Saturday, February 26, 2011

Atheist Alignments: Chaotic Atheism

Chaotic Atheism (Provisional Definition): Atheism that either emphasizes the individual and existential nature of the choice, usually in the explicit and strong atheist form of asserting “there is no God”, or taking the position of strong atheism a step further, actively working in some way against religion and/or theism

This form of atheism may be more difficult to divide squarely between two halves of a whole that reflects a sort of chaos or dissonance. Lawful Atheism’s difficulties were in definition and categories of what counted as genuinely atheistic and whether there was any compatibility between organized atheism in any form and a second type that underlies the saying that “organizing atheists is like herding cats,” The difficulty I noted two weeks ago about the degree of disbelief holds as very important here with the two branches of Chaotic Atheism. With Lawful Atheism, there was an affirmation of God’s nonexistence as a metaphysical default to any reasonable person, existence only coming after considerations through logic or other philosophical areas, such as ethics. A Chaotic Atheist is less inclined to say that their nonbelief is a logical necessity as opposed to something that liberates or makes them a more genuine human being. Of course, there is a contention that theistic belief can bring out the humanistic side of us; humanistic here meaning the general affirmation that humans have a nature that we can develop. But that’s where the first type I’ll discuss has a curious type of overlap with the Chaotic equivalent of theism.

First, I propose that an existential form of atheism is an underlying form of the Chaotic sphere. By existential, I specifically mean that one’s atheism is motivated by a personal choice, the goal to be either liberated in some way or to affirm oneself as an individual. This form of atheism, as self centered and egotistical as it might seem at first, is ironically in line, with some qualifications, with Christian existentialism, started by Soren Kierkegaard. It is usually understood to be a Christian, or if you will, a theistic, set of beliefs underpinned by an existential approach. One believes in God not because there is a claim of authority, a conclusive proof or even a convincing argument that admits some weaknesses, but because you have a relationship to God that you cannot deny, and must by association make what is called a leap of faith. Of course, we’re not unfamiliar with that term, but in this context, it means more than simply particular events where we have to act without significant deliberation or thought; instead, it has a far reaching effect on us. Similarly in existential atheism, one doesn’t simply behave in such a way that others would think you don’t believe in God, but you make an affirmation in the face of what would otherwise be a nihilistic world that you will persevere, you will make your own purpose as an individual in a sea of other subjects like yourself. There are, of course, stark differences between an existential atheism and theism respectively, but the common goal is affirming a core value of individual willpower. Just because you stand apart from others, either as a creation of God, or a product of what is at its core, an uncaring universe, does not mean you should view yourself as ultimately superior to lesser creations of God you are interrelated with (plants, animals, landmasses, etc) or that you should view life as not worth living and kill yourself or behave in a reckless devil-may-cry (pardon the pun) attitude. Instead, you behave with purpose because you exist, because you are alive. Regardless of if you believe that your persistence is because of your faith in an objective and ultimate entity called “God” (with other conditions attached usually) or that you persist because giving up is not in your human nature and going against slavish conformity to society or intellectual/philosophical suicide, as Camus termed any sort of belief in an ultimate purpose or purpose-giver for every human being, is preferable to literal suicide, which both atheist and theist philosophers alike would agree does not reflect a strong will, but a weak one, contrary to Greek Stoicism’s claims. In this way, the importance of the individual will in the existential worldview, however different it may be in the goals theists or atheists have in mind, can be a common, however tenuous, bond that both of those groups as humanist in the general sense share. There is the element of Chaos here, yet a nominal sort of common ground that many so called existentialist, individual atheists have among all their differences that still may come up with other areas besides belief/disbelief in God: individualism.

