Sunday, January 8, 2017

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New Atheism, Part 1. What It Is, And Isn’t

From Atheist Republic Dave Thompson probes the nature of atheism.  


Let me start out with an illustrative quote that most people reading this should be familiar with: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." ~ George H.W. Bush

I set out to write a set of articles on New Atheism; what it is, what it isn't, but most importantly, why it is. And I realized that I first needed to do some work on the root of New Atheism, just plain old Atheism is waving all loose in the wind. Various people have grabbed at it to try using it to make points against us. I think I will need three installments to cover the concept of New Atheism in a fulsome way that allows people to get a nice set of conceptual takeaways.

Atheism is the most slender of things about us that is meaningful. It expresses a significant but singular issue where we differ from the majority of other people on this planet at the moment. At other times in history the number of people who were early adopters of a newer and evidentially gained piece of information were very small and the rest of humanity required a good deal of time to adapt to the new paradigm. This is no different. Whether it be a round-earth, gravity, electricity, disease, radiation, planetary resource depletion, anthropogenic global warming, the wide ubiquity of consciousness in animals, or any of many other concepts that have led or will lead to wholesale changes in human culture, it takes time for the weight of these concepts to penetrate through previously held misconceptions deeply enough to actually change day-to-day behaviors of people but it always happens.

Phrase it as you like, either in the negative/passive term "due to lack of evidence we do not believe in a god or gods", or in a more positive/assertive context "due to 3,000 years of no evidence regardless of the effort to find some, and in the face of mounting evidence against the god hypothesis, we believe there are no god or gods.". The effect is the same however, we are early adopters of a worldview that now makes sense to have based on solid evidence, which puts us at odds with more than 80% of the rest of the planetary population. On a topic that is central to those people's lives...this makes us very unpopular.

I understand that language is malleable. When many people say cool, they are asserting a value judgment instead of temperature. Atheist means many things to many people currently. I'd like to make an argument here to keep it as simple and as unburdened with additional baggage as possible. The reason for this is simple, in this in-between period the effort placed on combating us will only increase for quite some time. We need to give these people as little to grasp as possible.

We have people from all walks of life who identify as atheist. All geographical areas, all genders, all political affiliations, etc. They identify as not believing in a god or gods...but very often that is all they agree on. Many don't even agree on the particulars of nature. Some are pantheist, some are deist, some are truly agnostic and simply don't care. Some came to atheism for good reasons built on evidence or the lack thereof, some for not so good reasons like they hate going to church. There are some commonalities, but because there are so many ways for us to get to atheism and so many ways for us to be while we are also atheist that a group label based on this term alone is not a good way to represent any of us.

So what does ‘atheism’ really mean?

While language is malleable in normal usage, the etymology can still be accurately traced. And if a concerted effort is made, a word can be reclaimed from 'normal usage' and regain it's original meaning. So I suggest we reclaim atheist and atheism from the common vernacular if we are to smooth out the integration of this idea into the 80% of people who are still-superstitious.

When you take a word and use the prefix "a" in front of it (a before consonants an before vowels) it is called a preformative. It is a derivational prefix which creates a derived word that prefixes the a semantic 'not' to the word in question.

Atonal: Not written in any key or mode
Tonal: Written using conventional keys and harmonies

Amoral: Lacking a moral sense; unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something
Moral: Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior

Atheism: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods
Theism: Belief in the existence of a god or gods


Asymmetrical vs Symmetrical
Aspherical vs Spherical
Want more?
Atheism literally means being without the property of theistic belief and that is all. Certainly there are things that can be asserted as likely true about someone who lacks belief in gods, but nothing that can be asserted with any certainty. And this brings me to my first point about New Atheism. This is the first time in history when we have good evidence that the old ways of thinking about the world around us as being caused/created by some ultra-powerful intelligent agent is completely untrue. This wealth of evidence sets modern New Atheists apart from non-believers before now in a very robust way. We do not need to hedge our speech when talking about superstition any longer...we can be very, very sure that the universe has no divine being to thank for its existence.

