Stephen Prothero Talks About Atheist Fundamentalists June 10, 2010

Stephen Prothero Talks About Atheist Fundamentalists

A few months ago, Stephen Prothero wrote an article for USA Today stating that atheists would be better off without some of our more “aggressive” voices. (Disclosure: he mentioned me as an example of a “gentler” atheist.)

I felt there was much more overlap between the two sides than Prothero was giving us credit for.

Now, Prothero is out with a new book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.

There’s a section about atheism where he rehashes some of the same arguments he made in the article. (In the book, he mentions this site. But not my name. You tease me, Prothero!)

He recently discussed the book on BookTV’s After Words with Sally Quinn of “On Faith.”

I’m unable to embed the video, but you can see it here.

The relevant transcript is below. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Quinn: One of the things I think is most fascinating about the book is the way you refer to atheism as a religion. Explain that.

Prothero: Oh, do I have to? The atheists who are watching will get mad at me…

Quinn: Well, we all have atheist friends.


Prothero: Some of my best friends are atheists. Some of me is atheist, too. Um, yeah, I think the question is… atheists get annoyed when people like me talk about atheism as a religion, because, of course, atheists reject god. But this is a very facile and false understanding of religion to say religion is about god. This is one reason why atheists who criticize all religion by saying, ‘there’s no god so religion is stupid’… that’s wrong, too, because there are religions without god. Like Buddhism. So you haven’t criticized Buddhism if you criticize the concept of god…

The way I think about religion, if I say, do people who love Yankees baseball… is that a religion? Or people who are in Scientology… is that a religion? I think you have to look at the family resemblances question. You have to say, ok, do they have a code of ethics? Do they have a community that they are in? Do they have a cult or rituals that they follow? Do they have a creed where they articulate beliefs about the supernatural and about the afterlife, creation, etc.? And I think if you look at atheists on that score, they fall away from religion on community, because they don’t tend to really… people don’t really go to atheist… ‘unchurch’… on Sunday mornings…

Quinn: Although there are Humanist groups…

Prothero: There are.

Quinn: And more and more so…

Prothero: More and more so. In Boston, where I work, you know, [there are] very active Humanist groups that are actually criticized by other atheists for being, like, too ‘churchy’, right, because they’re kinda getting nervous, like this is getting to be religion. If you look at the creed part, atheists certainly have a creed; they are more into their creed of rejecting god than most theists are about affirming god. So they qualify on the creed side.

In terms of cultist… is there… rituals that they follow? Not so much. Although there are some. And then… do they celebrate, you know, Bertrand Russell Day? No. Not really. But they’re starting to get up those things. Like Darwin Day, for example. And then, community, not so much. And code, ethics, well this has been really emphasized lately by atheists. You know, Greg Epstein’s book, Good Without God, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, he’s saying atheists do have ethics and they’re basically the same as all other peoples’ ethics.

Quinn: He’s basically saying you don’t need to have a religion in order to be an ethical person.

Prothero: Right, but I think he also wants to say an equally important point, that atheists… qua atheists are equally as ethical. So I think that some atheists are religious and some atheists are irreligious. It just kinda depends how hard core they are about their ‘faith’ or their religion or whatever you want to call it.

Quinn: Well, you’ve likened some of them to fundamentalists. And also said that there are “angry atheists” and there are “nice atheists.”

Prothero: Right, and I get in trouble for that, too. The ‘friendly atheists’ are very friendly toward me when I say that and the ‘angry atheists’ are very angry toward me, which shouldn’t be surprising. I think atheism is at a really interesting point in America. It’s visible and there’s been moments in American history, including at the Scopes Trial in the 1920s where atheism became visible, and in the 19th century, there were moments of visibility after the Civil War, and this is another one of them. So it’s an intriguing moment when atheists have said, we’re not gonna just let Christians talk about us; we’ll talk for ourselves.

But there is a way in which they really do chase away a lot of their potential supporters. If you look at surveys on atheism, if you ask people, do you believe in god or a higher power, there’s maybe 8% of Americans who will say. Not Really. And if you say, are you atheist, it’s usually 1% of Americans. Well, why the gap between the people who don’t believe in god and the people who call themselves atheists? It’s because atheism is a bad brand. And the reason atheism is a bad brand is because a lot of people out front are just sort of angry fundamentalists. They are people who remind you of the annoying missionary who comes and knocks on your door and gives you this script and they’re not listening to you and they’re not really having a conversation with you. They’re just kind of hectoring you. And we’ve all had that experience with fundamentalists or sometimes Evangelicals who have harangued us and we have now all had it with atheists, also.

But there are friendly atheists who are very secure in their view that the god proposition is not only false, but dangerous, and yet are able to talk about religious/irreligious matters in ways that Muslims and Christians and Jews can often talk with one another.

I’ll give him a lot of credit — you can agree or disagree with his remarks, but I think he knows more about our community than just about anyone else I’ve seen outside of it.

Is atheism a religion? No. And while Prothero can call it that if he wants, he admits it doesn’t fit the definition as perfectly as actual religions.

I do take issue with his remark about fundamentalists, though, mostly because I think that word is unfair when applied to us.

In short?

Muslim fundamentalists fly planes into buildings.

Christian fundamentalists kill abortion doctors.

Atheist fundamentalists write books.

That’s very simplified but you could also argue that religious fundamentalists want to force their views upon everyone else. When I think of Christian fundamentalists, for example, I also think of people who try to rewrite history books and push Creationism into science classrooms.

Our “fundies” use the art of persuasion and debate. They’re visibly angry about religion having such a stranglehold in America and they’re not afraid to say so. They don’t want to rewrite the law; they want it restored to the original intent regarding church/state separation.

That’s hardly the same thing as a religious fundamentalist and Prothero should admit that.

(Thanks to Anna for the link!)

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hitch

    I think it’s a two-edged thing. Yes there are more outspoken atheists, and there are some who will adhominem and use foul language and all.

    But at the same time there is a vested interest to make atheists appear in a bad light. Eagleton and Wilson are good examples of people who make Hitchens and Dawkins look worse than they really are. Certainly there is a movement to try to categorically make new atheism stand for “angry”, “aggressive” atheism.

    In reality we are still emerging from a time when atheism had a bad reputation even though there were few outspoken proponents. Before the wave of new atheist books came out, atheism was the least trusted group in the US.

    What I find worst is that people who claim to sit on the fence actually snipe against more outspoke atheism. You’d think that Greg Epstein or Eboo Patel would have found some way to represent the secular side. But it appears that the only good atheists are those that are largely quiet about their atheism, or speak on topics that do not really affect theism in tangible ways.

    I don’t buy at all that people don’t want to be called atheists because of new atheism. That is part of this narrative that is being constructed how “awful” new atheism is.

  • Sellers_as_Quilty

    I get so sick of the backlash against the New Atheism.

    The new atheists write books, blog, hold debates, attend conferences, and try to promote secular values. That’s it. Show me a single person who has been harmed by anything the New Atheism has done or said. (And being offended is not the same as being harmed.)

    And yet the backlash is extraordinary.

