Let’s say you don’t believe in Zeus. Let’s say you’ve attempted honestly to examine all the evidence for his existence but have not found any. Let’s say you have given philosophical arguments for his existence a fair shake, and have subsequently found that there are not even any valid arguments in support of his existence, at least none that stand up to rational scrutiny. Let’s say you have considered the possibility that you might, despite the lack of any evidence, evoke an emotionally driven faith in Zeus’ existence–to believe without reason–but you have discovered that your mind just does not work that way. Let’s say you’ve considered the potential pragmatical repercussions of non-belief in Zeus, but that they do not frighten you. Let’s say you have an abiding love of truth, and that you aren’t able to deceive yourself into believing things you have no reason to believe.
Now, let’s plop you down right in the midst of a society in which Zeus worship of myriad forms is the norm. And let’s pretend that any time you let on you don’t believe in Zeus, a crowd of hysterical believers descends upon you, making all sorts of weird and irrelevant noises: they question your upbringing; they say you never had a decent relationship with your father; they claim you stopped believing in Zeus because you are angry over your treatment in one of the smaller, less orthodox sects devoted to him; they call you arrogant; they say you hate Zeus (wha?); they try to shame you by associating you with members of the Dionysus cult (shudder).
How would you feel? How would you feel if, in all of this nonsense, not one argument for the existence of Zeus were ever uttered?
Well, my friends and colleagues, this is by analogy exactly where we the editors of Armstrong Delusion find ourselves. For you see, we happen to be atheists. We don’t believe in Zeus, just like you. And, just like you, we don’t believe in Thor, or Vishnu, or Allah, or Unkulunkulu–or any of the other thousands of deities that humans have invented for themselves to venerate and protect. But, unlike so many of you, we have displayed the courage to take our skepticism (and yours) to its logical conclusion: unlike so many of you, we go one god further–we don’t believe in Yahweh.
Good question. Why the controversy? Why is atheism such an obstacle for so many of you? We have observed, both on this site and on others, the mere hint of atheism give rise to excessively histrionic vitriol and ad hominem attacks. We have seen (and thoroughly dispatched) ESN’s ridiculous and irresponsible propagandist misrepresentations of atheism and atheists. What is going on here? Why do former CoG members so often become (or remain) anti-atheist bigots?
It should not be surprising, perhaps, that some of the most egregious violations of common sense and logic in the cause of bashing atheists should emanate from within the online ex-CoG community. After all, we former Armstrongists were taught to shun intellectualism and to restrict our cultural input to that which would be considered palatable within the parochial sub-culture of Fundamentalist Christianity. And in that world, atheism is about the worst thing there is. It is associated with some of the most reviled taboos Western society has inflicted upon itself. It is inconceivable. Abominable. Sacrilege.
It makes sense, then, that some of that unexamined, irrational revulsion should carry over in the minds of certain ex-Armstrongists once they have left the fold, and that it should be magnified if the direction they stray is further into the shadows of Fundamentalist religion. Furthermore, it makes sense that one who is so deeply imbedded within such an insular culture would be at least nominally protected from being disabused of their misconceptions about atheists.
But is there anything to it–this revulsion? What is atheism, anyway? And why is it so threatening to some of you?
The word atheism has been around for a long time. It derives from the Ancient Greek, atheos (“without god”) and was originally applied in a pejorative way (of course!) to those who were thought to have rejected the Greek gods. (So you shouldn’t be so smug: in the classical sense of the word, you’re all atheists too.) But over time, the word’s usage evolved so that it could be negatively applied to anyone who rejected the god(s) prevalent in the culture at hand. This led to the tendency among early Christians to call Hellenes atheists and vice versa. And that’s where the etymology calcified for some of you, as a term of abuse based on your targets’ lack of commitment to your own beliefs.
But the rest of the world has moved on. Atheist is now a label people take for themselves, it has been the subject of some debate and it is given to nuance in its modern usage. For example, a common point of confusion is the insistence that the word can only mean one thing: the strict denial of the existence of any god. However, this does not account for the possibility of a less dogmatic view, the mere lack of belief in any god, without the necessity for something so strong as denial (since, after all, the burden of proof is on the claimant: as Christopher Hitchens has put it, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”–whereas “god does not exist” would be a separate positive claim demanding its own burden of proof, “god does exist” can be dismissed on the basis of a lack of evidential support without necessitating a competing claim).
This dichotomy is handled quite efficiently with the addition of the concept of agnosticism. Agnosticism, despite popular linguistic convention, is a philosophical concept having to do with the limits of knowledge. In its original and academic formulation, it is not a half-way point between belief and non-belief. That is covered by the word ambivalence. By contrast, the agnostic says, “I do not–indeed, cannot–know…to say nothing of belief.” This contribution to epistemological terminology from Thomas Huxley allows us to talk about distinctions among gnostic theists, agnostic theists, agnostic atheists, and gnostic atheists.
So, what is atheism? Put in its most general terms, atheism is a lack of belief in gods. That’s it. It doesn’t map onto concepts of evil, except in the imaginations of theists who feel threatened by people not believing the same things they do.
