-ca.
    lord love a duck

  27. unclefrogy says

    I know what you said. but you are still saying it.
    your language and maybe your thinking on this sounds ignorant and simplistic at best. like saying all white people from Georgia are racist and supported jim crow. You would not say that because it is ridiculously untrue. Did some of the people who belong to the “baby Boom” cohort support conservatism, fundamentalism and the Vietnam war. of course did they all?
    get out of the political BS and look at the real world because it does not ever fit into your tight little boxes it is real messy and mostly does not have many hard edges

  28. cartomancer says

    I see a lot of support for the idea that the way to deal with billionaires and their forays into controlling politics is to tax them down to size and institute northern European style regulations on a basically capitalist structure to keep corporate power in check.

    And I agree that such a programme would be much better than just letting them get on with indulging their acquisitive urges unchallenged. But the Marxist in me rings alarm bells at stopping there. It has been tried before, and it almost never lasts. Let us take just the US as our example, though all capitalist economies have been through something similar over the two or three centuries that a capitalist arrangement of the productive process has been dominant.

    Following the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1890s, the capitalists were constrained, anti-trust laws passed, the big corporations broken up and the labour movements grew more powerful. And for a decade or so it worked quite well. But the business class regrouped, plotted their counter-attack, and came back in a more violently exploitative way than before. The labour movement was broken up by force, the anti-trust laws ignored by the corporations’ pet politicians, inequality blossomed and the end result was the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. After a few years of floundering and inadequate responses the shattered labour movement reconstituted itself, America’s socialist and communist parties swelled and organised, and Roosevelt was pressured into enacting the New Deal, which introduced the kinds of shackles and regulations on unfettered capitalism that led to a dramatic improvement in the lives of the American people (the white ones, anyway, as if we needed to point that out). That was a great success for a few decades too, but the business class hated it and planned their revenge, and the last forty years (the Neoliberal era) have seen a comprehensive reversal. More comprehensive, in fact, than the reversal of the 20s, because they got wise to the potential sources of opposition – the labour movement, left-wing parties, public media – and set about systematically dismantling them.

    The point is a simple one – the capitalist system is built on fundamental class antagonisms, just like previous social and economic systems were. The foundational one is the divide between capital and labour, between the employer and the employee, with the interests of the former being to pay the latter as little as possible and pocket the difference, while the latter wants as much pay as they can get for their work which eats in to the capitalist’s profits. This is an irreconcilable tension, especially as it is the capitalist who gets to make all the decisions, and the best the employee can do is to organise and pressure the capitalist to decide differently. The power is with the capiitalist, and the wealth accrues to the capitalist also, giving them far greater resources to influence politics and society with. You can legislate to hold the capitalists back, and it can work for a while, but they are always trying to break out of their restraints, overturn or evade the laws that bind them, and restore themselves to their former exploitative power. The incentives of the system itself are such that the capitalist class will always have the incentive, and will usually have the means, to fight back against this kind of regulation.

    What needs to happen is a fundamental restructuring of the economic system, such that it does not maintain two separate and mutually antagonistic classes. The owners and the workers must be the same people, and decisions in the workplace and the society must be made collectively (and, as much as possible, locally). Otherwise society spends an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources fighting among itself to, at best, maintain the status quo and at worst tear itself apart. That contradictory tension at the heart of society is unnecessary, and must go.

  29. says

    The key to dealing with billionaires is to break the aristoracy-building cycle of hereditary wealth. Capitalists should have no problem with that, because after all their kids didn’t do anything to earn their inheritance; they’re just freeloaders.

  30. Allison says

    I wouldn’t call myself an atheist: mostly because I think that the question of whether a “God” exists is a waste of time. I call myself an “apathy-ist” because I really don’t care.

