Although I am an atheist myself, I am personally less interested in the political significance of the state of explicit atheist identifications than I am in the vast and rising self-description, "nonreligious." The weirdly sectarian skirmishes around precisely correct atheist identifications seem to me as ugly and useless as the religious kind, for the most part, especially when it is white guys doing the skirmishing online, but the rising numbers of people who are simply doing without god -- a good word for which might be, what do you know, a-theist, "without god" -- as any kind of important organizing idea in their actual daily lives (whether or not they feel particularly disposed to argue or even dwell on the question) seems to me to be contributing to the very wholesome secularization, diversification, planetization of American society.This was followed by an exchange in the Moot (upgraded and adapted here) that seemed worthy of posting on its own. Friend-of-blog "esebian" worried a bit about my cavalier treatment of atheist belief, asking:
And what if the irreligious masses just join up with the next, trendier destructive numinal delusion precisely because they don't subscribe to a rigorous mental framework that doesn't need gods? "I know there's no gods because..." always trumps "I don't care much for them Jeebus 'n' stuff".To this I responded predictably with much more in the cavalier line of the pragmatist on belief:
If pushed, I daresay many of the "nonreligious" would already shrug and declare themselves believers of some kind -- and that the philosophers would categorize them agnostic or deist or Xtian-who-goes-to-Church-only-twice-a-decade or what have you (also true of no few of the presumably confidently faithful, when push comes to shove).When I say that I am more heartened by the demographic swelling of the "nonreligious" category than by the vicissitudes of the presumably more exacting "atheist" designation I affirm for myself, at least part of what I am getting at is the hunch that a certain worse than useless construal of "knowing" that cashes out in false certitudes is going out of favor, in a way that would inflect the beliefs of the variously religious and nonreligious alike, and one that feeds the wholesome secularization, diversification, and planetization I mentioned in the first post.
Often, even the explicit assertion of belief in god really translates, if you squint or live with it long enough to grasp its pragmatic substance, to an ascription better understood as a matter of morals (ie, "I try to be a good person," "my parents taught me the right thing to do") or taste or some such subcultural signaling (fish on Fridays, scarves just so, different provocations to guilt).
I certainly don't think dogmatism or certainty in these matters insulates anybody from changes of heart, or that folks who do without god in the actual quotidian substance of their lives are somehow more susceptible to priestly con-artists. Heck, just consider how much of the space of this blog is given over to exposures of the faith-based techno-transcendentalism of futurists and techno-utopians many of whom actually would declare themselves "knowers" that there are no gods and would agree with you about the special force of such "knowing"? Look at their flabbergasting serial credulities; why, they glom onto trendy numinal delusions like flies on shit! If anything, knowledgeable certainty makes people more brittle and brutal than confident or reassuring in my experience.
I say this in part because I honestly don't think the person who fancies they "know" there are no gods actually knows anything, in any logically or scientifically relevant sense -- and certainly I think it is moonshine to believe such pretenses of knowing "trump" much of anything in some objective sense.
I tend nonetheless to think that is the sort of nonsense those of us who read philosophy tell ourselves to feel good about ourselves when we want to pretend we are more than a fandom for a particular brand of arcane literature. I say this, by the way, as someone who has devoted a lifetime to the reading and teaching of philosophy, mind you, and as someone who knows he came by this attitude mostly from philosophy and critical theory.
Philosophy can clarify things or provide unique joys for those of us who have the bug. I'm far from knocking it. I'm an atheist, but I daresay religion can do the same for those who have that bug. I'm not inclined to argue with them unless they seek to pretend religious belief has the status of science or provides a license for moralizing misconstrued as politics. And in my experience, those pathologies tend to come most from those who think they "know" things religiously they don't really know either.