The word “atheism” was originally like “barbarian,” “gringo,” “gaijin,” or other such labels for types of foreigners. “Atheism” was defined negatively by certain religious people to mark some group as not belonging to that religion. Thus, the early Christians were called atheists by the Romans and then Christians called pagans unbelievers. As the well-known new atheist Richard Dawkins has noted, “atheism” is a peculiar term since there aren’t similar names in circulation for many other sorts of outsiders, such as “agoblinists,” meaning those who lack belief in goblins, or “aliberals” meaning those who fail to be liberal. Clearly, this is because “atheism” was originally a pejorative label that meant asymmetric opposition to a certain powerful force within nearly all societies. There’s no powerful institution that takes the existence of goblins for granted and so there’s no need for “agoblinism,” and although there are opponents of liberalism, such as conservatives, their opposition isn’t asymmetric, because conservatism is just as powerful an ideology. After the modern revolutions in Europe, however, opponents of religion in general earned cultural credit and so “atheism” lost its pejorative connotations. Only in special cases within the last century or so, such as during the Cold War when Americans spoke of communists as “godless,” has the lack of theistic belief been assumed to be bad. The conventional definition is value-neutral and so whereas a foreigner to Japan wouldn’t proudly call himself a gaijin, atheists have taken over their disparaging label. But confusion remains, because “atheism” still doesn’t identify what anyone actually believes; the label means merely the lack of belief in gods or in the supernatural.
If we ask what the positive ideology of atheists is, we find there are some interesting divisions between atheistic subcultures. First, there’s the tradition of skepticism, going back to Voltaire, David Hume and even to the ancient Greeks, but which is now fuelled more by hacker culture, libertarianism, and the internet. Atheists like Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette, and the YouTube stars known as The Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t are atheistic only in passing. More positively, they’re debunkers on all fronts, zealously opposing any trace of irrationality since they fear the mob mentality. They subscribe to the modern ideal of the critical thinker who earns her freedom by using her rational power as a defense against attempts to manipulate her with fallacious rhetoric and pressure tactics. For the modern critical thinker, freedom is autonomy, the ability to choose how to act due to your control over the contents of your mind. Self-awareness, logic, and the pragmatic pruning of your concepts to match the real world are the tools that carve out your independent self in the first place. Rationality thus liberates you from your instincts and from the natural forces that make you a mere animal. The skeptic’s moral task, then, is to doubt all statements until she’s assured that they’re well-supported by evidence and logic. This moral imperative of skepticism derives from the libertarian (classic liberal) link between freedom and rationality, which was forged during the Enlightenment by the early modern humanists.
There’s another aspect of current skepticism, though, which is a technological one. After all, the internet is a boon to anyone who feels duty-bound to check and to double-check facts, to learn about every topic under the sun, to err as little as possible, because the internet contains all the information in the world at the touch of a button. If the equivalent of a snake oil salesman badgers a skeptic on a street corner, the skeptic can whip out her handheld computer, search the salesman’s name and commiserate with others in a chat room, sharing each other’s doubts and findings of fact. The libertarian wants freedom of information and this is what the internet is supposed to achieve. Of course, the internet can spread nonsense and demagoguery as easily as it can the light of reason, but skeptics choose to wield this weapon to challenge all claims and all systems. Not just ancient religions fall by the wayside, but so too do conspiracy theories, paranormal claims, tribal superstitions, urban legends, and even conventions of political correctness.
This last barrier to rational self-control, the political imposition of codes of conduct on the libertarian skeptic, puts the skeptical atheist at odds with what I’ll call the postmodern liberal humanist. According to the latter sort of atheist, the skeptic’s rationalism is rather retro, since scientists from Darwin to Freud and from Einstein to Heisenberg to the mathematician Kurt Gödel have shown that the dream of perfect rationality is misplaced. We are animals, after all, and the modern myth that we transcend natural forces is comparable to ancient religious conceits. We’ve entered a postmodern period in which we must cope with moral relativism and with the historicity and value-ladenness of everything we say. Whereas libertarianism looks back to early modern liberalism, postmodern liberalism is an academic game in which the liberal employs the old-school humanistic rhetoric without being able to religiously commit to the modern faith in social progress through the work of individuals who’ve been liberated by their knowledge.
