25 October, 2009

The Dangers of Evangelical Atheism

Christopher Hitchens was on Q and A a couple of weeks ago doing what is usually expected of him on such programs, which is to speak long and loud about why he knows better than everyone else, interrupting at the slightest opportunity and generally being an intellectual bully. Usually one of the first things you hear about the conservative writer and columnist is his atheism.

I have a problem with people like Hitchens. My problem is not that he is an atheist. In general, I have no issue with atheists. Some of the most Christian people I know of are atheists, and some of the most evil people I can think of would profess to be Christians. My problem with Hitchens is that he is an evangelical fundamentalist atheist.

The other problem I have with people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is one of intellectual rigour. The arguments they present are the kind of arguments that they would dismiss out of hand if they were applied to any other subject.

The first is when they talk about the evils of religion. If someone wants to talk about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion, then they will get no argument from me – but that has absolutely nothing to do with the existence of God. That’s like citing crooked cops as evidence that there is no law. It’s a complete non-sequitur.

The other, is their claim that there is no sound evidence of God. Of course, millions of believers will state that there is plenty of evidence of God, but I’m not going to go down that path in this piece. Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, their premise that there is no evidence of God. This does not mean there is no God. The apparent absence of evidence in support of one theory does not automatically mean that the opposite is true. That is fundamentally unscientific thinking and it disturbs me that people with intellects as sharp as Hitchens and Dawkins can’t see that.

The non-existence of God is just as untestable and unprovable as the existence of God. Therefore, whether you believe in God or not, it still comes down to an article of faith.

The popping sound you can hear is a thousand atheists’ heads exploding.
Faith in the negative is still faith.

And this is the point that separates the nice atheists from the dangerous radicals. I can get on perfectly well with atheists who accept their faith for what it is. The ones I have issues with are the ones who say that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Therein lies the great irony of atheism. My biggest disagreement with Hitchens, Dawkins and their supporters is their assertion that their particular faith is morally and intellectually superior to all others. That’s exactly the kind of behaviour they decry in other religions, and rightly so up to a point, but it’s okay for them because they’re atheists and that makes them better.

I would not have called atheism a religion a few years ago but that has changed with the launch last year of the “atheist bus,” and several other similar campaigns.
Everybody wants to get in on the act. Salvation atheist style.

There was a time when atheists were simply religious refuseniks and fair enough if that’s how you want to live your life. But now here they are, openly touting for converts, promising happiness, begging donations so they can do more good in the world (both through charity and expanding their own influence) plus an ego trip in the form of advertising Richard Dawkins’ website. And don’t be fooled by the “probably” qualifier. The website of the atheist bus explains that it was only added for legal reasons.

How is that not a religion? How is that not embracing everything atheists used to say was wrong with organised religion? And how can people as rational and scientific and Dawkins and Hitchens not see that? If they were not such intellectual snobs, I might think they just missed the point, but seeing as they are such great thinkers, I can only assume that they are being deliberately blind to their own contradictions.... which is just another thing they criticise believers for.


  1. I'm atheist. I have a lack of belief in deities.
    I do not claim deities are non-existent.

    I've notice there are many stereotypes and myths about atheism.

    I do not know Dawkins or Hitchens butI have read a few books by them. I disagree with some of their opinions.

  2. There are many myths and stereotypes about every branch of faith.

  3. I don't know if I'd be comfortable calling atheism a religion or a faith. I think there is a risk in doing so. In a way, I think it has the potential to cheapen what it means to be religious and to have faith for those who really are religious and really do have faith. It just doesn't seem right to me.

  4. I understand your point. I use the word "faith" not as a term of respect but simply a statement of fact. Whether one believes there is a God or believes there is no God, that's still a belief.

    Some atheists react against that assertion insisting that they do not believe. I suggest that if someone is all about not believing, then that is more nihilism than atheism.

    Regarding cheapening the notion of religion, I think that ship has sailed. George Harrison once said that it doesn't matter what you call God so long as you call Him. I'm cool with that. But even so, it seems that any cockamamie set of beliefs can call itself a religion. Scientology calls itself a church and cries religious persecution every time someone says they're a bunch of nuts, but I've never heard a scientologist talk about God. It's that kind of nuttiness that gives religion a bad name, which can be exploited by evangelical atheists.

    As I said, atheists used to exist outside of any kind of organisation but it would seem that more recently a certain branch of atheism has become envious of the sense of community and belonging that religion brings. It seems to me that this is what's behind all the bus nonsense - they want the worldly benefits of religion without accepting the one prerequisite. And while I would never accept atheism as a legitimate religion, it seems that's what some of them are trying to be. I find that rather ironic.