The second, more easily accessible notion that people may have concerning my proposal of Chaotic Atheism is the form where chaos represents hostility and opposition of some form or another to theism and/or religion. What comes to mind first in most peoples’ minds would be what has been termed the “New/Gnu Atheist” movement, contrasting with what might be understood as “Old Atheism” with nonbelievers like Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche and the like making personal choices (Nietzsche is a questionable example, though, with the potential abuse of the will to power doctrine). There is some overlap of the New Atheists with the Rational Lawful Atheists in that they both seek to defend atheism as philosophically valid, but instead of treating theism as a viable possibility in the apologetic sense of defending atheism as rationally equal in some way, there is instead with Chaotic Atheism a polemical method of criticizing the system and finding weaknesses in it to leave only the basic alternative; atheism in this case; as the choice one is compelled to by this argument’s logic. There are a number of allegations about religion and theism by New Atheists, particularly the “Four Horsemen” (biblical metaphor, lol) of the group: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. At least two of these individuals are either self identified antitheists or have expressed sentiments that are antitheistic. I use the term antitheism to distinguish what is admittedly part of the atheist umbrella term, but not exactly the best representative for its public and civil discourse. The potential for misunderstanding when you have a biologist (Dawkins), a journalist (Hitchens), a philosopher/neuroscientist (Harris) and one qualified philosopher (Dennett) all speaking in varied ways about their understandings of religion, ranging from the Abrahamic faiths to Hitchens critiquing even Eastern/Dharmic faiths as possessing dangerous potential for abuse and violence, we have the obvious retort that very few of these individuals have any skills necessary to practice even good polemics, since there are sweeping generalizations about all members of a religion and all its possible permutations. The “New Atheists”/antitheists seem to forget that there are pacifist Christians, moderate Muslims and various other examples that would contradict their claim that theism or religion as a whole is a virus or a corrupting influence on society. Only people in a minority would claim that religion or theism is perfect and the majority of other believers would admit the flaws exist but argue that it is nonetheless compelling to them in giving purpose and meaning to their lives. While that is another topic entirely, Polemic Chaotic Atheism seems to have the least effectiveness in confronting theists as equals and as imperfect human beings (which the New Atheists could be said to sparingly reference in their own books, such as The God Delusion and God is not great). In fact, it’s this form of atheism that has risen to popularity and even parody by other atheists as what is usually called “militant atheism”. If Lawful Atheists, or even Neutral Atheists don’t rise in number or at least recognition by society, the negative stereotypes about atheism in general will only persist, it would seem.

So with the dual pronged subset of Chaotic Atheism we have almost two extremes: one group that asserts its individuality in various ways and the other that asserts a position, in an ironically group centered manner in the case of the New Atheists to an extent, that is focused almost solely on the opposition and negation of their own position in the form of theism and religion. The overlap of Polemic Chaotic Atheism with Apologetic/Rational Lawful Atheism is also ironic with Dawkins and Dennett suggesting at one point the term “brights” to apply to all nonbelievers, later suggesting “supers” (which wasn’t much better). But there is the stark difference of the willingness of each group to accept some kind of civil disagreement and differences, Chaotic Polemic Atheists ironically seeming in some sense as bigoted as the religious and theists which they tend to blame. Not to say I don’t agree with them in some sense, but as some of their opponents have noted, there is some common ground with theists and religious people in that what the New Atheists oppose is a similar enemy: that of dogmatic and legalistic thinking in religion. But again, this is another topic for another time.

So next week, we’ll be talking on Neutral Atheism, which I will give a bit of a preview of my ideas: Semantic and Apathetic Neutrality respectively are the two divisions I’m positing. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Atheist Alignments: Lawful Atheism

Lawful Atheism (Tentative Definition): Atheism that either behaves with ethical or rational defense in mind as opposed to existential considerations or seeks to maintain a sense of law with an overarching system of some sort (Secular Humanism, Freethought, etc)

The start of my three part Atheist Alignment series confronts both the first of at least two dual branched systems and a second problem added on to the first problem relevant to this particular form of “atheos”. The initial difficulty I brought up previously was that atheism tends towards more innovation and invention rather than tradition and transmission. There’s very little to organize atheism under besides the basic idea of not believing in theism, though this brings up the obvious semantic difficulty of what you mean by “God” or by “theism”. This can make or break whether people consider deists and pantheists under the canon of theistic positions or whether they’re considered less than even the polytheistic pagans, who admit of some kind of personal interaction between the human and divine. It all seems to hinge on one’s orthodoxy of what proper theism consists of.

