The Denominations of Atheism

All societies are religious. Therefore, atheism always involves, not only the acceptance of a certain worldview, but the rejection of a certain ancestral religion. In fact, “rejection of religion” defines atheism much better than does “absence of religion.” (William Lane Craig often points out that his pet cat’s lack of belief in God does not make his pet cat an atheist—an atheist, unlike Craig’s pet cat, does not just lack a certain belief, namely that there is a God; he also has a certain belief, namely that there is no God.) The relationship between the atheist and the ancestral religion he rejects is often quite complicated. Because the atheist has grown up in a culture saturated by that religion, the biggest influence on his ideas is usually—that religion. Thus, we can talk about pagan atheists, Christian atheists, Jewish atheists, and so forth, observing, e.g., that Jewish atheists are more ethnocentric than Christian atheists because Judaism is more ethnocentric than Christianity.

I know very little about what non-Christian atheists are like. Since I live and have grown up in a culture that is still vestigially, culturally Christian, all the atheists I have met have been Christian atheists. I used to be one myself. Like the Christian, the Christian atheist has a linear and teleological view of human history, which he sees as an inorexable march towards a “scientific” civilization free of all the superstitions of old. Like the Christian, he is a universalist who holds his beliefs to be equally true and important for every person and every nation in the world—and like the Christian, he therefore proselytizes.

We can also talk about denominations of Christian atheism—about Catholic and Protestant atheists. (As might be expected, Orthodox atheists have a great deal in common with Catholic atheists.)

The natural habitat of the Protestant atheist is, not surprisingly, Northwestern Europe and North America. He has at least two distinguishing traits. Firstly, he likes to use secularized versions of the Protestant Reformers’ attacks on the Catholic Church against all of Christianity (or rather “religion” or “organized religion,” which is usually code for Christianity), condemning it for being corrupt, authoritarian, Medieval, and Pharisaical. Secondly, he is glibly dismissive of Protestantism, but hates the Catholic Church with a boundless, fiery passion. “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins are Protestant atheists through and through.

The Catholic or Orthodox atheist, on the other hand, thirsts for a hierarchical and infallible institution to replace the one he has left. In practice, this tends to be a political movement of some sort, usually Communism. The Party is his Church, and the Chairman his Pope or Patriarch. This may be one reason why Western European Communist parties have been largest in Catholic countries like Italy or France, and why Communism has been even more successful (if that’s the right word) in the Orthodox East and in Catholic Central Europe.

Can the comparison be stretched too far? Sure. Few Christians–I was going to write “no Christian,” but thought it best not to annoy the Anglo-Catholics–are both Protestant and Catholic, but just as few Christian atheists are purely Protestant or purely Catholic. Catholic atheism and Protestant atheism are like liberalism and leftism in this regard–it’s theoretically useful to separate them, but you rarely, if ever, see a pure specimen of either in the wild.

26 thoughts on “The Denominations of Atheism

  1. Whatever the case with Mr Craig’s cat, Jeffory, the cat of poet Christopher Smart, was definitely a believer.

    “For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good cat.”

    “I will consider my cat Jeffory”, Jubilate Agno

  2. Like the Christian, the Christian atheist has a linear and teleological view of human history, which he sees as an inorexable march towards a “scientific” civilization free of all the superstitions of old

    I think are describing, even more specifically, a Protestant atheist: iconoclastic, anti-superstitious, certain of one’s righteousness.

  3. he is a universalist who holds his beliefs to be equally true and important for every person and every nation in the world

    So did the Mohists, who had never heard of Christianity. Secular liberalism (but I repeat myself) is the exaggeration of certain tendencies in human nature, and doesn’t need Christianity as precedent.

    • Nor do I claim that it does. My point is that the universalism of the Christian atheist is at least partly caused by his Christian cultural baggage, not that all universalism–never mind all secular liberalism–is caused by Christianity. Universalism, as I have defined it here, is not in itself a bad thing, and is certainly not the same thing as secular liberalism. Christian atheism and Christianity are both universalist in their outlook–but Christian atheism, because false and evil, is a bad thing, while Christianity, because true and good, is a good thing.

      • Fair enough. I can see how vestiges of the past can be reinterpreted in the light of secular liberal thought, and how different cultural backgrounds can cause slight differences in emphasis in different places.

  4. Well, I was raised a Catholic, was an atheist of the Protestant type (you nailed me exactly), and then, after 25 years went back to the Church (and have remained there without doubt for 25 years). Oh, and during all that time I was a (Burkian) conservative always maintianed a deep loathing for Collectivism and utopianism of any stripe. So you see, it can get even stranger.

    Secular Liberalism may or may not be an “exaggeration of certain tendencies in human nature”, whatever that may mean, but it is most certainly is in fact an offshoot of Christianity. It is a sort of secular heresy.

    I know of no other civilization in the history of the wold that produced anything similar too it, and in fact there are no major civilizations in history that one could call “secular” at all prior to their contact with what we call “Secular Liberalism”. True, there may be individuals of this type elsewhere, but that is hardly the same thing.

