The Nasty Turn Against Atheists. Why Now?

I have lately been seeing a lot of negative comments on my Facebook feed directed at atheists. I am not saying that this is a general trend, just that I have a rather large friends list and I am a bit struck by the sudden surge in nastiness. Could it be the helplessness people are feeling about our present situation is presaging a revival of religious faith? I hope not. That’s a scary scene. Fear and religion is a worrisome combination. Those who cast doubt on faith belief become the enemy under such circumstances. Folks are already in the mood to throw democracy and liberty under the bus. An Inquisition may feel like the logical next step.

Part of it, of course, is the brand of identity politics that fetishizes Muslims, that makes the followers of Muhammad a ritual totem for the anti-Western crowd (there are other ritual totems, but I don’t wish to enlarge the scope of offense-taking), and that makes criticism of Islam blasphemous. Moreover, Islam is exotic. Absurdly, atheism is said to be a cover for something called “Islamophobia.” Is it not curious that the religious beliefs that explicitly negate Islam (you know, Judaism and Christianity) are, by some ecumenical alchemy, unproblematic? Rather, it’s those who do not hold religious beliefs who are the bigots. But, then, atheists have always been the most dangerous people.

It is important to point out for people who draw an equivalency between theism and atheism that these things are not actually equivalent. Indeed, one is a thing, a belief; the other is the absence of a belief in the thing. Atheism is like “aunicornism,” only unicornism is not a widespread belief (although I had a student once insist that unicorns are mentioned in the Bible and therefore belief in them is legitimate), so such a word finds no purchase. Childish beliefs in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy need no word indicating the absence of faith in them, either. We recognize that we grow out of them (for obvious reasons) and move on. (It is worth considering that Santa Claus, and now the Elf on the Shelf, are Yahweh-like in their omniscience. They know when you’ve bad or good. They are ritual objects used for the little theists-in-training.)

Theism is the belief in a god or gods, in particular the belief in a personal deity. This belief is a form of faith belief, as there is is no reason, logically or empirically, to subscribe to it. We do not value most belief that has neither logical nor empirical bases. Yet there is this exception carved out for religious belief. You are even permitted to see the faith belief of other religious groups as unwarranted while believing yours is the correct belief on the basis of no reason whatsoever and enjoy entrée in the ecumenical community. More abhorrent than those who believe in different gods from yours (for at least they believe in the supernatural) are those who believe in no gods at all. Those individuals must be singled out for special opprobrium. 

So let’s remember for goodness sake that atheism is the absence of belief in a god or gods. Think about how the word “asexual” means the absence of the sexual. Asexual is not a type of sexual. It literally means that some thing is not that thing. If there were no such thing as sexual, then asexual would be a nonword. Likewise, atheism only exists as an designation because there is theism and because theism is, in a way Santa Clausism isn’t, to be believed by reasonable people. If there were no theism, there would be no need for a word that indicates the absence of it. 

Thus, I never came to “believe” in atheism because atheism is not a belief. That’s the wrong way to put the matter. The problem many have with me is that I never came to believe in any god. I am not even a failed theist. I am a soulless person (except the soul I manufacture with my creative energies). I have to identify as an atheist because the world has made an assumption, namely that theism is not only a credible position but an important thing to be.

It’s like being uncircumcised. If cutting off parts of the genitalia of little boys were not a standard thing some parts of the world (unfortunately in the part of the world I was born into), we wouldn’t have a word for the absence of genital mutilation. We wouldn’t even be talking about “intact penises.” After all, we don’t talk about intact ears (thank goodness Vincent Van Gogh never became a messiah figure). “Uncircumcised” is another designation the theists have hoisted upon us.

Don’t smear me as a bigot for not believing in rubbish.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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