But to go into the second difficulty this two pronged sphere of atheism brings up, people might claim this only solidifies their allegation that atheism is a religion and belief system in and of itself the more one tends towards this manifestation. But to infer from the existence of certain groupings of formulated systems of atheism; such as the Fellowship of Reason and Secular Humanism; that atheism as a whole is religious is no more reasonable than saying that theism has to imply a religious organization around it, though one cannot deny that it has that tendency. There is a general idea of theism as much as there is for atheism; theism believes in the divine, usually personified in some way (not always) and atheism does not believe in the divine. While this simplification might seem unfair at first glance considering that I’m investigating the diversity of atheism, it’s only a way to demonstrate that broad generalizations of an entire group, such as theists or atheists, is not only intellectually dishonest and demonstrates a lack of critical thinking, but also makes you appear to want things to be simple for the sake of simplicity, just another excuse not to think. And I don’t think either theists or atheists as they exist among most people would advocate that we stop inquiring and thinking about these kinds of categorical and descriptive problems. I should also mention that there will be overlap between these three spheres of atheism; they’re not radically separate from each other all the time.

The first prong or subset of Lawful Atheism is less organized under specific rules or beliefs related incidentally to the general disbelief in God to one degree or another. At its core, this type of Lawful Atheism stresses rules for defending atheism and a general discipline to it that doesn’t exist so much with Chaotic or Neutral Atheism at their cores. Take Antony Flew, a former atheist technically, but well known as one of the key defenders of atheism as a philosophical position in the early 20th century. His advocacy of following the evidence where it leads, and the argument by association, is admittedly an individual choice, but it’s something he might be said to share in common with committed theistic philosophers. That is, the principle of believing based on the evidence and arguments for and against your position. He took arguments in response to his positions seriously and only in his later life did he find any evidence that he found convincing enough to motivate his belief in at least a kind of theistic god, though many might say he was still an atheist at heart with his emphasis upon a philosophical defense of his position, whatever it was, atheist or deist. His persisting suspicion towards, among other things: the Christian claims of Jesus rising from the dead, the afterlife, the free will defense against the problem of evil or other claims regarding the god he had a nominal belief in; still reflect what I would consider a Lawful Atheist position in the subset of a sort of positive rational atheism. This type emphasizes the role of logical and reasonable dialogue and arguments for the position of atheism over more individual or existential motivations that I will focus on in Chaotic Atheism next week. You might call it atheist apologetics in some way, though the term is more commonly associated with theism, so it might just create more difficulties than it solves. If Antony Flew is the shining example, then Lawful Atheism presupposes that atheism is the default position for all people and theism only comes after one finds evidence to the contrary.

The second subset of Lawful Atheism is equally broad, but also admits of more division within its wide horizon. Systems such as Secular Humanism or Freethought, among others, including the Fellowship of Reason, fall under this classification, as well as what scholars of religion have termed “secular religions”, which include Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In this way, the second branch of Lawful Atheism is actually easier to explain, but harder to defend in the sense of representing all atheists in any general sense. The particular beliefs that are held by the majority of each group can conflict with each other, especially the ones that admit a religious character to them shared by many theistic permutations. Even Secular Humanism is accepted in some schools of thought to be a religion in and of itself, or at the very least a very detailed philosophy that creates dividing lines between itself and, say, the atheism of Antony Flew (who ironically signed Humanist Manifesto 3), more open to the possibility of God existing in some manner, even if it would only be a gradation from atheism in the method, but a drastic change from disbelief to belief based on the similar practice of reasonable arguments. When you have not only a community, but a detailed system of beliefs around that community, it begins to resemble religion more and more. In a broader sense, this type of Lawful Atheism seeks a community of one sort or another. With this in mind, the Secular Student Alliance I mentioned last week is also a permutation of this second type of Lawful Atheism in that its goal is unifying atheists in some sense, even if it isn’t under anything so constrained as any elaborate or enumerated system of beliefs, such as Secular Humanism has, along with secular religions in the sense of making a unified ethics the cornerstone of the community’s design. That is, the communal aspect is the emphasis on “law” here, whereas the “law” of reason dominates more with the former subset. Though Freethought seems to cross both these borders in that it has the group identifier aspect of the second type, yet the emphasis on reason of the first type is there in its guiding principle that nothing should be believed on insufficient evidence. But this is bound to happen with at least one system in each of these three articles, so I won’t let it get me down.

