The consumer model of religion — A look at a BCC post

Andrew Sdoubt, faith, LDS, liberal, Mormon, Mormons, new order mormon, questioning, religion, spirituality 81 Comments

I was reading BCC the other day, and I came across this post that just seemed like this tremendous threat to me. I know John C had nothing in mind and really, I’m just writing this for the melodrama, but as an ex-mormon atheist, it seemed to hit close to home. John just had it out for those militant atheists, but I guess they do enough to deserve some of it.

I wanted to make a qualification and…perhaps…a defense…of what he lambastes as a “consumer model” of religion…especially since recently on my blog, I’ve been talking about the need to find one’s philosophical “fit” (and others have written about similar issues).

Part of me wants to summarize John’s main points. The other part (perhaps that militant atheist one) wants me to tell you all to not be lazy and read that BCC post (the first link — it’s good) [partially because I’ll probably botch things up in a summary and partially because I will make this post too long if I summarize here.]I like his general framework. For some/many people, their belief is jump started by spiritual experience. I liken this to “faith,” and I, like John, think it is unchosen. We diverge, though, because I think this trait is something of an inclination — so I think it remains unchosen, but John supposes that the choice to ignore or rationalize an initial spiritual experience gives us the option to choose faith (or not) after the initial opportunity. I disagree, because I believe that faith is the inclination that reaches to the core of certain people — so the rationalization or rejection would not do much but create discomfort within a person from their denial (but, in the same way, someone with true doubt would be just as uncomfortable trying to believe when he doesn’t.)

So, continuing…the reason John has to set this apart is because he’s talking about a diarist who has beliefs that put him at odds with the church in several places. And, I guess some people questioned why the diarist would remain even though he noticeably had several ideological differences from the church. The answer seemed obvious to John and the diarist — he still had faith and religions just don’t work that way.

The answer seems obvious to me that if the guy does indeed have faith (which he does), then of course he should stay. Cool.

But John continues with an interesting analysis…he classifies a popular misunderstanding of religion as being something like shopping. You shop for things that fit you, things that you like. If a religion is inconvenient or potentially offensive, find a new one. And that, John says, is stupid. This consumer model of religion leads to people just validating their current beliefs and actions and not progressing.

Eee. So, here’s my beef. I place a premium on people discovering what resonates within themselves. I do believe in a consumer model of religion. But…I disagree in the way religions should be chosen and in the implications of this choice.

I think the criteria we all should use is not the nuts or bolts of particular religions necessarily…but rather a more holistic approach that takes into consideration our inclinations. It goes back to the idea of faith (or doubt) and of knowing yourself well enough to know what “fits.” The diarist should stay because he finds a fit between his faith and his positions. This doesn’t mean the church is for everyone, or that believing in a certain way is for everyone.

So, in this case, it appears that even with a consumer model of religion, you can have room for growth…but then again, I think that is the case everywhere. There are infinite possibilities for growth because what resonates with you — whether it is faith of some sort or a lack thereof — doesn’t automatically equate with where you currently are, so really, what we are doing is coming to grips with who we want to develop into and what our fits are. Even if you like the path you currently are on, you can still work to radically improve that position.

“What’s your point, Andrew S?” you may be asking. Meanwhile, I lost 37% of you when I said “ex-mormon atheist.” (And hopefully not more than that since then).

My point is…we need a sensible way to deal. When we confront personal challenges, which are the ones we should work through and stay with (to learn and grow), and which are ones we should avoid? It’s easy to say, “Everyone should be Mormon and should be Mormon in a very specific way,” and perhaps many truly believe that is the best policy, but I think we can each think of people who have suffer greatly because they are trying to believe in what they have heard is the “right way,” but in the process, they are running themselves into the ground by constantly denying their true feelings. However, as John noted, it may be just as easy for the other side to say, “Well, if you can’t believe everything, you should abandon everything,” but this is just as extreme and does not take into consideration that people may not want to abandon a faith they do have just because of rough spots.

Comments 81

  1. Personally, I started reading John C.’s post the other day, but stopped at the part about how “militant” atheists are the ones who think that you should choose your religion according to your own tastes.

    In general, the hard-line atheists (I object to the term “militant” in this context) tend to say you shouldn’t waste your time on religion because it’s not true. So, perversely, the hard-line atheists position is closer to the Mormon one in that truth/accuracy is the key deciding factor.

    However, if you believe that all religions are equally true (and equally false), and if you decide to participate in one anyway, then it makes sense to pick the one that suits you best, like shopping. Apparently there are a lot of theists and spiritualists who believe this, not just atheists.

  2. Andrew,
    I am probably too hard on the consumer model because the consumer model assumes that our choices are based on discreet decision making. Don’t like a shirt; don’t buy it. There are relatively few consequences to opting out of a particular outfit (so long as you are home when you do it). It seems to me that religious choices are not so lightly made. Even if you shift about looking for your fit, it is a decision made carefully and with an understanding of at least some potential lasting consequences. Mike M, in the other thread, talked about something he called “religious capital” which he argued accounted for this additional value in religious decision making. I suppose it is possible to reduce your feelings toward the religion of your youth to your feelings for a favorite restaurant (the one where you and your spouse went on a significant date), but it strikes me simplistic. I just don’t think changing your religion is the same as changing your shopping habits; the one looks inward, the other outward.

    I also find the choice to believe at all more significant than the religion (or lack thereof) that one chooses to follow. I think the initial faith experience offers us that opportunity. However, over time, I think that we choose what to make of it. Some people will continue to think of it as access to the divine; others will wonder about the crazy things their synapses did while they were young.

    I went with the militant because that is the term du jour for the current wave of proselytizing atheists. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, et al, are not content with being atheists themselves; they wish to get rid of religion entirely. Hence the militancy (I’m happy to adopt other terms if I think they are a better fit; suggestions?).

    Regarding my supposition, the point was that the militant atheists on that diary thread were assuming that changing a religion was simple and easy to do; that it’s like changing a shirt. Of course, from the atheist perspective, its all shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, but one deck chair is like another, no? If you are going to believe in a non-existent God, does it really matter how (so long as you don’t hurt anyone)? Since, to the atheist, all religion is bunk and all religious experience is hooey, if you are going to bother with it at all, going from one to another because you disagree politically with the first just makes sense. The failure to understand the spiritual stakes involved is what makes this approach short-sided and, ultimately, unhelpful. Possibly even stupid.

  3. Funny how I enjoy reading a post about a post (which was also about a post) perhaps more than just a post–and thanks John C, you meta-blogged a very interesting topic. I went the DK and read some of the comments you were referring to. What I am wondering is if one has a few theological differences with an organized religion, what should one do about all the things they agree with or like? Are the disagreements more important than the agreements? If you have an all of nothing approach, perhaps they are (and it seems that completely orthodox mormons AND so-called “militant” atheists are similar in this regard). Ultimately, I think I agree with Andrew S in the “holistic approach” to faith and religion. Not to pat myself on the back but I think that is a higher level of operating–kind of like Piaget’s formal operational stage (which some adults may not reach), where one begins to understand grey areas more, for example. It is those on the two poles I think who have no tolerance for anything but black or white, good or bad, true or not.

  4. Actually, I don’t think either of you disagreed. You just said it differently. The problem your article has Andrew S., and John C. can correct me, is that you dismiss the main point of the article and argue against the set-up. Religious faith is more than a set of agreements and disagreements with the organization you belong (although that can be the case). It is more than a comfort factor. There is an element to religious faith that militants dismiss and ignore, rarely even making fun of as is their style. That element is experience of the divine that often goes beyond the “consumerism” model and touches on transformation of the individual. Unlike the “consumer model,” the person feels chosen rather than the person feeling like they chose a religious path. Since many militant atheists have never experienced it or take it for negative granted to a large degree, they just don’t understand the power it has for the believer. Therefore, since atheists believe that “intellectualism” is the way they come to conclusions, then everyone comes to conclusions those same ways. That isn’t true for many believers and therefore the “consumerism” model doesn’t work. The element of existentialism, spiritualism, epiphany, whatever you want to call it doesn’t exist for atheists and therefore they don’t understand why someone would remain in an awkward faith.

    My personal problem is actually like you; why would anyone who doesn’t have the faith remain? At the least, why would anyone who has problems with core aspects of the faith remain? Believers don’t need to believe everything, but they sure should believe all major things.

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    re 1:

    chanson, I guess that tends to be my difference then. I generally don’t worry so much about the truth so much with *individuals*, and I’m pretty sure most people don’t. Rather, I think what is important is the usefulness of things to people — and usefulness can be *very* subjective. It makes no sense to me, for example, to tell someone their religion isn’t true (even if I don’t believe it is), when it is providing them subjectively more that not having it would. My problem would only come if they cannot recognize that I should have just as much right not to believe without having any problems (e.g.,where ideas of truth matter more is in *collective* or *public* areas like law, education, and other social things etc.,)

    I tend to agree that people end up still picking the religion that suits them best, but I guess the point I wanted to say is…the criteria for picking the ‘best fit’ religion *should* be different that what people would think. Spiritual experience, faith, subjective feelings, etc., are very important in this — sometimes more important than the factual nuts and bolts.

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    re 2:

    John, I can understand what you mean then, and I also think that what some people don’t understand is that these choices are not made lightly. But I think there are misunderstandings on both sides. From my perspective, I see people who are ruining themselves to fit in with churches that they utterly do not believe in (but will not admit because of the adverse consequences)…they have learned to internalize this idea that they *must* stay and they must make it work no matter what. They have to believe a certain way and follow a certain way — and if not, eternal consequences are at stake. Slowly, they begin annihilating who they are and completely losing sight of themselves (and in many cases, the religions encourage this — lose yourself so you can gain yourself, etc.,) Instead of being a positive influence, the religion becomes a limiting and binding influence.

    So perhaps it’s the atheist in me speaking, but my idea is this: there is no need to cause so much trouble for a religion. I am biased because I don’t believe in the eternal consequences, but I am extremely incredulous of why anyone would want to believe in a worldview with a deity who would WANT someone to suffer so much just for faith and what is believed to be truth. But, I agree with you that the process is not simplistic, although I *do* think, as some of your commenters mentioned, that many people already treat religion as a simplistic shopping excursion.

    Again though, I guess I have a different idea of faith. Perhaps I’m mixing calvinist ideas with Mormon ideas in a way they simply shouldn’t mix, but you know…when I see people with strong faith, what I believe to be true faith…what it seems like to me is that these people are always inclined to put things in definition of their belief. So, when they have a spiritual experience, they are inclined to recognize it is from God. They are inclined to believe, or feel like if they are not in the right spot, then there is something missing to search for. So to me, it seems it is not so much a choice, or if it is a choice, it is loaded. When people continue growing and getting older, whether they continue to view those spiritual experience as divine (or even continue to have spiritual experience) is directly related to their inclination to faith.

