Russell Blackford on “knee-jerk atheism”

July 20, 2009 • 7:38 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford once again emphasizes the difference between criticizing religion and being truly “uncivil.”

I do agree that there are some people who could be said to believe in unbelief with a dogmatic and manifest sort of conviction: we even have words for them, such as “knee-jerk atheists”. There are people who will take what they imagine to be the atheist stance on any possible issue and will never be civil or thoughtful, even when dealing with the most liberal (and possibly non-literal) religionists (and I do agree that some are all-too-quick to accuse others of bad faith). . .

I do believe that religion should be challenged publicly, and I’m frankly amazed at the suggestion that nothing turns on the question of whether the epistemic content of the various religions is actually correct. Much, very much, turns on it. The Catholic Church and other religious organisations claim to be in a position to speak with great epistemic and moral authority. This enables them to pronounce in public on all sorts of issues, including abortion rights, censorship, gay rights, stem-cell research, IVF, and on and on. I can think of no more important issue for public consideration than whether or not these organisations really do possess the epistemic and moral authority that they claim – and which politicians and journalists are all too ready to assume they actually have.

There’s also a mini-kerfuffle about the new word “faitheist.”  Ironically, the faitheists themselves are using their moniker to prove that we’re uncivil.

17 thoughts on “Russell Blackford on “knee-jerk atheism”

  1. Here are the definitions for “faitheist” from the Urban Dictionary cache:

    1. faitheist
    someone who does not believe in god, but attends church regularly- usually by force from significant others or family.

    a combination of faith and atheist
    “i have to go to church with my girlfriend tomorrow”

    “i thought you didnt believe in god”

    “yeah, im a faitheist.”
    faith atheist agnostic butterfaith god religion
    by plastictreees May 28, 2007 share this
    2. faitheist
    an atheist who recognizes the value of fulfilling the human need to have faith and worship and is someone who elects to not have faith in anything bigger than him/herself but secretly harbours a desire to reinvigourate the idea of community but doesn’t believe in organizing anymore.
    as a faitheist, I am not a humanist.
    faith aethism aitheism aitheist athism aytheeism worship humanism community

    You probably should know how it’s already being used, if you intend to use it in a different manner.

    Glen Davidson

  2. Definition 2 sounds pretty darn close. It doesn’t mention the accomodation debate, but the principle seems similar if not identical.

  3. We’re only borrowing their endogenous barbarism. Sometimes one must embrace uncivil behavior in an attempt to eschew tawdry arguments.

    I don’t know about you, but I kinda like having a “sense of danger” with mere language. It has a certain, oh, je ne sais quoi?

  4. The catholic church (I purposely did NOT capitalize), just like all religions, has no epistemic and moral authority.

    In actuality, they have neither earned the authority or earned any respect and they have shown to be immoral and unethical. A Fox in a hen house is a far closer analogy.

  5. (I purposely did NOT capitalize)

    I presume that was done as a sign of disrespect, but it is improper use of the language for a proper noun, and confusing since catholic has a different meaning than Catholic. If you want to show ironic disrespect, I recommend adding extra words, e.g. Holy Roman Catholic Church.

    Same for God vs. god; it depends on whether it is being used as a proper noun for an identified individual, or as a generic category filler.

  6. Reginald’s advice seems good to me, although I don’t think I could be bothered typing out “the Holy Roman Catholic Church” each time. My more usual wording is “the Cult of Misery” – this is almost as long and it may not be civil, but it’s usually in a context where it’s appropriate.

  7. I think that faitheists are going to invent “uncivil” traits in anyone who treats god belief the same way they treat demon belief.

    People are not used to having their gods treated like demons, and yet, from a scientific perspective there is no difference. Both interfere with learning the facts. Both enable superstitious thinking. Both are equally unscientific.

    People just aren’t used to having their gods treated the same way as other invisible undetectable entities are… so they imagine “incivility” in anyone that does so. It’s a protective mechanism to keep themselves from understanding that gods are as unlikely as demons and it allows them to imagine their gods and their faith in such gods to be something noble and worthy hanging on to. If they can despise the messenger enough, they can keep themselves (and others) from getting the message.

