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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Atheist Alignments: Neutral Atheism

Neutral Atheism (Hypothetical Definition): Atheism that is either neutral to theism on the grounds of language: either the semantical difficulties or coherence of God concepts; ignosticism/igtheism and theological noncognitivism respectively, or ontological neutrality in some way to theism and/or atheism, either seeing the concept of God as obsolete to society, as in post-theism; or finding the dichotomy pointless/meaningless, in the form of apatheism.

Now we’re at the concluding sphere of this fairly exhaustive, though by no means complete, three-part analysis on atheism in all its diversity. Starting at the most accessible and progressing to the more difficult is a good practice overall, don’t you think? One can appreciate that atheists in some form are respectful and civil. And like any belief or lack thereof, there will always be those that are more driven to distinguish themselves, even if they’re also more obnoxious. But now we come to a less clear area of atheism which many might accuse of being skeptics or agnostics, withholding judgment or asking questions that pierce into the nature of the position itself in contrast to whether it is true or not. I was actually going backwards with my issues when I first introduced them. The third issue applied to lawful, “organized” atheism, the second to chaotic “individualist” atheism, and the first was relevant to the neutral “ambivalent” atheists, common difficulties with defining the term “God”. Since it is not clear whether there is a definition of “God” that can apply to every concept of divinity, perhaps Neutral Atheists are right to critique theism as an incoherent belief as opposed to saying that there is a lack of evidence or reason for believing it as Chaotic or Lawful would. The two pronged system of Neutral Atheism inquires two things: whether God is an adequately defined and whether God is relevant.

The first subset sees a difficulty with theological language. When someone asks this type of atheist, usually called an ignostic/igtheist or theological noncognitivist, if they believe in God, there are two answers that reflect a split within this area. The ignostic/igtheist would answer “What do you mean by ‘God’?”, while the theological noncognitivist would say “The word ‘God’ is meaningless/incoherent,” With the first response, this is a question that any particularly inquisitive thinker would present with even the initial monotheistic conceptions of “God”. The Christian concept of God in Trinitarianism differs from the Nontrinitarian form, which also differs from Jewish, Muslim and Sikh concepts of God, however similar in some ways they might be. Not to mention the concept of “God” in a different sense in Hinduism, alongside the ideas of multiple “gods” in polytheistic religions, such as Wicca, Asatru (Norse deities) and Reconstructionist Paganism (attempts to revive historically dead faith practices, such as ancient Egyptian or Babylonian polytheistic religions). With all this in mind, an ignostic/igtheist’s concern that we don’t have an overall idea of what constitutes divinity should be taken seriously. There are scholars that have attempted to unify the idea in some way, such as a philosophical approach to the question that reduces “God” to an entity with particular qualities. However, this only seems to answer the inquiry about the monotheistic and anthropomorphic “God”, whereas the “God” that is in some way synonymous with the universe in at least popular Hinduism and pantheism as well as the “gods” from polytheistic religions seem to be excluded because they don’t fit the original standard. In this way, the critique from an ignostic/igtheist is that there is an unjustified standard of semantic orthodoxy in many people’s minds about what “God” means. The fact that people choose not to consider whether their concept of God includes other people’s differing concepts is a problem that turns many people to the alternative of this form of Linguistic Atheism, as I’ve coined it.

The second type is that of theological noncognitivism, which says that any language concerning the divine, such as “God”, is meaningless, usually because it is not verifiable. If one cannot demonstrate any real reflection in reality or coherence of the concept termed “God”, then the term is able to be applied loosely to anything and would appear to not logically correspond to anything at all. The escalation is intriguing in that the initial ignostic/igtheist skepticism towards “God” language could be reconciled and then they would have a choice between the general typologies of Chaotic or Lawful in the two variations within each. But once you start going to the level of saying all “God” language is meaningless, it becomes nearly impossible to be anything but Neutral in the overall sense that this sphere of atheism implies. Neutrality can either be on the grounds of not having sufficient evidence to judge something; such as lack of a consistent standard for “God” or a lack of motivation or relevance of the thing in question. We’ll confront the latter next.