    Otherwise, and this is something I get a lot from members (because this is implied from our theology, based on free will, agency, etc.,)…people have this idea that everyone should believe, and if they aren’t, then they aren’t trying hard enough. I think that’s as great for me a misunderstanding of things as you think the Consumer model of religion is (and as proposed by the four horsemen of atheism, I don’t think I disagree with you on that). Really, some people don’t have it in them to believe. The church gets away with this by craftily suggesting that, “Some people only have the gift to believe on the words of others” or by suggesting that people “desire to believe,” but I think these are clever ideas, but *also* don’t match how people actually operate. And so it continues a cycle where many people are mentally destroying themselves. I don’t care about ideas of truth, but I do care about usefulness and subjective experience, and I think there’s some point when it’s not worth it.

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    re 3: All of my best blog posts are posts about posts. Basically, someone like John C does all the work and I disagree/agree/qualify and get all the commenter spoils ;).

    Here’s my thing…I really think the point when one realizes it is not all black and white is the time when people can get this gigantic epiphany about things. When people realize, for example, “oh…I don’t HAVE to believe this way,” then they don’t have to rack themselves over things. So, it isn’t that the disagreements are more important than the agreements or vice versa, but that the disagreements represent pressing issues that need to be confronted, while with agreements you can keep the status quo.

    What was incredibly comforting to me, for example, was realizing that even if I didn’t believe, I still lived my life the same way, because for me, the practical aspects of the church were still important even if I disagreed with the spiritual aspects. I just recognize a flexibility now, because I’m not tying a certain model to the end-all be-all eternal consequences of that model. And you know what? I think that’s been a whole lot better for me. I know people who will hiss and scream, “You have to go to your church meetings regularly!” or “You can’t make those kinds of decisions; think of your soul!” but I think that practically, black-and-white thinking burns people out and for a practical point, I think that’s bad publicity because then, instead of creating sympathetic ex-members, you have people who were hurt and now want payback.

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    re 4: Jettboy, I’m guessing I should plead guilty on your opening charges :p. I agree with you on your main points (and I agreed with John on those similar points, so I guess that’s why I didn’t focus so much on that here), and that’s where many of my disagreements too with more vocal atheists or with anti-theists come into play. But in the same way, I think many religious people also have gross misunderstandings of atheism and of atheists due to the same effect — personal experiences prevent them from seeing how someone could *not* have faith or *not* have experience with the divine. In the church, it often comes out as a judgment of character — “the only way someone could not believe is if they have some sin they are hiding that is preventing the Holy Ghost from abiding,” or something like that. So that is why I try to set up the consumerism model again, but with different variables (such as faith).

    I think people remain for a lot of reasons. As was touched on in a few comments in John’s article, some people stay because of their family…I mean, this is HUGE guys. When you are 5th generation Mormon, everyone in your family is Mormon and they are conservative, orthodox members, breaking away from the church can make you a black sheep QUICKLY. That’s unfortunate, but that happens. Also, even upbringing can have a role. Even without a huge LDS family, the way the church teaches, it does sometimes internalize an idea that people should stay no matter what — even if someone doesn’t believe in core concepts.

    I would also say though…we have to watch out…what are the core concepts. Personally, I left because I think that what I disbelieved was as lose to core concepts as any (e.g., when I’m an atheist…I dunno…I just don’t think I have the right to be trying to bless anyone’s sacrament in the name of the Lord, amen. Theism seems…integral to me. I recognize I can still be culturally Mormon, but as far as the church as a religion, it doesn’t work out.) HOWEVER, is belief in the sinfulness of homosexual activity “core”? Some might look at the proclamation of the family and related documents from the church and say yes. Others may say no. For a church that explicitly tries to reject creeds, we can’t have too many core beliefs

  9. Many atheists do experience transcendence; they just ascribe it to causes other than God. Since their focus isn’t on serving God, their view of religion often is that it should work for you — it should match your values and help you to be the person you aspire to be — not the other way around.

  10. (This based on my personal experience with atheists, of course… None of the ones I know could be described as “militant”.)

  11. I have a hunch that most folk remain in their parents’ religion (or irreligion) because of either inertia and familiarity or because their formative transcendent experiences occurred in the context of that (ir)religion. In the later case, it is natural (but perhaps fallacious) to tie that belief system and the experiences together and assume that the experience validates the content of the religion. (I’m going to say “religion” from now on, even though I wouldn’t say that atheism is a religion which is much less founded on subjective experiential bases.)

    Combine this with the idea that a valid religion is a wholly (or largely) true religion and some of us then assume that a person must sublimate all personal qualms about the content of a validated religion. Therefore, a person must overcome any disagreement with the religion’s tenets. This is seen as the way to grow in the religion (which is assumed to be the source and arbiter of the experience).

    Isn’t it ironic that some trust their experience and judgment to validate the religion but not to invalidate parts of it? In for a penny, in for a pound. We let the idea that a religion with some truth must be mostly or wholly true bully us into distrusting our own judgment (the same judgment and inclinations that helped us choose our particular path).

    So to trot out the somewhat tired dichotomy between iron-rod believers and liahona believers, some feel that the true path is to bend themselves to the rod; others feel that they must trust the guidance of the liahona. We could assume that our judgment is in error or we could “put it on the shelf”. We could also trust our own judgment and inclinations. Ultimately, either choice is a matter of personal judgment and inclination.

    My own path has involved a choice to follow the liahona of my conscience, to accept what I believed in my heart to be true. I have found great joy in discovering what I truly want for my life and for this world, and learning to live according to those heartfelt ideals. I learn from many belief systems and accept what seems good to me and reject the rest. This isn’t equivalent to shopping for convenient, easy options. It’s intimidatingly hard work.

    But I understand others who—given their acceptance of the wholly-true assumption—take the other path, bending themselves to the rod of one particular set of external teaching because in their personal judgment 😉 it is the right thing to do.

  12. Regarding “militant” atheists, given that none of them are wearing combat fatigues or carrying automatic rifles, to call them “militant” waters down the meaning of the word and spreads subliminal propaganda about them. (I’m personally more worried about losing the power of the word.)

    May I suggest the use of the much more accurate “vocal”, “outspoken”, or even “proselytizing”. Some may even be tempted to label them “obnoxious” or “irritating”. 😉 (In my book that can be a good thing. I thank those obnoxious atheists almost every day.) My point is that English isn’t at a loss for accurate, expressive descriptions. Why not use them?

  13. One reason I am finding to stay involved is friendship and the goodness of members. For years, I have played golf on and off with about 6 member friends. Our conversations are enjoyable while playing.

    Recently, I have joined a men’s golf club. Each week we are grouped with different players. At my last tournament, one guy let our group know we were playing for a different prize–the winner was going on a sailboat cruise. He then showed everyone in our group a picture of three busty, naked girls on a sailboat. Beyond that, the jokes and comments so often gravitate towards things I just don’t want to hear about.

    I am not the believing person I was, but inside I am the same temple-recommend person. I like hanging out with good people. I want my sons to do the same. The Sunday religious rigidity from members is hard to take, but the trade-off seems worth it so far. Mormons obviously have no monopoly high standards, but these are the people I know and like and this is where my wife is going come hell or high water. As for the doctrine, it’s been jettisoned.

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    re 9 and 10: I agree, Mytha. However, I’d say that perhaps I don’t understand, but I think even if someone believes in God, then serving God should be one of their values, so it’s not like the relationship flips. They are in the religion they are in because of a rather important value to them (where their faith has led them).

    re 11 and 12: Jonathan, agreed. But I think that with whatever path we choose, we will have a chance to bend to some rod (so this is why I think that in any path, there is growth and improvement.) So, in a way, we need to take both iron rod and liahona approaches and synthesize it into a path where we are aware of ourselves, but also aware of goals outside of ourselves that we want to commit to because they match our values.

    Agreed on the point of vocabulary…militancy as it applies to atheism just tends to generally refer to a wholly different sort of conduct than militancy everywhere. I agree with using things more like “vocal,” because that really better describes the activity, but at the same time, I don’t think this is a major issue because I think at the end of the day, people realize that militant atheists *aren’t* carrying automatic rifles and wearing combat fatigues (though I like to call them The Four Horsemen, I doubt Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris or Dennett would be particularly skilled at all that historically entails). I think people are sensible enough to know militant atheists are different from militant theists (wow, someone’s going to call me out for that one). My counterpoint is that human psychology isn’t at a loss for flexibility in language.

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    re 13:

    I understand where you’re coming from. For this past semester, I had to go through a pretty intense networking and recruiting process (this transition from student to professional is going to be crazy -_-), and it seemed that conversations went back to, “Oh, and we’ll get a round of drinks at the office and we have parties on the weekend.” I’m not completely excluding all of these things, but I’m just not interested in these things at this time so it’s a very different attitude.

  16. Um, while something less “militant” than militant may seem like a better descriptor to you all, “vocal” and “outspoken” leaves me, the believer, with the impression that regular atheists silently approve of the tactics. Militancy implies that the methods are different.

    Also, the ship on non-literal use of militant has long since left the port, dudes. Sorry about that. How about “atheistic anti-religionists” instead?

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    re 16:

    Actually, we do have anti-theist which kind of matches your proposed “atheistic anti-religionists” (because let’s face it, with people like Dawkins, they aren’t just against the religion aspect, but the theism in general.) I guess how I don’t see how vocal suggests regular atheists silently approve of the tactics, but then again, I’m at a loss anyway, because atheism is not a monolithic worldview. We don’t have an organization of atheists, so it doesn’t make sense to describe us as a united community anyway. All we have in common is nonbelief. Non-stamp collectors unite, perhaps?

    I think that’s a message I put in my latest post on my blog:

    …I’m not doing it as a Career Atheist Evangelist [whatever those are]. I’m doing it as some guy who has been badgered before, who is not and was not happy with it, and who just happens to be a nonbeliever. But to atheists who want to wed anti-theism with atheism or to ex-Mormons or anti-Mormons who want to wed countercult ministry with their new religious zeal, I think that does a disservice to whatever your belief system is.

  18. “Vocal” implies that these guys are doing what everyone else is thinking. If you really believe that Dawkins, et al, are speaking for the silent majority of atheists, then “vocal” might fit, but it doesn’t say much for the rationality of the atheist approach overall.

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    but the comparison doesn’t matter since atheism as a whole doesn’t work in the same framework as a belief system works. The only thing keeping atheists “together” is a lack of belief in God, and so, Dawkins and the other Horsemen are vocal about that.

    The fact that they have other baggage that they attach with that (antitheism, hyperrationalism, etc.,) is a different matter. So, I still don’t understand how vocal implies anything other than the fact they are really loud and out there, and they are atheists.

  20. I can kind of see that meaning, as long as you accept that all religious folk implicitly approve of the tactics of vocal religious believers like Fred Phelps. 🙂 Religion and irreligion don’t fit into two tidy boxes.