Overall, this form of atheism is probably one that people are less familiar with in the media. With a persistent flavor of more individualistic or polemic (as opposed to apologetic) kinds of atheism and less willingness to find atheists that are at least respectful on some level to theists, however much they disagree with them, it’s no wonder atheists continue to be seen as “another religion” or “anti-religious bigots” and other such tired appellations. The Secular Student Alliance’s attempt to create a community that seeks education on atheism and engages with the general population of theists is the best method so far for those not necessarily willing to take the strong philosophical method, but nonetheless want to have dialogue for understanding between believers and nonbelievers alike. And in that way, there is a common ground between theists and atheists alike here in appreciating a basic need for civility in debates and collaborations for similar ethical goals (ontological issues aside concerning the cause of ethics for atheists according to many theistic critics). So, until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Atheist Alignments Introduction

I thought for the next few weeks I’d steer away from commentary on current events, though I will keep the stories that pique my interest on the backlog of articles. The link above is an interesting way to approach my topic. The Secular Student Alliance; which I tried to start a branch of at my own university, which failed due to lack of interest (Episcopalian school as it was); reports that its membership has doubled its size in two years. With 250 affiliates as of this year, it’s one of the largest groups seeking out some form of community for various nonbelievers under myriad names. It’s certainly a better attempt than, say, the coining of the term “brights” by such atheists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. While there wasn’t explicit intent behind it to suggest nonbelievers are smarter than believers, it wasn’t the best word to communicate an overarching idea. An alliance of secularists makes a bit more sense, considering secular principles extend across a wide array of beliefs and philosophies that all happen to not believe in the divine. Nonbelievers have just as much diversity as believers do on their own kind of spectrum, ranging from Wiccans, Deists and Pantheists on one end to Hinduism in the middle, and Sikhism and the Abrahamic faiths on the other end. And here is where my own three week topic series will start on February 19th.

Since I’ll be moderating an informal discussion at my university’s Guild of Humanists, I thought I’d try elaborating a bit on the topic I’ll be speaking on. The topic that came up instantly, and ironically with the short tidbit of news I gave you above, was atheism and how there’s a persisent issue amongst atheists or general disbelievers in divinity as to clarifying what could unite them.

The first thing that comes up as the only shared characteristic is a disbelief in God, but even that encounters difficulties. The first is more semantic, as to what you mean when you say you disbelieve in “God”. There are so many concepts of “God” that most simply lump them all together, which is fair in making the discussion more simplified. If you simply understand “God” as defined in a way that categorizes the various supernatural things people believe in, then you could include impersonal or immanent things as well, like magic, fairies, unicorns and elves.

But the second difficulty is clarifying the degree of your disbelief. There are those that insist that they can prove God’s nonexistence or insist that there is absolutely no evidence. This end of the spectrum is what I might call “Gnostic atheism”. Gnostic used here means a belief that you can know things about the divine conclusively, similar to how we can be sure that gravity works. Of course, there are people that are less than certain, more agnostic in that sense of the word meaning that you are not sure we can know things about the divine, but nonetheless go with the conclusion that God doesn’t exist, even if they cannot prove it is so. And there are those that would regard the concepts with suspicion and skepticism, choosing not to become entangled in those questions at all, similar to the first problem I described above.

