Saturday, May 4, 2013

Which Atheism?

In The Idolatry of God (a review will perhaps be forthcoming) Pete Rollins mentions different types of atheism. This got me thinking: if theism is a largely useless word, with the concept made intelligible only within  a tradition, then perhaps it's time to do away with "atheism" and "atheists".

There is an assumption made by atheists that people who believe in God/fairies/leprechauns are all basically the same, give or take. The work of Wittgenstein, Barth, Linbeck, Hauerwas and others rightly questions and critiques that assumption. But there is equally the assumption among non-atheists (a-atheists?) that atheists are all basically  the same, give or take. We speak of atheism as if it is a traditionless, ahistorical phenomena, as if "rejection of the supernatural" means the same thing to all who reject it. But just as acceptances of "the supernatural" are largely incommensurable among the different religions, so too must be the rejections of the supernatural.

This is perhaps one reason why Hauerwas finds most atheism boring - it is simply the obverse of theism, which is equally boring. The upshot of this is that when someone calls themselves an atheist, we actually learn very little about them. The word itself doesn't do any real work. Is Rollins therefore right and helpful when he speaks of Christian atheism, Islamic atheism, Jewish atheism, etc?

How can atheism be divided into distinct and recognisable traditions, so that we don't end up lumping Slavoj Zizek and Richard Dawkins into the same boat? Both, of course, don't believe in God, but they seem to mean very different things by and draw very different conclusions from this disbelief. I remember coming across the term "faitheist" on the internet as a pejorative moniker for those like Zizek and Eagleton, which in a way accomplishes what I think ought to be accomplished. It also raises the question about orthodoxy and heresy within atheism, which would make for a potentially interesting line of study.

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