    I figure that even if there were some sort of omniscient, omnipotent, semi-anthropomorphic being, I’m pretty sure she could take care of herself, and doesn’t need burt offerings or sycophantic praising. (And if she does want it, how does she differ from monsters like Vlad the impaler?) But I don’t really care whether other people believe in one, as long as they aren’t using it as an excuse to make life Hell for other people. (And if they are using it, it seems to me that “making life Hell” is worthy of abomination regardless of the excuse that’s used.) And as has been reported here, there are plenty of out-and-proud capital A atheists out there who link their unbelief with some obligation (or privilege?) to heap misery on those who are already suffering a lot.

    What matters to me is how people treat other people. “Don’t be a dick” is my credo, and if believing in Allah or Elohim or FSM (or Reason(tm) ) — or actively disbelieving in them — is what helps you be un-dickish, I say go for it. I don’t follow the bloggers here because of their beliefs w.r.t. deities, I follow them because of their beliefs w.r.t. how other human (and non-human?) beings should be treated.

  31. brucegee1962 says

    My take on kings and aristocracy is somewhat different from PZ’s. In areas with intense feudal military competition, like Europe and Japan, these were essentially military institutions. Whether engaged in offense or defense, the feudal hierarchy meant a king could say “I want 8000 soldiers at Southampton on May 20, with enough food to feed them,” and lo and behold, it would happen. Any society in a feudal environment that attempted to get rid of its king and aristocracy and have democratic rule would have had crippling problems of command and control and logistics, and would have been easy prey for its neighbors. (I know the Greeks and early Romans had democracies, but I’d argue that it doesn’t scale up well from the city-state level to the nation level, which is probably part of the reason why the Romans switched to Emperors.)
    What killed off the kings was gunpowder and permanent, standing armies rather than a militia of citizen-soldiers. With gunpowder armies you can get by without a large class of hereditary leaders and the memes (like “divine right of kings” and “noble blood”) that supported them.

  32. hemidactylus says

    I don’t know enough of his bio or timeline to say if Diderot had Catherine in mind with the strangling royalty thing but his initial enthusiasm seemed to have waned:


    Gives a longer treatment. Not related to that but Gopnik opines (neo-atheist relevant): “When Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett debate free will, they are reprising Diderot’s dialogue—with Harris arguing, like Rameau’s nephew, that free will is a comforting illusion, enforced by those parental molecules, and Dennett replying, in the voice of Moi, that what we call free will is an emergent property of minds and moves, and that we are as free as we have to be to will what we need.” Nothing new under the sun?

    But also: “His experience in Russia radicalized Diderot. It turned him from a savant into a liberal. He realized that there would never be an “enlightened” despot, and, when the American Revolution happened, he welcomed it in a way he might not have a decade earlier.”

    The shorter version reviewing the same book:

    “Diderot eventually concluded that the concept of enlightened despotism was an oxymoron and that Catherine, alas, was merely a despot. Catherine, meanwhile, gradually came to see philosophers as useless, their writings paving the way to endless calamities.”

  33. F.O. says

    Kropotkin, “no gods no masters”, the search and elimination of any system of hierarchy and oppression no matter where it hides…

    PZ, you are more anarchist than you are atheist.

    I’d be really curious to know what you think about the systems of government set up by the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the democratic communalists in the AANES/Rojava.

  34. cheerfulcharlie says

    The quote attributed to Diderot came From Jean Messlier. “Testament – Thoughts And Sentiments Of Jean Messlier”.

    “The last king should be strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.

    The book usually offered by Messlier was a badly bowdlerized version edited by Voltaire. Only recently has a new translation of Messlier’s original manuscript been available in English. Available from Amazon.

    Atheist. One who does not believe in God, or God’s. One is an atheist whether one offer bad arguments for their non-belief, good argument or no arguments at all. All the rest is mere commentary.

  35. dstatton says

    After reading a biography of Diderot, I concluded that he was the most important person of the Enlightenment; He was so much more than the encyclopedia. Voltaire was anti-cleric, but not an atheist. I hope that the story about the priests praying over him on his deathbed is true: “Let me die in peace!”

  36. PaulBC says

    Marcus Ranum@32

    The key to dealing with billionaires is to break the aristoracy-building cycle of hereditary wealth.

