If There’s New Atheism, What’s the Old Atheism?

I found myself participating in an internal dialogue where I asked myself, “Do I say, ‘I am an atheist,’ or ‘I am atheist.’?”

The question is the product of recent thought regarding the dictionary definition of ‘atheist’. The word can operate either as a noun or an adjective. ‘Atheist’ is certainly descriptive of me, given my lack of belief in any sort of deity, but to call myself an atheist (noun) as opposed to describing myself as atheist (adjective) seems increasingly bothersome to me given what’s going on with some other atheists out in the world.

There are atheists who lack a belief in any sort of deity in the same sense that there are people who lack a desire to collect stamps. We don’t have a special term for people who don’t collect stamps, though if stamp collectors are philatelists, one might reasonably call people who don’t collect stamps aphilatelists. If, having just read this, you think the notion of aphilately as a position one might take is hardly worthy of specific expression, then you’re capable of following similar logic where atheism is concerned. I can be atheist without being an atheist because being an atheist in the sense that some people are atheists would be akin to people who don’t collect stamps trying to convince stamp collectors that they must stop the deluded and barbaric practice of stamp collecting immediately. Not collecting stamps somehow becomes a position worthy of expression when you start to believe there’s a problem with stamp collecting that makes the activity worth resisting/stopping.

This is, I think, what may be the essential difference between atheism as it’s been expressed in the past, (to the extent that atheism is an expressed thing) and the more recent phenomenon of New Atheism. New Atheism is the sort of atheism where its practitioners (can one practice atheism?) openly call for people to stop the deluded and barbaric practice of religion. New Atheism is atheist as noun, a movement you join. Old Atheism is atheist as adjective, a description of an individual.

When it comes to atheism, I’ve discovered I’m old school.

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24 thoughts on “If There’s New Atheism, What’s the Old Atheism?

  1. ….which is likely why you and I can engage in theological discussion without judgment in either direction.

    That, or we’re just both too cool to stoop to the alternative. 😉

  2. Pingback: How I Came To Be Atheist | The Ubiquity Principle

  3. I’m Old School, my husband’s more New School. I can be an atheist without constantly referring to believers as “stupid morons.” I don’t have to tear down the believers to build myself up. If their belief doesn’t bother me, and my lack of belief doesn’t bother them, we can get along just fine. My husband, however, likes to openly ridicule most believers, because their beliefs are “stupid.” Yet two of our closest friends are devout xtians. I’ve often asked him how/why he’s such close friends with them (he met them long before I was part of his life), and his answer is that they don’t try to shove their beliefs down his throat. Yet he’s more than happy to say that believers whom he doesn’t know personally are “stupid morons.” Sticks in my craw a little bit, tbh.

    • I sympathize. It sounds like your husband could benefit from inculcating the modern cliche, “Hate the game, not the player.” (And even then, the ‘hate’ part of the cliche is going overboard.)

  4. Followed you here from Scalzi’s place…

    I’m atheist as well, and hadn’t really struggled with the distinction, but now that it’s been laid out like this, I must say I prefer the adjectival form of the word. It might hit home for more folks if you picked a similar concept that already is in some use: say, ‘apolitical’ – plenty of folks will claim to be apolitical, but no one describes themselves as “an apolitical” after all.

    That said, I wonder if there isn’t a word for people who fall into the vast gray area between the apathetic and the angry. Some dislike the ills caused by organized religion, or by particular religions, without categorically damning all faith or spirituality, while others (myself included) merely apply their own frame to the discussion and would want to be told when they were making claims that both lack any factual basis and are also likely incorrect or sometimes proven to be incorrect.

    • I don’t know if this quote by Penn Jillette, “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby,” is the origin of the stamp collector analogy, but it did at least popularize it. Of course, there are those who disagree with the analogy, and I think their points are well taken. The analogy has limitations, but it was suitable for my purpose.

      • It’s true – it’s an apples and oranges comparison in many ways. The former link (to City Bible Forum) loses points for attempting to also assert that atheists have faith that there’s no god, but that’s getting into some fuzzy language as well.

  5. I have been struggling to put this into words myself, trying to find a way to describe belief-ism and how a not-belief can be just as much a belief, and how both tend to separate rather than define. I saw your comment on Scalzi’s blog and read this. The stamp collecting analogy works really well. Thanks for this.