Feminist atheists have made their voices heard in the new atheist movement, by proposing what they call Atheism Plus, meaning atheism plus general skepticism and liberalism. The stronghold of this subculture of atheists is the blogosphere that includes Freethought Blogs. Thunderf00t used to write a blog under that banner, but he was kicked out because he challenged the feminist complaints about sexual harassment at atheist conferences. In Thunderf00t’s YouTube videos, including a multipart one called Why ‘Feminism’ is Poisoning Atheism, he lambasts postmodern liberal atheists for their political correctness, maintaining that that form of group-think is comparable to religious dogmatism. According to Thunderf00t, many more atheists agree with him than with the postmodernists, since the politically incorrect atheists on YouTube have a much larger following than the elitist ones on the blogosphere. Meanwhile, postmodern liberal humanists decry YouTube as a cesspool for misogynists, racists, and other troglodytes, and these humanists insist that atheists are required, by the dictates of critical thinking, to be liberal and thus politically correct.
The circling of the wagons around YouTube and the liberal blogosphere shows the rift between libertarian skepticism and postmodern liberal humanism. Libertarians dream of almost unrestricted freedom; these folks are close to being anarchists and social Darwinians, heedless of the potential for ultrarationality to break down the social order and even to destroy the will to live. For example, the tech savvy libertarians who hang around YouTube are likely thrilled by the ability to share information on the internet, even though this means that the producers of content lose a lot of money or can’t make a living. Certainly, these libertarian skeptics relish the opportunity for offensive speech, which YouTube allows, whereas the postmodern liberals prefer a higher standard of speech since they have a more academic sensibility. As I said, postmodern liberalism is an academic game in which a feminist, for example, can redefine “harassment” to mean merely a form of speech, because after all, as Derrida said, there’s nothing outside the text, meaning that reality is socially constructed so what we say is of ultimate, metaphysical importance. We speak reality into being, according to postmodern philosophy, and academic standards of speech are easier to enforce on blogs, so there are these two warring atheistic camps: on YouTube there are the libertarian debunkers, while in the blogosphere there are the postmodern feminists and other liberal atheists. Their dispute is about just how free our thoughts should be. Should there be no restrictions at all on what we think or are critical thinkers forced to adopt liberal values? Ironically, once religious dogmas are abolished, freethinkers seem to find themselves quarrelling over whether they must pay homage to a new creed.
There’s one more faction that conflicts with the libertarian skeptics, but allies with the postmodern liberals: the strategic optimists. These are the atheists whose overriding goal is to end traditional religion, and instead of just longing for a world with no religion they have a two-pronged plan. First, they wage all-out war against theism. Thus, you have the new atheist media campaign, including the books by the so-called Four Horseman and others, as well as the debates on YouTube, the radio, and elsewhere. What makes this assault new is the lack of respect shown to religion. The idea is to give people with religious faith no more respect than anyone is due whose beliefs are highly suspicious. Besides the hostility towards theism, though, these new atheists are careful to put their positive values in the best light. The idea is to win converts by selling the atheistic lifestyle. This was the point of the 2009 Atheist Bus Campaign in the UK, which displayed the sign, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
So this time the problem for the libertarians isn’t postmodern political correctness, but a more strategic reason for restricting free speech. The libertarian debunker wants to say whatever may pop into her head even if her comments turn off potential converts to atheism. She’ll use science and logic to demolish theistic arguments, but she’ll add some ridicule of her opponent, which betrays her stridence and resentment. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne are usually annoyed by the so-called accomodationist’s call for atheists to strike a friendly tone when talking about religion. The accomodationist takes the cheery sales pitch so far that she’ll pretend that theism rarely if ever conflicts with science. The accomodationist hopes that a religious person can slowly make her way to atheism, first by putting her toe in science, as it were, without thinking she thereby has to give up her religious beliefs. Eventually, when she acclimates to the scientific waters, she’ll lose interest in her archaic religion. But this sales strategy is spoiled by the hotheaded atheists who are absolutists about freedom of thought and who act like a bull in a china shop, smashing belief systems willy-nilly in the names of Reason, Science, and Freedom.