    Anyway, what about “proselyting” or “evangelical”? I still think there’s time to save “militant” from the muddling of our language. 🙂

  21. I think there’s a clear need here to distinguish the literal meaning of “militant” from the figurative meaning of “militant”. Most of what I’ve seen and read from Dawkins and Hitchens seems very clearly militant; they seem to have taken it upon themselves to fight a battle against religion. Their battle doesn’t involve literally toting around AK-47s, though. Their weapons are more in the neighborhood of “proselyting” and “evangelizing”; that’s what both sides use, from different approaches and to different ends. I’m fine with “militant”, since I think it’s silly to fight a semantics fight here over something that is probably already clear enough to readers.

    My two cents on the original subject: I think people should go to whatever church they go to because it builds their faith. If they come to my ward because their friend and the missionaries pressured them into it and the struggle ends up breaking them to the point they forgo what they had entirely, then I see that as a sad situation. This is the biggest struggle I had as a missionary. I felt like I was there to share with people things they might not have heard of (and to clear up some horrible misconceptions), and help them strengthen their faith in Christ through the LDS church if I could. Unlike some missionaries I served with (who, incidentally, considered themselves “warriors”), I wasn’t about to push anybody into anything they didn’t understand and/or want, because I wasn’t ready to confuse what faith they did have with by means of my own preaching on something. I do get tired of reading letters of some missionaries I know because of the tone and methods they seem to use. I think people would be much better off trying to find a church/belief that builds their faith (in whatever they find makes them the best person, not what they find most convenient to what they already want or think). Maybe there’s some consumerism in there, so be it.

    Maybe that’s more like three cents.

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    re 20:

    I guess when I try to use “proselyting” or “evangelical,” I begin to see John’s point…missionaries and evangelists speak the core values of a church (just sometimes in a disagreeable manner). Christianity, especially evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity, does have some tenets that are *official* parts of the religion that people like Phelps and others can piggyback on in the most distasteful of ways. This isn’t to say that all denominations are the same, but each will try to find some kind of justification through the Bible, tradition, prophecy, or whatever for establishing their “official doctrine.”

    But the four horsemen, atheist as they are and vocal as they are, aren’t setting the “official doctrine” of atheism. While the “new atheism” does have hints of anti-theism in it among other things, these aren’t necessary for atheism. We don’t have leaders and books and orthodoxy.

  23. I think “proselytizing” is a better description, as Jonathan Blake suggested. Many, if not most, atheists, have arrived at that determination through their personal experiences, and while many atheists believe that religion is a negative thing in many ways, I haven’t met many who are on a mission to eliminate it and convert the world as to the absence of god. My experience has shown that most atheists believe that people should do what is best for them – a utilitarian approach. In that sense, even though it may be lamentable to someone that their family members are, in their mind, deluded, if it’s making them better people or bringing them some peace or contentment in their lives, they’re all for them remaining involved. Obviously this is very different from Hitchens, Dawkins, et al, who would undoubtedly abolish all religion, consequences to individuals be damned.

    John C., I would disagree somewhat with your characterization of the consumer model of religion as viewed by an atheist as necessarily shortsighted, unhelpful or stupid. You based that statement on the assumption that there are actually spiritual considerations that are not taken into account in this model. I think that’s an unfair assumption. Atheists clearly don’t believe that there are spiritual considerations (at least in the traditional meaning of the word), so they’re not failing to take it into consideration, but merely taking the position that such considerations are illusory and within this model should probably be abandoned. In my personal opinion, I think it’s fine to THINK that, but it’s inappropriate to foist that position on others, because even if atheists are right and there is no god, perception, to a large degree, is reality. It’s just as unfair for an atheist to say to a religious person that their fears of eternal consequences are unfounded and silly as it is for a religious person to tell an atheist that their conclusions are false and evil. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what we believe and what our truth is, and to the extent that we feel the need to spread our conception of truth, it should be done with consideration and respect for what others strongly believe. This is where the “proselytizing” atheists go wrong, just as where over-zealous believers go wrong. I’m digressing a bit, but my point is that I don’t think atheists are just missing the spiritual considerations, they just don’t believe in them. Maybe your point was that to the believer those considerations exist, and so to suggest that they simply adopt the consumer model would be short sighted and not useful. I would agree with that statement. That’s the equivalent of telling someone to just stop believing what they believe.

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    re 21: But this is Jonathan and everyone’s point.

    When you have a militant theist (say, a Militant Hindu or a Militant Muslim or a Militant Christian), they are literally toting guns, bombs, taking out abortion clinics, whatever. But with Dawkins, they are just using words. I agree with you in that people REALIZE that language is flexible enough to refer to both.

    Good two (three?) cents. I especially agree with: I think people would be much better off trying to find a church/belief that builds their faith (in whatever they find makes them the best person, not what they find most convenient to what they already want or think)…that’s I think what I was trying to go for here…each person is going to have that. It may be different, but there’s ALWAYS possible to grow because none of us have reached the end of the line yet.

  25. Frankly, I’d call Phelps militant (and crazy) so you’re not gaining traction with me on this. If people called Phelps a “vocal” Christian, I would assume that they thought very ill of Christianity.

  26. Post

    re 23:

    With respect to your comments to John C (even though I’m not John), I would still say that sometimes, I just don’t “get” it with respect to spiritual experiences, so John C’s characterization may have some merit…although your accounting for it (that the spiritual considerations are illusory) might also be just as good…

    Personally, I’m in agreement that perception seems to be much more important than reality, and I think that’s what I was trying to get in my comment in 5. But, I think I can see why vocal/proselytizing/whatever atheists are the way they are relating to reality. In a personal sphere, perception may have more primacy, but there are some areas (some personal, more social), where this won’t cut it. For example, in education, I can completely understand why Dawkins and others are extremely vocal about keeping science classes about science — that’s a place where reality needs to be firmly in place. This isn’t to say that evolution or (insert scientific theory) MUST be atheist, so that’s something I also people go wrong on, but I think these kinds of things are not really negotiable if we want to be an informed, educated polity. Polls that less than half of Americans believe in evolution (too lazy for source) are not comforting.

    Getting back, I think there’s a little bit of both: sometimes, people miss the spiritual considerations, and sometimes people just don’t believe in them.

  27. Leadership is often claimed. Until I see prominent moderate atheists (non anti-theist atheists), then Dawkins et al, by thrusting themselves into the limelight, are the de facto leaders of the movement. Adding the adjective “vocal” to the mix only increases the connection to them with some nebulous atheist movement.

    Bill Hendrickson and Warren Jeffs are the de facto leaders of the polygamist movement for the same reason. Unless someone else steps up to drive the discussion and set the agenda, they own it.

    To take it another way, apply vocal to the imams who regularly call for the destruction of the west. They aren’t shooting anyone, but they are carefully constructing a worldview where it is a possibility. If we only labeled such men “vocal” muslims, what are we saying about our opinion of Islam?

  28. Post

    re 27:

    A vexing issue indeed…the problem is that atheism doesn’t really work in the same way that you’re presuming it does. This is the issue…since atheism alone is simply a lack of belief in god, there is little community about this and this alone. So, this is why you don’t see prominent moderate atheists, because we don’t have any reason to be prominent and out there. It’s like asking, where are the prominent non-stamp collectors?

    But, you might say and I’d have to agree, there *are* atheist communities. Why is this? Surely it’s because atheism is this organization too, right!? Not necessarily. Rather, you have atheists who are meeting because we’ve been forced together because of our alienation from the majority culture. And you know what…when this happens…you get people who have similar experiences that are separate to atheism but which are still common. You have many people who can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been slighted by theists,” “Oh yeah, I’ve been discriminated against,” “Oh yeah, I’ve been hurt.” So, you have people who have many hats…the atheist hat is the mere lack of belief, but they have other hats from similar experiences: anti-theism, rationalism, putting science on a pedestal, whatever.

    And whereas atheism is just this lack of belief, and there’s not much to talk about, there *is* a lot to talk about and to band together about these other things.

    Does this mean that these necessary to atheism? No. But rather, because of the way society is currently, they are socially and visibly correlated and comorbid to a relatively high degree.

    Bill Hendrickson and Warren Jeffs are the de facto leaders of the polygamist movement because the polygamist movement is a belief system and they do represent the forefront of that. But atheism is not a belief system. It is not a worldview. No matter how hard Dawkins and the rest attach what belief systems they have (things like anti-theism or hyperrationalism, that just happen to be compatible with atheism), these are belief systems that are not necessarily or combined with atheism. Jeffs and Hendrickson don’t get to be de facto leaders because they are vocal; no, they are de facto leaders because they come from organized and defined movements with define belief systems and these guys are top representatives of these.

    This is the primary distinction between religions and philosophies and beliefs systems and atheism.

  29. #28 – I agree with this. It is conceivable that an atheist could have no beliefs in common with Hitchens or Dawkins other than a shared belief that god does not exist. It’s obviously likely that other beliefs will cross over, but the reasons why someone could arrive at the conclusion that god does not exist are myriad, and a person’s individual reasons could be 100% unique to them alone. As a comparison, all christians are going to have certain things in common with all other christians, at least on a baseline level related to things like belief in the bible, the divinity of christ, etc. How these things are put into practice, interpreted and individual dogmas will vary drastically, but there will be much shared belief. In that sense, an atheist may divorce him or herself from a “de facto leader” of the atheist movement in a way that I don’t think a christian, or any other follower of a religious movement, however generally they may follow it, is able to.

  30. Post

    re 29:

    Not only that, brjones, but even in the so-called atheist community, we have disagreements as to the required strength of atheist belief. For example, I point out that atheism is merely lack of belief in gods, but others would argue instead that it is a positive belief there is no god. Even such a difference as this completely changes the tone of conversation: a weak or negative atheist like my position represents has much different ideas and arguments than a strong or positive atheist does. And then we have the difference between agnostic atheists and gnostic ones (e.g., those who don’t believe, but do not claim to know…or those who don’t believe, but claim to know their position is true.)

    But you basically sum up the ideas. It is likely that other beliefs will cross over, but these aren’t necessarily proof that these other beliefs are necessary parts of atheism. As you point out, the reasons why someone arrives to the various conclusions are much different and the additional conclusions they reach can be much different. This is different from religion…see, atheism is best comparable to theism in scope. Theism is the gigantic umbrella in the same way that atheism is a gigantic umbrella…with theism, the only thing all theists have in common is that they believe in some deity. The details of that deity will differ for each formulation of religion (whether it is an organized religion, a freewheeling spirituality, or not). And when you get more specific, such as theism -> monotheism -> Christianity -> Mormonism, then you start adding beliefs that become “necessary” to those specific subsets. So you can start building a community of Mormons and then generalize a complex belief system among them (although, since the LDS church isn’t creedal, even this can be tough).