  6. I agree – it’s difficult to find good words. I tend to describe myself as a nonbeliever. I have no problem with people who believe in God, as long as they don’t expect me to believe with them. The term atheist has been loaded with too many connotations, and if you say you’re agnostic to a Christian, they think it means that you want to become a Christian, but aren’t sure what kind.

  7. Yeah, I often say I was raised by semi-pagan agnostics, but that doesn’t imply that they also made sure I was well-versed in world religions and mythologies, including the bible-based ones, which they did. As for me, I sometimes refer to myself as a deist, but that’s only correct if you look at the Gaia hypothesis and say, “this meta-level complex system is essentially a Diety,” which I don’t really believe. But I DO believe we have barely begun to understand how all things interact and transform one another, and given our ignorance, it is certainly possible that “miracles happen,” e.g., something interacts with something else in a way that science cannot currently explain.

    That moment in Shakespeare in Love where the producer keeps saying it will all turn out fine, is asked how, and somewhat gleefully replies, “It’s a Mystery.” comes to mind. Some people are content to say that what science does not yet understand is a Mystery – to even, in some cases, revel in that fact. Those who choose to believe that something or someone is intentionally and actually responsible for all or part of that mystery seem to me to have closed their minds to some of the wonder and possibility inherent in the universe. And those who are sure there is no one “above us” who understands things more/differently and is manipulating the universe in ways that we can’t? They likewise sometimes seem close-minded to me.

    This is a different distinction than the one you are making, but it seems to me there is also this problem, that atheism is used to describe “the belief that there is no god,” as well as “the absence of belief that there is a god.” This has also been described as positive and negative atheism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_and_positive_atheism). This is separate from whether or not you believe that religion (or a specific set of religions) have had an overall negative impact on the world.

    • “Mystery” is a troublesome notion where religion is concerned, I think, since the term seems to be used in an obfuscatory fashion. To describe something that’s insoluble or beyond understanding (like God’s will) as mystery is inherently uninteresting. Mysteries which can, at least in principle, be solved, are what are worth calling mysteries.

      • Except that if it’s solvable, it’s not really a mystery, philosophically speaking.

        Given the size of this universe and the immensity of the “time of existence” – billions upon billions of years…then it is absolutely inconceivable to me that we, as the human race, are capable of solving every problem and answering every question there is. It is presumptuous and arrogant to think that we can.

        And saying that we live in a finite universe and thus there are a finite number of questions to answer, thus leading one to believe that we will figure everything out *eventually* does not solve the problem. Because to speak of a finite universe speaks of an actual tangible thing that can be defined, and therefore must have something outside of it that defines it and distinguishes it as a thing. And whatever is outside of it must also exist as a thing – so what is it….?

        Don’t get me wrong – I am NOT calling you arrogant (you know I never would!!), or anyone else who has commented here arrogant…and I hope I have not come off abrasively…this is all just my .02 worth and I hope my thoughts can be taken seriously, because there really are lots of people of faith (like me) who are also intellectually inclined and don’t cling to these notions out of laziness, ignorance or fear.

        I hope you have understood in the time that you have known me that I do not make either a practical or an abstract distinction between divine existence and science, as the two are absolutely mutually inclusive. I do not, and never have, believed in a literal bible in any sense of the word, and those who think the earth is only several thousand years old are in total denial and not using the good grey matter that God gave them. And they have no idea what they are missing either – a world and a universe that is SO much richer, complex and fascinating than they are capable of imagining. In fact, I feel sorry for such people, because being trapped in fear is a terrible thing to suffer.

        As for what Jesus actually did and did not do in regards to miraculous things, and whether or not he was actually God in whatever sense, I leave that open to future discovery and deeper understanding, and I am able to do this while still maintaining both my faith and that there are simply some things I don’t fully understand. Even if it is ever somehow proven beyond doubt that Jesus wasn’t an incarnation of God (and I cannot see how that could ever be possible) it will do very little to shake my personal belief of the existence of a creative force that is beyond what we are able to scientifically perceive.

        To address what I think might have been (perhaps indirectly) an earlier question, it absolutely offends and saddens me that there are some atheists who would actually look me in the face and tell me that I am stupid and lazy and “have my head in the clouds”, so to speak. Having studied philosophy for the last 7 years and having been a person of faith for much longer than that, the sticky questions of divine existence and purpose and yes – mystery – are ones I have thought about long and hard.

