Atheism and a Catch-22

I was doing a little writing — working on the introduction to my next book, if you want to know — and I thought of a whole new Catch-22 about atheism and atheist activism that hadn’t occurred to me when I’ve written about this before.

It’s this.

When atheists criticize religion, or argue that it isn’t true, we get accused of being negative. We’re told about all the wonderful things religious communities provide for people — ritual, social support, continuity, etc. — and we’re told that atheism isn’t going to get very far without providing these.

But when atheists talk about the positive aspects of atheism and secular humanism, we’re told that we’re turning atheism into just another belief system. And when we do work to create atheist communities, we’re told that it’s ridiculous to organize a community around the things we don’t believe in.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Atheism and a Catch-22

36 thoughts on “Atheism and a Catch-22

  1. 1

    I understand what you are saying Greta. There just isn’t any way to really combat it. (Not that I’ve figured out yet). I do have to say Atheists building communities together isn’t mimicking necessarily that of the religious rather than doing the same thing any “out_group” does that is different from the mainstream culture. Which is gathering together in support of one another like the LGBT community. I mean are these religious individuals going to say LGBT people need to stop holding meetings where they support one another in the face of prejudice and discrimination? Because honestly the atheists that are seeking community most of the time are the ones that want to have friends who won’t judge them for their non-belief. And that is why the atheist communities (meetup groups) are forming and doing so well.

    To me, its the religious getting scared of our growing numbers. We have demonstrated time and time against that we have the moral high ground and can live successful, well-achieved lives without God and be happy doing it. That has to terrify most. I mean we get out of bed everyday without needing a deity to show us our path and give us meaning. We have found our own and are happier and living with less guilt because of it.

  2. 2

    Not believing in religion is a by-product of a rational worldview. It is the rational worldview that we share in common. The world has lots of problems, dealing with them rationally has to be the best way forward. Of course religious people often like to point to “rational” ideologies that have caused all kinds of death and misery in the past, communism being the obvious candidate. Scratch the surface though, and these rational ideologies turn out to be anything but rational. I also have an issue with the notion that there is anything negative about pointing out that something that isn’t true isn’t true.

  3. 3

    I have always found it peculiar that one of the more common (erroneous) criticisms of atheism by believers is that it’s “similar to” or “just like” a religion. The fact that they seem to be reliably unaware of the irony behind a believer criticizing something for being like a belief system never ceases to amuse me. “Hey, you’re like me, so your beliefs are bad!” Err, what?

  4. 4

    I’m one of those people who rejects the notion of “atheist” communities and “atheist” movements. Because I agree that it is ridiculous to organize ourselves around *disbelief.* A successful movement needs a positive goal, not a negative one. That’s why I support secular humanism as a movement, not atheism. Atheism is a description. Secular humanism is an organization.

    But that’s my opinion. If other people want to organize an atheist movement and can pull it off, I’ll concede I was wrong and join them.

  5. 5

    I personally think the key here is being emphatic about a lack of dogma.

    I was against atheism for a really long time, preferring to consider myself an agnostic, reading about philosophy, science, theology and spirituality and picking and leaving the ideas that made sense to me and rejecting the ones that didn’t. Never did I once say that I could know for certain if any ideas were true but I would accept ideas if I could rationalize them as likely or possible. I have always denied the idea of a monotheist higher power, especially one who is capable of thought, or has any influence over humanity, however I do like some of the teachings of the Eastern Religions and ideas about mindfulness and the soul. Boy would this upset my atheist friends. I rejected religion from a young age seeing it first as nothing more than a nice set of stories – luckily I grew up in the ever more secular UK where religion is very rarely presented as more than that unless you’re at a specific faith school – to feeling and expressing the anger about religion that Greta so eloquently projects. However I still wanted the right to call myself an agnostic.

    The way my agnosticism was attacked by atheists infuriated me. Here I was, a skeptic and a free-thinker and I was being told over and over again that I was wrong, and it was their way or the highway! I was made to feel stupid and belittled and the information they gave me over and over, ironically, made me feel like someone was trying to convert me into a religion. This brand of fundamental atheism seemed to have dogma and rules. I didn’t like it, it seemed too much like any other structured belief system.