    The default position in society is that religion is, generally, a good thing that should be uniformly promoted, honored, and respected. That, itself, is a dogma. The New Atheism has made a point of challenging that dogma, asking folks to think twice about it, and to stop—just for a moment—and notice the absurdities of religious belief. It’s sad that this is so taboo.

  • Alan E.

    In terms of cultist… is there… rituals that they follow? Not so much. Although there are some. And then… do they celebrate, you know, Bertrand Russell Day? No. Not really. But they’re starting to get up those things. Like Darwin Day, for example.

    So by his logic, should we cancel 4th of July, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Presidents Day, etc.? It’s a celebration of achievement and notoriety, not some made up mysticism and magic tricks. It’s important to remember and celebrate people and events that are great because, well, they are great! We also have events based around things that aren’t so great, because it is important to remember historical events so as to not forget them, or at least try to. Around here, Columbus Day has been slowly morphed into Indigenous Peoples Day because it turns out that Columbus guy was not so great a guy after all.

  • Well, I think Dawkins (many would call him a fundamentalist) would say he is 99.999999% sure there isn’t a God. That does not mean he is a real fundamentalist (a person who is 100% sure and not open to changing his/her opinion). Atheism is the expression of doubt concerning superstition.

  • Justin

    I’d hardly think the guy knows much about the atheist “community” (from my point of view, we are less communal that even the stuffiest of academics, but whatever) if he goes on and on beating the dead horse of “atheism is a religion” idea.

    Also, IMO, his ideas of what defines a religion are closer to what defines a social group.

    I read his article on and what do I find? He’s apparently a professor at the religion department. You know what that sounds like to me? Just another religious nut, who is pro-silent atheism – they like “noble” atheists (as the RCC likes to call them) – i.e. ones they think they will be able to push around when the time comes. Not the first, and unfortunately, not the last.

    This IS the first time I heard of him, so I might be wrong. Though I am pretty sure I’m not.

  • Aj

    I think that’s unfair to Christian fundamentalists, Hemant. They don’t all try to kill abortion doctors, or even support that. I think the point is true for the word “militant”, which nearly always gets applied to outspoken atheists, but hardly ever to a religious people unless they pick up a gun.

    In the same way, fundamentalist is applied to Muslims and Christians who subscribe to irrational dogma, even when it conflicts with a wealth of evidence, they’re anti-intellectual, those that aren’t ignorant are thoroughly dishonest. This dogma means they advocate terribly harmful policy and are abusive towards homosexuals or in some cases nonbelievers.

    What does an atheist have to do to deserve this label? Advocate their positions through persuasion, sometimes have an aggressive “tone”, and dare to question belief in belief. That’s what it comes down to with these people. They have a dogmatic belief in believing in nonsense, and if you stray from their path they’ll attack you more disproportionally than any fundamentalist. They’re much more dishonest, they won’t hesitate to misrepresent you.

    Prothero has demonstrated he’s a complete idiot in so few words, with the comments about atheism as a religion or atheist fundamentalists, I won’t even waste my time responding to his inane bull.

  • Rex

    I usually really bristle at the comment that atheism is a religion. I read an article not very long ago that characterized atheism as the most modern and ultimately the last sect of religion. At first I was offended, then the author went on to explain that atheism was simply at one end of the religious spectrum. Ultimately, after all of the other religions (and believers) mature and evolve to embrace the atheist “sect”, even the label of religion will disappear, and that only a rational, reason based worldview would remain.

    If calling atheism a religious sect can put us on that road, then I could care less about the label.

  • In a lot of ways, atheism as a movement reminds me of the evolution of the gay rights movement, although it is probably not as literally dangerous to be an atheist. Think about the public schools. In larger cities, you can be a gay teacher. In the small town where I taught, you could not be gay, nor could you be an atheist. I’ve thought that my buddy and I should both come “out” about our atheism, especially now since we’ve left, but it still feels so unsafe. Would they give him a bad reference in the future if they knew he is an atheist? This is a public school where the biology teacher told me that when he teaches evolution, he doesn’t call it by that name because he doesn’t want to suffer a backlash from parents. I admire the idea of coming out of the closet, and generally I am a brave person, but it’s like the atheist kids who told me that they didn’t dare challenge prayer at graduation “because our Christian friends will never talk to us again.” I’m grateful for every book that’s written and every blog post. This helps change the world so that people don’t have to hide who they are.

  • NewEnglandBob

    I agree with Sellers_as_Quilty and Justin.

    The reputation of atheists are tarnished by the lies told by people like Stephen Prothero. This stuff he dreamed up in this piece is disgusting.

  • Sellers_as_Quilty

    Fundamentalism isn’t always a bad thing, either. A fundamentalist is one who adheres strictly to a set of principles. I mean, I’m a “fundamentalist” when it comes to rape (in that I believe it’s always wrong to have sexual contact with someone who has not consented to it; I pretty much have no tolerance for gray area on this, and I would be wary of anyone who thought it was OK to “bend” this basic principle).

    In a similar sense, most scientists are “fundamentalist” on the question of what science is, and what it is not. “Intelligent Design,” for some very clear reasons, is obviously not science. Can the science educators who fight to keep I.D. out of science classrooms be fairly called “fundamentalists.” Well, when it comes to what science is and what it is not—you’re damn right they’re fundamentalists. And it’s a good thing they are, too.

    Clear-thinking people should be able to acknowledge the distinction between fundamentalism in defense of unsupported claims and fundamentalism in defense of principles that are evidence-based, rational, and subject to questioning and revision. It’s possible to be a fundamentalist without being a dogmatist.

  • Where I live, people are either Raider’s fans or 49er’s fans. When I say that I do not watch sports, people can’t believe me. They assume that if I don’t care about football, I must like basketball or baseball or racing or something. I have no interest in professional sports because I think it’s stupid to try to ally oneself with people who don’t even know I exist, and who just make fistfuls of dollars from my “caring”. Theists are the same way. They can’t believe that someone just doesn’t BELIEVE. They think that if I talk to someone about atheism it must be because I’m talking about what I believe, that I must have some other faith. They can’t imagine that I think the entirety of religion is a stupid waste of time and I don’t even bother with it.

  • littlejohn

    This is all so tiresome. You believe in god or you don’t.
    It reminds me of the old joke about the difference between alcoholics and drunks.
    Alcoholics have to go to meetings.
    I’d rather be a drunk.

  • Sellers_as_Quilty

    I like your analogy, shady_lady. Nothing is more annoying than when people insist upon using the grammar of religion to describe atheism. You’ve pointed out a big reason why they feel the need to do this.

  • Meh, I don’t think that atheists can really be fundamentalists just because the word means strict adherence to a *set* of principles, not just one. So to take his analogy, atheists can be fundamentalists only in the way that Yankees fans can be fundamentalists, and no one is accusing them of that. Even political parties don’t really fit the definition of the term, as it’s really religious in nature. And as Richard Dawkins has stated, the difference in religious fundamentalism and “atheist fundamentalism” is that he (like most atheists) would be willing to change his mind in light of new evidence, unlike religious fundamentalism which holds to its tenets (ie, Creationism) despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I don’t see how a lack of denial for scientific evidence is “fundamentalist”, but to each his own.

