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.


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.

Atheists in America

Are atheists in America “under siege” by the larger religious base in this country? Some people certainly think so and while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say “under siege,” I do feel that being an atheist in America is fundamentally more difficult than being a member of most, though by no means all, religions.

America was, at the time of its founding, one of the only countries that lacked an official state religion. The Constitution of the United States was referred to at the time of its creation as a “godless” document due to the fact that it made no mention of the Almighty. The First Amendment made it explicitly clear that Congress would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” thus creating what Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, referred to as “a wall of separation” between church and state, something that’s arguably healthy for both.

So, one would think that America is a country where it’s very easy to be an atheist, and I suppose it is easier here than it is in, say, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia or Uganda, but that doesn’t mean atheists don’t have issues here. They just tend to be more subtle.

First, atheists are culturally invisible. I can’t think of a single popular TV character who is avowedly atheist other than Brian Griffin, and he’s a talking dog. There’s no sitcom I’m aware of featuring an atheist main character, much less one that is, say, centered an atheist family. Of course there’s not any centering on a Muslim family, a Wiccan family or a Hindu family, but atheists in America outnumber the total number of all those groups by a fair margin.

In the sports world, just about any time an athlete does something amazing, they thank God and/or Jesus. They’re known to point skyward when they get a home run, drop to a knee to pray after getting a touchdown, etc. Actors, singers, and other entertainers have their own variations on this. It’s a bit creepy and unseemly, though some of us on the atheist side did find it somewhat amusing when one football player complained to God after losing.

In the political arena, there’s an overriding “godness” about our country. We have “In God We Trust,” on our money, which, were I religious, I think I’d find a bit inappropriate, as Theodore Roosevelt did. In the 1950s, the words, “One nation under God,” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Every politician who makes any speech of any note feels the need to end it with “God bless the United States of America!” One wonders if such a request would actually sway God, and if it did, what would that say about him?

Then there are the little ways religion keeps trying to creep into the classroom. Every year it seems there’s a new effort in a new place to drive “intelligent design” into a place where it doesn’t belong. Thus far this effort has been largely stopped by the courts, but it just takes one victory for years of effort on behalf of science to take a large hit.

There’s also tax exemptions for churches. Some of these intuitions pull in millions of dollars each year, but they and many of their employees are exempt from taxes. In theory the price they pay for this is that they can’t take specific political stances from the pulpit, but that rule is so easy to get around it isn’t even funny.

But all of these are general things. Things that aren’t so much directed at oppressing atheists as they are cultural background noise. Ok, let’s look at some more directly oppressive things.

Seven states have laws that make it impossible for atheists to serve on juries or be elected to public office. Admittedly, these would be thrown out were they to be challenged, but often people who live in states that have such laws are reluctant to protest, lest their neighbors learn of their godless ways.

As for politicians, well, it would be a brave one indeed who admitted he or she was an atheist, at least if said politician ever intended to get reelected. It wasn’t until 2007 that Pete Stark (D-CA), admitted he is an atheist. No other major national politician has. That’s no surprise, given that voters often say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist.

Even in the culturally iconic Boy Scouts, a symbol of healthy, moral boyhood, a bias exists against atheists. The Boy Scouts are a great organization that offers lots of opportunities for boys around the world to learn new things, interact with each other in a positive way, and generally create a better life. But if those kids are atheists or gay, they need not apply, as both groups are explicitly excluded from Scouting.

Of course, we atheists have ourselves to blame for much of this. We’re about 15 percent of the American public (depending on which polls you read), yet we don’t have the ability to group together and stand as a unit politically. Mind you, some would say that’s like herding cats.

Also, too many of us are “in the closet,” as it were, fearing the response of our friends, our families and our employers if we out ourselves as atheists, yet it is important that we do so. If there’s one thing we can learn from the gay rights struggle, it’s that people’s views of any minority group tend to change when someone they know is in that group.

As I said, the challenges that atheists face in this country aren’t nearly as severe as they are in other places. Rather than being brutally oppressed, we’re merely constantly stung by little insults to our dignity. That doesn’t make our problems any less valid, and so efforts to raise our profile through things like the “Good Without God” campaign, while perhaps not popular with the larger population, are a great start.

Atheists as Evangelists

Reza Aslan, someone who I find interesting and have some respect for, has published an article about atheists as evangelists for their cause. He makes specific mention of the atheist bus advertising campaigns going on around the world. I agree; that is basically atheists evangelizing. It’s us pushing a message that, as one of the signs says, you can be good without God. It’s important to note that these aren’t designed to swing over the religious. They are instead designed to appeal to those who already doubt their faith and perhaps need a bit of a nudge.