Previously, for the last 200 years or so, we had philosophical ideas that countered the idea of god/gods, as well as some poorly understood evidence like the earth not being flat or the earth not being at the center of the solar system. But there are mountains of evidence from biology, geology, cosmology, anthropology, chemistry, physics, just to name a few main disciplines. These don't even touch all the sub disciplines, nor the deep successes in medicine that humanity has only now really begun to achieve as a result of understanding the underpinnings of the related disciplines of chemistry and biology.

On a podcast recently I heard Matt Dillahunty talk about meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson and speaking with him a bit. One of the things discussed was Matt calling Neil a douchebag on-air because Neil refuses the label ‘atheist’ while admitting to being sure himself that there is no god. Neil was very clear that his reasoning here was entirely because of the extra baggage that comes with the label of ‘atheist’ currently. I’ve heard this before as well, mainly expressed from professional people as to why they do not accept the term atheist for themselves.

Atheism is a world-view like ‘off’ is a T.V. channel.

Neil’s objection is totally valid and is precisely why sub-movements like Atheist+ need to be frowned upon. I’ve tried to point out here that atheism is not a thing, it is the lack of a thing, and there are a lot of different people who lack this particular thing. Many of them object to being categorized even if the categorization is appropriate for them, because they know it won’t be for many others.

By limiting the use of the term atheism or atheist to just referring to the point we don’t believe, we can distance ourselves if we want from people who might be corrosive to various groups. People like the YouTube personality The Amazing Atheist. The person behind the persona is Terroja Lee Kincaid, and while being an ‘angry atheist’ is nothing new as we’ve all been there at least once, this person is intentionally vulgar and often misogynistic.

I’m not going to bash him specifically, since there are certainly others, but I use him as an example because I’ve had people point out some of the things he said as what they understand ‘atheism’ to be. If it were better understood that he says what he says because of who he is as an individual instead of as some representative of ‘atheists’ in general, things would be much easier on the rest of us. Eventually this will be understood regardless due to the growing secularization of the planet, but there is no reason we should not make efforts to speed this part of it up a bit.

We need to not be intellectually lazy. There are other things to ‘call’ ourselves that are actually descriptive of who we are in much more fulsome ways than by a singular item we don’t accept no matter how deeply rooted that singular item is. You can be as vague or definitive as you like. common terms are skeptic, naturalist, freethinker, humanist, secular Humanist, feminist, liberal, conservative, scientist, teacher, chef, ditch digger, whatever you think defines what you-are-as opposed to what you-are-not.



Peter said...

A very interesting article. One bone of contention is when the author says, " we can be very, very sure the universe has no divine being to thank for its existence". Can we? Surely the answer is that it is very, very improbable but that we just don't know for sure. As Matt Dillihunty says, we should not be afraid to say that we don't know. It is the theists who say they are sure about things but produce no evidence to prove their claims. When it comes to the creator of the universe I always say that I'm agnostic but I am anti-theist, in that the idea that the universe's creator manifested himself as a radical Jewish preacher in the back arse of nowhere 2000 years ago, left no writings, eye-witness accounts or practical insights into the universe he created and that if I don't give my life to him I will spend eternity burning in agony is all pure man-made ballix for sure.

The author does make some good points on what atheism should focus on in the future. These atheist zealots make me uncomfortable. Ridiculing people for long held beliefs will not advance the cause of reason and science. As David Hume said "reason is a slave to the passions". All preferences and motives are emotional. There is no such thing as an unemotional or purely rational decision. People believe in gods for varying reasons and almost always for passionate reasons like family and community tradition. We will not deconvert many by offering up cold reason and rationality, deconversion will be a slow process. Religion is dying of natural causes and to be too aggresive now risks extending the agony.

Steve R said...