    So, my point is you can do this with Mormonism or Sunni Islam or something like that because these different organized religions are organized belief systems. But it would not make sense to say that the generic theist has a “leader” without clarifying further what else is brought to the table, and in the same way, it doesn’t make sense to me to say that an atheist has a leader. Perhaps atheism -> “oh man, religion killed my father and drove my mother insane” angst -> antitheism has a leader, but this doesn’t mean this path defines atheism.

  31. I think there’s a clear need here to distinguish the literal meaning of “militant” from the figurative meaning of “militant”. Most of what I’ve seen and read from Dawkins and Hitchens seems very clearly militant; they seem to have taken it upon themselves to fight a battle against religion.

    If waging a metaphorical battle is enough to label someone as a militant, then the lyrics “We are enlisted till the conflict in o’er; … Soldiers in the army, there’s a bright crown in store” or should be enough to label the missionaries as “militant Mormons”.

    In that context, does that sound as silly to you as it does to me? Herein lies the danger of applying the term so broadly.

  32. To argue that atheism isn’t a belief system strikes me as silly. Atheism is a belief. Obviously it is more anarchic than any organized religion, but whenever someone incorporates a belief into their worldview, they systematize it. You seem to be arguing that atheism doesn’t inform your decision making with any sort of regularity, which doesn’t make sense. Even if you don’t have a God of judgment grading your every move, you still make use of a moral system to decide what is good/bad and right/wrong in your behavior and in others. Even if atheism, in and of itself, isn’t a worldview, it is a prime factor in many people’s worldview. Of course I can’t predict how one’s atheism will make one believe, but that one believes in a God doesn’t allow that either.

    Dawkins et al are looking to be at the forefront of a movement that uses atheism as a tenet. Even if they don’t represent atheism as a whole, they are sufficiently prominent that they act as the de facto leadership thereof. There are plenty of independent Mormons out there, but one goes to the LDS church to get a quote. Even though Fred Phelps doesn’t represent me, if someone wants to argue that Christianity is a bunch of bigots, he is prominent enough that he gets the press. That’s the point. There are plenty of prominent Christians out there who aren’t hatemongers, so it is relatively easy to argue that Phelps is marginal. Unfortunately, the most prominent atheists of the moment are at a Phelpsian level of discourse. Only the rise of prominent, rational atheists will supplant their influence.

  33. We want investigators to join our church based on experiences that lead them to believe there is an element of truth, validity, authority, whatever in it that their current churches lack. That could be phrased a bit differently without doing any harm to the concept: “We want people to join our church by having something “click” inside – to feel that it is the right thing to do.”

    If that is our general standard and objective, I have NO problem with the idea that people should choose, attend, join whatever religion, denomination, philosophy “clicks” for them. That’s also why I view missionary work as “sharing the Gospel” – as an attempt to share what clicks for me and see to whom it sticks rather than to convince and pressure in any way. I agree somewhat with the consumer model (that people tend to wear a religion that fits) as it applies to those who consciously choose in their adulthood – who “convert” in some way. I think it fits less well for many who grew up only shopping in one store, but, even then, the whole concept of “cafeteria Mormons” resonates more with generational Mormons than with those who convert from another religion – and I personally have NO problem with people staying in the Church while picking and choosing what to eat. In fact, in a religion that is based largely on the ability to change doctrinal AND practical aspects, I think it’s important to have multiple perspectives on nearly all (if not all) aspects of the Church. Unanimity would create rigidity, and soon we’d be just another creedal denomination.

    I believe the Church NEEDS all the instruments in the orchestra – AND it needs all of them to be playing, not just sitting in their seats faking it while the other instruments play.

  34. Post

    re 32: The only necessity to atheism is a lack of belief in God. That is the only thing that every atheist has 100% in common. This does not a belief system make.

    Atheism doesn’t make any moral code official. Atheism doesn’t make any worldview official. There *are* belief systems that HAPPEN to be compatible with atheism, and there *are* belief systems that happen to be frequently seen with atheism, but atheism doesn’t necessitate any of them. I *am* making the claim that atheism *doesn’t* inform my decisionmaking with any regularity…all you can tell from my atheism is that I’m generally not going to subscribe to belief systems that place God at the forefront, so you can probably expect that God is *not* informing my decisionmaking. But just from knowing I’m an atheist, you can’t predict how I will act, or how atheism says I should act. Rather, I have to tell you, “Oh, I’m existentialist,” or “Oh, I’m a nihilist,” or “Oh, I’m a secular humanist,” or “Oh, I’m buddhist,” or “Oh I’m hyperrational.” or any of these things which *are* belief systems (that happen to be compatible with atheism because they do not require deities).

    You point out that I have a moral system to decide what is good/bad and right/wrong, and I completely, 100% agree. But it is not atheism and atheism doesn’t tell you anything about the moral system I do have. The only thing atheism does is tell you that whatever my worldview is (which you won’t know until I tell you specifically), it does not require a god.

    You’re right…Dawkins et al are looking to at the forefront of a movement that uses atheism as a tenet. Pay very close attention to the way you yourself phrased it. They are at the forefront that is distinct from atheism…that simply meshes with atheism. It’s like saying Mormonism is a movement that uses Christianity as a tenet, christianity is a movement that uses theism as a tenet. Mormonism is not equivalent to all of Christianity, and Christianity is not equivalent to all of theism. So, Dawkins and the rest are acting as de facto leader or some movement. But not atheism. It’s some movement that just happens to be atheistic, in the same way that Mormonism is a movement that happens to be theistic.

    Once again, Mormonism IS a movement. Mormonism has very specific beliefs and it IS a worldview. Mormonism is not creedal, so we have room for liberal members, new order members, etc., etc., bu it IS a worldview. Whatever Dawkins and the rest of them are creating is a movement with specific beliefs that is a worldview. But this worldview, this movement, is not all of atheism, in the same way that Mormonism as a movement is not all of theism or even all of Christianity.

  35. As an aside, Ray’s comment made me wonder something: for those of you who went on missions for the LDS church, and even those of you who may not have but who have had interactions with mormon missionaries, how many of you felt that the focus of your mission, as defined by your leaders, was to “share the gospel” as opposed to add membership to the church, otherwise known as “bringing souls to christ through the ordinance of baptism”? This might seem like a biased question, and I suppose it is, but I’m just curious. I apologize if this is derailing the conversation, but I was just curious.

  36. brones, my mission was to do both – but I saw it as people being baptized through a connection to the Gospel we taught. I am fully aware that there are and have been lots of instances where the order was reversed (“Get them baptized, then we’ll teach them the Gospel.”), but I just don’t agree with that approach. I believe the “official” standard is to teach the Gospel and baptize those who are willing to accept it, make covenants and “become Mormon” in a practical way – but, again, there are and have been LOTS of cases where this ideal is not and has not been followed. In those cases, shame on us.

  37. I think you’re right, Ray, and in fairness to the church, I think those mission leaders, from Senior Companions all the way up to Area Presidents (I had an area president who unabashedly taught to get them in the water at all costs) are ultimately on their own in that approach. I do think there is an element of institutionalization in the church which ultimately lends itself to this kind of thought, and I think the church bears a large degree of responsibility for this. That said, I don’t believe the brethren would endorse this kind of strategy, so I think it’s unfair to condemn the church as a whole for this kind of attitude, common as it may be.

  38. You seem to be arguing that atheism doesn’t inform your decision making with any sort of regularity, which doesn’t make sense.

    For me, my lack of belief in a theistic god informs my decisions, it’s true, but only by it’s absence. To help get a flavor of what I mean, try to imagine how your actions are informed by your lack of belief in Nanna, the Sumerian god of the moon. (I assume that no one here believes in him.) Perhaps this comparison is too facile because Nanna isn’t a constant presence in our culture like the god of Western monotheism, but I hope you get the flavor.

    In any case, I agree with Ray in that a healthy, resilient church needs its members to pick and choose to some degree. Otherwise it can’t adapt or improve. Of course this can work against group cohesion, so it seems that some sort of balance must be struck between individual choice and collective standards. The next question for me is whether the group’s interests in preserving the group can always be reconciled with the individual’s need to choose. Are individuals’ health ever sacrificed for the greater good?

  39. Post

    re 38: that’s a good point, Jonathan, when you point out the comparison is different because Nanna isn’t a constant presence in our culture like the Judeo-Christian God is.

    But I still like the analogy. The only reason it seems like atheism informs decisions in such a big way is because we are in a culture where God has such a constant presence. But when we look at ideas that do not have constant presence, like a belief in unicorns, then it’s really easy to see that not believing in unicorns does very little in informing decisionmaking.

    I’d say that this “constant presence” of theists does create some of what we “associations” we might see in atheist. Why are people like Dawkins also anti-theistic? It’s not because they are atheist, because their atheism does not inform their decision making. Rather, the interplay of being atheist in a culture where the vast majority of people are theists and being trampled because of this logistical difference will soon create people who just happen to resent the religions that are around them. So it seems like atheism is anti-theistic, but this isn’t a necessary condition — rather this is a social byproduct.

  40. Andrew,
    We aren’t disagreeing regarding the definitional status of atheism. I believe that it has to pervade the worldview of a subscriber, because it has to do with the fundamental aspects of how one believes the universe operates. Certainly there are options to the atheist, but there also limits. In any case, you seem to be objecting to things that I am already conceding to you.

    Atheism is a belief. What you do with it constitutes part of the individual belief system. I am not making the claim (nor have I made it) that there is an official atheist qualification exam or that there is an official organization that represents the beliefs of all atheists. I am saying that there is a vacuum of representation that Dawkins et al are trying to fill. But that is a problem for those who don’t like the Dawkins version of atheism (atheism combined with anti-theism), not for me as I don’t agree with any version of atheism.

    If you aren’t looking to God to decide good and bad, then you are looking to something else (you can look for things other things while still believing in a god, but that is neither here nor there). So you are using something like existentialism or nihilism or secular humanism or possibly just your gut to tell you these things. Your decision-making process is just as bound by the limits of your understanding at present as it would be if you did worship Nanna (heck, Nanna had some decent aspects about her worship). I’m not pretending that God is the sole source of morality, nor am I arguing that you should listen to Him (although you should 🙂 ). I’m saying that atheism, like theism, limits your choices in morality and in moral sources.

    Ultimately, you, Andrew and Johnathan, are seeing an antagonism toward atheism in general that I don’t feel. I’m not insecure enough in my belief to feel your beliefs as a threat. What I am trying to argue is that Dawkins et al are the going representatives of Atheism and if you feel like they are doing a poor job (as I do, but what does my opinion matter in this), then you should encourage new spokespeople to arrive.

    Finally, the Apostolic Brethren would object vociferously to the notion that Warren Jeffs represents them, but since he gets all the press, he does in the eyes of the world.

