I have recently been locked into a debate with a rather strange interlocutor, who I shall call xPrae (this is short for xPraetori, which in turn has a slightly different meaning on the blog in question). The strangeness comes from a number of elements, like encouraging the discussion to not cite or even use sources, and to try to avoid labels. The accusation of ‘label use’ was used to great effect: xPrae could, obviously, accuse any word of being a label and, when the conversation got difficult for him, he would. The conversation was also strange in its repetitiveness, as xPrae seemed to want to use his labels in a very specifically wrong way, especially regarding atheism; that’s sort of how the conversation started.
I started writing a post that I considered guest-posting at xPrae’s blog, but I decided against it after reading the divisive, condescending and smug way in which they refer to ‘leftists’ in one of the pages of their blog. There’s no point posting where you’re not welcome and the environment is intentionally hostile. xPrae did have a very hostile approach: commenters were chastised for making any level of assumptions, even if they seemed well founded, yet xPrae would take his own really-quite-wild assumptions about his commenters and put them in quotation marks and present them as the exact wording of the commenter. So, I soon realised conversation there was going to be without merit, as xPrae was actually mining for little nuggets to support his own view, instead of engaging in honest discussion.
So, instead, I decided to alter my post and turn it into mini-series. The mini-series will include a short discussion of this video, where a film crew try to pass off passages of the Bible as passages from the Koran. It highlights an important problem with how we engage religious discussions. I also use it to highlight how xPrae is an inconsistent interlocutor, but how that inconsistency is actually a useful tool implemented by many people in religious discussions to avoid having a rational or even a useful conversation. Another post in the series will talk about atheism in respect to its role in tyranny. But first, a quick look at atheism as a label.
What is Atheism?
I engaged in a lengthy but unstructured debate here, and to an extent it is still ongoing; or, at least, it is still open-ended. The issue I managed to engage an interlocutor on was a question pertaining to atheism and its role relating to “socialism” (but not actual socialism) and ethics. “Atheism” is a label I am loathe to use because it doesn’t denote anything, and others use it as a hook to append any baggage they see fit or convenient. I’ve tried to define ‘atheism’ and ‘New Atheism’ before, but my position has evolved, so I want to look at it again.
Religion―all religions―are at a massive advantage and disadvantage over atheism in all discussions where the issue is framed in reference to religion and atheism. Religions have answers to questions: there is at least one book; the book or collection of writings is large and very comprehensive; the content of those writings, at the very least, entertains the idea of answering big questions, like those of ethics. I’d argue that is simultaneously the weakness of religion: absolute (and often contradictory) answers. Not just absolute answers, but old ones at that. By contrast, atheism does not: atheism does not purport to even entertain the idea of answering any questions at all. That’s not its strength, but it’s also not its weakness; atheism is not a player in a debate, it has no horse in the race.
The sentence “I am an atheist, therefore…” can only end with words to the effect of “… I am unconvinced of the existence of a God”; it cannot meaningfully end with “… I believe this is morally acceptable” or anything else. Atheists have other mechanisms by which they explain the world in terms of ethics and existence and material etc. It is common for religious people to append nihilism to atheism, as well as anti-theism. This is ridiculous: nihilism answers questions of ethics and meaning and purpose, and it’s not a monolith. There is a complex of answers and different schools of thought in nihilism. Yet, nihilism gets its own baggage and suddenly ‘atheism’ is bogged down in the existential despair interpretation of nihilism that some religious people assume. Some religious people even like to append their own ethical prescription from biological evolution to some imagined ‘Book of Atheism’.
Atheists are free to pick a number of God-free philosophies to answer questions of ethics and meaning and politics: secularism, humanism, Deep Ecology, positive nihilism. Atheists could even adopt God-based philosophies as ‘useful’ (but not ‘true’) philosophies, if they wished. But none of these are defining of atheism; they can’t be. Some of the philosophies an atheist would use are incompatible with other, so they cannot form the definition of atheism. Trying to fit doctrines into atheism is linguistic trickery and sophistry.
I asked xPrae to offer a list of High Priests, core books, dogmas or tenets of atheism, to demonstrate that atheism is not actually content free. He ignored that request. I open it to the floor.