Think of it this way; of all that is known, observed and tested in the Universe, absolutely everything started off simple and became complex. A 'divine being' would inherently be extremely complex by design, ergo this is very unlikely.

A lot or religious types try to muddy the waters by saying that their particular 'God' (insert one of 3000 names) is not subject to the laws of the Universe in a rather childish attempt to account for their cognitive dissonance.

Creationists who clearly all failed basic High School biology try to shoe-horn their god into 'the gaps' that they think exist in the fossil record (it doesn't).

Whether this new wave of Atheism is zealous or not misses the point that for millennia, to utter ones disbelief was a death sentence. It's time the religious establishment had it stuck up 'em. Ridiculing long held belief's if they are patently bollocks is something to be encouraged, save the crony Churches will just ride out the storm of temporary public disapproval and go right back to shackling people with guilt and draining them financially for promising of a heavenly afterlife, rather than take account for their own actions on this mortal plane.

I'd rather die knowing I was true to myself than live a life of submissive servitude on the words and deeds of corrupt, elderly geriatrics in stupid frocks and gowns purporting to have moral superiority over me, wouldn't you? Hence the need to ridicule this debacle. Merely explaining your position will not nearly be as effective as humour especially to the younger generation.

Henry JoY said...

Wise words Peter.

The full sails of passion and the controlling rudder of reason are of themselves equally dysfunctional. Both in truth are interdependent. Passion or reason when exercised, in isolation of the other, are practically limited in their viability. Both when practised in tandem can exponentially affect objective movement.

Peter said...

For many good religious people their religion is a great comfort. I do not want to ridicule them, it offers them nothing. Ridicule the religion by all means but be mindful that some ordinary people have a life full of difficulties and religion offers them hope/comfort.

Yes, chum. Spoken like a true Humeian!

Henry JoY said...

Peter a chara,

Basil, John or David would each in their own right make for interesting company. I'll accept your labelling.

Steve R said...


"For many good religious people their religion is a great comfort."

Yes, but it is based on a lie.

"I do not want to ridicule them, it offers them nothing."

Not asking you to ridicule the sheep that would be pointless.

"Ridicule the religion by all means"

The Religion and the Ad-'Ministers' of it are intertwined to such a degree that separation is impossible. The clergy put their face to, and convey the supposed 'moral authority' of their religion so it is they that must be ridiculed.

"but be mindful that some ordinary people have a life full of difficulties and religion offers them hope/comfort."

Don't sweep under the carpet all the damage Religion has done to people over the centuries Peter! From holding back scientific advancement to callous indifference to women's rights and the morally bankrupt attitude to shielding the epidemic of child rapists in their number, among a vast array of other very sordid antics they are hardly a bedrock of virtue!

I'm much rather people offered practical assistance than draw comfort from fairytales any day!!

P Sl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry JoY said...


hardly an enlightened nor sensitive comment either. The obnoxiousness you project onto Steve merely an enmeshment of your own tendencies?

Steve R said...

Why did he remove it? I'm thick skinned and just sorry i missed it!

AM said...

Just noticed it was removed.

Not sure why.

There has been much harsher said on this site.

Steve R said...

Baffling, I really don't mind slagging as I quite often banter with the illustrious Mr Hughes so buggered if I know why he thought better of it!

frankie said...

So we have atheist's, new atheist's and according to Dave Thompson (the author) atheist+ must be frowned upon .....Don't religions do the same? They all have different sects and sub sects and frown on each other. Same as astrophysicists, cosmologists or any other branch of science, they all have different theories on how the universe formed..Some talk about singularities others say we live in a matrix..others talk about parallel universe theories...

Bottom line is this neither you, me or the man next door has a clue why we are here or what happens when we die. What I do know is I am here for three score and ten and I am going down rockin'.

Steve R said...


Atheism is a lack of a belief in a 'God', nothing more. It makes no comment on the origin or purpose if there is one of this Universe. It is those with religious convictions that try to say Atheism is itself a 'religion', when it is not.