Putting aside the libertarian skeptics, there’s a more important, philosophical rather than political conflict to consider. On the one hand you have the strategic optimists as well as the postmodern liberals and on the other you have what I’ll call the Nietzschean atheists. For one reason or another, the former believe that atheism poses no threat to morality, social unity, or the prospect of happiness. The postmodern liberals are actually nihilists but they’ve learned not to care, to distract themselves with academic games, and they’ve grown accustomed to liberal values even though they’d have a hard time justifying them on naturalistic grounds. By contrast, Nietzscheans think that modern atheism was revolutionary, that the death of God was a catastrophe and that atheists have to rethink their values instead of presupposing theistic ones. For example, if there’s no immaterial spirit, what becomes of freewill? And if freewill is problematic, so is morality. So maybe authentic atheists should be amoral.
The conflict here isn’t quite the same as one between optimists and pessimists. The Nietzscheans aren’t necessarily fatalistic about the role of atheism, as though social unity or happiness were impossible for atheists. But these darker atheists do indeed raise the possibility, at least, that atheism is socially bad. Mind you, these atheists all believe that theism is false, but the dispute is about the social consequences of that fact. I think of the division here rather as one between exoteric and esoteric atheism. Those who think atheism poses little if any special challenge to society, to morality, or to sanity aren’t as interested in the truth of the matter as they are in the public image of the new atheist movement. The postmodernists are social constructivists so they think that reason is a mask for ulterior motives and therefore that what matters are the hidden moves that determine which rules become dominant. And the strategic new atheists want to project a positive image of atheism to achieve their goal of ending traditional religions. By contrast, the Nietzscheans are more interested in the truth of what authentic atheists should think about normative issues, come what may.
The Nietzscheans are allied with the larger group, the philosophical atheists, who in turn oppose the scientific atheists. The latter solve the problem of the gulf between the progress of science and technology, on the one side, and the lack of such progress in society and in human nature, on the other, by ignoring the field of philosophy in which that problem can be posed. Scientific atheists rest the weight of their war machine against theism on the sturdy grounds of science. That is, they think the question “Does God exist?” is a scientific question and they throw philosophy out with theology, regarding both as obscure. These atheists are typically accused of being scientistic, of thinking that all knowledge is scientific and that the arts or humanities departments in colleges or universities are therefore more or less fraudulent. The best response seems to be Jerry Coyne’s, which is to define “science” so broadly as to make the word synonymous with “reason,” and then to welcome the rational efforts of philosophers, historians, and the rest as cognitively worthy by virtue of being honourifically scientific.
Now, philosophical atheists like Massimo Pigliucci maintain that the question “Does God exist?” cannot properly be answered just by employing scientific methods. The question is philosophical and so atheists need philosophy and not just science to flesh out their worldview. Moreover, philosophical atheists typically stress that knowledge isn’t just a matter of getting the facts right, that is, of having a report of all the available information. Reason needn’t be reduced to instrumental reason, to the project of understanding how things work. Knowledge requires that our beliefs be rationally justified, and justification is partly a normative matter of interpreting the facts, of assigning them meaning and judging their relevance, coherence, usefulness, and so on, to form a worthy worldview. Existential atheists like Nietzsche and Sartre were philosophical in this sense. Indeed, although the existential movement in philosophy is long out of fashion, the existential challenge to some of the atheistic camps, not to mention to theists, remains. What impact does the universe’s godlessness have on our values? In other words, what ought we to do with ourselves, given that all of the theistic religions are embarrassingly wrong?
