Thought of the day

The statistically likely loss of Christopher Hitchens is going to be a big blow when it comes to the enjoyment of high discourse.

Hitchens and cancer

I always find cases of cancer to be quite sad – hence my often visceral reactions to those who undermine its treatment – and Christopher Hitchen’s case is no different. Fortunately, he still cares about how he can impact the world; it matters. His writing since learning of his disease has been nothing but superb, and while a bit of an emotional take-down, to say the utter least, he brings his audience face-to-face with reality – just like we ought to expect from an outspoken atheist.

So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five. Quite rightly, some people take me up on it. I recently had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my niece’s wedding, in my old hometown and former university in Oxford. This depressed me for more than one reason, and an especially close friend inquired, “Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?” As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too. And yet I had absolutely invited the question. Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I’d had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of “management,” I again had the wind knocked out of me when she said, “Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go.” How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself. But again there was the unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable. Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.

Hitchens on the Jesus fairytale

Christopher Hitchens wrecks some fundamental Christian beliefs so easily and clearly in this video, it’s a wonder anyone can be a believer.

Hitchens on Christianity

This is utterly excellent.

Christopher Hitchens

I find the attempt to sound ever so buddy-buddy with Christopher Hitchens by referring to him as “Hitch” on the Internet rather insufferable. His realistic demeanor, however, is delightful, even if based in misfortune.

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.


On morality.

There exists for those willing to see a new perspective a deeply satisfying purpose and meaning to life free from any divine influence. To glimpse this world, imagine for a moment that there is no invisible man in the sky using magical powers in “mysterious ways” to control our fate. Imagine that we can toss away the crutch of false hope and bad myth to walk unhindered down the path of personal responsibility. Without the burden of a wrathful god, we have the power to create our own meaning, our own sense of purpose, our own destiny. By rejecting the false premises of religion we are free to move beyond the random hand we are dealt at birth to pave our own road to a better life.

With freedom of course comes the obligation to act wisely and responsibly. We fulfill this duty first by taking a more modest view of our place in the world. When we see that humans are a natural part of the ecosystem, not above or separate from the environment, we will protect the resources that sustain us. When we reject the hubris and conceit of religion, we will redefine our relationship with each other without calling upon god to smite our enemies. When we understand that true morality is independent of religious doctrine, we will create a path toward a just society. We each have the power to create a life in which we no longer accept the arbitrary and destructive constraints of divine interference.