  41. Post

    re 40:

    I still disagree though. I mean, I recognize you believe that it pervades the worldview of a subscriber, but you haven’t shown how a lack of belief in a comprehensive worldview equates to its own pervasive worldview. I mean…someone who lacks belief in unicorns, even though all of his decisions and other beliefs will also take into account this nonbelief in unicorns, cannot be said to have a belief that pervades his worldview. Your disbelief in countless other deities and things does not pervade your worldview either. The difference is artificial because we live in societies where many people happen to have worldviews that incorporate deities, so of course, people are going to think that this is a “fundamental aspect of how one believes the universe operates,” but if we get past the cultural and widespread personal popularity of the idea, really, it’s not all that fundamental. I mean, it’s hard to explain, because obviously, if you do believe in God, then it’s going to be fundamental to you…but really, to us, this nonbelief is not. We wish we could relegate it to the status nonbelief in unicorns is — something that no one bats an eye at because it is socially accepted that it is ok to not believe in unicorns.

    Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. What do you do with a lack of belief? What representation does a lack of belief get? The only reason Dawkins and others are representing a group is because of socially related factors, not because of anything intrinsic to atheism. But I mean, to have representatives of the “non-stamp collectors” or the “a-unicornists” wouldn’t make sense. If we had a society where most people believed in unicorns and made it fundamental to their worldviews, then because of those social conditions, a-unicornists might seem stranger, and some a-unicornists might speak out against this social phenomenon, and some might even point out what they perceive to be the silliness of so many unicornists, but it still wouldn’t make a-unicornism itself a pervasive worldview with those tenets.

    If I’m not looking to God to decide good and bad, I am looking to other things. That is exactly right. My worldview and belief systems are in those other things. Atheism just notifies you that I’m not looking to God for these other things. But check this out…you can’t tell from knowing I’m an atheist what my belief system is or should be…you can only say I’m not looking to God for it. If you’re Mormon, I can tell you what your belief system should be to a certain extent (of course, there is flexibility, but there are core beliefs — whatever they are — to the church). If you’re secular humanist, I can tell you what your belief system should be to a certain extent. Because these *are* worldviews. And even as you said, you can look to other belief systems while believing in God (and even though you said that’s neither here nor there, I’d point to that fact as more evidence that this fixation of god is not a “fundamental aspect of how one believes the universe works.” Your morality can be determined independently. Your belief systems can be determined independently, etc.,)

    I’m not saying that atheism or theism doesn’t limit your choices in moral sources. Rather, I’m saying that they limit them in such a slight way that you cannot have an authority or tell any detailed meaningful thing from the limitation. With an atheist, the only limit is that whatever their moral source is will not be dependent on belief in God. That is all. From there, you have a trillion different options and you don’t know until someone says.

    I’m not seeing any antagonism here. I am seeing a misunderstanding, and that is regrettable. This misunderstanding gives rise to things like, “atheism is a pervasive worldview that can have representatives, and as such we can evaluate the given representatives of atheism.” But this is untrue, and it only highlights the misunderstanding of what atheism is or is not.

    The Apostolic Brethren, and indeed every group, just need to look at what beliefs are necessary for their group, and then they can say if Warren Jeffs or anyone represents them fully. With atheism, the only necessity is a lack of belief in gods. Dawkins and the others meet the criteria, so there is no issue. The beliefs that Dawkins and co. have are a separate view and separate belief system than atheism, because the only thing atheism is about is a lack of belief in gods. Nothing else is necessary to atheism. So, this lack of belief doesn’t get spokespeople; it doesn’t get authority figures; it doesn’t make a worldview. As for antitheism, sure that has spokespeople. Dawkins and the rest represent it well. But all antitheism is not necessary for atheism, so no, it is not a duty to encourage new spokespeople for something that doesn’t even get spokespeople.

  42. I’m confused. What sort of worldview is non-comprehensive? Are you saying that, because you are an atheist, you don’t have a worldview? That seems impossible, but I am willing to listen to your self-description.

    If you are arguing that unbelief in a God is the same as unbelief in unicorns, you run into the same problem as with Nanna. No-one today looks to either Nanna or unicorns to make moral decisions or to create a worldview. So that’s a bit apples and oranges.

    I get that you don’t sit around all day thinking about how you don’t believe in God (just as I don’t sit around all day thinking about how I do). I’m not accusing you of that. I’m saying that atheism is a part of who you are and that you have an actual worldview that draws on atheistic belief (along with a host of other things). I’m really not being radical or controversial here. Just like my theism and my mormonism inform my belief. As an example, if I told you I believed in God, that still doesn’t tell you anything about what I should believe. It is only when I add a religion or a philosophy that you begin to get the picture. My theism constrains the sorts of other beliefs I have and those provide clues to what sort of ethical/moral beliefs I hold. Knowing you as an atheist, I would find it unusual and potentially hypocritical if you were a priest and espoused Catholic beliefs regarding morality and its source. As a theist, you might find it strange or hypocritical if I insisted that George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell did more to explain the truth of the universe than Joseph Smith or the Buddha. You are insisting on a distinction between belief and unbelief that I don’t find convincing because both offer limits on what approaches we take to life. You seem to be arguing against someone who is saying that atheism is inherently inferior to theism. That’s not an argument that I am making.

    Finally, I know that atheism doesn’t equate to anti-theism. But the public perception will continue to tie those two thoughts together as long as Dawkins et al are the most prominent representatives of atheistic belief around. So, the solution, if you find that unacceptable, is to promote less obnoxious representatives of atheism.

  43. Well, I’ll jump in here and voice my own thoughts on the matter.
    @John C
    I have a very good friend who is very orthodox Mormon. When I went through my period of doubt, from time to time he would ask why I was staying. Sometimes it felt like he was trying to kick me out. In my view, this attitude has nothing to do with atheist/non-atheist. It seems to be a personal thought process where if someone thinks someone else doesn’t belong in the group, they should leave. I stay in some measure BECAUSE I don’t fit in.

    @Jonathan Blake
    Brilliant, loved your comments. I agree 100%, and I also follow my liahona.

    @Holden Caulfield
    I hear you loud and clear on this. This is part of the reason I stay as well.

    @Andrew S
    I like your writing for the most part, and I enjoy reading your ideas. I didn’t like this post, mostly because I didn’t think it was as well written as posts from you in the past. But I think you bring something good to the table on this blog. Keep up the good work.

    As for the consumer model of religion, why is this a problem? So if a non-member doesn’t smoke, drink, is chaste, pays 10% of his income to a charity, and generally believes most or similar versions of the doctrines of the LDS church but is waiting to be found, should he not choose the Mormon religion because it already fits his beliefs?

  44. Post

    re 43:

    I’m saying that atheism is not my worldview because it is not a worldview. I have a worldview, but it is not atheism. The only thing you know about me from atheism is that whatever worldview I have, it does not assume gods. But you can’t tell my worldview from atheism, because atheism doesn’t say anything about it. I have to tell you explicitly if I am naturalist or rationalist, if I am existentialist or Buddhist or whatever — and in those things, that’s where you find my belief systems and worldview.

    As you admit and I have recognized, the difference between unicorns and Nanna and the Judeo-Christian God is merely a product of social environment — the difference only exists in that many people do happen to believe in God now and not in unicorns or Nanna. The core of the lack of belief is the same. This social difference creates interesting side effects (such as people like Dawkins, who, from their marginalization become resentful), but then their resentment and antitheism are attributable to the social factors, and not to atheism. This is my point.

    And you should UNDERSTAND this, because you make the same point I’m making for your side. As you say:

    …if I told you I believed in God, that still doesn’t tell you anything about what I should believe. It is only when I add a religion or a philosophy that you begin to get the picture. My theism constrains the sorts of other beliefs I have and those provide clues to what sort of ethical/moral beliefs I hold.

    This is EXACTLY WHAT I AM SAYING! Theism limits your set of worldviews in such a slight and materially unimportant way — the only thing I can tell is that I can expect some idea of a deity or deities in whatever worldview you have. But theism itself isn’t the worldview. I can’t tell you anything about how you should believe or what you do believe from theism. Atheism is equivalent to that, because it is simply the lack of theistic belief. And just like what I am saying, that you have to add a worldview and belief system onto atheism to begin to get the picture, you recognize that too: you have to add a religion or philosophy before I get the picture. Your religion, Mormonism, starts filling in the picture. The theism tells me very little, except that you have some deity there, but the Mormonism starts telling me things about what kind of deity it is, what you feel about that, etc., etc.,

    Knowing you as an atheist, I would find it unusual and potentially hypocritical if you were a priest and espoused Catholic beliefs regarding morality and its source. As a theist, you might find it strange or hypocritical if I insisted that George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell did more to explain the truth of the universe than Joseph Smith or the Buddha.

    I do not disagree. However, what I am disagreeing with is this idea that as an atheist, there is this idea that Dawkins and co speaks for me or represents me or whatever. No, that is not the case. All you know is that I’m not going to have god in the mix. It would be as if I said that, because you’re a theist, then you have to account for what Muslims believe. I would hope that you would say, “Wait, no, the only basic thing we have in common as theists is belief in gods, but I, as a Mormon, don’t share the same worldview as Muslims do,” HOWEVER, if you start saying that you have disagreements with core concepts of Mormonism (whatever these are in a noncreedal religion, of course ;p), which is a worldview, then it would be COMPLETELY SENSICAL for me to find it strange or hypocritical. But that is because Mormonism is a specific worldview. But atheism is not. Atheism is not comparable to Mormonism in specificity, and that’s my point. So, it’s not that, “well, if you don’t like the way Dawkins is doing things, then you should fix it and have other people speak,” because Dawkins and I don’t share the same worldview (or, we have nothing that suggests we should) in the way that you and another member should share core beliefs in tenets of Mormonism. Similarly, even if you don’t like the way a Muslim imam is doing things, this doesn’t mean you need to get your own speaker. Because you’re not battling over the perception of theism. Theism tells us little. Rather, you say, “Hey, I’m a Mormon; I don’t even go with those guys.”

    I don’t know why you think I’m arguing against someone who is saying that atheism is inherently inferior to theism…because that is not the point I am making and that is not the point I think you’re making. Rather, I have this suspicion that you think atheism is as pervasive and specific as a subset or denomination of theism like Christianity…when that is an improper comparison. ‘Atheism’ does not correlate to ‘Theism -> Monotheism -> Christianity.’

    Finally, I know that atheism doesn’t equate to anti-theism. But the public perception will continue to tie those two thoughts together as long as Dawkins et al are the most prominent representatives of atheistic belief around. So, the solution, if you find that unacceptable, is to promote less obnoxious representatives of atheism.