    So you can say “fundamentalism”, but it’s a term that’s not entirely used correctly meant to conjure negative feelings in atheists. I don’t think that shows understanding OR friendliness. Call atheists intolerant of faith, but that’s not the same thing as fundamentalism. People who say otherwise need to read their dictionaries.

  • You can’t always equate an ideology with how some put that ideology into practice. There are huge differences between atheism and atheist (and likewise, a religion is a different thing from a religious practitioner).

    This comment probably cuts both ways, but Prother’s comments are a great example of why we should be more clear about comparing criticisms of atheism (or religion) with criticism of particular atheists (or religious individuals).

    Prothero’s criticisms (above) seem more about the actions of individuals, and not atheism as an ideology?

  • JSug

    We have a creed, and rituals? You folks have been holding out on me.

    I think he has his definition of religion screwed up. A religion is a system of beliefs and practices organized around the worship of a specific entity. For example, he mentions Buddhism as a godless religion. But that’s not accurate. The godless form of Buddhism is more of a philosophy. The religious form of Buddhism involves worshiping the Buddha like a god.

    The only specific thing he mentions with regard to atheism, as an example of atheist practices, is Darwin Day, which has nothing to do with atheism. A more accurate example would be the National Day of Reason. Or Blasphemy Day. But even those aren’t exactly about atheism. They just happen to be promoting things that most atheists support.

    And finally, I don’t think the atheist “bad rap” has anything to do with “angry atheists” being in the fore. Let’s be honest, if you asked a random religious believer to name one prominent atheist, they’d probably draw a blank. It has much more to do with generations of religious leaders teaching their followers that atheists are evil and immoral. And it has to do with a general sense of political entitlement that majority religious groups have grown used to, especially here in the US. So now when we have the ability to challenge them on legal grounds, they blame us for spoiling their fun.

  • Hitch

    We are fundamentalist to the possibility to changing our minds and we are quite intolerant to disproven facts or discredited theories.

    Oh the horror!

  • L.Long

    His statement..‘there’s no god so religion is stupid’ completely wrong! RELIGION is ALWAYS stupid!!! g0d has nothing to do with it. If g0d exits religion is still stupid and if g0d doesn’t exit then religion is REALLY really stupid.
    Belief in g0d is FAITH. A bunch of bigots gathered together is religion. Don’t think so? Name one that doesn’t hate some sub group for some dumb-arse reason…and there are some types of Buddhist that believe in a g0d and are bigots.
    I’ve listened to the 4Horsemen and the ‘without some of our more “aggressive” voices.’ is BS. They talk very nice and calm, and only get loud when the theostard goes batshit.
    He sounds like an xtian and doesn’t like atheist making loud noises that others can hear.

  • I too find (what seems to be) Prothero’s definition of religion to be insufficient. He seems more interested in accounting for the sociological and cultural functions of religion more than the epistemological functions.

    I would submit that the main reason religion has been ubiquitous throughout human history is not for reasons of group identification and community, but because it has long provided “answers” to some very important questions. Why is there pain? Why have our crops not grown? What is death? How should we treat our fellow creatures? For a LONG time in human history, religion was the only game in town when it came to answering these questions. And religion gave simple, often comforting (albeit made-up) answers.

    Then came continental philosophy, and the rise of modern science. We have better ways of answering the “big questions” now. We’ve come so far, in fact, that we can now show that many of religion’s “answers” have been demonstrably, ridiculously false. Religion is kind of a vestigial limb on the human carcass: we don’t really need it anymore—because we’ve found better ways to do what it used to do–but there it is, wriggling at us in defiance.

  • Siamang

    Hmmm… I don’t have a belief about an afterlife.

    I have beliefs about life. Do those count as a religion?

  • Linda Vanier

    I take issue with atheist deing called ”angry”.Only a religious person could think of us as that. It’s like the women during sufferage being called angry women, or african american men deing called angry black men for fighting for equal rights during the civil rights movement of the 60s. If you don’t believe you’re an atheist.If your religious, that word looks and feels bad to you. It’s pure ignorance,the same ignorance that causes racism.

  • They are people who remind you of the annoying missionary who comes and knocks on your door and gives you this script and they’re not listening to you and they’re not really having a conversation with you. They’re just kind of hectoring you. And we’ve all had that experience with fundamentalists or sometimes Evangelicals who have harangued us and we have now all had it with atheists, also.

    Except that with the “atheist fundamentalists,” you actually have to go out of your way to hear what they have to say. Seriously, this is nutty.

  • ssns

    Atheism is a bad brand not b/c of what atheists actually say or do but b/c of how others try to malign them. The problem isn’t with atheists so much as with people who say “atheists are bad b/c they want to stop me from praying in schools, teaching creationism, having US celebrates Jesus day.” Simply saying “prayer doesn’t belong in a public school graduation” is enough to be told we’re mean/bad/evil.

  • ckitching

    I think he got one thing right. The name, “atheist” is indeed tainted, so many who otherwise do not believe in any gods or goddesses, avoid it at all costs. However, I don’t believe he could be more wrong about why this is the case.

    The negativity about the label atheist far predates even the birth of any of the “New Atheists”. Nearly all religions have doctrines that vilify the non-believer as corrupt and dangerous (i.e. Psalm 14:1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.) I’ve observed that it seems that it is usually easier for believers to forgive those who believe the ‘wrong’ things than those who explicitly proclaim no belief.

    It’s not the only black mark against the name, either. Plenty of people still associate atheism with Communism, despite the fact it wasn’t even a true equivalence when Communism was relatively strong (plenty of people of all beliefs supported and opposed it). Somehow, Adolph Hitler has become associated with atheism (via a bungled, or perhaps intentional mistranslation of some of his writings). Nihilism, hedonism, immorality, depression, and devil worship (oddly enough) are all associated with atheism, despite the fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single “New Atheists” publicly endorse any of these (nihilism and hedonism may be exceptions, but even these are rare).

  • Patrick

    Plus, has any human being in the history of the world ever experienced an atheist knocking on their door seeking converts?

  • Mitch

    Religion: a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. (wordnet)

    The distinguishing factor is that Atheists generally don’t have a belief in the supernatural. It is not enough to ‘have a creed where they articulate beliefs about the supernatural’, to qualify as a religion atheists need to actually have beliefs about the supernatural.

    Why is this important? When you liken Atheism to religion you infer that atheism is a positive belief that carries the same burden of proof as any other religion, which is too silly an inference to let slide.

    I disagree with most commenters here as I think that Atheists can go out and seek converts without being religious. This is because ‘seeking converts’ is not an element of the definition of religion, it is just a behaviour associated with some major religions.

  • Sev

    I just finished reading Prothero’s latest book. The vast majority of the book is an overview of the largest/most significant religions in the world today. In general, it was a good introduction to number of religions I hadn’t ever studied in depth.

    Prothero has a short chapter on atheism at the end, and it parallels what he said in the interview. Compared to the rest of the book, it seems like a bit of an afterthought. I found myself disagreeing with much of what he had to say, but that could be because I typically identify as an atheist.