        And….it’s time for me to stop. 😉

      • “Except that if it’s solvable, it’s not really a mystery, philosophically speaking.”

        I’m not sure about that. In a religious context, (and perhaps in the broader philosophical context as well) the word mystery does seem to be used to refer to things about which we cannot know the underlying truth. I suppose it’s fine to define mystery in this way, but to me it renders mystery as an enterprise uninteresting. To restate in a slightly different manner what I said earlier, “The only kind of mystery that’s interesting is the kind that can, in principle, be solved.” This expression about mystery is my expression, and I hope I haven’t hacked on people for finding unsolvable mysteries interesting.

        The solubility of mysteries in the material world also features a kind of bottomless rabbit hole effect. Each time we think we’ve reached the bottom of the rabbit hole, (Newtonian physics) we later discover that the bottom falls out of the hole and the mystery is deeper (Einsteinian relativity). As interesting as it may be to solve mysteries in the material world, it may be more interesting to expose more mysteries (the expanding horizon of ignorance).

        I would go on at greater length, but I’m at work and need to pound keys in the direction of making a database work better. 🙂

  8. Hi Chris,

    I am a Christian and I happened on your blog because of the interesting title. I have had a difficult time talking to atheists because of this issue. It seems that you have hit on a prevalent issue. I have come up with a distinction that is a bit different from yours and I would like to see what you think. My musing is not linguistic, but as someone who has done philosophy for sometime, it is a philosophical distinction.

    In a nutshell, I see the “old atheism” as metaphysical in its content (making statements about the nature of reality); and the “new atheism” as psychological in its content (making statements about one’s mental state). Let me explain a bit further; Going back as far as 500 BC we find atheists (Diagoras and Democritus) stating, either explicitly or implicitly, that God does not exit. This is a metaphysical statement, a statement about the nature of reality. a new definition of atheism was introduced sometime in the mid to late 1870’s that began to form what we today have: “I don’t know if gods exist, I just lack belief in any gods.” This is a statement about one’s personal belief and tells us nothing about the nature of reality. So, the best I have been able to do is distinguish between metaphysical atheism and psychological atheism.

    What do you think?

    • I think the distinction you make is a sensible one. Psychological atheism also establishes a relationship between atheism and agnosticism, two concepts which can be addressed separately but will almost inevitably be related as expressed by people.

  9. Hi Chris,

    That is a good point. It also reminds me of a recent conversation on the topic of psychological atheism I had with an atheist. We seemed to agree that given the psychological atheism position one cannot derive a metaphysical position, an epistemological position or a moral position from the elements given.. Is that your take on it also?

    • To the extent that atheism is the expression of a worldview (counter to a worldview expressed by one version or another of religious belief) it may be that even psychological atheism would intrude on other areas like metaphysics and epistemology. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time right now to further explore this, but I’ll bear it in mind as it may provide the seed for a future post.

  10. Interesting post.

    In the ancient Greek conception of grammar, an “adjective” (called an “epitheton”, literally “thing placed on top [of another]”) was considered a type of noun. So the Greeks would not have distinguished between the role or meaning of the word “atheist” in the phrases “an atheist blogger” and “an atheist”; or “I am atheist” and “I am an atheist.” Clearly we see the former(s) as adjective, latter(s) as noun. The distinction, even for us today, becomes foggier in cases of nouns used in apposition: “John, white male, aged 42.” Here, “male” is a noun and “aged” is an adjective, but they are used in a pragmatically parallel situation as modifiers, differentiated by part of speech on some abstract level of grammar. You’ll find that atheist is not nearly alone in being used as both “noun”(=subject, object) or “adjective”(=modifier).

    Now, the situation may be different with “-ism”s (and their accompanying “ist”s). “-ism”s identify ideology, and therefore often political (used in a broad sense) solidarity of some sort or another. Your view is that without an article, the word “atheist” denotes a simple belief, but with an article, it connotes solidarity with a more aggressive, “evangelical” form of atheism.

