Kinds of Atheist

Norm quotes Freeman Dyson reviewing Dennett’s new book.

There are two kinds of atheists, ordinary atheists who do not believe in God and passionate atheists who consider God to be their personal enemy.

No, that doesn’t cover it. There’s more to it than that. There are atheists who, independent of what they consider god to be, are (probably, in terms of what Dyson is talking about) not ordinary atheists who do not believe in god and are not fussed about it: there are atheists who, whatever they think of god, feel a certain sense of outrage, or perhaps violation, at being urged or commanded to believe in something there is no good reason to believe. It’s not so much god that is their personal enemy (though that may also be the case) as the presumptuous demand that they accept a belief that there is a lot of good reason to think is false, that is their (our) enemy. Now, it’s true that the god of the Bible and the god of public belief and discourse (the one that punishes some people with hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis while saving a few, the one that answers some prayers and not others, the one that hates fags, the one that’s a man and has a low opinion of women, the one that didn’t lift a finger during the Holocaust or the Great War or King Leopold’s romps in the Congo or centuries of slavery in the US – that god) strikes me as being a repulsive guy; yes, he’s my personal enemy, but of course that’s really the doing of the people who dream him up and then try to force him on everyone; so he’s my personal enemy only in a rather peculiar sense. But the hostility to the demands for belief is much more straightforward. I don’t think people ought to chastise or rebuke or lecture or whine at people who refuse to accept truth claims about a giant powerful person who really exists in the world and really makes things happen, on the basis of no proper evidence. That is where the, shall we say, vehemence of my atheism comes from. I do not like being ordered to believe fairy tales. It pisses me off.

The first example Dyson gives actually seems much more like an example of the kind of atheism I’m talking about than what Dyson calls it. In short, his illustration doesn’t illustrate his own claim: the guy he’s talking about, he says, “had always disliked religion in general and Simpson’s piety in particular.” But disliking religion and piety is not the same thing as considering god one’s personal enemy. In other words, there are other reasons for disliking or indeed hating religion than considering god an enemy. Dyson’s formula conceals and belittles those other reasons. It’s an irritating little bit of rhetoric. I noticed it when I linked to that review in News on June 9th, and made unpleasant faces at it, but didn’t bother commenting. But that is just the kind of thing that makes atheists of my kind just that little bit more the kind of atheist we are – that rather sneering implication that we can’t have any good or rational or understandable reason for disliking religion and its attempts at imposition. So we get that bit more hostile, and the Dysons get more sneering, and round we go.

Norm points out that there is another issue:

But for both believers and unbelievers there’s another issue that is probably more important in determining their belief and unbelief, respectively. It’s the issue of the truth or otherwise of religious belief. Here Dyson opts for a standpoint that puts the issue beyond the reach of any rational adjudication. These are just two incommensurable types of knowledge…

It is indeed the issue of the truth or otherwise. I think it would have been more civil if Dyson had taken that aspect into account. But it’s the fashion to talk as if atheists are more or less loony.

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