A third and persistent problem has been the use of particular words to refer to particular types of atheism, such as antitheism, contratheism, nontheism and apatheism, all coined over time for individual ideas that have taken root and developed more over time. Without even the use of the word atheism as an effective way to express the variety of disbelief, nonbelief or unbelief as you might call it, we’re forced to make difficult generalizations or be so specific as to exclude others as not sufficient to be included. This happens with skeptics and secular humanists, either because they’re undecided or are accused of having their own religious aspirations in formulating a system. This only further complicates what is already a situation rife with ambivalence or confusions of terms or degrees upon a scale that is only enumerated in a few forms, one of which I’ll link from Richard Dawkins, called the spectrum of theistic probability. (

These three groups are my attempt to give some framework to the discussion with a theory I’ve tentatively called “Atheist Alignments,” I’m not an expert within the realm of Dungeons and Dragons alignments, ranging from Chaotic Good/Evil to Lawful Good/Evil and everything in between. This system has actually been simplified in recent updates to the canon, reduced from the original nine to a smaller grouping of five, removing the possibilities of Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil/Good and Chaotic Good,. I view this theory as a work in progress, since the correlation of the axis of Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral doesn’t necessarily have a one to one relationship to the ideas of Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral I have in mind when categorizing three basic, yet still diverse, spheres of atheism that have developed over its history. I’ll give a basic summation of each before I go into more detail with the first of these three next week.

Lawful Atheism is atheism that seeks at its core equality and fairness in relations with theists. As much as they might disagree, they seek to defend their positions with reason and science without becoming overbearing and seek common ground before focusing on differences. There is either a sense of acceptance that there will be disagreements or a sort of respect for the conviction and philosophical defense that can be made by reasonable believers. The importance of a code of conduct that in some sense is shared with theists is important as well as respect and courtesy for theists as human beings, even if there is dissonance between them about their beliefs concerning the supernatural. They would be considered the atheists that you wouldn’t know were atheists unless they said so or indicated otherwise, such as never going to any religious services or praying.

Chaotic Atheism shares some traits with Lawful Atheism, but differs in the end goals they have in mind. Chaotic Atheism doesn’t care so much about following any particular code of conduct or laws in relation to theists, but only cares about asserting their place as nonbelievers in a world of believers. The problem is that the opposition and negation are the only defining characteristics of this subset, not any kind of unity except amongst the general group, such as, say, the New Atheists as an informal kind of group. In this way, Chaotic Atheism might be said to be attempting to eliminate both theism and religion, seeing them as morally evil, a corrupting influence in society or an intellectually lacking position. The disagreement is so stark that there is little room left for common ground and any such connections are viewed as accidental. This isn’t to say Chaotic Atheists can’t be genuinely good, but their ethics might not be as intentional as a Lawful Atheist’s.

Neutral Atheism is the most diverse of the three, the former two admitting a dichotomy in each sphere respectively (more on that in the next two weeks). But Neutral Atheism simply admits they don’t lean towards belief or disbelief in God, though their general perspective might be said to appear atheistic. Agnostics, skeptics, secular religions and other unaffiliated people can all be considered in the same sphere of Neutral Atheism, which has at its core a sort of apatheism, not caring whether God exists or does not exist, finding the question meaningless. In this sense, Neutral Atheism holds the most diversity of the three spheres, but also the most ambiguity

So until next week, I leave you with the option to inquire further in comments or emails about this and suggest what I could do to improve it or add your own input about the diversity of “atheism” in the overall sense of its etymology, meaning “God-less” or “without God” Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Obama's Faith: Personal and Political

President Barack Obama gave a heartening speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, held every year on the first Thursday of February, about his hopes for the future, such as Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ recovery from the shot to the head as well as her husband’s adjusting to the near death experience. He also wished for the situation in Egypt to play out peacefully and in favor of the people protesting against the one party system persisting for around 30 years since Hosni Mubarak’s replacement of Anwar El Hadat after his assassination in 1981. But throughout the rest of his speech, he spoke very candidly and publically for the first time about his faith, which many people continue to be skeptical about, due to various groups propagating the notion that he is a closet Muslim pretending to be a Christian.