    It seemed like he either lacked understanding or a willingness to really understand what atheism is about. In each religion’s chapter, he digs into the history and evolution of the religion’s practices and creed, along with the diversity of belief under the religion’s umbrella. He does none of this for atheism.

    Instead, he writes with the assumption that there is something inherently valuable about religion. He ignores the evidence that most atheists do not belong to atheist-themed groups, do not subscribe to atheist-specific moral codes, and do not offer a single answer to the problems of humankind. He fails to understand that the backlash of “angry atheists” is a direct response to religious people who have gone over the line in trying to force their beliefs upon us and write them into the laws of our society.

  • sarah

    “Prothero: Right, but I think he also wants to say an equally important point, that atheists… qua atheists are equally as ethical. So I think that some atheists are religious and some atheists are irreligious. It just kinda depends how hard core they are about their ‘faith’ or their religion or whatever you want to call it.”

    So is he calling moral atheists religious because they are moral and not actually atheists?
    Being moral does not mean you are religious and being religious does not mean you are moral. This has been shown time and time again.

  • Thanks for posting my submission!

    Pssst, Hemant, it’s actually Anna, not Anne. ;o)

    Regarding the subject at hand, I still feel rather conflicted about Prothero’s interview. On the one hand, he’s a lot more thoughtful than most other theists would be. On the other hand, he still seems to have a lack of knowledge of atheists and atheism, hence his more questionable remarks.

    Some of my best friends are atheists. Some of me is atheist, too.

    How can “some of” him be atheist? I guess it fits in with what he was saying about being a Taoist on the weekends, but honestly this makes no sense to me. He doesn’t believe on a certain level but on another level he does? He believes on some days but not on others?

    This is one reason why atheists who criticize all religion by saying, ‘there’s no god so religion is stupid’… that’s wrong, too, because there are religions without god.

    Well, duh. What atheists is he talking about? I don’t know any educated atheists who aren’t aware of the fact that there are religions without deities. And I don’t think the vast majority of atheists would make a juvenile and simplistic remark like, “There’s no God so religion is stupid.” Who’s saying that?

    And then he goes on to state that we haven’t criticized Buddhism. Doesn’t godless Buddhism fall outside the realm of atheism, anyway? To the extent that many/most Buddhists also believe in the supernatural, many/most Western atheists would be ready to criticize that, but that’s related more to a-supernaturalism than atheism.

    If you look at the creed part, atheists certainly have a creed; they are more into their creed of rejecting god than most theists are about affirming god. So they qualify on the creed side.

    Seriously? We’re more into our “creed” than the theists are? That’s just bogus. Honestly, if religion wasn’t such a huge part of American culture, I could happily go months (or even years) without once thinking about deities. And my atheism is a natural result of not having seen any evidence of the supernatural. It’s not even a core part of who I am. Yes, I reject deities, but it’s no more inherently meaningful to me than my rejection of fairies and unicorns.

    In terms of cultist… is there… rituals that they follow? Not so much. Although there are some.

    I feel cheated! I’m a lifelong atheist and I had no idea there were secret rituals out there that you guys were keeping from me. What is he talking about?

    And then… do they celebrate, you know, Bertrand Russell Day? No. Not really. But they’re starting to get up those things. Like Darwin Day, for example.

    He’s really reaching here. What percentage of atheists have even heard of Darwin Day (not limited to atheists) or Bertrand Russell Day, let alone are chomping at the bit to get atheists to celebrate them? 5 percent, maybe, at most? I don’t think the number is very high.

    And code, ethics, well this has been really emphasized lately by atheists.

    Um, okay, but what does that have to do with atheism having a moral code? Atheists may be talking about ethics, but we don’t agree on all the issues, and there’s no moral code atheists agree to follow that stems from our atheism.

    It’s because atheism is a bad brand. And the reason atheism is a bad brand is because a lot of people out front are just sort of angry fundamentalists. They are people who remind you of the annoying missionary who comes and knocks on your door and gives you this script and they’re not listening to you and they’re not really having a conversation with you. They’re just kind of hectoring you. And we’ve all had that experience with fundamentalists or sometimes Evangelicals who have harangued us and we have now all had it with atheists, also.

    There he goes with the “angry” and “fundamentalist” rhetoric. Who is he talking about? Which prominent atheists are out there hectoring and haranguing people? It would seem that he’s talking about the New Atheists. Okay, Hitchens can come across as a bit of a jerk, but even I wouldn’t go so far as to use that language to describe him. What about the others? Harris and Dennett seem perfectly nice. Dawkins gets lumped in with Hitchens for no discernable reason. Maybe it’s the British accent, LOL.

  • Mana

    This is particularly interesting to me because one of my parents was a fundamentalist atheist. He was automatically dismissive of any religion. His attitude was that all religion warranted ridicule, that no person worthy of respect was religious.

    I got into a bit of trouble by parroting his thoughtless views as a child, assuming that people I got along with could not possibly be religious, because who could possibly take religion seriously? I offended people I did not intend to hurt. Eventually I had to take a hard look at my assumptions, and attempt a more complete understanding of religion.

    I had to recover from his fundamentalist mindset and question what I had been taught. Sound familiar?

    My father’s attitude is just as dismissive, demeaning, and self-centered as any theist who says their belief system is the only valid one.

    I still do not believe in God – but I also do not believe that theists are stupid, deluded, or incapable of crtical thinking. Belief in a god takes many forms and serves many purposes, both positive and negative.

    Narrow-mindedness is a bane to both sides of the equation. No one has absolute license to the truth, and a little humility can do a lot of good.

  • @Anna — Fixed your name! Sorry!

  • Siamang

    Still, Mana, I bet you didn’t lie awake at night as a child fearing you’d die in your sleep and go to hell. Or worse, that your parents might.

    Consider your upbringing lucky.

    I mean, there’s being nice to others, which I’m always officially in favor of. But you hardly had it as bad as many people here.

  • allison

    I haven’t read Prothero’s book but, well, I will (shockingly) agree that there are religious atheists. They’re just not the people he thinks they are. For example, many Unitarian Universalists are agnostic or atheist, and yet UU is a religion. The American Ethical Union (of which I would hazard a guess that most members are agnostic or atheist, though it’s not a requirement) also describes itself as a religious movement. Scientific/naturalistic pantheism describes itself as a religion, and it denies the existence of supernatural entities. These groups meet his requirements about as much as one can, and they tend to be groups he would likely consider “friendly.”

    What I think Prothero is missing when he talks about (theistic) religious folks not spending as much time as atheists do asserting whether or not there is a god is that the discussion among theists assumes there’s a god and focuses on the nature of that god. As an atheist, that’s something that would be rather silly to do.

    I also think that he seems to be fairly uninformed about the history of American atheism. The “New Atheists” are pretty polite compared to some of their more vocal predecessors.

    As far as “fundamentalist,” I suppose whether or not the term is appropriate depends on whether or not you’d consider a strong adherence to only one concept fundamentalist. If you do, then people are fundamentalists about all sorts of things — you could refer to a rabid sports team fan as a fundamentalist or a free-speech advocate as a fundamentalist. Most people, however, seem to understand the term as being about strict adherence to a whole set of principles, not just one.

