Atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists

There’s confusion afoot. A lot of people aren’t sure what the difference is between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. Thank Zeus I’m here to clarify everything.

An atheist is someone without theism. This applies to those who actively reject all theologies but it can also apply to those ignorant of all theologies. The former point is clear enough (and includes deists), but the latter point begs for expansion.

Someone who is ignorant of all theologies is a bit of a rarity in one sense but then ever so common – in fact, they become commoner every day. In the first sense, few adults are without any form of theism. Anyone who amalgamates belief in a creator with normative statements has some theism. For instance, if someone says there is a creator of the Universe and that creator has commanded that people ought to act, behave, or believe in a particular way, that is a form of theism. (It isn’t necessary that an organized religion be the basis, but it does happen that even those who reject all religion tend to incorporate pieces of predominant cultural religious beliefs in their own personal theism.) On the other hand, someone who is a pure deist does not incorporate any statements of value into his belief (‘An entity started the Universe and that is it’) and is therefore an atheist, though connotations cause us to hesitate to such a label for a deist.

In the second sense, a baby is an atheist. This point draws the ire of a lot of theists who desire ever so deeply to incorrectly label their children things like “a Catholic child” or “a Baptist boy”, but this is part of the confusion. Remember, an atheist is simply someone without theism. A baby has no concept of God, except maybe in the sense that mommy and daddy are all-knowing and all-powerful. Until the child develops the ability to comprehend values, no theism can be said to exist.

A consequence of this definition is that all non-human things can be said to be atheists. A rock, a tree, speakers, spaghetti, metal, waterfalls. They’re all without theism. This is utterly correct, even if generally useless. Definitions are not required to acquiesce to popular connotations. A possibly helpful, if complicating, distinction can be made with the terms active atheism and passive atheism. An active atheist is aware of theologies, but rejects them. A passive atheist has no idea of any theology. An adult atheist would be an active atheist while a baby, tree, or spaghetti would be a passive atheist.

A new atheist is someone who rejects the existence of all gods, takes a strong stance against religion, and utilizes a strong tone. It originated in 2006 as a result of books written by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger. It does not refer to the novelty of any particular arguments, but rather the type of presentation of arguments. All the listed authors criticize religion, invariably making the statement or implication that religion is bad. This is a normative statement and it offers insight to a key difference between atheists and new atheists.

New atheists make value statements. Atheism is a descriptive position. To take a recent post, “Many people think bugs are gross” is descriptive. No judgement on the grossness or non-grossness of bugs has been passed. All that has been said is a statement of what many people think. On the other hand, “Bugs are gross” is a normative statement because it passes judgement on bugs. (It is necessary to qualify that atheism is “mostly” a descriptive position because this applies to active atheism. Passive atheism is a lack of description but gives the same result.)

New atheists aren’t merely rejecting the existence of all gods; they’re also saying religion, especially its component of faith, is bad. They’re saying something more about religion than that it isn’t true. They’re saying it’s a negative force in the world and we ought to find better alternatives such as reason, rationality, and science. Atheism, passive or active, does not make any of these claims.

An anti-theist is similar to a new atheist. Normative claims are made and belief in God is rejected. There are essential differences, however. One is that an active crusade against faith is not necessarily encouraged. Whereas a new atheist is considered out-spoken, an anti-theist may be as quiet as a mouse. In addition to this, tone is also not an inherent point. An anti-theist may take a gentle approach, offering respect towards religion and faith. New atheism, on the other hand, is partially defined by the vigor and forthrightness of its tone, as especially exemplified by the argument that says most religious claims have not earned anyone’s respect. In other words, new atheism is somewhat of a strategy (though that strategy is largely defined externally rather than internally by those who bear the label) while anti-theism may encompass a wide swath of individuals who believe in a wide swath of different ways to best attack the veracity of religion; new atheism takes one general path towards beating back religion (though it does not adhere solely to any individual path) while anti-theism makes no inherent claims of best strategy or approach.

