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.

Giberson gets it before Maloney

Karl Giberson is one of those insufferable BioLogos accommodationists who loves to make up stuff about New Atheists. He has recently offered up a sort of apology for his crappy rhetoric. This comes after Dan Dennett pointed out that his attacks make him a fibber for faith.

As I reflect on the various exchanges [via email with Dan Dennett], I see no evidence that religious believers are standing on any higher moral ground. The vilification of the New Atheists is accompanied by caricature, hyperbole, misprepresentation (sic) and a distinct lack of charity.

On the Answers in Genesis site, to take one example, Ken Ham published a report about the atheist that Christians love to hate entitled “Dawkins Ranting in Oklahoma.” The audience was described as “mind-numbed robots,” and Dawkins’ ideas were sarcastically dismissed as communications from “an extraterrestrial.” Anti-evolutionary religion sites across the Internet make similar claims. But not all the charged-up rhetoric is on the lowbrow backwaters of the Internet. A passage from the 2007 book “Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion,” compares Richard Dawkins to a “museum piece that becomes ever more interesting because, while everything else moves forward and changes, it remains the same.”

Alas, I have to confess to having authored the museum metaphor. It was a cheap shot and, while hardly the cheapest of all possible shots, it was probably about as cheap as could reasonably sail past the staid editors at the venerable Oxford University Press. Certainly my co-author, the late Father Mariano Artigas, would have objected to anything less charitable.

Confession, they say, is good for the soul. So Dan, I was a faith fibber. Sorry about that.

My only hope is that this doesn’t get confused as a call for unneeded civility. I always like to see substantial, cutting arguments that address issues; Giberson didn’t always do that, instead making up whatever about an entire group of diverse individuals who aren’t even held together via a common philosophy. But I think he could have let his language soar, a la Hitchens or Dawkins or Myers, and not been charged as a Faith Fibber by Dennett.

I have to confess that the temptation to ridicule one’s debating opponents is all but unbearable, especially when playing street hockey on the Internet, where one must shout to be heard. In the past few months I have tried hard to come up with clever rhetorical attacks on Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and countless others whose ideas I was supposedly challenging. PZ once wrote the following about me, which I thought was pretty clever: “I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter, and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth.” Of course, I responded to his evangelistic assault on me by calling him “Rev. Myers” in an essay on And so it goes. (I recommend against verbal swordfights with PZ Myers — you can’t win.)

If only his rhetoric could soar to such levels.

But notice his use of “Rev. Myers”. My, oh my. Who else has done that?

Dear “Reverend” PZ Myers,

How fitting that, three hundred years later, the witch trials continue. If you recall, it was the herbalists that were burned then as well. Your flock has spoken to me, Reverend Myers, with the shrieking common to all fundamentalist cults. I believe if you check you will find that fundamentalism involves a closed mind while doing science requires an open mind. It also involves a thing they call research.

Yes, yes. Christopher Maloney.

Now I understand why Maloney refers to me as The Maine kid with an English degree who can’t read: his writing reads like a child’s and maybe he’s looking for (made-up) excuses why everyone else does so much better. Honestly. Aside from the fact that he has qualified that an English degree is unable to read (which I suppose is true), his rhetoric is about as strong as his medical background. But then he’s taken all sorts of homeopathic classes. Maybe that explains why the strength of his responses are so diluted?

At least Giberson has figured out how the Internet works.