  • JimG

    Short version: Prothero says “I comfort myself by believing that atheists too must have ‘religion,’ even if I have to fabricate a definition for the term to make it work.”

  • Mana

    Siamang: Of course I was very lucky in many ways, and consider myself spectacularly fortunate in many circumstances of my upbringing (most of which are irrelevant to the point at hand). I didn’t mean to communicate a “woe is me” attitude; if that’s the tone I put across, I erred.

    My intended point was that bigotry is bigotry, no matter who’s got the bullhorn, and the vaunted atheists can be irrational and closed-minded as well. No one has a free pass.

    Which side of theism you fall on is far less important, I feel, than simply not being a dick about it.

  • jgr4

    The dictionary definition of religion is the “service or worship of god or the supernatural.” If you take the supernatural out of it, then pretty much any identifiable belief, or lack thereof, qualifies as a religion. I’ve seen no coherent definition of religion that admits atheism, while excluding politics, sport teams, chemistry, and all the other examples given above.

    So first, Prothero, define “religion.” Then we’ll talk.

    One thing that bothers me about these discussions, almost as much as the “atheism is a religion” thing is this:

    atheists get annoyed when people like me talk about atheism as a religion, because, of course, atheists reject god

    Christians often use the words “reject” and “deny” to describe how they think atheists feel about the being whose existence they take for granted. As if atheists recognize a choice here, and we’ve chosen to “reject” as opposed to “accept.” For me these are action verbs without an object – I can’t accept god any more than I can accept the tooth fairy; neither is a real thing.
    Maybe it’s a silly semantic concern, but to me this is evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how atheists think. And I find insulting the insinuation that I recognize “god” but have decided “reject” him – because for the religious person making this statement, accepting is good and rejecting is bad. They think that I’ve deliberately taken an action against their god.

  • trixr4kids

    why the gap between the people who don’t believe in god and the people who call themselves atheists? It’s because atheism is a bad brand. And the reason atheism is a bad brand is because a lot of people out front are just sort of angry fundamentalists

    I’m old enough to remember the early days of 2nd Wave feminism.

    People used to dismiss it in terms very similar to these.

    “They’re so unladylike (confrontational, not “nice”). They’d get more converts if they weren’t so militant.”

    “They hate men (theists).”

    “I believe in some of the things they say, but I’m not one of them because they’re too extreme.”

    Folks, believe me: when they talk like this, you know we’re making headway!

  • Hitch

    Incidentally that leads me to a question. Is there a religious study professor or theologian that has actually sensibly correctly described atheism? I’d love to read an intellectually interesting assessment from a believer actually, specifically one that can sensibly describe most atheist self-definition and not the variety of theist’s definition of what atheism means.

    Even a sociological study would be neat. I know there was a study recently but unfortunately that one was biased (Templeton funded no less).

  • C

    I don’t like labeling myself atheist for those reasons exactly. I am, but I don’t tell people that right off the bat.

  • @jgr4,

    I agree with you. The concept of “rejecting God” doesn’t apply to me. I never made a conscious choice to reject God. I just never believed. The language of “rejecting God” kind-of implies that someone believes in God but is so pissed off at Him that they reject Him out of anger or spite. Although there are some people that fit this category, it definitely doesn’t apply to all (or even most) atheists. Saying atheists “reject God” is commonplace among the religious because they can better understand that definition of atheism.

  • Bob Carlson

    Incidentally that leads me to a question. Is there a religious study professor or theologian that has actually sensibly correctly described atheism?

    Theologian Bart Ehrman claims to be agnostic. According to his Wikipedia page, in a church setting, “He joked that atheists think agnostics are wimpy atheists and that agnostics think atheists are arrogant agnostics.” Therefore, I guess arrogant agnostic must be his definition of an atheist. I read his book titled “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.” In an email, I asked him how it is possible to misquote Jesus if he never existed. His response made it clear that he is not agnostic on the question of an historical Jesus. In fact, he seemed arrogantly certain that there had been an historical Jesus. He said he would be addressing the issue in a forthcoming book. I’ll read the book, but I’ll be surprised if I find any hard evidence in it.

  • I embrace the term Atheist. I am not always fond of labels, but I am proud of my journey, proud of where I ended up in regards to what I once believed. Granted, I am still ‘new’, but I cannot believe you guys are still holding out on all of our rituals, creeds, prayers and baby recipes. 😉

    I don’t consider myself militant, fundie or friendly. I just am. It really sounds like this guy didn’t do much actual research into Atheists. You can’t group us all in together. Just like you can’t group all Theists together. Beliefs, creeds, rituals and culture differ between Theists, and Atheists. (Not all Theists wear magic underwear.)

    He failed. We are not a religion. I attend a UU church, but am by no means a religious person. I just like to gather with others, I like coffee and I like my children playing with other children of liberal parents. I sometimes call myself a Secular Humanist, but when it all boils down, I am Atheist.

    I know what it means to be religious, to be a part of a religion, because that is how I spent the first 28 years of my life. I am grateful for the angry Atheists and the friendly Atheists. I pulled information from them that helped me end up where I am now, in regards to my beliefs. Sometimes the angry Atheists don’t paint all Atheists in a bad light, sometimes they help new Atheists like me get a backbone.

  • Victor_Lazslo

    I think the way you do. It’s the connotation of the word “reject” that the religious folks are leaning on.

    In the strict sense, I do “reject God”—just as I “reject” ANY proposition that is poorly evidenced and/or poorly reasoned. (I also “reject” the belief that fairies live at the bottom of my garden.)

    When religious people focus on that word, they mean to imply that their God has opened his arms to we atheists, offering us a gift of salvation, which we have chosen to “reject.” They mean to imply that we have insulted their God. Embedded in this implication is, basically, a threat, one that says “You’ll be sorry for rejecting God when you’re burning in hell.” So condescending, when you think about it, so arrogant.

  • Dan W

    I disagree with much of what Mr. Prothero is saying here. He claims that atheism is becoming like a religion, yet while some of us may celebrate Darwin day and the like, we don’t have any dogma like religion, and really Darwin day is more like other secular holidays like the Fourth of July. Meanwhile, he goes on to do as other atheist accomodationists do, and accuses some of the so-called “New Atheists” of being atheist fundamentalists, an oxymoron.

    I don’t think this guy knows as much about the atheist community (which is not as much of a unified community as he claims) as he says he does.

    Also, I get sick of people calling some of the more vocal and angry atheists “militant atheists” or “atheist fundamentalists”. Militant Christians bomb abortion clinics and kill abortion doctors. Militant Muslims blow themselves up in crowded city streets and fly planes into buildings. Militant atheists write books about religion and atheism or try to get unconstitutional laws that endorse religion changed through lawsuits and such. “Militant atheist” is a ridiculous label.

  • Bokonon

    Frankly, I hope there was a historical Jesus…and that the evidence they find is his corpse! It would simultaneously prove that 1) Jesus Christ was a real person, and 2) he did not ascend into heaven and, therefore, was not divine. Just imagine how the church would spin that one.