    I am now realizing that atheism can be more flexible than that and depending on who I am talking to I have started to catagorize myself more as an atheist, especially in the purest form of ‘I don’t follow any dogmatic belief system’ it’s just with certain people I feel like adding under my breath… including atheism.

  6. Vad

    Yeah, this is a bit of Catch-22.

    I’m one of those “dictionary atheists” who doesn’t want to see atheism become its own philosophy. (So I was pretty critical of the “Atheism Demands Social Justice” article.) I think it would be great to create secular humanist communities, for example, and develop that as a philosophy with positive ethics and communities and such.

    But I still don’t like it to be equated with atheism, because I don’t want not believing in god to come attached with any other specific philosophy or outlook. I am personally very postmodern in my outlook and very critical of how confident atheists (and evangelicals!) are about objectivity and logic, so I DON’T fit in well with many other atheists (i.e. we don’t share a lot of values and positions just by being atheists and I often get more annoyed with them than I do with my religious friends). I think a lot of other atheists like myself might shy away from adopting that label or from joining atheist communities, because most of the time being atheist means having a very modernist and implicitly anti-religious outlook. I don’t want to see that kind of outlook ‘enshrined’ as the atheist worldview, but I think a lot of atheist communities are mostly just secular humanist.

    Anyway, those are some rambling thoughts. In summary, secular humanism is great and should be developed more, but secular humanism =/= atheism.

  7. 8

    Dude I’ve gotten this more from “old” atheists than from religious people. And they’re all like “I am just the absolute queen of being logical and correct, and anything that looks like community building is bad because organizing people=groupthink, look at this graphic I made of logical fallacies because you’re so dumb and sheeplike, you realistically won’t understand a word of it without pictures.”
    And these are people who were REALLY into atheism before it became a movement. They are the hugest most ridiculous hipsters ever, and their denial of the possibility that they might be wrong, and yet their constant “more logical than thou” attitude really bugs me.
    What I think about it is this: a good amount of people are really just flat out incapable of thinking for themselves. It doesn’t make them bad, or less-than, it just means they take to direction. And they’re gonna take direction from someone. Why is it not better that they take it from atheists, so that they’re already prepped to think for themselves if they find out they can? Groupthink, logical fallacies, mass hysteria, these are things that are bad, but at least for now, they’re part of the herd instinctive, pattern seeing lump of bullshit that is being human. We act instinctively till we learn how not to. Atheism isn’t a club that won’t allow sheeple, it’s a club that bitches at sheeple till they get their shit together. Because it’s becoming acceptable, it should not surprise anyone that idiots have tagged along. And it’s not our job to babysit thedimmies when we try for community building.

  8. 9

    Alright my phonr is the shittiest piece of shit and I blame it for any lack of sense made in that post. There are lots of spelling errors, unfortunately I couldn’t fix em.
    I will say it’s a good point not to lump atheism with secular humanism, since atheism really just means not believing in god, although I will say half of the atheist movement is just saying it’s okay to be whatever kind of atheist you want to be, and I don’t think anyone needs to get away from that. But I get the whole, not wanting to be a part of activism. But at the same time, I think that’s a part of any philosophy or view or anything. I’m a feminist, but I hate being assocaited with people who think feminism is telling women who have sex that they don’t have/deserve to have agency. I’m a gamer, but I don’t wanna associate myself with butthurt ME3 fanboys. Anytime a philosophy grows big enough, the people involved are going to have vastly different views. It’s just the way it works.

  9. 10

    My response has always been “building a community, and caring for the welfare of others, is so incredibly important that many cultures invented religion and gods as a means of ensuring that people would do it. Removing the gods, removing the religion, does not remove the importance of building a community and caring for others.”

  10. 11

    I am a “7” and I do not feel any need to coalesce with atheists to support or oppose any agenda whatsoever…. I find no imperative to unify with other atheists for any reason whatsoever… That many of my peers, friends and colleagues are atheists, is incidental, I also have many religious friends of many faiths. Most people don’t know that I’m an atheist, however, they very quickly find that out as soon as they proselytize….. I take no pride nor do I feel scorned in my atheism, and if I am being discriminated against, that is something that I am totally unaware of… I do not think that there is an atheist stereotype and I think that it would be a good thing to keep it that way… For the most part, my anecdotal evidence is that most atheists are thoughtful, diligent, discreet, inquisitive, aware, skeptical, ironic, honest, charitable, principled, ethical, courageous, simpatico, etc. etc… Most, demonstrate those qualities in their daily lives and there’s nothing special about that because that is the “only” way to live a noble and dignified life.