    “Finally, I know that theism doesn’t equate to Evangelical Christianity. But the public perception will continue to tie those two thoughts together as the Religious Right/etc., are the most prominent representatives of theistic belief around. So, the solution, if you find that unacceptable, is to promote less obnoxious representatives of theism.”

    ^Would you think that is a good equivalent statement, for theism as a broad general condition to be represented by one specific subset that isn’t necessarily logically implied by the general condition? My point is we don’t have “representatives of atheism” because atheism is just a lack of belief in gods. We don’t have “representatives of theism” because theism is just a general belief in some kind of god/s. We do have representatives of specific worldviews, like Evangelical Christianity, or Mormonism, or anti-theism, or nihilism or whatever else, but these representatives are not the problem of theists in general or of atheists in general. This is my point.

  45. I may be missing something here, but the way Andrew and I are using the terms, if we were to ask people what they believe regarding God, then we would get responses like:

    Theist: I believe there is a God.

    Anti-theist: I believe there is no God.

    Atheist: Well, I lack a belief in God.

    The difference between anti-theist and atheist is critical to understand where we’re coming from. Anyway, I feel mostly understood, so it’s a good day. 🙂

    @jmb275—I see two camps: those who believe Mormonism (however they personally define it) is either wholly true or wholly false, and those who think cherry-picking religion is taking the easy way out. I think it boils down to that.

  46. Post

    Sorry everyone; I totally recognize I need to cut down on my comment lengths 🙂


    re 44: Thanks for the compliment; I agree that this one was pretty rushed. I liked your article a whole lot more, and even though I don’t run things here, if I did, I’d be trying to pull you on my team as a permablogger. Regardless, I was interested in signing up for your newsletter, but unfortunately I didn’t see a blog link from your name, so I guess I’ll just have to hope you keep writing here!

    As to your question about the consumer model of religion, I’d say that I don’t have a problem with the consumer model (I guess that’s more for John), but really, again, the nuts and bolts aren’t the important part. I’d say he should join because he clearly believes…so that is his internal inclination and he would mesh in with the church. Furthermore, the church would help him grow in his values — for example, he follows all of the standard procedures, but no one’s perfect, and in the church, he’d have a support group of people trying to constantly improve, whether in this life or the next.

  47. Post

    re 46:

    well, I think we’re getting into more of a different post’s ideas (I’ve tried to write about semantics on my blog before), but this is what I’m thinking.

    Theist: I believe there is a god.

    Weak/Negative Atheist: I do not/lack belief that there is a god.
    Strong/Positive Atheist: I believe there is no god.

    (Now, what is necessary for atheism? What keeps all atheists together? The lack of belief in gods is the minimum requirement…even strong atheism is an additional belief.)

    And then

    Anti-Theism: I believe that theism should be dismantled, eliminated and/or marginalized.

    ^this OBVIOUSLY isn’t required for atheism, and in fact, it is an answer to a different question.

  48. Fwiw, I prefer the classic terms: theist, agnostic, atheist – and I also like anti-theist. There are atheists who are totally fine living in a world with theists (even one dominated by theists), and there are atheists who would destroy religion in a heartbeat if they had the ability to do so. The first type is FAR more prevalent than the second one.

  49. Anti-Theist = I believe that I should get rid of belief in God.
    Atheist = I don’t believe in God.
    Agnostic = I don’t know one way or the other about God and may not care.

    That’s how I am understanding the terms we are using at present. This may be the source of some of the confusion.

    I get it. I’m just saying that most of the rest of everybody doesn’t. The same way that most of the rest of everybody thinks that the FLDS and the LDS are indistinguishable. Or that many atheists assume that religions are functionally interchangeable (my objection to that is what drove my initial post). I would be interested in hearing of atheist thinkers whom you admire and whom you find more amenable to your worldview than Dawkins et al. I believe they are out there; they just get no press.

  50. Post

    Knowing you as an atheist, I would find it unusual and potentially hypocritical if you were a priest and espoused Catholic beliefs regarding morality and its source. As a theist, you might find it strange or hypocritical if I insisted that George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell did more to explain the truth of the universe than Joseph Smith or the Buddha.

    Coming back to this idea…I wonder…if I could write a post that kind of bounces an idea that jmb275 had talked about in his article…

    Basically, what if you had an atheist…from here, you can tell they don’t believe in God. Great, sounds good. But what if they believed in Catholic beliefs and Catholic religion not because he thought this worldview was an objective fact of the world, but instead because he valued the metaphysical and myth power of these ideas? Would this still be unusually and potentially hypocritical?

    For example, I can say that I still have several Mormon habits…but I don’t attribute these to God. Rather, I attribute them to cultural and social causes (growing up in the church has had a definite impact on the way I operate, regardless of not believing it came from God) and maintain them for decidedly not-so-spiritual reasons.

  51. Sure, but part of the justification for Catholic belief is that the Pope, as God’s representative, is an infallible source of God’s wisdom. I could go with a Catholic who said that they thought that the social and emotional aspects of Catholicism were admirable, but a Catholic who didn’t believe in God but who argued that the Pope is infallible and that Christ is the crucified Son of God in an actual sense would strike me as delusional or hypocritical.

  52. Post

    re 49 and 50:

    Ray and John, I’m gonna have to get into a definitional struggle based on etymology and intuiton.

    atheism/theism vs. agnosticism/gnosticism have different etymological roots…this is for a reason. Atheism and theism are about belief in deities. Agnosticism and gnosticism are about knowledge (or perceived knowledge). So, agnosticism is a position of saying, “I don’t know.” From this position, the person has not answered the question, “Do you believe?”

    Do you believe in god? Yes -> theist. Do you believe in god? No -> atheist. (NOTE: “Do you believe in god/do you believe god exists -> no” just establishes a lack of belief in god. You can ask a different question: “Do you believe god does not exist?”…if someone says yes, they have a positive belief there is no god…and they become strong or positive atheist.)

    This should be intuitive. Someone who says, “No,” to “do you believe in God?” should be atheist by any intuitive definition. They lack belief in God. So it is possible to have a “double-no atheist.” Do you believe in god? No. Do you believe there is no god? No. This position, weak atheism, is pretty rockin, not going to lie. It does not intuitively fit to call this “agnosticism,” because agnosticism covers a different concept of knowledge…and so you can have agnostic atheists and agnostic theists.

    Now, to the next thing that you said, John. Should we go with what the rest of everybody says? Really? Personally, I don’t pay much mind to people who say FLDS and LDS are the same, because clearly they don’t know what they are talking about. I will go as far as to point out the difference and hope they leave home a happy camper just a bit more enlightened, but to me, just because many people think something doesn’t make it so. And I agreed with you that many atheists happen to fit in the same state of unenlightenment, but this is not a necessary condition of atheism.

    Personally, I believe in a combination of nihilism and existentialism…Sartre’s been dead for a few years now, but he’s not *too* old…and he was pretty well-known. Albert Camus, even though he hated that his absurdism was compared to existentialism and he despised nihilism more than anything (but I think the way that he despised it didn’t really negate it, and it was an existentialist answer that I think most nihilists also cherish). And Camus is a bit older. These guys are going to be associated with their specific philosophical movements…it just so happens that they were atheist (and even Sartre had a whole deathbed thing lol, so hopefully you don’t make me get rid of him). Personally, it’s probably embarrassing to say, but I’m not too well-read…I know my ideas have been discussed by others, but I’m coming about them through personal observation, rather than from reading the work of some authority figure. Because I’m not really worried about press.

  53. Post

    re 52:

    but if someone argued that Christ is not the actual son of God (e.g., because they don’t believe in god), but rather, this idea is a powerful myth that should be preserved, maintained, and propagated and the Catholic church is best fit to promote the archetype of the hero’s journey and so the idea of papal infallibility should be revered/trusted not because it is actually true, but because it is metaphorically and mythically important (hypothetically)…what then?

  54. Re: the John C. and Andrew S. discussion.

    Although being an atheist is a lack of belief, I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to not believing in unicorns. I also don’t think it’s fair to say there are no spokespeople for atheists the way that there are no leaders of the group of people who do not collect stamps.

    God is such a huge issue, whether or not he exists, that it does mean quite a bit to be in the camp of believers or in the camp of non-believers. The same cannot be said about unicorns or stamp collectors. I think it is difficult to be in this world and not have at least given the issue some thought. It’s akin to being present at the Cleveland Cavs game the other night when Lebron hit a 3 at the buzzer to win it. If you were in the arena, I frankly would not believe you if you said you didn’t see the play didn’t care to see it and that it didn’t interest you at all. That is how I feel about someone on earth who has no opinion whatsoever about god. I just would not believe them. So I think it is fair for John to actually call not believing a belief because it is such a huge issue.

    And Andrew, you argued that many people simply lack a belief in god without letting it affect their lives and that, therefore, it is unfair to lump atheists into a group with common beliefs. That may be true, but there would certainly be an equal number of believers who do not really care much and do not really let that belief affect their decisions.

    But I think we can all agree that it is difficult to label Hawkins et al as leaders of all atheists. All believers certainly would not want others to say that Monson speaks for all of them, or the Pope.

  55. As long as we’re defining terms (Andrew, I didn’t realize you were using anti-theism that way), I want to throw into the mix:

    Weak Agnostic: I don’t know whether gods exists.

    Strong Agnostic: I can’t know whether gods exists (and neither can you).

    Apatheist: I don’t really care whether gods exists or not.

    Agnosticism in this usage is an epistemological position while atheism is more metaphysical. As a consequence of this, agnosticism and weak atheism aren’t mutually exclusive. Take me for example, if forced to reduce my position to a label, I would say that I’m a weak atheist and strong agnostic with a dash of apatheism.

  56. I’ve never understood atheist in the way you all are describing. It is interesting to hear your insights. Andrew, it seems like (although they deal with different issues) you would say that atheist and agnosticism can be compatible, where I would not tend to see them as such (I tend to see atheism as a more forceful assertion of the lack of any Divine presence).

  57. Post

    re 55:

    I disagree. Whether god exists or not really isn’t an important issue. What is important is that humans have subjectively determined for some reason that belief or nonbelief in god somehow is important, but we shouldn’t confuse the subjective drumming up of this things as important with it *actually* being important. In the past, we have had different things that have subjectively been determined to be important to believe in or not, but these say more about the biases of the societies and civilizations of history than it does about the actual universe. Let’s say, for example, that God actually does not exist and instead, the unicorn queen goddess exists. This really doesn’t matter, and instead, the culturally, socially, and subjectively accepted belief in god will STILL have primacy because that’s where we are in culture.

    It’s really hard to discuss this issue because obviously, for theists, God *is* important, so if we live in a culture of mostly theists, then that’s going to be culturally accepted as the norm, and so it’s hard to argue that it isn’t really important and we just think so because of our society and personal biases. Regardless, I mean, I’m thinking many atheists *are* going to view their nonbelief in gods in the same way they view nonbelief in unicorns or lack of interest in stamp collecting. In the end, one of the reasons that Dawkins and others are anti-theist is precisely because they believe their nonbelief shouldn’t be seen as this shocking thing. It should be as normal and ho-hum as a-unicornism. So, really, their anti-theism is a backlash against the way society has this fixation and thinks everyone should too.