    1. “People just aren’t used to having their gods treated the same way as other invisible undetectable entities are”

      Well they’re going to be getting a lot more used to it!

      Letting them get not used to it was our big mistake.

      I know the one thing we did wrong
      Was staying in the wilderness too long
      Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

      I know the one thing we did right
      Was the day we started to fight
      Keep your eyes on the prize


      1. I look forward to a time when we can say “I don’t believe in ANY ghosts… even ghosts named ‘god'” without having to fight these endless straw men and accusations of zealotry.

        Is it really “strident” to say, “there’s no such thing as ghosts”?

  8. To preface my comment, I am an atheist (I guess now a faitheist since I’m not actively headhunting those of belief), so do not misconstrue this as the rantings of a believer meant to criticize atheism. But as the New Atheist movement grows, I can’t help but start to see the telltale signs of religion in its framework. As examples:

    1.) Many religions use the term “false prophets” to describe those who claim to be of one’s religion but do not hold the same extreme tenets as a sect. Now, New Atheists have coined a term of their own.

    2.) I (like many others I know) embraced atheism because it provided an escape from the bigoted, condeming rhetoric of religion via the release of rationality. Now, New Atheism has embraced this bigotry and condenmation under the banner of reason rather than heaven. (It is true, however, that not ALL New Atheists partake in this. But the same can be said for religion).

    3.) A common thread amongst nearly all extreme, fudnamentalist religious sects is that of the drive to eradicate other beliefs. The New Atheist movement is actively embracing this long-disparaged trait of religion in its goal to wipe it from the face of the Earth.

    These arguments are not new, of course, but when one stands back – objectively – and assesses the tactics of both religion and New Atheism by removing the motivations of both, the basic parallels are striking, and borderline laughable. I originally left religion partly to escape these bigoted, immoral tactics. Now, that same reasoning is apparently rationale for me to be openly mocked. How reasonable indeed.

    I post these remarks knowing good and well I will only be condemned as simple-minded, shallow, or a push-over rather than be arroached with objective debate (the above comments are proof enough). Strangely enough, that’s a parallel to religion in and of itself.

  9. I think faitheism is a political view.

    Faitheists don’t generally care very much about the tone of the criticism of superstitions, as long people with those superstitions do not have much political influence. The Common Good requires that the feelings of christian (and maybe muslim) people are respected, but with for example Scientology and Wiccanism this is not so important. Not to mention astrology, which is free game for all kind of ridicule.

  10. I missed out on the “faitheist” competition – but as you can tell from my login name I’ve a fascination with China – through mangling Chinese I think you can get 3 words which express these issues quite well:

    For someone who believes in believe how about an aixinian pronounced as ai-shin-ian(ai 爱 is the Chinese character for love, while xin 信 which is pronounced approximately as shin is the character for belief, or trust)

    For someone who is a “knee jerk” atheist how about henxinian – pronounced hen-shin-ian. In this case hen 恨 is the Chinese character for hate, while xin is as before belief.

    Following on again, for a person who is doubtful about the merits of belief you could use yixinian – pronounced yi-shin-ian. Where yi 疑 is the Chinese character for doubt, and xin is as before belief.

    I fully admit these words look odd on the page and people may get confused over the pronounciation for xin.

    There may be merit in abandoning the exact Chinese pinyin spelling and using aishinian, henshinian and yishinian, but that breaks the explicit link with the Mandarin characters and has an additional problem in people merging the sounds into a single syllable aish, yish and hensh rather than the two strong syllables ai-xin, hen-xin and yi-xin.

    But even with these difficulties I do think they are reasonably simple words which seem to encompass the debate and do not need too much explanation.

    Anyway when you try to coin a new word you just have to hope people will pick it up.

    These words are a bit unwieldy in the spelling department, and have to be explained, but then again so does faitheist.

    The major advantage in my opinion is that you gain three words which can encompass the debate while faitheist only sums up on one extreme.

    Critique as you wish! More than likely my suggestion will die a death, but I thought I’d put these words out into the public domain to see what others think!



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