  11. 13

    I have found science to be a discipline which polices itself to be open and honest. It shares its findings globally for the betterment of all sentient creatures on this planet, except where poisoned by corporatism. I have found philosophy to be an intellectually open exchange that has been instrumental in the development of scientific methodology as our intellect has evolved. Atheist organizations are centered on these aspects of intellectual development because they actually help humanity generally and people individually much better than prostrating and wishing for solutions.

    Atheist organizations are concerned, not with the non-existence of some mythical war god, so much, as with those who employ such an imagined character to claim irreproachable, divine, absolute authority for themselves and their agendas. Atheists are concerned with those who prefer the uninitiated submit to the individual imaginings of someone who “knows” their god hates all the same people they do.

    If religionists want to claim atheism is infringing on their ambit, let them. Because we are doing just that; they shouldn’t be there in the first place. But atheism isn’t a claim nor a belief, and while atheists have their discipline, interests, vocation, and skill to contribute to the betterment, development and progress of the human condition atheism will fall away as unnecessary armament as theists fall into the obscurity of disfavor.

    Is atheism a religion? Of course, not! Will the practices that bring about atheism such as critical thinking, the scientific method, and evidentiarily based argumentation one day replace religiosity? Yes! And there will be no need for atheistic organizations in a better world, but until then I want the kid who asks: “How can people believe this stuff,” to realize that we are out here and ready to help.

  12. 16

    If other people want to organize an atheist movement and can pull it off, I’ll concede I was wrong and join them.

    SpaceGhoti @ #4: People are organizing an atheist movement, and are pulling it off. Join us, or not — whatever floats your boat.

  13. 17

    @Laura Ray #8-9
    So, to paraphrase “There is no cause so right that one cannot find a fool following it.” (Niven’s 16th law)

    Without objectivity and logic, how do you propose that we determine facts?

  14. 18

    First of all we should never limit noncriminal actions we’re considering according to the criticisms of others, any more than we should act without due consideration on their encouragements. The simple fact is, not everyone we talk to has our best interests at heart, not even, necessarily, friends or family members. Just a little dash of reality, that. There is absolutely no reason why atheists can’t build charitable institutions large and small. In fact it bothers me that there don’t seem to be many of them and, frankly, it makes us look small. I would gladly work at or help manage any atheist nonprofit organization proudly advertising its noncommitment to a religious agenda, or, alternatively, its commitment to purely secular values that religions have, in acts of patently deceptive marketing, tried to appropriate for themselves alone.

    Second, while it may be a negative to point out the failings and inconsistencies of many religious actions, doctrines and dogmas, it’s a negativity that informs positively as well as criticizes. In that sense saying, “It looks like rain,” is also negative (how dare you spoil everyone’s perception of this nice day?!); but at the same time the observation lets people know it might be wise to grab an umbrella before walking outside. Therefore, to observe that religious beliefs are often delusional in nature, is in fact a piece of constructive criticism no matter how harsh it sounds at first, as long as you’re able to cogently explain WHY so many religious beliefs are functionally indistinguishable from clinical delusions.

  15. 19

    Damned if we do, damned if we don’t haha. I second Cuttlefish: Community building, personal support networks, and empathy for others are important for humanity to thrive. And these aspects are not unique to religion. What is unique to religion is things like the omnipresent deity and unquestionable/unproven belief.

    Demonstrating that deities and dogma are unnecessary for building tight-knit communities that care about others is a big threat to religion, so I’m not surprised when they make a big stink about how that makes atheism like religion- they want people to attribute the positives to religion and ignore the glaring obvious negatives.

  16. 20

    Ritual, social support, continuity and etc are not a result of religion. These things are a natural result of human interaction. For some people it happens down at the local pub or the RSA or the bridge club or some other club. For me it’s my ice hockey league and team and our mutual circle of friends. For many in New Zealand its all about large extended families and local communities. Religion is only a point where like minded people interact, and there are an infinite number of other such points.

  17. 21

    I think there is an answer to this problem, and I see people working towards it. Sam Harris lays out the argument for how religion does not inform us of morality. It does not hold the high ground. It should not be excused for treating women as second class.