    It’s akin to being present at the Cleveland Cavs game the other night when Lebron hit a 3 at the buzzer to win it. If you were in the arena, I frankly would not believe you if you said you didn’t see the play didn’t care to see it and that it didn’t interest you at all. That is how I feel about someone on earth who has no opinion whatsoever about god. I just would not believe them. So I think it is fair for John to actually call not believing a belief because it is such a huge issue.

    So now, in a society full of sports lovers, not being a sports lover is weird. This actually helps my point immensely. There should be no reason for sports nonlovers to join together (the only thing they necessarily have in common is they don’t care for sports), but SOCIALLY, if they do join together, it wouldn’t be all that surprising, because they live in a society where everyone expects people to love sports and be impressed and interested by it (as you put it, you could not believe someone if they said they didn’t care to see a 3 at the buzzer). This wouldn’t be a necessary part of not liking sports, but rather a co-morbid factor only caused by the fact that most people in society like sports.

    Now, I didn’t say “have no opinion about.” Rather, they do not believe in. There is no way to “have no opinion.” Rather, you believe or you do not believe. Perhaps you do not believe because you are not convinced. Perhaps you do not believe because you’ve never heard about it. But for whatever, reason, some people don’t believe. And dude, some people don’t like sports. Believe it. IF ANYTHING, they care MORE about the fact that you won’t believe that they don’t care about sports…like if ANYTHING, I care MUCH MUCH MUCH MORE about the fact that some people will not believe that I don’t care about God. And I think when Dawkins and others do what they do, they do it because they feel it’s absurd that society is like that.

    And Andrew, you argued that many people simply lack a belief in god without letting it affect their lives and that, therefore, it is unfair to lump atheists into a group with common beliefs. That may be true, but there would certainly be an equal number of believers who do not really care much and do not really let that belief affect their decisions.

    This is a FUN one…In comment 56, Jonathan describes more definition. Pay close attention to the one “apatheist” because I completely agree that there are believers and nonbelievers who both do not let their beliefs affect their lives. Apatheism is something that both atheists and theists can be.

    HOWEVER…I think you miss the point. Lack of belief doesn’t affect my life in the same way not liking sports doesn’t affect my life or not believing in unicorns doesn’t affect my life. The only reasons these do affect my life, in the end, is because other people are constantly talking about these things…this doesn’t make them actually important, but socially, their importance is secured.

  58. Post

    re 57: Well, I mean, even if you take strong atheism (the positive assertion that there are no gods/divine presence), this still is not mutually exclusive to agnosticism. It is very easy to say, “I really don’t know, but I believe there is no god” in the same way MANY theists say, “I don’t know for a certainty, but I believe there is.” Remember, theism and atheism are beliefs (or lacks thereof)…whereas agnosticism and gnosticism is a position about knowledge. So the only thing that is incompatible with agnosticism is someone who says, “I KNOW god exists,” or “I KNOW god does not exist.” (And even here, these guys’ claims to knowledge can be wrong…but still.)

    I think intuitively, agnosticism should be compatible with atheism and theism. Etymologically, of course they are. I mean, I can think of MANY people who say, “I don’t know for sure if God exists, but I still believe.” THIS IS THE PARADIGM OF FAITH and that is essentially agnostic theism. At the same time, I can think of many people who say, “I don’t know if God exists; I don’t have reason to believe, so I don’t.” Agnostic weak atheism. Or people who say, “I don’t know if God exists, but because I’ve never seen any compelling evidence, I believe he doesn’t.” Agnostic strong atheism. Personally, I don’t take the strong atheist position, because absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. But then I know that strong atheists have different arguments (e.g., they might claim that a certain formulation of god does not exist because that formulation is logically impossible…I don’t take this position because God theoretically could rip logic to shreds if he wanted and blow my mind in the process…but that sure doesn’t give me reason to believe.)

    In the end…I just want you to look at…if someone does not believe in god…just think what that means…they do not believe in god. This seems to fit atheism. Agnosticism seems to have nothing to do with it. It seems etymologically and intuitively sound, even if common usage of the terms is different.

  59. Andrew, I tend to use the most commonly accepted, most widely known definitions. If you tell someone you are an atheist, the assumption 90+% of the time will be that you believe there is no God. Saying you are agnostic will lead 90+% of the people who hear you to assume you are unsure of whether or not God exists. Calling yourself theist will lead 100% to see you as a believer – until you add you are Mormon, at which point 30+% of American Christians will stop calling you a believer. 🙂

    We can argue definitions, but I tend to go with general understanding in a society. Otoh, for controlled conversations like this, we can designate any special definitions we want – and I like some of the more nuanced definitions that have been listed.

    What was the original topic again? 😉

  60. Post

    re 60:

    so, public perception of FLDS as being Mormons, even though that is incorrect…do you just accept that? Especially when you can point to the historical distinctions and reason why people *shouldn’t* continue using convenient, but improper definitions? I mean, yes, 30+% of American Christians will think you’re a terrible heathen if you say you’re Mormon, but this isn’t *right* just because it is socially popular. In the end, if I become any kind of public individual on the subject, it would be more important to straighten out definitions than to actually try to make anyone atheist or whatever. Isn’t that interesting.

    yeah…so the original topic was…when do we stay in religion and when do we not? How flexible can or should we be with respect to disagreements between “official” theology and personal beliefs?

  61. Andrew:

    First, let me say I realize this discussion is a bit over my head. Until recently, I could not even entertain the idea of this world not having a god. Due to my strong belief in the LDS church, I never found these types of debates interesting, since I thought I knew the truth and the plan, etc. But now, I have an immense interest in these issues and so I appreciate that you responded to my post at all since you may have thought I was missing the boat. As it turns out, I may be missing the boat, or, hopefully, slowly catching up to it.

    I do think your point is a good one that belief in god is not necessarily some super important thing, but that it has simply been defined as a super important thing by society. But, that is the society we live in, and that is definitely the audience here on this site. People who don’t care whether god exists are probably a very small percentage of people who read this site.

    And you missed the point of the Cleveland game. I said I wouldn’t believe someone IN THE ARENA if they said they didn’t care at all about the shot. My point was, anyone in the arena had an opinion about that shot. Thus, anyone in the world, I was trying to argue, has an opinion about god. But millions don’t have an opinion about stamps or unicorns.

  62. Andrew, I really don’t care if people think of the FLDS as “Mormon” – since, to me, “Mormon” means “follower of Joseph Smith and believer in the Book of Mormon”. With that definition, the FLDS are Mormon – as are Nick and John Hamer and many others who are not LDS. Sure, I absolutely will make the distinction when I am involved in the conversation, but calling the FLDS “Mormon” isn’t an obvious mistake to me.

    The better argument probably would be the common misunderstanding of LDS as not being Christian – since “Christian” is defined radically differently by various people, and the majority definition in this country probably excludes Mormons.

  63. Post

    re 62: Don’t worry; I’m not trying to convince anyone that it doesn’t or anything. All I’m saying is that not everyone believes and not everyone comes from the position that is it unthinkable/incomprehensible that people might not believe in God.

    Basically, though, my point in distinguishing something as a super important thing on its own and something as being a super important thing because society believes it is important is that these things are essentially different. Yes, of course I recognize this is the audience here and this is the way society works. But that’s all we can figure out — this is the way society works. If society somehow had an immense fixation with pet rocks…and they treated them with the fervor of a belief in god, then all we know about this is that society view pet rocks as important. We do not find out that pet rocks are actually important from the adoration and respect given. Now, it could be that pet rocks are important, but the issue is this cannot be determined simply from looking at how popular in society or within a particular group it is.

    I didn’t miss the point in the Cleveland analogy. Rather, I think you have the wrong language. I’m not saying, “Don’t have an opinion about.” Rather, I’m saying, “don’t care about.” And I CERTAINLY think that someone in the arena who doesn’t have a like for sports (this is his opinion about it) can pull off not carrying about a 3 pointer at the buzzer. Similarly, I CERTAINLY think that someone in the world who doesn’t believe in god (this is his opinion about it) can possibly not care about it. As atheist, I’m not saying “I don’t have an opinion about god.” I think really, there are two opinions on the belief question — I believe or I don’t. And I don’t believe.

    Similarly, it’s not that people don’t have opinions about stamps or unicorns. Rather, everyone does have an opinion about stamps or unicorns. It’s generally, “I don’t believe and I don’t care.” Same as an atheist with gods, but our society does not have a fixation with stamps or unicorns so we don’t get in a fuss over people who do not believe in unicorns or people who do not collect stamps.

  64. Post

    re 63:

    that actually is a good point, and one that I am trying to raise. When we talk about whether it is ok for one group to be related and identified with another…then what we are doing is determining what should be the intuitive definition of a particular term. So, I made a misstep…I meant to say, “public perception of FLDS as being LDS”…because the intuitive definition of LDS is defined by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and who it decides are members, etc., Whereas, as you mention, the intuitive definition of “Mormon” is much looser (some might say it’s only for LDS members, but as you point out, it could be much freer.)

    So, the issue is that different groups are using different definitions. Christians use such a definition of Christianity that can exclude Mormons, but I don’t think that we should just say “majority rules.” Rather, I think that when we look at an intuitive definition of Christianity — what *should* the definition of Christianity intuitively cover, then Mormonism should fit the bill. If you ask a nonChristian, for example, who has no vested interest, if Mormons should be Christian, and you point how the church’s doctrine relates to Jesus Christ, the Atonement etc., I think that anyone without a vested interest would intuit that Mormons SHOULD be Christian, regardless of if we have a sizeable population of other creedal Christians in this nation who use less intuitive definitions and assert that Mormons believe in a false Jesus.

  65. The point I am trying to make is that I thought John’s labeling atheism as a belief system was fair. You made the point that because it was a lack of belief in god, it was akin to a lack of belief in collecting stamps, and that no one would argue that those who don’t believe in stamp collecting share a belief system. But the point is, I believe everyone has thought about the god issue enough to have a label of some kind (believer, non-believer, belief that there is no god, belief that it is impossible to know, or even unsure, still debating, etc.). Therefore, if everyone or nearly everyone has considered the issue, it is quite meaningful to “lack a belief in god.” However, lacking a belief in stamp collecting is quite meaningless because a great number of people have probably never thought about it at all.

    To anyone who were to tell me, they have never cared and never given it any thought, I simply would not believe them. I believe that all rational humans, for at least a few moments, do dwell on and do care about whether there is a god. And this common bond, that we all experience at least once, I think, is important enough to fairly group atheists as having a common belief. Even if one doesn’t care whether there is a god for the rest of their lives, all humans capable of deep thought would have at least cared for a moment about whether god exists. The same can’t be said about unicorns or stamp collecting.