While there is no absolutely conclusive evidence that Obama isn’t lying to millions of people about his faith, I fail to see what justification or benefit he could see in doing so, and why people would believe that someone would try to maintain such an elaborate ruse, when the President doesn’t get paid much more than others, not to mention his job is already quite taxing on the body and mind. His spiritual aspirations should be the least of people’s concerns; not to mention he has had plenty of associations with Christian preachers, including Rick Warren and Billy and Franklin Graham. Not to mention that Obama’s general reticence regarding his faith can be seen as a sign of discretion in times when the religious affiliation of a president should be very low on the list of concerns of the governed as opposed to what are more pressing issues of politics, economics, foreign policy, etc.
As divided as Obama admits many people might be on the issues like healthcare, the federal deficit and foreign aid, he at least strives to emphasize in this speech that he shares the Christian faith on some level with the majority of people in the United States. Some comments on the article inquired about theological specifics, but this is hardly relevant for a person that represents a diversity of millions, not all of them even finding Christianity’s story of salvation compelling in the slightest. With this unification under some theistic civil religious principles in mind, he calls for a focus on at least this common ground he has with most Americans even if there are very polarizing divisions that exist on other issues.

But the fact that people, educated or otherwise, continue to buy into the rumors of Obama’s true faith as a Muslim being deceptively disguised as God fearing and Jesus following to the majority demographic of Christians is what continues to divide people across political spheres. We still seem to want our representatives in politics to share the same faith as us, even though we can also feel sympathy and pray for Gabrielle Giffords, a Reformed Jew. But those same Christians, who eye Obama with distrust and accuse him of being both a Muslim and a Communist/Socialist/Marxist (which I can’t imagine are internally consistent with each other), will say that they can’t be anti-semitic because the Jewish people are their spiritual family, since they are also in a covenant with God, albeit they always would emphasize that it’s the Old one, not their New (and improved?) one with Jesus, who happened to be a Jew himself; which most people conveniently leave out.

I don’t have to agree with Obama’s politics or religion to still respect him as a person and as someone who represents the country in all its diversity, Christians and varied non Christians like myself as well (which he has spoken on occasionally in his speeches, giving him kudos from me that no other president to my knowledge has gotten yet). I could ramble on more about how religion and politics need a radical separation and, more importantly, a shifting of priorities. Being religious has become a negative label in my own area of the South, equated to following rituals and rules without any spirit or conviction behind their substance. And then there’s the allegation that the president needs a faith, usually a conveniently Christian faith that makes the person involved feel privileged. But the president neither has to be religious or faithful to any particular religion or faith; but at the very least should admit that he, like any politician, is dependent on those who vote for them and also has an obligation of fidelity (related etymologically to the word faith, ironically) to those constituents to follow through in some way.

Now, I admit I’m using something of the rhetoric and method that many conservative Obama critics and Tea Party followers use, but only because when communicated without politically vitriolic venom, it speaks volumes to what ought to be a reform of politics on some level, however unrealistic it might actually be to put into practice. If anything, people need to look past what people tell them and investigate those claims as individuals. But they shouldn’t let their own judgments about Obama determined through research be the end of the discussion. Exchanging opinions with others is a way to check against isolated politico-religious decisions. If you judge Obama simply by what everyone else says, there’s a problem in that you aren’t willing to think critically and objectively. However, judging Obama purely on what you think critically and “objectively” about is also a difficulty, because you dismiss any criticism as being “un-American” or “un-patriotic” or any number of other negative associations that only drive a wedge further into what is already a fragmented system, exacerbated by blind loyalty to party lines instead of choosing people based on alignment with your own political policies, regardless of being Democrat, Republican, or anything in between.

If we started accepting that we won’t agree on everything and try to find both common ground (the governed under the government) and principles of governance we share in common (benefitting people without coddling and spoiling them into becoming co dependent on any government subsidies or aid), then perhaps there wouldn’t be the need to question Obama’s faith either as individual believers or as communal citizens. We’d at least accept that when the facts point to Obama being a Christian (Methodist or Baptist or whatever) that we should take them as they are without succumbing to the media as the only source of information for our daily lives. Whether Obama is a Muslim or Christian or agnostic shouldn’t matter as long as he is honest with America. And again, I see no reason why he would need to lie about such a personal conviction when there are plenty of people that could counter any deception he might speak in a speech or prayer. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.