Oh That Old Thing

This again. Will it never go away? (No, of course not, because it serves a purpose, however wrong-headedly.) The old ‘atheism is a belief just as theism is’ number. This time it’s in a thread on secularism at Harry’s Place, in which Harry points out how indispensable active secularism has become.

Once was a time when the National Secular Society gave the impression of being one of those curious leftovers from the 19th century, membership of which was the preserve of eccentrics who enjoyed rehashing their Oxbridge debates about theology. Sadly, given the times in which we live, it is now a much-needed organisation and one which I intend to join and urge others to do so. The weekly round-up of articles, Newsline has become essential reading for any secularist who is concerned with issues such as the Blunkett proposal, faith schools and other examples of creeping clericalism.

Very good, but in the comments Peter Cuthbertson of Conservative Commentary insists that secularism itself is a belief system. But it isn’t. It’s not about beliefs, it’s about what to do. There are plenty of believers in various religions who are also secularists. I know several myself. Then farther down, the claim becomes one about atheism as a belief – partly in order to separate that from the claim about secularism. But atheism is not a belief either, it’s the absence of one, as I tried to argue in terms you’ve all heard a million times already, so I won’t bother repeating them here. I’m just noting the oddity of the fact that people can so easily accept that not believing in X amounts to a belief as opposed to, precisely, a non-belief. Not believing in X doesn’t entail believing in something else to take its place. I don’t believe in gremlins. That doesn’t mean I’m committed to a belief in, say, rmlniges instead.

I think part of what’s going on is some kind of fancy footwork about what kind of ‘belief’ is meant. Some kind of secret elision of the difference between warranted belief and just plain belief; between believing something because there is evidence for it, and belief that’s independent of evidence.

2 Responses to “Oh That Old Thing”