    Back to Cleveland, the point of the example was that the same way I believe all have cared about the issue of god, for at least a moment, is the same as everyone in the arena, caring for at least the moment of the buzzer beater. Of course there were people present who probably did not want to be there, at least not for the reason of watching the game. I’m sure some were there accompanying someone who did care, when they themselves didn’t care. I’m sure some were there with clients to improve business relations, even if the host didn’t care about sports at all. BUT, when Lebron hit the 3 at the buzzer, even those who didn’t want to be there and who didn’t care about sports were interested in the game, even if only for a few moments, and even if only because of all the wild reactions from fans around them. And if someone said it didn’t affect them at all and they didn’t care, I wouldn’t believe them. Similarly, if someone told me they never once wondered if there was a god, and never cared at all, I would not believe them.

    If you disagree, do you disagree with my first tenet, that everyone has sincerely thought about it?
    Or do you disagree with my second tenet, that “lacking belief” has meaning so long as the issue has been duly considered?

  66. Post

    re 66:

    No, I’m not quite getting what you mean.

    AT best, you only establish the social importance of belief or nonbelief in god (in the same way that your example in Cleveland only establishes the social importance of interest in the game). Basically, you do NOT establish that the 3 at the buzzer actually affected every person and that every person should care about that. Rather, you establish that what affected people was the fact that everyone else was wildly reacting to them, and wondering why they weren’t wildly reacting too.

    But I do not deny this social phenomenon. However, that helps my point. The person who doesn’t care about the game is going to react to this social phenomenon, but his reaction is going to be to say, “Hmm…I wish people hadn’t been so loud. I simply do not care about this issue.”

    Similarly, with the god issue, the only reason people would be caring is not because of intrinsic interest in the issue, but rather because they are wondering why the people around them care about something that seems to be at its own rather unimportant and inconsequential. This produces some of the effects that I was talking about earlier. The reason we SEEM to have people coming to speak for atheism is NOT because atheism is a worldview…but rather because atheists socially may have co-morbid experiences as a result of living in a world of theists. This does not make these experiences or attitudes necessary for atheism — because you can find someone who hasn’t had those experiences, but still fits the necessary definition of atheism.

    I have never disagreed with your first tenet, that everyone has sincerely thought about it (although I might suggest young children, etc.,). I think that is meaningless and has no impact on whether or not it is a belief system. I DO disagree with your second tenet — that lacking belief has meaning so long as the issue has been duly considered. You are essentially saying, “Lacking belief is a belief system (this already makes no sense, btw) just because everyone around a nonbeliever has a belief system that the one person has had to think about for a long time…even though he doesn’t adopt this.”

    Atheism itself is *not* a belief system. Rather, what I’ve said in comments is that each atheist is going to have some kind of belief system that fits on top of atheism. From atheism, you can tell little to nothing about this belief system…you can only expect that whatever belief system a person employs, it will not have god (but this doesn’t let you determine much at all.) Similarly, not collecting stamps is not a hobby, regardless of how popular or unpopular stamp collecting is. Because you learn nothing about a person, other than that whatever that person does is not collecting stamps. The only difference is that when someone doesn’t collect stamps, the social reaction is that no one bats an eye (because stamp collecting isn’t perceived as an issue of social consciousness — I guess you say, “some people have never even thought about it at all” whereas belief in God is an issue of social consciousness).

    My point is not to say “they never once wondered,” so you seem to be hitting a strawman of my argument. Rather, I am saying that someone who doesn’t believe doesn’t care, and you haven’t touched that. Secondly, nonbelief is not a worldview itself, and you haven’t touched that. (The worldview must be something else, that just happens to fit on top of the worldview).

    If you want to group atheists as having a common belief, then go on ahead. But I think what you’ll find is that the only thing in common they have is a lack of belief in gods. So, while you can OF COURSE group on this, this is not meaningful to you…because you don’t find out anything about their worldview or belief system. Two atheists do not have to agree on morality or the source or morality (you can just bet they both don’t attribute it to god)…two atheist do not have to agree on metaphysics or the creation of the universe (you can just bet they both don’t attribute it to god)…on the other hand, if you find someone is a Buddhist…or if you find someone is an existentialist, then you can *start* to tell details because these *are* worldviews and belief systems.

  67. Dexter,

    I think your basketball game analogy would be better if instead of the people at the arena you used the population of Cleveland to represent people in general. Yes, there were 20,000 people at the arena, and almost every one of them was intensely concerned with the outcome, but there were another 400,000 who weren’t there. And their involvement ranged from equally intense concern to casual interest to not even knowing there was a game that night to, in a few cases, not even knowing who Lebron James is.

    I think belief in god is a lot more like that than like what happened in the arena. Some people care a lot about god, some people care a little, some people don’t care, and some people have literally never thought about it. The ratios, I suppose, simply depend on where you live and who’s around you. (Outside Cleveland, after all, far fewer people care about LBJ.)

  68. Ok. We agree that a rational human who has lived to a certain age has considered whether or not God exists.

    I guess I just disagree with you on my second tenet. If someone has thought about whether god exists, and decided they lack a belief in god, that has meaning. Enough meaning, in my opinion, to be a belief system. If someone lacks a belief in unicorns, that has no meaning, because most haven’t considered it and those who have certainly haven’t considered it with the seriousness that people commonly use to dwell upon god.

    If believing in god is enough to be a belief system, despite all the different ways one can believe in god, then not believing in god is enough to be a belief system, despite all the different manners one can believe, in my humble opinion.

  69. Post

    re 73:

    Dexter, then I guess you can leave with that belief…but I think it is unintuitive and unconvincing. Basically, you are left accepting the rather strange claim that lack of belief makes a belief system.

    But I’ve caught you.

    Believing in god is not enough to be a belief system. And it’s precisely because basic theism tells us as little as basic atheism does. All we know is that the person supposes some kind of god or gods somewhere. However, we do not know what you think OF that deity, how it affects your life, what your moral system you have is, what your worldview is. In fact, we don’t know anything. Because your belief in god, your theism, is just one disparate item. It is not a comprehensive belief system and it is not a comprehensive worldview.

    So, what is your belief system? What is your worldview? Your worldview comes into play when you get specific about the specific ways you believe. So, you KNOW intuitively that there are different ways to believe in god…so you should know INTUITIVELY that just saying “I’m theist” is not specific enough. However, when someone says they are monotheistic…that narrows things down some. When someone says they are Christian, that narrows it down EVEN more with prescriptions about a moral code. When someone says they are Mormon, that narrows it down even more. These narrower definitions ARE the worldviews and belief systems, because they are COMPREHENSIVE PACKAGES. Theism is NOT a comprehensive package, and neither is atheism.

    Not only that, but we are missing the distinction between theism and atheism. Theism still has the explicit belief in some kind of deity. Atheism does not have any explicit belief (you might say that atheism is an explicit belief that there is no deity, but keep in mind that this ONLY applies to strong/positive atheists and not all of atheism). So, even though I have shown that one belief does not make a belief system (e.g., theism alone does not make a belief system because the only belief necessary for theism is just the broad belief in SOME kind of deity)…really, this is ONE thing more than atheism…because with theism, you do have that ONE belief. With atheism, you don’t even have that. You have nothing. Because the atheism only tells you that someone lacks a belief.

  70. I was under the impression that you (or someone else) was claiming that theism is a belief system and atheism is not a belief system. I apologize if you already hashed this out. I am perfectly willing to accept that neither are belief systems. I simply felt it was incorrect that theism IS a belief system while atheism is not.

    So, I agree with you. You may feel the discussion was a waste of time but I enjoyed it.

    One question, did you state that a lack of belief in god is often times equivalent to not caring whether there is a god?

  71. Post

    re 75:

    sweet then. I do not feel the discussion was a waste in the slightest. To reiterate, my entire point in saying atheism is not a belief system is to point out that it is as broad as theism. Theism is a huge umbrella…and from this umbrella, you can’t really tell much. You just know that everything in that umbrella has a belief in deity somewhere there. But obviously, though believers in Zeus and Muslims both believe in deities, you can’t really lump them together meaningfully. Atheism is similar…it is a huge umbrella, and from this umbrella you can’t really tell much. You just know that everything in this umbrella does not have a belief in deity. So, though Dawkins and I both do not believe in gods, he does not “represent” me in the way that a Mormon like Thomas S. Monson rightfully represents another Mormon like a member of the church. Thomas Monson shares much in common with another Mormon, because Mormonism is a comprehensive belief system. But Dawkins doesn’t necessarily share much in common with me as an atheist, because atheism is not a comprehensive belief system. Similarly, a Greek pagan, though he is a theist like Thomas S. Monson is a theist, doesn’t share much in common with him as a theist.

    I have not equated lack of belief in god to not caring whether there is a belief in god. Rather, the caring or not caring is a different question that has little to do with the belief or nonbelief. In particular, as Jonathan Blake mentioned, this is a position called apatheism. Apatheism cannot be equivalent to lacking a belief in god because it is perfectly possible (and I think, rather common) for someone to be theist and apatheist (I don’t care if there is a god, but I believe there is one.)

    However, I do think that apatheism and atheism are often seen together; in other words, they are often comorbid. Personally, my nonbelief and my not caring are linked because of the reasons for my nonbelief…I don’t believe because I am not convinced to believe…I am not convinced to believe because there seems to be no impact on my life whether I believe or not…so I really don’t care about if there is a god or not, because, even if there is, there seems to be no impact on my life. However, as the old apatheist phrase goes, it is important not to mistake hemlock for parsley…because that most certainly will impact my life.

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  74. I have also read through a lot of John C’s posts and find most of them offensive. His arrogance really turns me off. My experience is anyone who relies on the adjective “stupid” to make a point doesn’t have much of a point to make.

  75. I agree with the comments stating that choices to leave a church are not made as lightly as John C suggests. I am sure there are some that do go from church to church. But I believe the majority of people, especially so-called militant atheists, make these choices based on sincere study and soul-searching.

  76. John C –

    I apologize. Comment 77 was as an ad hominem attack and a result of me staying up past midnight blogging. I have no problem if the mods want to remove it. I do think your points are intelligent and well thought out.

    I consider myself a buffet Mormon, and clearly your post on BCC supports those who don’t believe everything but still stay active in their religion. I appreciate that.

    I do think that the Mormon lens (my Mormon lens) makes choosing a church based on what accomodates your lifestyle irrational. But since most protestant churches don’t teach they are the one true church, I find moving from church to church very rational for Christians looking for the best fit. Aside from evangelicals and baptists, it is very rare that I meet a protestant who feels the church they attend is the “true” church, or agrees with all of their church’s tenets.

    Please accept my apology.

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