But if you are this kind of theist, we want to allay your fears. Atheists are people too. They are normal people. They just don’t believe what you do. And they have their reasons for not believing. Those reasons are good reasons. And perhaps, deep down, you who feel threatened by them know those reasons are good reasons (you yourselves employ them with regard to gods you don’t believe in), and that is why you lash out so unreasonably–a childish response to your own cognitive dissonance. Perhaps. But it doesn’t have to be so. You could just let it go and be content with fighting the battles you can win (like not masturbating).
But if you can’t resist, if you simply must bring ignominy and rhetorical defeat down upon yourself, know this.
We will not stop. We will not pull punches for the sake of your apparently shaky faith. We will not give theism the arbitrary respect our culture seems to demand for it. We will afford its claims exactly the measure of respect that they merit, on a case-by-case basis. And if you just can’t stand that, then you have a few options, as I see it. They are
- Attack! Go ahead. Come rushing in here like a bull in a China shop. But don’t be surprised if you find the China slicing you to ribbons. If all you have is ad hominem anti-atheist bigotry, if that’s the best you can do, and especially if you can’t string two thoughts together in a coherent manner–then you can expect to be made into mincemeat. We will chew you up and spit you out unceremoniously, and you will have asked for it. We will leave the pulpy remains of your non-arguments smeared across the field of debate as an example to others. In short, we will humiliate you, publicly and thoroughly, as any who do this richly deserve. This is the height of obstinacy, and we won’t tolerate it.
- Ignore it. If you like your anti-Armtrongism sans any challenging ideas–if you prefer an echo chamber–just walk away from the articles you don’t like. Complaining to us about how we run our own website will get you nowhere. You are not a customer here. You are not paying for anything or investing in a business. You don’t get a vote. Take it or leave it. That said, we certainly welcome reasonable constructive criticism that is intelligent–but pearl-clutching from theists (or anyone, for that matter) will be met with swift ridicule.
- Join the discussion. Think you’ve got an argument we haven’t heard? Try us. But be forewarned: you should not mistake an attack (see Option #1) for an argument. That is, don’t attack the straw man you’ve erected as a substitute for the character of atheists–that is ad hominem and bigotry. Don’t make claims about our persons that you have no clue about (e.g., the stupid but popular meme positing our atheism as a result of some apocryphal tie-in with undesirable elements of Armstrongism)–that is ad hominem and bigotry. Don’t attempt the absurd and obviously inaccurate canard that atheists can’t be moral people–that is ad hominem and bigotry. None of these fallacious arguments speak to the truth value of the atheist position. In fact, the only way to validly argue against atheism is to defend theism. Why is this? Because, as we have already explained, atheism is the rejection of theism–nothing more. So, to repeat, the only way to validly argue against atheism is to defend theism. You bear the burden of proof. Do something about it. Tell us why you think theism is true. If you can manage this, we can have a lively, perhaps heated, but respectful discourse. If you can’t manage this, or if you are unsure of your ability, I strongly urge you to choose Option #2, above. The line between argument and attack is thin but bright: avoid ad hominem, and at least conceal your bigotry–or stay away. You will bite off more than you can chew if you decide to bite, and then you’ll be reduced to tears and it will be messy. You’ll need a post-spanking hug and we won’t be in a position to give it to you. So let’s avoid that, shall we? Just show some common decency and respect (yes, to atheists! Novel idea, I know!), and you will receive the same.
Contrary to the hyperbole of a certain distraught blogger who made a poor choice in Option #1 (see above), this is not an atheist website. We could do an atheist website and it would look nothing like Armstrong Delusion. Considering our opinions, it would likely resemble something like this. In fact, at least one of our number (so far) does own an atheist blog, called Escaping Eden. On the other hand, some of our contributors are not themselves atheists. If this were an atheist site, what would they be writing about? If you think AD is an atheist website, then you obviously haven’t seen any atheist websites (and you should, too). The good Lord knows we’d get a lot more attention if we were running this as an atheist blog! But, alas, our interests fall into a far narrower range than that, so we by necessity target an exclusive niche audience. See, you’re special. And we get that.
But the subject of the existence of Armstrong’s god (the one so many of you still cling to) will inevitably come up in anti-Armstrongist literature (at least, any that is thoroughgoing in its critique of Armstrongism). We don’t shy away from this topic; we can’t. It isn’t in our natures to cower in the shadows of big questions. And we quite frankly expect more than that from our readers as well. You aren’t little children who need to be protected from the truth (that’s what the cults of Armstrongism did to us, remember), and we aren’t in the business of concealing uncomfortable facts. Even if that leads us to question openly the existence of God hisself. Nothing is sacrosanct here, and breaking down the barriers to inquiry is a good way to learn something new. You shouldn’t be afraid of that, or, for that matter, hostile towards it. After all, if you really have good reasons for believing what you do, then investigating those reasons will not dislodge your belief.
For those of you who are more secure, tolerant and open-minded in your faith, we welcome your questions about atheism in general and our experience with it in particular. We are obviously not ashamed of it and we are happy to talk about it in a gregarious way with people who are genuinely interested.
For you fellow atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secularists, etc., well, you just keep on rockin’.
All of our readers should be glad of our strict adherence to and promotion of the rules of logic; our expression of moral outrage against pious fraud, hypocrisy and intellectual cowardice; and our tenacious effort to follow the evidence where it leads (all the things that have led us to atheism and beyond). For it is by the employment of these very traits that we have been able to expose the Armstrong Delusion.
-Casey Wollberg, contributing editor