    What I don’t hear quite as much of, although it is increasing, is atheists calling the behavior of other atheists for not applying the same standard. That is, someone’s wacko beliefs do not inform us on their moral standing. United Methodists are about to vote on inclusion at their world conference, so it should be very easy to find an article by a lesbian Christian right now. Lots of evangelicals are for Obama-care. This does not excuse their wacko beliefs or lessen the harm caused just by having them, but it does not tell us about their morals any more than someone being an American tells us that they like guns or love hamburgers.

    The two things just have nothing to do with each other. Religion doesn’t teach morality, it’s not a source of morality and it doesn’t have exclusive rights on community or continuity or ritual either. They failed at running hospitals and universities, so we relegated them to a few hours on weekends and they’re failing at that. Their wealth gave them a head start on charitable institutions, but they’ll soon be behind in that too. Bunch ‘a whiners.

  18. 22

    Without objectivity and logic, how do you propose that we determine facts?

    We don’t. Facts are nasty, brutish tools of oppression!

    (Yes, I’ve read defenses of a more grown-up, critical sort of postmodernism and its benefits in terms of examining foundational assumptions. They remind of the smart remark: “there’s a word for ‘alternative medicine’ that’s been proven to work – ‘medicine.'”)

  19. 24

    When atheists criticize religion, or argue that it isn’t true, we get accused of being negative.

    Has nothing to do with the argument.

    As for me, I like to see when groups come about organically. I have atheist friends that I learned were atheist when they mentioned a blog they follow or had a remark at some stupid religious thing.

    Now I have a group of friends I know that will appreciate some remark I make. Not a group that gets together specifically to talk about the stuff we don’t believe in, but good to know that I can criticise or rant while we have a drink and they’ll get it.

  20. 25

    I went back and read the cited thread.

    There is a certain ‘hopping around’ that we see theists do and I can sympathize with your frustrations.

    Regarding the Catch-22’s that you’ve mentioned, however, I have to ask you:

    Are you noticing any specific individuals who are attacking atheist activism from contradictory perspectives


    Are these ‘catches’ that you’re running into merely a perception that results because you’re internalizing your religious adversaries as a single unit?

    Feel free to take your time answering.

  21. 26

    This is another confirmation of the utility of my decision to stop using the word “believe” when referring to myself. It’s a damned shame though, since the word is so very useful. The shame is that it has been hijacked, constricted to refer almost exclusively to acceptance of claims devoid of evidence.

    When I was a boy I used to hear one certain old man often say something like “I believe I’ll go to town” or “I believe that tractor needs an oil change and some grease in the PTO”.

    Those statements fell so honestly from his lips and I knew that he meant “I am going to go to town” and “the oil is low and the PTO has a troublesome squeal”. There was no pretense of numinous inspiration or scriptural revelation. That’s just the way the old boy spoke (he was sixty some; it was late 1950s).

    It’s sad that I can’t use that phraseology. I wanted to be like that old man and for some time I used that phrase. Eventually I noticed that when I heard others use the term it was more often in reference to unsupported assumptions of powers and principalities and invisible supernatural spooks.

    Reluctantly, I began to find other words to use in place of that word. While there are plenty of useful alternatives, I find the loss of that one, good, useful word to be a linguistic loss as well as a needless and unwelcome interruption of the continuity of my memory of a wonderful human who never, in my recall, made any mention of religious belief in the all too short time that I knew him.

    I deeply resent this.

    Fortunately, that is all that I had to yield in terms of acknowledging ol’ Unk. I still carry his lessons and emulate him to this day.

  22. 28

    Another way of looking at it:

    People had a stereotype about the “old atheist” as being depressed and hopeless, knowing that life is meaningless since no god exists. They want to define us, and marginalize us, with that stereotype. That’s why the catch-22 you spoke of exists. The first half is marginalization. The second half is a reaction to us trying to fight that stereotype and it’s marginalization.

  23. 29

    I don’t think it’s a catch 22 exactly. I think what it is is a double standard based on a false premise. As if anarchists can’t organize and talk about direct action, because, lol, “anarchsts are against organizing!” My ass. That’s all they do. In fact this happens to be a subject that I find difficult to talk with atheists about.