But then I pretty much part company with him for the rest of the article.

The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.

“Scientific or otherwise?” Surely isn’t everything that’s quantifiable as “truth” based in science? As for the second point, Holocaust deniers (and I’ve been dealing with one recently on, of all places, Amazon), are people who continue to believe the Holocaust never happened despite all the information to the contrary. Creationists are people who refuse to believe in the scientific explanation for the existence of life, the universe and everything, despite all the information to the contrary. Now perhaps he could have made a better comparison with, say, flat-Earth people, but the comparison is valid.

As to the literal reading of scripture, by taking a literal view of scripture we highlight its faults. We say that you cannot claim God is loving, caring, kind and forgiving when the Bible, Old and New Testaments, show the opposite. By approaching it from a literal angle, we use the words of believers against them. I don’t see that highlighting the faults in what someone claims to believe is a bad thing.

And, yes, atheists are oppressed and stigmatized by Western society. In this country, if I remember correctly, we have one (1) member of the House of Representatives who is openly atheist. That’s out of, what, 435? Even he’s from pretty much the most liberal district in the country, and I’m willing to bet that there’s people even there who blanch at the idea of voting for an atheist. That’s not even mentioning the fact that we have to put up with crap like “In God We Trust” on our money, “One nation under God” in the Pledge, and constant fights with the religious zealots who want to bring creationism into the classroom.

Here’s something to consider. This past weekend Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas who once spouted off nonsense about how Texas should leave the Union (and isn’t that just the sort of person we need as President? Someone who doesn’t want his state to be part of this country?), held a big religious rally in Texas. It was technically non-denominational, but come on. This is Texas. It was a Christian event through and through. I could see any number of other political figures being willing to attend such things even, sadly, our President, but tell me: how many politicians can you name who would attend an atheist rally and are still planning to run for office?

The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism–and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism–is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented–and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god…[this continues in this vein for quite a bit]

From what I can tell here, Aslan is basically saying you can’t understand religion unless you’re a religious person. Bullshit. Besides, most atheists were raised in various different religions and have since moved past them. I was raised Methodist, for example. I attended a Methodist summer camp. I was in our church’s youth group. I know about religion at least in part because I was raised with one. Since then I’ve spent time learning and studying about it. I’d never seek to write a book on biology because, as with Aslan, I am not a biologist. But I have studied religion and I feel qualified to write about it. I can’t yet write books about it, because I don’t know as much about it as Dawkins, Hitchens and some of the others, but they have spent their lives studying religion and so, yes, they are qualified to write about the subject.

Also this is like saying that you can’t write about anything you personally haven’t experienced. This means you can’t write women’s issues unless you’re a woman, can’t write about gay issues unless you’re a gay and can’t write about ancient history unless you’re John McCain. Bollocks to that.

The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics.

Religion is evil to the extent that it presents a view of reality that almost certainly is not true. That’s a real problem. It’s also used as an excuse to kill people all over the planet, both historically and even now. I can’t think of one time when society thought it was a good idea to kill off lots of people in the name of atheism.

As far as eugenics go, yes, what people thought was science, but was about as scientific as the notion that vaccines cause autism, was responsible. So in the negatives for science we can pencil in “eugenics”. In the negatives for religion we can pencil in (takes a deep breath), “The Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, 9/11, 7/7, the oppression of the Palestinians, the on-going conflict between India and Pakistan, the problems of Ireland and Sri Lanka, the recent split of Sudan between north and south, the Balkan genocides in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide, the African slave trade, the Defenestration of Prague, the original split between India and Pakistan, the whole notion of monarchy, the concept of ‘manifest destiny’, the missionaries who destroyed native cultures around the world, oppression of women and gays, anti-abortion terrorism, many of Japan’s war crimes during WWII, and war upon war upon war.”

So, you pick a winner there.

Oh, and just add more to the religion column: “The Lord’s Resistance Army, the various Islamic dictatorships who justify their dictatorships by invoking religion, the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control, the fact that there are still state religions in various nations, and the fact that blasphemy laws still exist in various nations thus stiffing free speech.”

There you go. Oh, you want more? This time more historical rather than modern? Right-o. “Wahabism, the wars between the Catholic Church and the C of E, the slaughter of non-Christians in Jerusalem and Constantinople, as well as the slaughter of Christians in those cities, both done in the name of God, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the Carthagians, and the Jews, the early wars to spread Islam, the various religiously-based social codes that held the lower-classes to be low because ‘God’ wanted them to be that way, the entire caste system of India, the mere fact that something like the Papal states existed, the fact that the Byzantine Emperor was supposed to help spread the faith, the fact that to this day the monarch of the UK is also ‘defender of the faith’ and head of the Church of England, Roman legal codes that required worship of the Emperor, and all the various and sundry ways in which religion says, ‘my imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend and that makes me better than you.'”