    I agree completely. JM@14 “Waiting for them to die of old age” obviously has little effect on the existence of billionaires or on wealth inequality, when the law is designed to keep accumulated wealth alive. I think it’s also strange that copyrights persist long after the lifetime of the original copyright holder. It’s clear that the intent is to preserve wealth concentration.

    Capitalists should have no problem with that, because after all their kids didn’t do anything to earn their inheritance; they’re just freeloaders.

    Hahahahahaha, yes because they’re so consistent, insisting that their kids go to the same schools as others, and have no opportunities that would give them an unfair advantage.

    The elimination of inherited wealth would be a big step in reducing wealth inequality, but would only be partially effective.

  37. StonedRanger says

    If you are tired of the ads on youtube or elsewhere try adblocker plus. I see zero ads on the web now.

  38. R. L. Foster says


    Your advice is good, but I should point out that you can’t get adblocker plus on every browser. It’s available on Firefox for PCs, which I use, and Edge, but not on Apple products as far as I know. I tried to install it on my Samsung tablet, but it wasn’t available. I couldn’t watch YouTube without it. I haven’t seen an ad there in years.

  39. davidc1 says

    @8 You seem pretty smart to me ,I think I am the dumbest one on here .
    I think once you say you don’t believe in gods ,everything starts from that .
    The wanting to see a fairer world ,caring for each other ,and this world of ours .
    And good stuff like that .

  40. cheerfulcharlie says

    ” I tried to install it on my Samsung tablet, but it wasn’t available. I couldn’t watch YouTube without it. I haven’t seen an ad there in years.”
    – R.L. Foster.

    For Youtube on Android, try Youtube Vanced.

  41. marner says

    I was going to write a comment attempting to refute the logic of your argument conflating atheism with humanism, but everyone has heard that argument. And while we may disagree on the edges, I support your “Four Pillars of Atheism”, so why does it really matter? (As an aside, I sometimes think you are trolling us. You go from angrily decrying the redefinition of a term that pretty much no one had ever heard of in one post to arguing for the redefinition of a word that most people have heard of and already agree to its meaning in this one. JK)
    It is hard for me to write about my feelings, but the real reason your argument bothers me is that it makes me feel that you are trivializing how hard and how painful becoming an atheist was for me. I understand that it was easy for you and cost you nothing. That is great! I am truly happy for you. I could talk about the years of pain, damage to important relationships and residual damage that affect me to this day, but you have already heard these stories. Becoming an atheist was an important and pivotable event in my life. Arguing that not believing in god(s) is unworthy of its own word seems to me to be coming from a position of privilege. Of course atheism has implications. Of course it is not enough. But for me it was an important step that deserves to be celebrated full stop.

  42. unclefrogy says

    my coming to disbelief I would have to say was guided by what I have come to understand are the implications that result if ‘there is no god” is true. turns out that is I know now is a scientific approach. any new scientific theory or discovery must fit in with what we already understand is the nature of reality or our understanding of reality must be altered to account for the new discovery. that is why we could no longer live in a strictly Newtonian world after the discovery of special relativity. All the evidence is indicating that there is no need for anything like the god of religious belief. All the evidence is pointing out that human cultures are made and developed by humans in response to what we understand of the nature of reality and our being a physical part of that reality and its history. It is not some “truth” handed down by some god or our sacred ancestors and imitable interpreted by the priests and enforced most often with force and violence.
    there is no way to take disbelief on faith as if that is all there is to it and still pretend you are not doing another form of religion, an anti-religion religion. maybe seeing atheism as just another religion by some christians and other believers is in response to that I don’t know nor do I care

  43. DanDare says

    It seems to me that you described humaism rather than atheism. Atheism is a pre requisit to humanism.
    My understanding of an atheist is they are not beleivers in gods. That neither entails skepticism or humanism, which is why so much of the atheist movement is filled with atavistic buffoons.
    My understang of humanism is that humanists ask the question “in a world without gods how should we be?” And as tentative answers are found tries to live by them. That would certainly entail all the concepts in the post.
    All humanists are going to be atheist. Not all atheists will be humanist. That is why I think the attempt to make them equivalent never seems to gel.