    Here I have a group of individuals enjoying being able to talk openly about how annoying it is for Christians to ask, “how can you talk about something you don’t believe in?” saying the same thing when attempting to talk about anarchism. Insisting on defining anarchist movements for us and defining it away, telling us we cannot have a community based on something we don’t believe in. I get shouted down by those coming from a place of ignorance. It all feels so eerily familiar.

  24. 30

    it is a catch 22, and I think from the delusion that religion is claimed to equal good. Sever that and the catch 22 vanishes, IMO. My favorite retort to those who claim religion has done so much good is “why does the local mission have to beg constantly for money, to everyone in the community, not just of their own religion?”

  25. 32

    We’re told about all the wonderful things religious communities provide for people — ritual, social support, continuity, etc. — and we’re told that atheism isn’t going to get very far without providing these.

    This statement is predicated on an assumption that it must be a religious belief system or lack thereof around which one must build communities. Why can’t we build communities around, say, environmental activism or chess or soccer or… Oh, wait, we do. There is absolutely nothing that communities formed around a (nominally) shared epistemology can do that communities formed around a shared interest or activity can’t do. Atheist activist groups may be important as a means of advancing skepticism and rational thought, but I’m someone who sees no need for a community specifically formed around atheism, skepticism, humanism, or any sort of epistemic outlook. The fact that someone else arrived at the only reasonable conclusion with respect to all proposed gods doesn’t mean I have anything else in common with that person, so it’s kind of a bad basis for ‘community’ (case in point – I want nothing to do with the MRA assholes who are also atheists).

    I’ve never felt the sort of ‘need for community’ that people who were formerly part of religious communities seem to miss, probably because I wasn’t raised religious. I also have an almost exclusively atheist group of friends: although atheism hasn’t ever been a determining criterion for friendship, most of the friends (as opposed to friendly acquaintances) I’ve made over the years have turned out to be atheists (I have one nominally-religious friend who I’d describe as more of a functional agnostic – god or spirituality doesn’t inform his functional morality or worldview in any way I can see; I also have a friend who likes Catholic ceremony but doesn’t believe in Yahweh). I recognize that others might have difficulty meeting people with whom to be friends for whom their lack of religion isn’t an issue, so I can see why some might find groups organized around atheism useful, but it sounds more like what’s needed are ex-religious support groups than atheist communities. Seriously, when people talk about what they miss from going to church or religious community, it just sounds creepy to me (deeply, deeply creepy), and I therefore want no part in an enterprise that’s trying to meet whatever need that is. I’d rather work on getting people past the need for external validation.

    I don’t really follow the reasoning behind the idea that community somehow necessitates groupthink (debate club, anyone?), though that could be a function of someone only being familiar with communities that DO promote or require groupthink and therefore falsely concluding that it’s an intrinsic part of community.

    @29: That’s a good point. I think it’s rooted in a misunderstanding of what anarchism entails; that is, people conflate the anarchist opposition to formalized systems of power/control with an opposition to any form of social organization. Unfortunately, being atheist doesn’t mean one is rational or skeptical, and being rational and/or skeptical doesn’t mean that one cannot be wrong or misunderstand things. On the plus side, I’d at least *hope* you’ll find more people in atheist circles who won’t dismiss anarchism out-of-hand or because they don’t really understand it (it is, after all, impossible to actually be an anarchist and believe in any sort of organized religion, as all organized religions are formalized systems of power; for example, someone who claims to be an anarchist but is also Christian would be a theocrat – sie believes there should be no law but Yahweh’s law).

  26. Vad


    If you can only define something as a fact if you came to it “objectively,” then I would say you’re shit out of luck for determining “facts.” I just don’t buy objectivity, if objectivity is some ideal state where you can be free from personal or cultural biases or subjective values and interpretations. I just don’t think such a state exists or is attainable. (And I think acting as if we can or have attained it will just end up further obscuring reality.)

    There are some facets of reality (often physical reality) that can be grasped with *less* bias – is the earth flat or is it a round object in space? But other, often more social, aspects of reality seem to rely on subjectivity to even be comprehensible. Ethics and aesthetics would be two categories that immediately jump to mind. “Beauty” doesn’t even have meaning outside of subjective perception and valuing. (Neither does “meaning” for that matter, perhaps.) Or what about epistemology? How could we come up with a good epistemology without already having a particular epistemology in place by which we would proceed? I don’t see how we could find an objective, unbiased ground on which to start working. (I don’t think you need one. I think you can kinda just pick a ground, say “this is where I’m starting” and start. And if I don’t like where you’re starting, we’ll just have to fuss about it.)