  • Dan W

    Okay, so apparently Prothero is a Christian (according to Wikipedia), and I was just assuming he was another atheist accomodationist. Oops! Then again, this better explains why he seems to not understand that atheism is to religion like bald is to hair color.

  • littlejohn

    I hate to admit it, but I think he may have a point, albeit a trivial one.
    After all, we all understand what is meant by a “fundamentalist vegetarian.”

  • jcm

  • trixr4kids

    @Bob Carlson,

    I’m one atheist who believes there was an historical Jesus. I certainly don’t think there is any “hard evidence” for this, but there’s some good circumstantial evidence. Of course, everything that theists hold to be true about the big JC–the virgin birth, the ascension, the whole “son of god” thing–is pure mythology.

    I realize this is OT; I just think it’s an interesting question. Some atheists seem to think it’s impossible to be an atheist and believe there was a real person onto whom the Xtian mythology got attached: not so. My reasons for believing he’s real have to do with the fact that if you parse the New Testament real carefully, you’ll find some stuff which is embarrassing to believers (and therefore probably not made up.) But again, this is OT and belongs to another thread. I’ll have to read Ehrman’s new book, too!

  • I’ve been pondering lately on pretty much the same thing as Prothero, albeit reaching a different conclusion.

    I agree ‘atheism’ is a bad brand. And it is a bad brand because theists continually reinforce the negative stereotypes of that brand, including the statements made by Prothero.

    I don’t however, think its feasible for non-believers to ditch the term as it is as much an externally applied one as those stereotypes. Were we to deny the term, it will still be used by the theists to describe us. Furthermore, we will be unable to subvert the inaccuracies they will include in the word’s meaning, as they’ve done in the past and keep doing, making it back into the true boogeyman it used to be.
    We may call ourselves anything e.g. “agapeists” (from agape=love), and expound agapeism’s love of one another, science, rationality and human values, the pulpits will still repeat “There are atheists out there, they are angry and hate god and eat babies, and some of them are trying to trick good people by calling themselves “agapeists” but don’t be fooled, ask them if they love in god!”

    We are “atheists”, whether we like the label or not.

  • Is atheism a sport?

    Well if we look at it in just the right way, and allow a little fudging of they terms – sure it is.

    Is it a recipe for chocolate cake?

    Well if we look at it in just the right way…

    You can define anything you like anyway you like, they’re just words. But of course, the normal reason for doing this is so that you can commit an analogy fallacy. “Atheism is a religion, therefore it is based on faith…”

  • If Jesus was a real historical person and his corpse was found, it could be spun that his soul went to heaven – leaving his body behind. And the stories in the gospels about the empty cave were metaphorical

    Of course it would be extremely difficult to find or prove some remains were that of Jesus. I don’t think we have his dental records on file anywhere. Also, any prankster in the 1st century could have inscribed “Here lies the Son of God” on a tomb. Just like a prankster could write that a tomb was empty.

  • Hitch

    I think jcm has the best summary so far.

    On labels, I disagree that we have no choice. I think we have lots of freedom to play with the rigidity of others.

  • alex

    Muslim fundamentalists fly planes into buildings.

    Christian fundamentalists kill abortion doctors.

    Atheist fundamentalists write books.

    Respectfully disagree with Hannibal Lecter’s words: “No, that is incidental”. Muslim fundamentalists strictly follow fundamentals articulated in Quran and reinforced by mullahs (of course, some “religion of peace” types argue that those are the wrong fundamentals — oh, well, I’ll leave it to them). Similarly, Christian fundamentalists follow fundamentals stated in Bible (and again, moderates point out how that’s not what it’s all about). Atheists have no such set of fundamentals, there is only one criterion — absence of a belief in gods. To me personally the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” is simply nonsensical, as there are no fundamentals to follow. Hardcore, narrow-minded, arrogant, bigoted — sure, sadly, that fits many of us, but not fundamentalist.

    So, the fact that Muslim and Christian fundamentalists kill people is not descriptive of their fundamentalism: indeed, not all fundies are extremists. And theoretically, an atheist can kill somebody because of religious faith; in fact, there is nothing about atheism that prevents it from happening, so I’d say, it’s only a matter of time before it happens. Sure, they would have to be seriously psychologically disturbed to do that, but isn’t it also true of people like Scott Roeder? I think in such incidents mental disturbance comes before faith; in many, if not most cases, the latter is merely an excuse.

    Something like that. I hope you forgive me for trivializing some extremely complicated issues.

  • Yes, atheists should be quiet. Stay in the closet and you’ll be tolerated. Combine the most vocal atheists and they don’t come close to the din created by evangelical Christians. Total up the sales of their book and they won’t even scratch the sales of The Case For Christ.

    BTW, “fundamentalist” refers to those who adhere to the basic fundamental rules of their religion. It does not mean outspoken. Since atheism does not have a dogma, “fundamentalist atheist” doesn’t mean anything. Atheist Activist would be a better term.

  • “So I think that some atheists are religious and some atheists are irreligious.”


    Prothero says that the angry, hectoring atheists are responsible for atheism being a “bad brand.” I disagree. I think that wherever atheism is a “bad brand,” it’s because of the misconceptions and negative stereotypes about atheists that religious people spread. Prothero is only contributing to the problem that he’s complaining about. The irony!

    In order for atheists to overcome negative stereotypes, we need to be more visible and more vocal. And the “angry” atheists are helping to make this happen by getting everyday atheists fired up, and more concerned about getting involved.

  • plutosdad

    It’s because atheism is a bad brand. And the reason atheism is a bad brand is because a lot of people out front are just sort of angry fundamentalists

    I only shake my head in bewilderment at this. Atheism was never popular and never will be: because of the prejudice of theists. If atheism is a bad brand, it is because outsiders determined it is. Theists have been putting atheists to death for thousands of years, how can anyone wonder why we don’t like coming forward?

    Protheros’ speech and similar ones reminds me of the trial of Socrates. Just like Prothero accuses many of us, the Athenians accused Socrates of the dual charge of being an “atheist” and also of following “new gods”. Sounds exactly like when some call atheism a “new religion.”

    Socrates also committed the impardonable sin of pissing people off, which is exactly what Prothero’s problem with atheists seems to be. (I am not comparing myself to Socrates, or saying Prothero wants to make us drink poison).

    And Socrates wasn’t even an atheist, not like we use the term today.

    Here we are thousands of years later, and apologists are still blaming the victim telling us it’s our own fault we’re hated.

  • Ubi Dubium


    Plus, has any human being in the history of the world ever experienced an atheist knocking on their door seeking converts?


  • @Ubi:

    Love that video.

    Honestly, I’d support any atheists who decided to do that more often. I think we stand to benefit from being more active and more visible.

  • Hitch

    The Socrates point is spot on. Really the danger is not atheism, the danger is outspoken criticism. Giordano Bruno was no atheist, he just dared to openly promote something different than canonical catholicism.

    But with religious diversity there is this new “at least you believe in god” going on, which does single out atheists are the ones who “criticize god” and noone talks about the difference in conceptions of god anymore. It’s odd because if you compare values you’ll find that atheists are often closer to their societal values than values between certain religions. But it’s not about sensible perceptions, it’s really about unverified assumptions about the other.