11 Responses

  1. I think what you mean by new atheists are people with a massive grudge against God and Christians in particular.

    And by anti-theists people who do not believe in God but are not massively possessed of any grudge against Him.

    The thing that I always find to be redundant except for the purpose of telling people — but no need to do so unless because of some sense of unfairness against Christians, Muslims, and Jews — with atheists who write about their being atheists is their reminder to people that they are against or they are lacking in belief in all deities, gods, goddesses.

    No need to bring in all the deities, gods, goddesses, just one is enough, and most in particular, the God of Christians, maker of heaven and earth.

    So, no need to say “We atheists just deny one more god than you Christians.”

    Personally I can see that atheists feel they are smart in saying that, but dishonest, because why bother with all deities, gods, and goddesses, one God is more than enough for your purpose of being atheists, and I think God of the Christians should be your only explicit target.

    Pachomius

  2. Right, right. We’re just being dishonest. But that isn’t anything like when you say atheists actually believe in God, right?

    You liar.

  3. He needs the lie to be true, though. Otherwise, his whole world view would crash around him like a house of cards built in a cloud. The bald assertion that we really secretly believe that a god exists is patently absurd and downright insulting. Pachomius, I make this declaration right here and right now. If you don’t believe it, too bad, but you have no indication that I believe otherwise and thus have absolutely no basis on which to claim the opposite. Here it is:

    I hereby declare that there is not one fiber of my being with which I hold that no claim to existence for any god – Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, Ba’al, whatever – has any evidence in its support and thus I accept none of these claims on an intellectual level, nor do I “feel” the existence of any such god or gods on an emotional one.

    Go on, keep telling yourself that this isn’t true and that we really do “know” (without any evidence upon which to base this supposed “knowledge”) that some god exists. If that makes you feel better, go ahead. But if you try and tell us atheists this, do not be surprised at the backlash for the insult. You can’t possibly know what it is that I do or do not “feel”. So, suck it.

    Nor is the Christian god our only target. But it isn’t Muslims, Jews, whatever else that are trying to turn secular nations into theocracies in the West. It is hardly surprising that Christianity gets most of our attention. Even you should be able to see that. But I don’t believe in Allah any more than I believe in Yahweh. Or Zeus. Or Ba’al. And Islam does get a lot more of our attention than you seem to think. Murdering women for the “crime” of adultery doesn’t go over well with us. Nor does that oh-so-Catholic shuffling of pedophile priests. Happy now?

    Michael, I’m not sure I agree with you on the new atheists. Even Dawkins does allow some extremely small probability that a god exists. The New Atheists are really no different than the old ones, with one small exception: that we should not give religion a free pass from critical examination. That’s the only difference I can see. It’s a proactive stance rather than a passive one.

  4. I’ve made the point of a lack of absolute certainty in this post. For the sake of succinctness I did not go into that here. But for the record, rejecting the existence of all gods carries a meaning analogous to the rejection of all unicorns for the purpose of this post.

  5. Shamelessly wrote: “. . . (I)t isn’t Muslims, Jews, whatever else that are trying to turn secular nations into theocracies in the West”?

    Whoa! I think you may be mistaken. With the possible exception of Unitarians (united by a single common belief, that there is, at most, one God) I expect that there are piddling few true believers who don’t hope to see their beliefs taken as the basis for all law. I’m not thinking of of the Sundays-only religious who claim to be believers just to avoid being shunned as nonconformists. I’m thinking of those worthies who take their religion seriously. (Consider the adherents of “the one true church,” which is, naturally enough, in every case their own church.)

  6. #
    Buster Cumbie

    “Let me explain the problem science has with religion.”

    The atheist Professor of Philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand.

    …”You’re a Christian, aren’t you son?”

    “Yes sir,” the student says.

    “So you believe in God?”

    “Absolutely.”

    “Is God good?”

    “Sure! God’s good.”

    “Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?”

    “Yes.”

    Are you good or evil?

    “The Bible says I’m evil.”