  44. unclefrogy says

    well if you are just some who does not believe in any gods without questioning anything else about your situation and the rest of the unacknowledged beliefs you hold I would think you would be more accurately be called as someone who believes in no god.
    like someone who “believes in evolution” but does not see that everything is related physically to everything else.

  45. John Morales says

    unclefrogy, heh. That’s a tautology; sure: if one does not believe in gods, one does not believe in gods.

    Anyway, I held off. This post basically says PZ thinks atheism is about bettering the world:

    Atheists participate in society. That should mean that we ought to have social goals to accomplish.

    Me personally, I do participate in society, but I don’t have any particular social goals I want to accomplish. Nor do I feel there is any ‘ought’ about it, because ‘oughts’ relate to goals, which I lack.

    Again, there’s this equivocation between personal atheism and movement atheism.
    Different things.

    So, as DanDare notes above, “My understanding of an atheist is they are not beleivers in gods. That neither entails skepticism or humanism” — though, of course, not entailing that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

    In short, I don’t accept that, in general, atheism requires activism, but neither do I accept that it precludes it. Each to their own.

  46. unclefrogy says

    Well John, my point is that for those who see atheism as not believing in gods without any of the questioning that is associated with it here it is really just another belief not that different from Ken Ham. I guess that may be a pointless distinction but I think it may be true none the less.
    I do not have a belief in no gods and that may be why I have always shied away from that appellation myself that and the general fear and hostility that would elicit in those around me.
    I truly do not know what any of this may be or why it is at all. I do understand some of the history of how I (we) came to be here if here can even be said to be a place at all, because it is beginning to appear that there is no ‘Place” or “things” at all only events in time stretching out from now

  47. John Morales says


    Well John, my point is that for those who see atheism as not believing in gods without any of the questioning that is associated with it here it is really just another belief not that different from Ken Ham.

    I think you’ve got that backwards. Ken Ham ostensibly believes in God, and he most certainly is an activist about it; that is to say, were he in fact the converse of a “dictionary atheist” (to employ PZ’s terminology), he would believe in God but draw no conclusions from that belief or engage in any activism on that basis.

    I do not have a belief in no gods and that may be why I have always shied away from that appellation myself that and the general fear and hostility that would elicit in those around me.

    Um, I can’t determine whether that double negation is deliberate; do you mean you are agnostic and shy away from calling yourself an atheist for fear of repercussions?
    I really can’t tell.

  48. KG says

    kingoftown, hemidactylus, John Morales@various,

    The obvious comparison countries to the USA are Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa/NZ, not France. Culturally and historically far more like the USA than France is, none with establishment churches, but lacking the heightened religiosity of the USA. Moreover, the correlation between religiosity and socio-economic insecurity is well-established (see here and here for example). The religious right know what they are doing in opposing a functioning welfare state. The “free market in religion” explanation, favoured by Christian sociologists such as Rodney Stark is just another invalid example of American exceptionalism.

  49. unclefrogy says

    it sounds to me that the “dictionary Atheist” are just practicing another faith which is “I believe there is no god” and in that faith they are little different then Ken Ham. They go little farther with it then that and just rest on their faith and their book of truths.

    Maybe I see it that way because of my catholic education and the emphasis on faith and reason together. Since I no longer believe in gods or churches my education failed but It did not fail in that it taught me to question things including belief.
    It is no longer a question I entertain much “Is there a god?”
    I used to shy away from that question from others “do you believe in god?” for fear of having to defend myself, not wanting to be seen as the other and wanting to be accepted. I am too old for that now it seldom worked anyway. No I am not agnostic, though I have to ask what is this god anyway,? could there exist beings “with powers far beyond those of mortal men”?

  50. John Morales says

    could there exist beings “with powers far beyond those of mortal men”?

    If they did exist, I still wouldn’t worship them. Worshipping is for other people.

    I’ve never understood that trope: “ooh, it’s a god. Must worship!”. Bah.