    That’s why there are “good” atheists. It’s the ones who do not criticize or challenge. Socrates was the main proponent of challenging poorly founded assumptions. Getting the young to think critically surely does tear at the fabric of society.

    And yes contemporaries joked about Socrates, perhaps rightfully so. Sure seems like he could be a pain in the neck. Good on him!

  • Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  • Atheism is no more a religion that theism. A belief or lack of belief in a deity isn’t having a religion. Adhering to the practices and tenets of a religion is having a religion. Atheism lacks these things just as theism does and so neither are religions.

    Also ‘there’s no god so religion is stupid’ is a perfectly reasonable position to take. So what if Buddhists don’t have gods, they retain a belief system, religious practices and central tenets of faith that mark them out as religious even if they replace the person of God with a spiritual philosophy. Atheism has nothing like that.

  • Oh and also I don’t reject God. I lack belief in gods. In order to reject God I’d need to believe in God and decide that I didn’t want anything to do with him. I just think the whole idea of gods is stupid and irrational. I’m certainly not singling out the Christian deity for rejection. That idea is part of a larger group of things that I give no credence to.

  • Jolly

    I never realized I was so religious. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Energerizer Bunny, Fairies, Unicorns, etc. Good thing I don’t have to go to different churches for all the things I don’t believe in.
    I was raised Catholic, I tried to believe. I didn’t reject any gods, I just never found any.

  • Bob Carlson

    I’m one atheist who believes there was an historical Jesus. I certainly don’t think there is any “hard evidence” for this, but there’s some good circumstantial evidence.

    I guess I must have thought there had been a real Jesus, too, until I read Earl Doherty’s “The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?” After I did, my inclination was to think it highly probable that Jesus is as mythical as Adam and Eve. On his web site named “Jesus Never Existed,” Kenneth Humphreys approaches the issue rather differently but also comes to the conclusion that Jesus is entirely mythical and that the myth had its conceptual beginnings in Paganism. I think “circumstantial evidence” is the wrong term; I think there is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence.

  • Kristin

    I actually really disliked this article. It seemed not only was he using stereotypes of women (that we are weaker and more submissive to the beliefs of the fundies or people who are staunchly religious) but it also gave an unfair shake to the New Atheists. Christians visually assault us with their iconography- what’s wrong with trying to make the nation into someplace that’s separate from religions?
    I feel that the New Atheists also put a large focus on not brain-washing children, which seems perfectly reasonable to me. If you’re going to practice religion, let it be because it’s something you personally believe in as an adult able to make logical deductions, not because your parents sent you to a Catholic elementary school. I think Prothero has a picture in his head of what an atheist should be, and since these don’t jive with his ideology, he doesn’t like them.

  • Neon Genesis

    Prothero is a hypocrite because his book is bashing pluralism as being harmful to inter-faith dialog yet at the same time he bashes atheists for not being pluralist enough.

  • T Ray

    What are the fundamentals of atheism? Is there anything besides not qualifying as a theist? As there is only one fundamental of atheism either all atheists are fundamentalists or non-of them are. Or maybe we are both?

    By comparison what are the fundamentals of christianity or islam? There are a lot to chose from. But it seems to be the beliefs and practices that conflict most directly with civility, morality, reason and empirical evidence that earn the classification of “fundamentalist.” With only one belief (or more precisely: lack of belief) and no orthodoxy, scripture or doctrine from which to infer practices, the “fundamentalist” label is not a good fit.

    A proponent of atheism may be uncivil, immoral, irrational and/or subjective. They may even develop their own atheistic ideology. But staunchly and verbosely opposing unqualified belief does not a fundamentalist make. Nor does expressing frustration over continually having to dismember the same hollow litanies.

    Labeling an atheist as “fundamentalist” is merely an attempt to discredit the messenger. It’s basically an ad hominem or tu quoque fallacious attack. These labels do have some benefit. When someone is identified (or self-identifies) as representing a recognizable perspective, it is easier to anticipate the nature of their message. It also helps to identify the “labeler.” If David tells us that Dan is an atheist fundamentalist then we generate expectations for Dan’s speech and behavior. But we also learn that David thinks this is a significant and valid label. What does that tell us about David?

    In the end it is the message that matters. Our heroes can be wrong. Our detractors and opponents can be right. Atheist fundamentalism may be possible but I’ve yet to encounter someone who fits the description.

  • jose

    “The way I think about religion, if I say, do people who love Yankees baseball… is that a religion? Or people who are in Scientology… is that a religion?”

    If you redefine the concept to include atheism in, then obviously your fresh, new concept includes atheism. What happens is that we are no longer talking about the same thing.

  • jose

    “Atheist fundamentalists write books.”

    There’s another difference. Those people would abandon atheism is there were evidence that there is a god. They have proved they can change their minds about things, because most of them are scientists and science is always changing. So I don’t see fundamentalism anywhere near here.

    Atheism is not a religion. Vocal atheists are not fundamentalists, they’re vocal. The whole idea of religion and atheism being the same thing is simply not correct. There are too many “yes, but…” in his words. Just give in, sir.

  • Gibbon

    In contrast to all those who have a problem with Stephen Prothero’s definition of religion I will simply point out that he is right to reject the “god belief” definition. That definition has been rejected by scholars in his discipline, religious studies, because it was never based on any evidence, instead it was developed from the belief amongst Christian missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries that Christianity was the true religion and all others were not. They needed a reason to convince the members of other religions that Christianity was the true religion, and they came up with the idea that it is belief in god; they based it on dogma and not on evidence. If no one believes me on this I would recommend asking the nearest available historian of religion about this.

    Of course refuting that baseless definition of religion has left those who study the subject without a credible answer to the question ‘what is religion’. Although there is good reason to believe that it is primarily sociological in nature.

  • Hitch

    Certainly religion is a social construct. But that does not mean that all social constructs are religious. This is the fallacy. Some aspects of religion, the way people form social groups etc is generalized to mean religion, when it is only part of religion.

    It’s incidentally the same fallacy used to claim that Stalinism is an atheist ideology. While Marx did promote atheism he also promoted other values, in fact the core ideology of marxism, that the proletariat rise up against the ruling class, is not atheistic. One could argue that that line of thinking can in fact be found in Marin Luther.

    We actually tend to agree with religious people quite a bit, on moral issues (don’t kill, steal for example). But that doesn’t make us agree on religious terms.

    Simply this is a conflation of issues. The definition of religion is quite clear. There are other social constructs we can reject or disagree with. For example one may or may not want to be member of the NRA and have shared or diverging ideological reasons to want to be part of the group.

    Sociology is complex, but the definition of religion is really much less so. I think there is very little confusion if you ask someone if he belongs to a religion or if she is religious. People are even rather good at articulating their fuzziness about the context (e.g. “spiritual but not religious”). We can discuss religion in terms of its institutions, rituals, organising principles, dogmas, history, reach (personal versus unversal) etc. It’s not that difficult.

  • Brian Macker

    I don’t reject god. You can’t reject someone who doesn’t exist. It isn’t a creed because it’s not a formal statement of religious belief or a system of beliefs. I never went somewhere to announce a rejection of god to some atheist pastor.