    The professor grins knowingly. “Aha! The Bible!” He considers for a moment. “Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?”

    “Yes sir, I would.”

    “So you’re good…?

    “I wouldn’t say that.”

    “But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.”

    The student does not answer, so the professor continues. “He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?”

    The student remains silent. “No, you can’t, can you?” the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax. “Let’s start again, young fella. Is God good?”

    “Er..yes,” the student says.

    “Is Satan good?”

    The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. “No.”

    Then where does Satan come from?”

    The student falters. “From God.”

    “That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son, is there evil in this world?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?”

    “Yes.”

    “So who created evil?” The professor continued, “If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.”

    Again, the student has no answer.

    “Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?”

    The student squirms on his feet. “Yes.”

    “So who created them?”

    The student does not answer again, so the professor repeates his questions. “Who created them?”

    There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized. “Tell me,” he continues onto another student. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?”

    The student’s voice betrays him and cracks. “Yes, Professor, I do.”

    The old man stops pacing. “Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?”

    “No, sir, I’ve never seen Him.”

    “Then tell us if you’ve ever heard Jesus?”
    “No, sir, I have not.”

    “Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?”

    “No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.”

    “Yet you still believe in Him?”

    “Yes.”

    “According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?”

    “Nothing.” the student replies. “I only have my Faith.”

    “Yes, faith,” the professor repeats. “And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.”

    The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of his own. “Professor, is there such thing as heat?”

    “Yes.”
    “And is there such a thing as cold?”

    “Yes, son, there’s cold, too.”

    “No sir, there isn’t.”

    The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain. “You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-yeat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We can go down to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold, otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest, -458 degrees. Everybody or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.”

    Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer. “What about darkness, professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?”

    “Yes.” the professor replies without hesitation. “What is night if it isn’t darkness?”

    You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something: it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaing we use to define the word. In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?”

    The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. “So what point are you making, young man?”

    “Yes, professor, my point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.”

    The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. “Flawed? Can you explain how?”
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    #
    Buster Cumbie

    “You are working on the premise of duality.” the student explains. “You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, sci…ence can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it. Now tell me, professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?”

    “If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do.”

    “Have you observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?”

    The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

    “Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?”

    The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided. “To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.” The students looks around the room. “Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?” The class breaks out into laughter. “Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, touched or smelt the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir. So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?”

    Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable. Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers, “I guess you’ll have to take them on faith.”

    “Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life.” the student continues. “Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?”

    Now uncertain, the professor responds, “Of course, there is. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

    To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist, sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

    The professor sat down.

    If you read this all the way through and had a smile on your face when you finished, mail it to your friends and family with the title “God vs. Science”

    PS: That student was Albert Einstein…

  7. Could it be that there is a distinction between God and Religion? Religion is created and organized by man for obviously many purposes. One of them to worship God. Man and all he reates is flawed in soe way. Why not religion be flawed as well?

    Atheisim is as flawed as anything man has ever created. So if there are Artheist Child Molestors, should not we then deduce Atheism itself must be also flawed?

  8. Atheisim is as flawed as anything man has ever created.

    Read the post before commenting. Your use of the word “atheism” has no connection to its meaning.

  9. you cannot possibly accept the argument that einstein made on the premise that he is einstein and he is highly intelligent. in fact the argument cannot even be accepted on it’s supposed merits. the fact remains that atheists have and will continue to do great, helpful and praiseworthy things regardless of others perspectives of their actions. these actions and sometimes nonactions are done not because of the goodness of god but because these people choose their own future. because they realize that there is no tomorrow or yesterday or afterlife. they are commited to doing good things only because they know that all existance is a single continuous moment in which there are a series of events that can be tailored if one chooses. the most obvious flaw with einstein’s argument however is that he says,”Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.” which is to say that there is no afterlife! the exact thing that “god” has promised to the “righteous.” I await your response eagerly Pete LeVecque.

  10. His story is made up.

  11. […] also wrote about the difference between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. One of the public relation problems for atheism is that it is viewed as a dirty word. People […]

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