    As an historical reality, Secular Liberalism is most certainly born out of Christianity and it would be impossible for it to have developed has it has without it.

      • Oh is most certainly is form an historical perspective. You might argue that this is happenstance, but you cannot argue against the historical fact.

        It is the obvious point of this artcile, is it not. Are you saying that there are no “denominations of atheism”? Are you saying that there is no fundamental relationship between these atheists and “Secular Humanism”? Are you saying that Secular Humanism developed in a historical vacuum?

        At the very least, you might try to argue it. “No” is not a rational response. It is foot stomping.

    • Modern atheism in the West has Christian and classical roots. Its classical root is Epicurean philosophy and it expresses itself as nihilism. The Christian root is Unitarianism, and it expresses itself as humanitarianism. The word humanitarian was first used to denote the doctrine that Christ had nothing but a human nature, but had given us an example of the glorious possibilities in that nature. If they could have killed off the trinitarians, these people might still be calling themselves Christian, but we orthodox holdouts have spoiled the brand.

  5. It is entirely in concert with Voegelin’s description of modernity as Gnostic to understand atheism, as Svein does, as a type of fundamentalist reactionism, completely dependent on that against which it reacts. The name “a-theism” tells us as much. As my teacher Eric Gans has written, atheism is a completely derivative position and it would still be derivative if the atheist regime succeeded in killing off every monotheist, polytheist, and animist on earth. In a perverse way, atheists are more indebted to God than theists are; at any rate, they are more obsessed with him than theists are. “If God did not exist, atheists would need to invent Him.”

    • I actually pretty much agree with this.

      Although my background is atheistic, I find atheists tiresome. They seem to be in complete agreement with theists about the referent of the word “God” in all respects save his ontological status.

      My own feeling is that whatever that word points to must be beyond all predicates, including (contrary to Kant) existence or non-existence.

    • The problem is that our most deadly opponents aren’t atheists. They’re the great mass of the indifferent.

      • Indifference would be a huge step in the right direction. Our most deadly opponents are absolutely convinced that they are carrying out the Will of God (whether they believe in god(s) or not)…

  6. One problem is that most people aren’t really atheist or even anti-Christian. They’re just kind of indifferent. “Nones.”

  7. Having grown up under an officially atheist ideology (born in Hungary in 1978) let me add some perspective:

    It’s strange how Communism in many ways preserved a big of a traditional sense of things. For example pornography, drug use, even beat music was suppressed as “bourgeois decadence”, similarly, although the Communists have often built ugly modern buildings, sometimes they built in the “Stalin baroque” style which felt in a way traditional. Their ideal – be a hard-working, disciplined person, cheerful, and make kids – resembled the religious ideal. The era of Anna Ratko suppressed abortion and she used to say “To give birth is a duty for married women and a glory for unmarried girls.” I suspect this ideal was mostly based on making many future soldiers for the army…

    (I was really suprised to learn that in the West Communism/Socialism was often associated with hedonism, alternative lifestyles – I find it really hard to imagine the kind of drug-using 1960’s dude with Mao’s little red book in the pocket, it just doesn’t fit together according to my upbringing experiences. Even though Orwell wrote about this phenomenon back in the 1940’s!)

    Anyway, the weird stuff about this all was how entirely FAKE the whole thing felt like.

    This is causing our current cognitive dissonances in Eastern Europe. Our religious right finds itself promoting a way of living that 1) resembles too much that of their worst enemies, the old Communist system 2) back then it was fake, and it is really hard how to come back from that and make it authentic.

    I am (respectful but) not religious myself (in any of the usual senses), but if I was and if I also believed in the Antichrist, the fake-religious-conservatives of the Communists just sounds exactly like what the Antichrist would do. Because this sounds like in the long run the most efficient way to sabotage religion.

  8. It seems both counterproductive and just plain false to give Liberalism and its inexhaustible array of concrete manifestations, ie., homosexuality, atheism, jihad, etc., “spiritual” and “intellectual” origins. The “first act” of Liberalism was just that, a physical act. The homosexual act. The self-annihilating act. Liberalism is at root the desire for self-annihilation found in the homosexual “nature.” All the “spiritual” and “intellectual” justification that followed serves as nothing more than justification for SELF-annihilation and Final Liberation.

    Liberalism is rolled out like a red carpet and we will not find the true beneficiaries at the end of that carpet, but at the beginning of the unraveling. By Liberalism’s own account of reality, its origin are PURELY physical AND NOT spiritual or intellectual.

  9. Pingback: Genuine Pagans vs. Pharisaic Christians | A Mom's Life

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  11. As a Catholic Atheist in the formerly Catholic country of Ireland, I’d like to say that if anything, Catholic Atheists criticise the Church even more than Protestant Atheists. In a sense its because its more acceptable to criticise within your group. After all, there is no fear of being labelled anti-Catholic or anti-Irish. From my personal experience Catholic Atheists swing to the opposite and thus are strongly anti-hierarchical and put as much distance between themselves and the structures of the Church.

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