    As for logic, the problem is that I think language itself cannot exist outside the cultural system that produced it and our personal, subjective understanding of it. All language (and the thoughts, conceptions, reasoning build from it) is “inherently” subjective. The language we use to describe reality isn’t objective reality itself, it depends on some interpretation. Logic also fails, then, to be an objective way to gain information about reality, since logic depends on language. Not saying logic is a “bad” way to gain information about reality, but I don’t think it is a method which, if just done well enough, produces an objectively “correct” answers. Logic as a system that should get you a “proof” for a “fact” is extremely questionable to me.

    Again, don’t think reasoning is bad. I just don’t see it as objective or necessarily leading to an answer that reflects reality as it actually is. I just see reasoning as linking ideas together, and I think reasoning could get you from any point to any other point. (Which doesn’t make a given chain of reasoning “valid” – obviously you can contest how people linked certain ideas together and say it is irrational or illogical or unintuitive or whatever.)

    ANYWAY. I doubt this will convince you to become a postmodernist. (It also doesn’t really answer your question – I was just trying to highlight my problems with objectivity and logic as something objective, rather than put for an alternative system of analysis.) But the question then becomes “okay, so now what do we do?” If you find my reasoning utterly absurd, with no basis in reality, then you have a good sense of how *I* feel when talking to modernist atheists. It’s not even a minor difference of opinion – it’s a profoundly different way of approaching reality. (Many atheists and I also have a profoundly different understanding of religion and how to relate to it, and butting heads against that also becomes a headache pretty quickly.) So do I just go to the atheist meet-up and butt heads with every other person? That’s very unpleasant! A lot of atheist groups DO have this rhetoric of “Science, Logic, Reason,” and listening to it is as cringe-inducing to me as the Religious Right rhetoric of “God, Morality, Family.” It’s just not my position at all.

    I’m just skeptical as to how we can form an atheist community that is really inclusive of all atheists, and not just reflecting the values of secular humanism. It would have to be a really vague, “what is our own demand?” type of movement. Maybe it would be better if secular humanists started a group and the postmodernist atheists started a group, and they were two facets within a broader atheist movement. (Perhaps the postmodern atheists could semi-regularly meet and compare notes with the postmodern evangelicals, who want to escape from the modernist evangelicalism. I feel like I would have more in common with their worldview than I do with secular humanism.)

    I DO have a problem with atheism being implicitly equated with secular humanism and its goals. I think this is false, because atheism does NOT imply secular humanism, and it also causes a lot of non-secular humanists to avoid adopting the label “atheist.” Which, IF the main goal of the “atheist movement” is to end discrimination against atheists, and if coming out as atheist is one of the most important things you can do toward this goal, THEN equating atheism with secular humanism actually hurts your cause. There will be a lot of people who will continue to identify as (post-theist) Christian or as agnostic or spiritual, rather than adopting an atheist=secular humanist label.

  27. 34

    I have no problem with getting together with other people for some reason or other. I don’t mind joining an organization dedicated to pursuit of a goal. What I don’t want is to join some group and have that group hijacked by people saying “your goals are subsidiary to ours, we’ll give lip service to your goals but ours are much more important.” Yeah, I’m looking at you, Harvard Humanists with your blatant attempt to take over the atheist movement.

  28. tm


    In my experience, most self-declared agnostics don’t understand the meaning of the word “atheist” and don’t understand basic concepts of epistemology, wrongly and absurdly and hypocritically asserting that it’s “fundamentalist” or “absolutist” or “believing on faith” to reject as untrue propositions that are extraordinarily unlikely, even though all of us do so all the time.

  29. 36

    Sorry if this one has come up before, but here goes: When atheists point out all the barbarism in holy books like the Bible or the Quran, we are accused of being obsessed with scriptural literalism to the point of ignoring how religion is actually understood and practiced by most believers, and as such we are “no better than the fundamentalists”.

    But when atheists point out that many believers see practices like female genital mutilation as part of the overarching religious culture, we are told that these practices can not be blamed on religion since they are not explicitly endorsed in the holy books.

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