    There may be something to this, but your linguistic parallel falls quite short of supporting the notion. If, for all of human history, almost everyone everywhere was a stamp collector, then the word “aphilatelist,” as noun or adjective, would be a necessary label for those who are not. Why? Not because “Not collecting stamps somehow becomes a position worthy of expression when you start to believe there’s a problem with stamp collecting that makes the activity worth resisting/stopping.” Rather, it is because almost everyone is and has been a stamp collector, so there ought to be a word for when someone is not one.

    I know that it hurts our logical functions as atheists (pardon the expression) to admit that it is necessary to assert a negative belief. One ought to need to prove/mention a positive epistemological commitment (which would make “theist” a necessary label and “atheist” the natural, unremarkable state). However, language develops with culture, and in our culture “atheist” is still not the norm. Language is not determined by logic, but usage. In a world of religious people, “atheist” is a very useful word, noun or adjective, in a way that “aphilatelist” can never be.

    In short, you may be right about there being a connotative difference between the phrases “I am atheist” and “I am an atheist”, but the analogy to “aphilatelist” is next to useless. I’m inclined to think that the distinction between the noun and adjective forms is distractingly pedantic. The real difference comes when you capitalize the “A”, as you did to make your final point.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jim. I especially appreciate the etymological expansion on what constitutes and adjective.

      I’ve noted elsewhere it imperfection of using stamp collecting as an analog for religious belief, nevertheless you point is well-taken. The inherent silliness of aphilately is something that I hope comes across in the original post. To the extent it may not, I could be taken too seriously regarding it. The more important point for me, whether I include aphilately or not, is my misgiving as concerns aggressive pressing of atheism as a worldview to which people should subscribe. My follow-up post contains the personal background behind how I’ve reached my current conclusions regarding New and Old Atheism.

  11. Of course, if you say “I’m atheist” then you run the risk of people mishearing it as “I’m a theist.”

  12. Great short piece, I also followed you from Scalzi. The atheism question is valid in language. You arguably could be one without being the other, however I think this misses an important point. Perhaps, like Scalzi suggested, we demonstrate an ambient leaning in the definition of ‘theist’ or ‘atheist’ – (Lauren’s excellent caveat aside) … however, Theism is not a passive or non-political entity. A similar issue exist in the feminist camp, are you feminist or A Feminist. It comes from the “natural” entitled position that men and theist groups have in most cultures. I was agnostic bordering on atheist. Then I had kids … the religious/theist attitude of ownership towards children is creepy (and I’m not even talking about pedophiles here). As such, I cannot in all conscience, ‘opt out’ as the church is fighting for hearts and minds and building walls and guilt where none need exist. In the face of increasingly empty churches, the UK religious leaders have consistently targeted teaching “because they care about children”. I don’t agree with a lot of the approach of Dawkins, but when it comes to hawking religion in the class room I TRULY BELIEVE they should leave them alone until they are at least 15 year old. After all, if its an undeniable truth, why do you need to brainwash children? That’s what makes me an atheist.

    • Religion should be taught at home. Why should a particular religious group force their beliefs on children whose parents want them to be raised with a different concept of the universe, or perhaps none at all? I grew up as a Baha’i. At school in Italy (when they did this 50 years ago, they no longer do), we had to stand up and say Catholic prayers in the morning. Twice a year we were brought to mass. I was constantly told I would burn in hell because some priest didn’t sprinkle water on my forehead. You can teach ethics without teaching any religion at all. If the teacher can’t do that, get someone else to teach ethical behavior.

  13. I am a theist. My beliefs correspond more or less to those of Jules (above). I don’t feel the need to push my beliefs in the face of others, or to mock the beliefs of others. Most of the atheists I know feel the need to mock the beliefs of theists. This makes them feel superior, and although I believe that some of their beliefs are just as invalid as some of the beliefs of theists, I feel no need to mock or belittle them. Unfortunately I am related to some of them and cannot avoid their company. I once told one that their atheism was one side of a coin, and religious fundamentalism the other. I don’t think God cares one way or another if you believe in His/Her existence and I don’t see any reason to mock anyone or force their belief systems on them. One reason I left the Unitarian Universalist church was because the atheists there were rather hostile. When my mother died a year ago, one went on a rant against believing in God. It was the last thing I needed to hear at that time. Live and let live, at death you will either be pleasantly surprised or not be there to care one way or the other!

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