Atheisms: Personal, Political, Social & Structural

"There is no “natural” social arrangement (where “nature” is here used in the sense of divinely ordained or Platonically dictated) and there is no form of life that cannot be otherwise."

Atheism is too small a word to adequately take on the numerous tasks given it. Luke Muehlhauser explained well the confusion in his post on 17 kinds of atheism. The necessarily-incomplete list includes the following dimensions:

  • Differences in Knowledge (gnostic/agnostic)
  • Differences in Affirmation (negative or implicit/positive or strong)
  • Difference in Scope (broad/narrow)
  • Difference in the Assessed Rationality of Theism (unfriendly/indifferent/friendly)
  • Difference in Openness (closet/open)
  • Difference in Action (passive/evangelical/active/militant)
  • Difference in Religiosity (religious/non-religious)

However, in addition to the categories above, I think it’s worthwhile to consider atheism not merely at the level of the psychology of the individual, but also within the spheres of the social and political, and ultimately, the structural.

This is new territory for most, particularly as the social and political atheisms that have succeeded have not been marketed as such (they succeeded in large part due to keeping the a-theistic axioms implied rather than openly espoused), and those that most foregrounded discussions of atheism have generally ended disastrously (largely due to espousing a rhetorical atheism from a structural theism).

The ferocious vocalizations from the so-called New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett) have brought forth a minority that seems to be only just now realizing itself; previously atomized, atheists are starting to recognize that they exist in quantities large enough to perhaps influence or incite social and political change.

This self-awareness has also brought to light the at-times discomforting heterogeneity of the atheist community, some of whom primarily self-identify with other religious groups (Buddhist, Christian, pagan), or hold differing political views, or vary on a hundred different dimensions.

This is why Alain de Botton’s TED talk and book aroused such hope in me and such frustration in others, and why the axioms undergirding Sam Harris’ TED talk and book on morality were seriously challenged in the blogosphere (well summarized here. I think the criticisms of de Botton and Harris are deserved, but moments of criticism may also be moments of hope.

Atheists are beginning an elemental process; atoms joining together, linking with foreign atoms to form compound molecules of all kinds. A theology student asked me about atheism recently and I had mentioned that the best sort of atheism was as many as possible. This means atheists linking together socially and politically in ways that they haven’t before, domestically and internationally. Looking at the dimensions of difference above, this is far from a simple process, and there likely will be more conflict than cooperation. Imagine if all the monotheistic religions tried to make group decisions! We have never seen such a thing, because the diversity is so broad as to make such meta-projects untenable.

An “atheist” social project has a couple things working against it. Atheism is functionally a belief, not a desire, and a gathered group of atheists may have quite radically different desires for their own lives, and for their communities and society. Therefore, the first logical separations you should see are between atheists of conflicting desires. In fact, many atheists may find that social groupings that do not distinguish between theism and atheism may best suit their desires. For instance, an atheist that desires the care and preservation of sentient life may find a lot of common ground with theists who desire the same, even if the beliefs frame the situation slightly differently. In politics, the same applies.

Social groups that are dominantly atheist will likely need a positive reason for being, a shared desire that supplements their shared unbelief. This may take the form of LessWrong meetups, group therapy for traumatized deconverts, yoga and humanist meditation groups, or simply intentionally secular but non-sectarian community groups.

Politically, we are seeing the gradual creation and growth of organizations and programs aimed at defending the rights of the non-religious or encouraging the coalescence of a civically-engaged community, capable of acting locally, nationally, or internationally. One example is Sean Faircloth’s political pragmatism on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which is in the process of being carefully analyzed and dissected by ethicist Alonzo Fyfe on his blog.

On an even deeper plane, philosopher Levi Bryant poses the notion of structural atheism or atheology, explained as:

A thoroughgoing a-theism, a genuine ontology of immanence– where immanence is not immanence to anything but itself or the world(s) is all there is –is a form of thought that strives to reject all forms of theism or transcendence, whether in the domain of ontology, epistemology, ethics, or politics. It is for this reason, necessarily an-archic. It is a position that rejects any ultimate or absolute grounds, any unconditioned grounds that condition all else, for social formations (even kings only get their authority from the masses), ethics (all norms are invented, not beings that reside in Platonic heaven and fall from the sky; that’s why they’re so fragile and we must fight for them), and even where people think that the social world in which they find themselves is an absolute which they must obey, it is the beings of the world that create these structures. The ultimate truth of this a-theism and an-archism is the contingency of everything. There is no “natural” social arrangement (where “nature” is here used in the sense of divinely ordained or Platonically dictated) and there is no form of life that cannot be otherwise.

Personally, I find my way forward is through encouragement and relationships. I’ve found that I have been able to personally comfort several who have gone through a deconversion process similar to mine, or simply needed the example of someone else honest about their unbelief to come clean about their own. My friendships across ideological and religious bounds (Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan and unbeliever) I see as opportunities for shared learning, and for solidarity within areas of shared interest (drawing influence from the a/theist Peter Rollins’ work with Ikon).

Finally, this means realizing that I am always arriving but have never arrived, and must continually reckon with the full provocation that non-belief yields within myself.

Originally posted at hewhocutsdown.net
There's also been some conversation at Google+

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