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Thursday, July 03, 2003
revisionist atheism revisited
A standard assertion from Internet atheists these days is as follows:
Its really quite simple: Atheism is the lack of a god-belief, the absence of theism, to whatever degree and for whatever reason. To assume that atheism involves more than the absence of theism is an error. [actual quote]
This view that has become de rigueur among a whole new generation of atheists and Internet Infidels. Here it is again:
It's a very simple exercise. When you come to understand why you lack a belief in all other theologies but your own, you'll also come to understand why atheists lack a belief in yours. [actual quote]
Alas, such a definition is not very helpful for anyone willing to reflect on the matter. I do not know whether those espousing this view are just naïve or whether they are disingenuous but this tactic - and it cannot be glorified with any other term than a “tactic” – is a classic dodge, a semantic sleight of hand to avoid having to shoulder responsibility for one’s own position. The “weak atheism” gambit is intellectually suspect, lacking (sic) coherence, logic or sense. It exists only as an expediency, a means of avoiding or deflecting the burden of proof. The wonder is that numerous younger atheists can expound such self-serving revisionist pap without a hint of embarrassment.
When weighed in the balance the argument for “weak” atheism is found to be wanting or should I say “lacking”. I would add this suggestion: that freethinking infidel guys peruse some of the major standard dictionaries of philosophy and read the entries under “atheism” to discover what atheism really means. The spawning of the cult of “weak atheism” is a recent Internet phenomenon, one that dates back only a decade or two. Before that there was no weakness to atheism. It was a real man’s belief, not a cop out for postmodern kids.
I respect any one’s right to believe or disbelieve whatever he wants, but I cannot stand by and let someone speak nonsense on the presumption that it is a profound insight. What exactly is the meaningful propositional content of statements like “Atheism is the lack of a god-belief” or “atheism is absence of theism”? These statements are akin to asserting “The undead have a lack of being dead.” Their vacuity is further demonstrated by the constant linkage to those atheist favourites the Invisible Pink Unicorn, the Santa God and the Floog from the planet Zymar or wherever…
In classical times atheism referred the open denial or rejection of the gods of the ruling State. In this sense the early Christians were referred to as “atheists” because of their unwillingness to bow down and worship the Roman gods. (In this context it must be remembered that the Emperor himself was also styled a god to be worshipped.) The Roman ethos tolerated all sorts of local and household gods as long as one made obeisance to the proscribed State gods as well. Christians and Jews refused to worship these man-made gods because they acknowledged only the one true and unique God who was creator and ruler of the entire universe. All other Gods were false gods and unworthy of the worship only the transcendent God was entitled to.
Monotheism was a radical concept, in fact one of the truly revolutionary concepts in human history. For Jews and Christians, there is NO God but Yahweh and he alone is to be worshipped. There could be no compromise on this. There are many so-called gods, but the monotheist doesn’t pull any punches, he rejects them all, even the ones he may not be personally acquainted with. This was and is a paradigm bursting notion that has lead to monotheism’s position as the world’s dominant and most influential religious view.
Islam, the third great monotheist religion, which emerged somewhat later, but from the same roots, also emphasizes this distinctive notion. I should point out that the God of Israel, the God of Christians and the God of Islam is the same unique God – not three different competing Gods. I am not minimizing the very real differences between the three great monotheistic religions but highlighting what is not in dispute - the essential uniqueness and transcendence of God.
The emphasis in monotheism is not primarily upon the number of gods, in order merely to distinguish it from polytheism, as is popularly thought. The real emphasis is upon the utter uniqueness of God and upon his transcendence. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are as one on this. It is this transcendence and otherness that makes the trifling comparisons with Santa and the tooth fairy beloved of Internet infidels so inappropriate.
I made the following comments in previous blogs but I think they are relevant on this ocassion:
Contemporary atheism in general labours under peculiar semantic strictures. Atheists delight in making up ridiculous words and terms to mock, debase and discredit theistic beliefs - things like “biblegod”, “godunnit” “Santaism” etc. Indeed Santaism is a major obsession with Internet Infidels ranking right up there with that old chestnut, the Invisible Pink Unicorn. The way that these terms get retreaded over and over throughout cyberspace speaks volumes for the low level of critical - and original - thought amongst many Internet infidels. That many of them think this is terribly clever and profound only highlights that it would profit them to expend a little more energy on devising a better descriptive term for their belief system, one that clearly expresses its propositional content rather than disingenuously rejecting any content to one’s worldview for the sole purpose of gaining an unfair polemical advantage over one’s opponents.
I refer to the revisionist redefinition of atheism to empty it of any propositional meaning. This involves the novel notion of weak atheism (the term “weak” is itself an indicator of poor forethought with its implication of flabbiness and lack of focus) to indicate a position which merely lacks belief in God or finds the concept of God apparently meaningless. The philosophical fad which spawned this latter idea, Logical Positivism, has pretty much been relegated to the dustbin of philosophical history but it has been seized upon by Internet Infidels as expressing some king of profound insight.
The use of the suffix “ism” denotes a belief system, or a philosophical, political or moral doctrine. “A-theism” literally and traditionally means a belief system - an outlook, a worldview, a doctrine - that involves the negation of “god”. Whether one wants to make a major issue of the subtle difference between its meanings as “no” or “without”, the preposition “a” in a word remains a preposition of negation. “A-theism” cannot exist in a vacuum. One cannot be an “a-theist” unless “theos” (god) is an a priori meaningful concept that one wishes to negate. Theism is historically, linguistically and logically antecedent to any notion of atheism. One might rationally be something else, an “agnostic” for example, but it is either naïve semantic confusion or a disingenuous debating ploy to call oneself an “atheist” when all that one claims is that one “lacks” or has an “absence” of certain notions, ideas or beliefs pertaining to God. And then to have the hide to call this the normative definition of atheism!