In Praise of Anti-Theism

Martin Hughes joined the ranks of former anti-theists yesterday. Earlier that morning, I’d written some musings on the value of anti-theism on Facebook. They weren’t meant to be a counter to Hughes’ position at the time, but they do that work. I’ve expanded them here.

It isn’t about doing your job or not doing your job.1 I think it was Miri who pointed out last year that everyone should have some point at which they refuse to do their job. “I was just following orders” hasn’t been an acceptable excuse for a long time now, and that’s a good thing.

It’s about where your refusal point is. You make implicit promises when you take a job, so the real question we’re debating is what makes it worth breaking those promises. What does it take for you to become forsworn? There should be a penalty, in reputation if nothing else, when you break promises.2 What makes that worthwhile to you?

There are variations on that, greater “crimes”. There are people who train to become biology teachers so they can refuse to teach evolution. There are doctors and pharmacists who train knowing they’ll refuse to do parts of their job. That’s premeditation and changes the calculations, but the question remains, “What makes this worthwhile?”

This, folks, is where we have to be willing to deny the authority of religion. Standing up to a corrupt, authoritarian, terrifyingly incompetent administration is a damned good reason to refuse to do your job. That’s especially true if that job glorifies that administration with pageantry. That’s dangerous. History has lots of lessons for us on the ways pageantry short-circuits political analysis.

If we believe there’s a god who speaks to humanity and has the authority to deputize us to do his work, “Because God told me to” is also a good reason to refuse to do your job. It’s the ultimate good reason for anything: discrimination, invasion of privacy, sacrifice, whatever. How do you argue with God on any of those, much less a simple broken promise?

On the other hand, if we nonbelievers stand up for our belief/understanding/conviction (I’m bored with that particular argument), it becomes much easier to understand these differences. No, you don’t get to discriminate against a protected group because your “god” told you so. Anyone’s god can say anything. What they say changes with the tenor of the times, because we make them up and reinvent them to suit ourselves. So file the paperwork already and stop trying to tell me you’re supported in invisible email.

It’s fashionable these days to talk about “growing out of” anti-theism, as though that were a stage of leaving religion. For some people, that might even be true. I was never religious, though.

The reason I continue to speak up as an anti-theist is that it takes the ethical muddles many people face in situations like these and makes them crystal clear. We already believe religious belief isn’t an appropriate reason for actions like these. Explaining why requires us to tackle religion head-on. It requires us to undermine and deny its ultimate authority.

So I’ll continue to do that. And while I continue to do that, I’ll continue to identify as an anti-theist. It isn’t my primary identification as a person, but I’m not sure I have one of those. I tend to keep my identities small, descriptive rather than prescriptive, and overlapping. As long as I’m doing the work of an anti-theist, on purpose and not incidentally, I am an anti-theist.

Are there other anti-theists I’d rather not be associated with? Have a seat and let me tell you about my last five-plus years in this movement. Of course there are. But there is not one single facet of my identity for which that isn’t true, and the jerks do not get to own those identities. I will not cede pieces of who I am to utter assholes. Those are mine.

Nor will I decide that anti-theism isn’t valuable because a whole bunch of self-promoting twits are terrible at it. That would be like giving up on public education in the U.S. because we’ve spent the last several decades failing to support it properly. Admittedly, we’re poised as a nation to do just that, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Nor is it a good idea to give up on anti-theism because a bunch of people who identify as anti-theists are so inept at persuasion that they spend all their time striking out at powerless targets.

One of the major reasons I support building healthy communities for nonbelievers is rooted in anti-theism. It isn’t because I need them. I never had religious community to lose. It’s because having somewhere worth going when people leave a church makes it easier for them to listen to their doubts, easier for them to come out as nonbelievers, easier for them to escape oppressive religious norms. Providing that is the work of an anti-theist.

The same is true of advocating for economic and social justice. We don’t talk about it nearly enough, but good, solid welfare states tend to correlate with lower religiosity. Creating a society in which no one has to be part of a local church community in order to be cared for in hard times is also the work of an anti-theist. It too allows people to more easily walk away from faith.

Four female stick figures running and jumping on a green background with the text, "break freeeeeee".
“break freeeeeee” by Paul Joseph, CC BY 2.0

None of that means I shut up about religion, though, in part because I do know something about persuasion. I know how to establish common ground before disagreeing with people, how to speak to their values, how to tell stories with my facts instead of assuming they speak for themselves, how to leave the people I want to persuade room to change their own minds with time if and when they’re ready. I know the value of getting them to change small behaviors in dealing with others.

I don’t know that I’ve made any converts, but I do know I’ve persuaded others to view religion through a more skeptical lens. I do it well enough that religious friends have come to me for advice when something religious didn’t feel right to them. They didn’t have someone for that before me, the anti-theist.

I stand by the value of all this work, too. Does nonbelief fix the world in itself? No. Does anything? No. We have well-paid professional skeptics who believe and have advocated for all sorts of ridiculous crap. That doesn’t prove that critical thinking is worthless. It proves that this job is hard. I didn’t sign up for it because it was easy, and I’m not going to quit because I couldn’t get everything done in a few years.

Besides which, there are areas where undermining religion makes a huge difference. When I’m standing outside the clinic on Saturday mornings, the people harassing the patients are praying and talking about “what God wants”. Without religion, that goes away almost entirely. The same is true for other brands of interference in health care. That isn’t fixing all our problems, but it’s no small thing. And that’s just health care.

Anti-theism is going nowhere. It isn’t a developmental phase. It’s a necessary force in our religious landscape, a counter to religious authority and practices that hurt people. It’s valuable work, and I, for one, continue to be proud to do it.


  1. I don’t think Mara Wilson’s necessarily saying it is in the tweet that’s getting passed around. I’m reacting to several discussions and additional commentary around that tweet. 
  2. This doesn’t have to be losing your job, though sometimes it may be. In the case of the Rockettes, it meant taking on the additional work to push their union to improve. This is a worthwhile cost. 
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In Praise of Anti-Theism

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Anti-Theism

  1. 1

    That Martin Hughes article was terrible. So many canards about non-believers you could have sworn it was written by John Gray.

    ‘What’s the harm if it makes people feel better?’
    ‘A(nti)theists are nasty’
    ‘No God — no rules’
    ‘Some a(nti)theists voted for Trump, therefore a(nti)theism bears some responsibility for Trump.’

    At least he didn’t say that atheism was ‘just another religion’.

  2. 2

    I suppose at some level the “anti-theist” label might apply simply because I don’t think belief in gods is ultimately rational i also have come to the conclusion that it’s one of the least important things to know about someone. If my parents believe that it’s God’s spirit that inspired them to take in refugees and help out their less fortunate neighbours and work at the women’s shelter etc etc then I really don;t have a problem with that belief, even if ai no longer share it.

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