The cosmicist and horror author, H.P. Lovecraft, raised this same challenge and although he’s Nietzschean in the above sense, he may also be scientistic. True, his short stories show scientists humiliating themselves when they confront transcendent aspects of nature, as their attempts to learn ultimate truths render them insane, but this means only that our best scientific picture won’t be complete, on his view. Still, Lovecraft assumes that there are no ultimate normative truths and thus that the pursuit of knowledge is purely scientific as well as being tragic. At any rate, Lovecraftians, or cosmicists, and nihilists join the Nietzscheans in fearing the psychological and social implications of atheism, but philosophical atheists needn’t be so pessimistic.
Philosophers disagree with scientific atheists about whether knowledge has an artistic side, and so the scientific atheist worries that granting such a side lands you on a slippery slope to theology. If some beliefs must be evaluated by nonscientific standards, such as aesthetic or moral ones, there’s less glory in bringing the Hammer of Reason down on theism. The fear is that theism is much easier to defend on philosophical grounds than on scientific ones, and so philosophers find themselves sleeping with the enemy. Better to identify knowledge with the body of scientific discoveries and thus to force the theist to make a grim choice between the scientific masterpiece and a crude premodern sketch of the world, than to admit philosophical and artistic aspects of knowledge and thus to give theism undo respite. The philosophical response is just to say that the truth is more important than any such strategic concerns. Does knowledge have normative or subjective dimensions? If so, does science tell us everything there is to say about them? Moreover, even if theism were more easily defended with philosophy than with science, this needn’t mean that theists have a free pass. For centuries, philosophers have hammered theistic arguments. Still, the danger remains, as is evident from the specious philosophical case for theism put forward by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.
Resolving the Conflicts
There are surely other ways of classifying atheists, but taking the above as representative, what’s the likelihood that atheists will resolve those disputes? The questions of strategy for the new atheist movement seem to me trivial, because the atheist’s commitment to the scientific picture of the world dictates that certain goals are futile. The utopian dream of ending religion seems downright supernatural in light of the universality and thus innateness of the religious impulse. Because we are what scientists say we are, namely a very clever species of primate, we aren’t machines that follow only our calculations; we have instincts, intuitions, feelings, creative urges, speculative visions, and irrational biases. Along with the other social animals, we struggle in competitions for survival and the many losers bow to the minority of victors, forming dominance hierarchies. We tend to worship gods for the same reason that betas and omegas both fear and honour the alphas for not killing them or kicking them out of the fold. But because we’re so clever, we’ve discovered the difference between what we’re naturally led to believe and what’s really the case. A minority of people takes to heart the heartlessness of reality, and these atheists wish everyone would do the same. But atheists should know better, and so the kerfuffle over what tone of voice atheists should adopt strikes me as self-indulgent and likely short-lived.
As to the matter of freedom of thought, both libertarian skepticism and postmodern liberal humanism seem to me on shaky ground. What is free thinking without the kind of freewill that requires an immaterial kernel of a self which the atheist knows doesn’t exist? The problem with offensive speech is just the ethical one that rude people are unpleasant to be around, and when an atheist mocks theists, she might as well hurl insults at the force of gravity. Moreover, the skeptic’s pretense of ultrarationality is dubious, since unless she’s autistic, sociopathic, or otherwise incapable of relating normally to people, the skeptic has an irrational, undignified side too. For example, she likely has a sex life. Moreover, the atheist who contends that liberal values are the most rational commits the category error of assuming that reason has much to do with our preference for certain values and ideals. Postmodern humanists don’t infer that they should be liberal, so much as they utter the modern humanist slogans even though they no longer trust them because science has demolished the modern myths as well as the premodern, theistic ones.
The conflict between scientific and philosophical atheists also has a foregone conclusion: while science may suffice to convince people to abandon ancient explanations of the world, no one is content with a worldview that consists entirely of scientific explanations. Indeed, science is motivated by values of rationality and power. Again, because we are what scientists themselves say we are, people will tend to be religious in one way or another and we’ll ask philosophical rather than just scientific questions. Then again, because science empowers us more than philosophy, scientific atheists will be able to keep pretending that philosophy doesn’t matter, because philosophy will be the less popular discipline.