What Doesn’t Atheism Mean?

Tom Flynn

Fear not, readers. Sneaking my op-ed in among the guest columnists is not a feature of our revised design! My piece follows Greta Christina’s provocative essay because I think it’s important to respond to several of the points she raised therein. Of course, she’ll be welcome to reply in our next issue.

First, let’s summarize the relevant parts of Christina’s argument:

  • Strong atheism (in her words, “100 percent certainty that there are no gods”) used to be held almost universally among self-declared atheists. Among young atheists today, this view is losing ground to:
  • Weak atheism (“a reasonable certainty that there are no gods,” sometimes rendered as simple absence of belief in a deity).
  • For some reason, the move toward weak atheism goes hand-in-hand with the embrace of a very specific left-leaning social justice agenda that stresses identity politics and, in the view of some, claims of victimhood.
  • Today’s young atheists demand to expand the label “atheism” (without modifier) to denote a linking of unbelief in any god with their preferred social-justice agenda. Since that agenda asserts that every group enjoys broad power to select its own labels, this extension of the meaning of atheism must be supported too.

I find all of this dubious, for several reasons.

  • Weak atheism may well be overtaking strong atheism today, but it’s probably impossible to prove it. To do so, you’d need baseline data on the relative prevalence of strong atheism to weak atheism in the past, when the social sciences were not studying atheism at that level of detail.
  • Christina’s belief that strong atheism was once held nearly unanimously is almost certainly incorrect. To the contrary, prominent atheist theorists have been advocating weak atheism for at least 140 years. They include: Antony Flew, whose God and Philosophy (1966) and The Presumption of Atheism (1976) argued for an atheism that merely presupposes God’s absence until or unless evidence for a deity’s existence should emerge. George H. Smith’s perennial best-seller Atheism: The Case against God (1974) defined atheism as the mere lack of belief in a deity. In The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985), editor Gordon Stein suggested that strong atheism was a straw-man stereotype created by religious apologists; in his view, almost all actually existing atheists were weak atheists. In Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1989), the late philosopher Michael Martin endorsed weak atheism (though he didn’t use that label). Bill Cooke did likewise in his 2005 Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism, and Humanism, as did I in my 2007 New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. More recently, Austin Cline, About.com’s site guide for atheism and agnosticism, put it this way: “An atheist is anyone who doesn’t happen to believe in any gods, no matter what their reasons or how they approach the question of whether any gods exist… . The most precise definition may be: an atheist is anyone who does not affirm the proposition ‘at least one god exists.’”
    Nor is this strand of interpretation solely a product of the twentieth century. In his 1876 Freethinker’s Text Book, English atheist titan Charles Bradlaugh stated flatly: “Atheism is without God. It does not assert no god.”
  • There’s no obvious connection between migrating from strong to weak atheism and taking up the specific social-justice agenda that Christina champions. Neither strong nor weak atheism demands value nihil­ism; atheists of either type are free to add a values orientation to their position on the existence of deities. Yet no one is obliged to take up the values orientation Christina prefers. (For example, one might adopt laissez-faire libertarianism, if one sincerely believes that that ideology promotes human welfare.) Politics is not science; we can’t be sure that a given system is best in the way that we can flat-out know that evolution is a fact or that vaccines work. That’s why a socially aware atheist (or secular humanist) might choose among a variety of humane ideological orientations.
  • The principle that oppressed groups have carte blanche to choose their own labels features prominently in Christina’s vision of social justice, but as I’ve written before, I find it incoherent (“Ze, Not They,” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Spring 2016; see also my “The Left Is Not Always Right,” Free Inquiry October/November 2013). Among other things, that view disregards the countervailing rights of the mass of language users to reject or modify coinages that they do not find useful.
  • Atheism is the best word we have to refer to someone’s position on the existence or nonexistence of a deity. To me, that’s a strong argument for leaving it as it is, without resorting to pedantic discussions of the word’s Greek roots. Meanwhile, we already have good terms for individuals who supplement their absence of belief in a deity with a values orientation. Humanist—and especially secular humanist—come to mind. Given that, Christina’s proposal to redefine atheism to include a values platform—but only if it’s the one she endorses—strikes me as carrying substantial risk of “mission drift.”
    The Council’s website describes secular humanism as “Beyond Atheism. Beyond Agnosticism.” I think that’s a good way to capture the idea, without seeking to prescribe which value system a given atheist, whether strong or weak, must adopt.
  • It may be instructive that even an activist who largely shared Christina’s politics did not share her conviction that atheism alone was an apt label. In 2012, blogger Jennifer McCreight coined Atheism Plus to denote a blending of nontheism with a progressive politics substantially identical to Christina’s. McCreight recognized that the old term atheism could not sustain the new burden she wished to place upon it. Something more was required—hence the suffix Plus. (Athe­ism+ is still out there, though with a prominence much reduced from that surrounding its debut.)

Greta Christina may be correct that weak atheism is enjoying heightened popularity. But I’m not convinced that this bears importantly on young atheists’ desire to supplement their unbelief with a values orientation, much less on which values orientation they might choose. What, I wonder, does Christina call atheists who adopt humane value systems she opposes? I’m happy to call them “secular humanists.”

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Why should the kind of atheist one is incline anyone to adopt a specific, rather narrow set of values?

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