There are also at least two kinds of what I’ve termed Ontological Atheism. I chose this because one can say that their disbelief is concerned with the ontology, the study of causality, of their disbelief or belief in God. It isn’t that you find the term without some general and particular definitions and/or evidence, but that you either find the term irrelevant/obsolete or you find its existence and nonexistence are irrelevant. This is again a gradated system, where the first can potentially lead to the other. First we have post-theism, which admittedly has manifestations in what is called liberal Christian theology, but I find it more closely resembles Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”. When people think of this, they usually take it literally, as if Nietzsche is somehow mocking the notion of God’s death in the Christian narrative and saying that any resurrection makes no difference, because the original God is dead. While this might have manifestations in another school of thought (Death of God theology, maybe?), Nietzsche is speaking about what the term means to society. It used to be that God was regarded with reverence. But modernization is potentially what Nietzsche sees as partly what has made us more secularized in focusing on the world at large instead of any future world or afterlife, or even the spiritual dimensions, if you will. Without going into more details than necessary, post-theism says that we have in some way outgrown God as a reality or a part of our lives in a traditional sense. Instead we have relegated God to a tradition, something ancient and archaic, but somehow still casting a long proverbial shadow in that we still definitely have the strong presence of monotheistic religion, particularly in the U.S., but also according to sociologists of religion, across the world in general. Post-theism is more difficult to justify in that it is less a personal judgment than a sweeping claim about society as a whole. To defend the claim that God is meaningless for all of us is to fly in the face of the convictions of many believers that claim that their religion is undergoing a new revival of sorts, even in the face of what they also believe are the supposed End Times, persecution of Christians allegedly high (though this is nothing new).

So one may instead go along with the other side of the coin, cleverly coined apatheism. It doesn’t say that the concept of God is meaningless, though it might be implied. An apatheist is one who doesn’t believe the question of God’s existence or nonexistence matters: whether God exists or not, an apatheist doesn’t care. To claim this means complete apathy about God is disingenuous. I consider myself an apatheist, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely detached from discussions about God. There is, at best, an assumption I hold; that God’s metaphysical existence is not nearly as important as the psychological and conceptual reality, since that is what primarily motivates people’s behavior. A person will behave differently because their psychology is fundamentally adjusted by a religious/spiritual experience, such as those popularized in Pentecostalism. It doesn’t mean that any deity actually exists when a person radically changes personality or ethics. In their minds, the concept of God is real and relevant. Of course, they are concerned with whether God exists or not and will defend it staunchly to the affirmative, but the existence/nonexistence of God to an apatheist is about physical reality per se, but experiential reality. That is, people experience the world as if God is part of it through events or miracles, etc. In this way, there is a potential overlap of a theological noncognitivist and an apatheist in that they both regard some aspect of “God” as meaningless. The connection is ironically still about some kind of ontology, either linguistic for the noncognitivist; since God doesn’t fit with language objectively, it’s pointless to use it as a term; or motivational for the apatheist; since God isn’t something that compels one by necessity to act, it does not need to be concerned with.

All in all, this topic could be extended more as one has exchanges with theists and skeptics about what categories and qualities distinguish between those who reserve judgment, who judge something to be so and who judge it to not be so, all in regards just to the question of the existence/reality of “God”. Whether one believes, disbelieves or doesn’t care either way, these areas could apply in some way to theists and skeptics in that they reflect both approaches and degrees of convictions. So there’s probably some overlap of all three spheres in that we all tend towards some of each of these qualities. I’m Lawful in that I appreciate the philosophical defense of a position. I’m Chaotic in that I make an existential choice a part of my worldview as an atheist, in the umbrella sense I’ve been referring to. And I’m Neutral on two counts, one being the linguistic/semantic difficulties I’ve found with theological language, courtesy of Antony Flew’s article, “Theology and Falsification” (short read, highly recommended), the other being that the idea of “God” doesn’t seem relevant to me in a philosophical, existential, or experiential/conceptual sense, relating again to the previous two spheres. So, these categories I’ve tentatively generated could be a way to consider our beliefs on a larger spectrum beyond the umbrella terms that join us together in incidental ways, theists, as atheists or skeptics. So, until next week, when I’ll be starting again on current events hopefully, Namaste and aloha.

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