    Nor is “rejecting god” a system of belief so it doesn’t fit that definition of creed either. What are all the beliefs that surround this supposed creed? Every morning are you supposed to hop on one foot, spinning and spitting at the sky as you reject god?

    There is no “rejecting god” in my life. I’m an atheist because I came to the conclusion that there was not credible evidence that god exists. So atheism is a conclusion in my case, but that does not make it a creed, nor does it make it a creed for me if some group decided to formally make it one.

    Marxist communism is more religious like and even they don’t make “rejecting god” a creed. What they make a creed is the belief that god doesn’t exist, and it’s not even a very important one. The communist revolution in Russia was supported mainly by Christians, since there were and aren’t many atheists in the first place.

  • Brian Macker

    Fundamentalist? What are the fundamentals of atheism? Doesn’t make sense. The word militant also doesn’t make sense the way they apply it to atheists.

    I don’t have a problem with saying “Atheist Fundamentalists (or Militants) write books.” because that is intended to show the absurdity of the adjectives when applied to atheist.

  • Brian Macker

    Can I pull a Stephen Prothero?

    There are two kinds of people. Those who throw people into two categories on complex issues and those who do not. I think Stephen Prothero is one of the former, and therefore not a very deep thinker. I also believe that will make him think, since I’m an atheist, that I’m an angry one.

    Based on what I’ve read he’s full of baloney.

  • Brian Macker

    The reason many non-believers don’t choose to call themselves atheists is because there is deep bigotry against us. It’s not a bad brand because of angry atheists. It’s not even a brand. It’s a stereotype that’s the problem. The stereotype that atheists are evil, and it’s one that is directly taught by the religious leaders.

  • Brian Macker

    “I’ll give him a lot of credit — you can agree or disagree with his remarks, but I think he knows more about our community than just about anyone else I’ve seen outside of it.”

    Hemant really? When was the last time an atheist knocked on your door at 7 am? Do you give him credit for understanding that aspect of the atheist community?

  • Speak of the devil, Stephen Prothero showed up on The Colbert Report last night promoting his new book.

    Seriously, Prothero just needs to stop mentioning atheists if he’s going to keep saying inane things like this:

    I wrote the book because religions are horribly misunderstood. They’re very, very important in the world, but we have these atheists who are saying “Oh, all religions are the same and bad” and these multiculturalists who are saying “Oh, all religions are the same and good.”

    Honestly, what atheist thinks all religions are the same? They’re not the same, not even remotely. As for being bad, sure, some atheists might think all of them are bad, but not all of us are anti-theists, and not even the strongest anti-theist could legitimately claim that all religions are harmful to the same degree.

  • Bob

    Extremists and fundamentalists exist regardless of the whether the medium is religion or atheism. It’s just that simple.

    Some are also very rude and very intolerant in the process, but that is entirely beside the point.

    Under fundamentalism, some atheists, no less than theists, want to suppress what they do not believe is true, or what they think is dangerous. And, atheists are just as capable of anger, intolerance, tyranny and violence as anyone else.

    There’s nothing about “new atheism” that distinguishes it from “old atheism” or that morality under atheism will develop towards greater perfection and a diminution of violence, or why humanity should develop in this direction at all.

    The cause of fundamentalism isn’t specifically religion. It’s arrogance, ego and fear with regard to beliefs, even metaphysical naturalism. And atheists are not unique, exempt or special in this regard.

    ref: Michael Martin, Atheism : A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990)

  • Gibbon


    The definition of religion is quite clear.

    Sociology is complex, but the definition of religion is really much less so.

    You’re deluding yourself if you think religion is easy to define. It’s not. Hundreds of different definitions have been offered by social scientists and there has yet to be any form of consensus as to what religion is. Some have offered functionalist definitions, others have presented essentialist ones, while some have altogether rejected the idea that religion is in fact anything due to the difficulty in defining it. And one of my lecturers in a Religious Studies course I took at university last year, in trying to describe what religion is said that all he could come up with was ‘overlapping’. And if you read the literature from religious scholars, which Prothero is, you will see that there is just as much confusion, and these people have studied it and know the subject better than anyone else.

    Drawing inspiration from the remark on quantum physics: “If you think you know what religion is, then clearly you don’t.”

  • Hitch

    Oh I have no doubt that “religious scholars” like Prothero are confused about the definition of religion.

    Heck Stephen Prothero is confused about what atheism is, where pretty much any commenter here could give a sensibly good description.

    Let me offer a new quote on Quantum Mechanics (or religion, or Prothero): “Just because you are confused does not mean that you have understood it.”

  • Hitch

    Sorry I forgot to give the serious answer too.

    All categories are hard to define if you want to have crisp categories. Gender, class, race? All hard to define if one applies standards that experimental social scientists don’t apply.

    No, religion is an easy category exactly because it is easy to do studies.

    People will understand when you ask: “Are you religious?”. Census forms contain information about religion. This is about as good a category as one gets in social science that is not biologically grounded. It is much better a category than those that have to do with less culturally ingrained dimensions of identity.

    That doesn’t stop religious studies folks to be horribly confused about “what religion really is?”. You are not trying to define religion as a social category but as a concept. That’s a completely different thing.

    But yes, much confusion ensues among those who don’t know the difference.

  • Todd

    It is interesting that Prothero attempts to frame atheism as a form of religion. I’ve seen this argument several times recently (as I’m sure the rest of you have as well), the main thesis being that atheism is an article of faith because there is no “proof” that a god does not exist.
    The reason this argument – and the related argument by creationists that “Darwinism” is a religion – is interesting to me is that it seems to illustrate a fundamental (no pun intended) lack of ability to understand belief systems or thought processes which are distinct from religious faith. In other words, many (most?) religious people cannot conceive of a system of understanding the world that is based on fact, reason, and evidence, and since they have such difficulty with such concepts, they default to an association with faith.
    Operating under the assumption that there is no god because there is no evidence for one is not equivalent to believing there is a god despite the lack of evidence. (The onus is on the believer to provide “proof”, as the saying goes, not the atheist. There is no evidence that unicorns exist, but the default position most people take is not belief in unicorns.) For a multitude of reasons, it seems that religious folks so often cannot conceptualize any thought process that is outside the scope of religious faith.
    The other component of these kinds of arguments that is interesting is that they are often used to deflect criticism rather than offer a sound rebuttal. As a scientist, I see this all the time in the “debate” between scientists and creationists: Creationists often trot out the argument that “Darwinism” (i.e., belief in evolution) is a religion which requires faith. Again, the two are not equivalent; evolution is an observable, testable, natural phenomenon supported by scientific evidence, while creationism is a concept for which there is no evidence, is not observable and cannot be tested. Despite these glaring fundamental differences, creationists still try to equate the two. The argument then becomes one of applying criticisms of religious belief to atheism, in this case specifically that both atheism and religious belief require a leap of faith, the implication being that religious belief is flawed, but so is atheism, and in the same ways. How odd.
    In any event, I know I’m coming to this discussion late, but if anyone is still following this thread, I’d love to hear what your thoughts are about all this.

error: Content is protected !!