The Atheist Who Isn’t


Thomas Wells is not an atheist, as he explains an article published back on Monday. From what I can tell, he doesn’t believe in God, but he’s not an atheist because he apparently doesn’t feel the need to call himself one. Let’s take a look at some of his comments.

This new atheism isn’t nearly godless enough for me. Its proponents seem somewhat obsessed with the quite unremarkable fact that God doesn’t exist. Indeed, it seems so central to their identity – they seem to substantially organise their lives around it – that I find it hard to tell the difference between them and religionists.

For the record, I don’t organize my life around the fact that I am an atheist. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How can I tear down the foundations of faith today?” I read about the subject because I am interested in the philosophical, logical and scientific arguments about it. I discuss it, especially on my blog, because the subject interests me, and because religion is a very powerful force in our society.

I also really hate this notion that atheism is somehow a religion or like a religion. I’ve never gone to people and told them, “You must believe as I do, or you will be destroyed.” I’ve never said that schools should require students to do some sort of reverse prayer each morning. I’ve never suggested that our money should say “There is no God”. I’ve never even said that I’m 100%, unconditionally certain that there isn’t a god. There might be. The evidence doesn’t allow for it, but there could be.

So in what way is this a religion or like a religion? Let’s take a look at some more of the article.

Unsurprisingly, these passionate atheists are not content to hold their beliefs privately. Like members of many other religions (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons) they not only want to share the Good News they have discovered with everyone else, but they actually see proselytising as a sacred duty that is inseparable from their faith as a whole. Part of being this kind of atheist is to preach to the heathen masses and seek to save them from their false gods by converting them to the Truth. Hence their routine breaches of social etiquette as they go around telling people they are deluded, just as many churches put up billboards threatening passers by with damnation and promising salvation. Hence their interest in seeking out and creating conflicts that will lead to media publicity, thus leveraging their relatively small numbers into greater public attention. The obnoxiousness of the new atheists is the obnoxiousness of any growth focused religion, one that is trying to grow by conversion rather than reproduction.

“relatively small numbers”…yes, approximately 20% of the American population (depending on one’s definitions), is rather small, I suppose. I mean, it’s more than the numbers of Jews, Muslims, and a few other religions combined, but, yes, relatively small, I suppose. And given that many politicians come to power in this country by catering to the religious, I think it is very much in our interest to stand up and fight back against that. Now, to be fair, from the author’s spelling, I suspect he’s in the UK, so things may be different there. But I’m sure there’re still many politicians who come to power by sucking up to the religious. And speaking of…

The fundamental problem with all this is that the new atheists accept that religion is important enough that it matters whether one has the right or wrong beliefs about it, and have specific views about what religious beliefs one should hold. What separates them from me is that I don’t consider religion worthy of rational dissent, and I don’t consider that true freedom from religion would require me to rationally justify my lack of belief or interest in it. Of course god doesn’t exist. So what?

There are many supernatural things that some people believe in that I don’t, including Santa Claus, UFOs, crop circles, witches, ghosts, homeopathy, gods, fairies, and astrology. I see no particular reason to select out my non-belief in gods from that list of non-beliefs for special attention and justification. I see no no more reason to describe myself as an atheist, than as an afairieist, ahomeopathist, etc. To put it another way, my non-belief is apathetic: the nonexistence of God/Gods is a matter of great insignificance to me. And isn’t that how it should be?

Neil de Grasse Tyson made a similar comment a couple years back that irritated me, too. Here’s the thing: in an ideal world, we could all just roll our eyes and ignore religion like we ignore crop circles. However in our world, especially in this country, religion wields a great deal of power, and we need to know about it and fight against it when religious people try to make the rest of us live by their faith.

He then goes on to some weird straw men arguments.

New atheism’s version of secularism seems more dangerous than the disease. To prevent religionists from imposing their irrational beliefs on the rest of us the atheists seem to demand not the neutrality of the state but its commitment to Truth, i.e. atheism. Will children be required to recite the Atheist’s Creed in schools and will bank notes have “There is no God” printed on them? How ghastly.

*headdesk*

I don’t know anyone who says that children should be required to recite some sort of Atheist’s Creed (not that such a thing exists), or that money should say “There is no God”. In fact, as I implied above, I at least have always said that would be the wrong thing. The only correct position government should take regarding religion is one of complete neutrality. No “In God We Trust” and no “There is no God”.

Thomas Wells seems to have a severely warped idea of what atheism is and is not. It is, in general, a rejection of religion, religious belief, and superstition. It is, in general, a philosophy that holds that reality, often reality that can be proven through the scientific method, is more important that fantasy. It can be, for some people, a rallying point to try and bring secular reforms to a government that is often way too religious, and to push religion in general out of the pubic square and back into churches where it belongs. And for others it can be just something they hold to passively.

It is not a rejection of morality. Atheists don’t say that science is the only way one can learn things or evolve a sense of right and wrong. It certainly isn’t about forcing people to start claiming there isn’t a god.

I don’t know where Thomas Wells actually is on the spectrum of belief, but if he doesn’t want to say he’s an atheist, that’s fine. We can get along ok without him.

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