Tired of this yet? Not me. “Anders Breivik, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Warren Jeffs, the Southerners in the old Confederacy who claimed God was in favor of slavery (it is supported by the Bible), and made sure to mention God in their various founding documents, conversion of Mormonism after death, stoning people to death for adultery, stoning a rape victim to death for adultery because she was raped by a married man, turning boys into sex toys in Afghanistan because men aren’t allowed to associate with women in healthy ways, stigmatizing sex in general and, last but not least, lying to people about the fundamental nature of reality.”

Phew. I need a break! You know what the really sad part was? All of those were off the top of my head. Religion is so insane and has done so much evil, that I was able to pop off all those examples without having to look up anything. If I had bothered to look up religious horror through the centuries, I’d probably fill another several screens.

Anyhow, I think I made my point. Science: One error with people following the “bad science” of eugenics. Religion: all that other crap.

What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse?

Yes, those are very much more hypothetical because by using the scientific method we can’t “prove” any of them. Superstring theory and the notion of the multiverse actually have some evidence behind them. Things like chi’i do not.


The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.

I don’t claim that people who believe are stupid. Quite the contrary, people like St Augustine, C S Lewis, Andrew Sullivan and, yes, Reza Aslan, were or are clearly very intelligent. They had to be in order to do the mental gymnastics needed to allow their minds enough to believe in such a fundamentally immoral endeavor as religion.

Your Own Personal Billboard

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a fun little thing on their site where you can make your own atheist billboard. Here’s mine. Try making one yourself! It’s free and fun! 😀

That Wacky Newt!

She turned me into a Newt!

So Newt Gingrich is under the mistaken impression that he can get his party’s nomination for President in 2012. It is to laugh. This from a man who has had multiple affairs, been married several times and served one wife divorce papers while she was in the hospital. Yes, he’s a quality example of modern Republicanism in action.

But, hey, to be fair this is the same party that thought Sarah Palin was a dandy choice for VP back in 2008. I thought the same, but the difference is, I can admit I was wrong. So it’s entirely possible they might nominate him for President. But should that happen, I’ll welcome it. Imagine the glory of a campaign where the GOP candidate is an adulterous, multi-divorced, heartless bastard running against a Democrat in a happy, stable marriage to his first wife. Hilarious!

Anyhow, in addition to his now famous flip-flop on Libya, Newt said something entertaining recently about the future of America.

“I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9,” Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

This is very telling. First off, he seems to think that a “secular atheist country” would be one that’s dominated by a religion. A slight contradiction there, I feel. Logically you can have or the other, not both. I suppose it’s possible you could have a largely atheist country where the largest religious denomination is a radical version of Islam, but I think that’s somewhat unlikely, especially given that Muslims in this country constitute somewhere around 1% of the population. In a country of about 300 million people, that would be three million. And of those, I strongly doubt that more than 1% would be so-called “radicals”. That gives us about thirty thousand. Out of three hundred million. Yeah, I don’t think we have much to worry about there.

Second, and more interesting, is what this says about Newt’s view of Christianity, particularly his version of it. He believes it’s so weak, so powerless, so unable to survive in the marketplace of ideas, that it will eventually be supplanted by atheism and radical Islam. Now as it happens I agree that it will eventually collapse and atheism will become dominant around the world, but that is, as mentioned, somewhat different from any version of Islam.

Of course what Newt is really trying to do is prey on people’s fears of Islam. The crowd he preaches to (and believe me, it’s preaching), is one that’s predisposed to believe that Islam is a horribly evil, foreign religion, not at all like Christianity, which is 100% American. It’s the same view Americans used to hold of Catholicism, which is rich, given that Gingrich is a Catholic.

So, anyhow, yeah, this guy is a joke. I hope the ticket consists of him and Palin running together because, really, I want to make the 2012 election as easy as possible for Obama.

Also, this article officially begins my “Campaign 2012” category. Enjoy!

Happy Holidays from Ricky Gervais!

Hey… that rhymes! 😀

Anyhow, the man famous for The Office and the very highly underrated Extras has an article on the Wall Street Journal’s site where he talks about atheism. It’s a very fascinating read, as is his little Q&A section in response to some of the comments people left. Go read both. They’re worth it.

And happy holidays to all. 🙂

Happity Holidays from Amazon!

An early holiday present from Amazon for all you Kindle owners and Kindle app users. They are currently selling The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas for a mere $1.01. Nice! Get it while you can.