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.