  5. I don't believe in atheists. Can anybody prove they exist?

    "to speak long and loud about why he knows better than everyone else, interrupting at the slightest opportunity and generally being an intellectual bully". Sounds like just about everybody online.

  6. "I can get on perfectly well with atheists who accept their faith for what it is. The ones I have issues with are the ones who say that they are right and everyone else is wrong."

    I am with you on that one. And I also have issues with the Christians who do the same thing, ie. those people who consider themselves 'holy-than-thou' and knowing all.

    Good write up, Bill.


  7. It's a long stretch to call a lack of belief in God a form of Faith/Religion.

    If you extend this line of reasoning, then anything that people don't believe in is an expression of faith.

    I don't believe that a red garden gnome named norman really cures kittens with his tears.

    Is this an expression of faith or just personal belief?

    As for Dawkins/Hitchins and other loud atheists go - none of them have ever claimed that there is no God. On the contrary, both have repeatedly stated that they do not claim that there is no God, only that there is no compelling evidence to believe one exists.

  8. Ryan,
    I agree. I have problems with fundamentalists of any creed, not only for their bullying tactics, but for the way they open the door for opposing bullies to attack faith as a whole.

    "It's a long stretch to call a lack of belief in God a form of Faith/Religion."
    I didn't say that. Not believing is a personal choice. But when atheists organise, advertise, push for converts, have revered leaders, and promote their brand of non-faith as a cure for people's worries - well, that sure sounds like a religion to me.

    At best, it's "I can't believe it's not a religion!"

    The atheist website happily admits that they only changed their slogan to "There's probably no God" to cover their arses legally. For any of them to then say they're not stating categorically that there is no God, I think is a bit of a cop-out. It does at least mean they realise it's still an article of faith.

  9. I must admit I don't get the bit about "some of the most Christian people I know of are atheists."

  10. If it sounds like a religion to you it's probably because you are projecting. Absence of faith != faith. Atheists who organise to open a debate only do so to challenge the politicisation of religious beliefs, chiefly the worrying suppression of liberties.

    Do not confuse that with the organised proselytising belief in the supernatural that actual religions push. Sure there are bad atheists, just as there are bad Christians/Muslims/Buddhists/Tooth Fairists. But organisation and debate does not a religion make.

  11. Joe,
    I was referring to what some people are happy to call "Christian values," which are sometimes displayed by some atheists more than those who claim to be Christian.

    That's a big call to say atheists have only organised in order to challenge the politicisation of religious beliefs. Who is projecting now? You don't have to be an atheist to want faith and politics kept separate. I think it's naive to assume that's their only objective.

    To believe there is no God is an article of faith because it's just as untestable and unprovable. As I mentioned to a comment above, if one is all about NOT believing things, that' nihilism, not atheism.

    Who are the bad Buddhists you refer to?

  12. Hmm... I'm no fan of Dawkins and Hitchens, but I disagree that atheism is a faith or a religion, by any significant definition of those words.

    I believe that there is no god, and while I actually have my own concrete reasons, it is just one of an infinite number of things that I believe to be untrue. I believe that in much the same way that I believe there is no teapot floating out towards Mars. If this is faith, then faith is a pretty uninteresting concept.

    Is atheism a religion? Certainly it is not, any more than bald is a hair-style, but I will admit that the recent highly public flowering of evangelical atheism has taken on many of the trappings of religion. Yet no matter how you dress it up, no matter how many high priests of atheism are anointed, it will never be a religion. There is simply nothing to worship, nothing atheists have in common other than simple non-belief in gods. Humanism or scientism, these are positive belief systems, and they might usefully be viewed as religions if that is helpful. But calling atheism, a simple belief in the non-existence of something, a religion, is surely unhelpful.

    I have sympathy for Dawkins and co in their fight to make atheism respectable, especially in countries where religion holds great power. Yet, living my parochial like in Australia, where religion is rarely visible, I admit to finding evangelical atheism annoying and embarrassing.

    I understand your aggravation, Bill, though I cannot agree with your entire thesis.
    Thanks heaps,

  13. That is kind my point. For the atheists who have simply opted out of religion, then I would agree that there is nothing remotely religious about that. But when they start running ads, having figureheads, holding conventions where they all agree on how clever they are, then that to me is a religion by any other name.

    And when they hound people - as I and others have been, and when they mock those other differing faiths, and when they insist that theirs is the only truth and when they attempt conversions, and when they dress those conversions up as 'saving' people, then I find that pretty ironic. I've got no time for religions that do that, and I have no time for atheists that do it.

    Thanks Lee!