On the Origin of the Specious

I write a great deal on atheism, and I often do so with a tenor that goes along with what is often termed ‘New Atheism’, the sort of early twenty-first century tradition including people such as Dawkins or Hitchens. That tenor, understandably, does not sit well with opponents or atheists of differing traditions or temperament. I make little apology for it, and do not object to this tone in the mouths of those New Atheists, though I see no reason to hitch my cart to an –ism, even one of which I approve.

In the main I make no apology because the clear utility of this strident atheist voice is simply to counter the far larger and louder background of theistic ‘thought’ and tradition that will forever stand in its way. The majority will never place themselves far enough along the main sequence of belief to class themselves as atheists, but the occasional Stentor can at least call out loudly enough so that those who can realise they can. But the tenor is not the belief, and criticism of the assumed (and actual) militancy of some recent atheistic thought does not touch the thought itself.

I feel motivated to write this because of a book I recently read called ‘Atheists: the origin of the species’ which admittedly placed itself more as a potted history of Western atheistic figures and traditions from the Early Modern period onwards rather than a philosophical treatment. Yet it did depart quite markedly from a historical treatment into some questionable assumptions and conclusions.

To be balanced, it was not all questionable. Its commitment to pointing out the plurality of atheistic thought was admirable. So much of it through history stems not from metaphysical thought, or intellectual commitments (in that it echoes theistic ‘thought’), but from social and political pressures. I would quibble whether an ostensible atheist deriving his infidelity by objecting to authority claiming divine sanction really does rank as an atheist, but as the author at one point seemed content to claim anti-monarchist sentiment by itself as a mark of atheism his church was clearly broader than mine.

And it is true that there is a plurality within atheism. In a strong sense there could hardly be otherwise, as in this world it continues to be defined by what it is a rejection of. In rejecting a tradition or worldview it does not automatically follow that there be an extant or obvious replacement. This is the peril and liberation inherent in the particular tradition I most respect.

What I do not particularly respect, and what I rarely feel motivated to class as atheism either, is the tradition or traditions given a fair amount of treatment in the book, which constitute the establishing of formal societies or even ‘atheist religions’. The book alternately lauds these endeavours, while barely suppressing glee at their lukewarm reception when attempted, specifically in contrast to how easily religions gather adherents and impossible it is to eradicate them. I do not like this glee, though as I reject any desire or attempt to form some sort of atheist society, especially on the lines or practices of religious ones, I do not much object to its target.

Worse still, as the book swings from depiction to assertion, is the uncritical delineation of atheist societies in the wider sense of nations as seemingly necessarily brutal, repressive and intolerant. Soviet Russia is the main body of this, with a passing mention of North Korea. Again, this book is not a philosophical text, but one might contend that although a variety of atheism is or was promoted in these societies, it is harder to maintain that it was this very atheism which created or promoted said brutality and intolerance. Perhaps harder still to conclude from these two examples alone anything essential about atheism or groups or societies comprised of atheists (the author tried to include Hitler in this, but at least had the awareness to realise that whatever Hitler’s personal beliefs, the society he promoted was not atheist in tone or content).

One worthwhile message present throughout the book was an acknowledgement that any tradition of thought, though here focussing on atheism, tends to gain adherents and ferocity when suppressed or simply excluded. His contrast of the manner of Georgian and Victorian British atheist thought with that of the French in the same period was well founded. But even this was extended beyond its worth. A number of times he pointed out the prevalence of noted atheists who had clerical parents of some stripe. Again the glee surfaces with the feeling that so much atheism is a petty rebellion against authority, first parental and then wider.

This is the point he concludes with: that despite its manifest failures, atheism remains a present intellectual tradition, largely because theism does. A delicious irony, apparently. Why, it is hard to say. It is fairly trivial to say that an intellectual tradition as defined by its opposition to another exists only as does that opposition. Perhaps the point is more that both have their place, and as the book often touches upon times and places where the more moderate views of both sides allow coexistence, one could grant that. However, the final paragraph also states that those vanishingly small and dubious examples of atheist societies constitute a greater body of oppression than all religious examples (examples of religious oppression, aside from the occasional mention of executed freethinkers, are not given) I am not motivated to grant any more.