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.

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