Atheist Inspiration #1: A.C. Grayling

19 Feb

portableatheist I finished my first reading of The Portable Atheist last week and decided that I should start sharing, on occasion, some tidbits from the great writers Hitchens showcased in this anthology. You’ll note that I said this was my first reading. That’s because this lengthy tome (at 499 pages, it bends the meaning of the term, “portable,” way out of shape!) is so full of great writings that I’ll need to devour it a few more times in order to feel like I have some idea of what it contains.

This post is based on the book’s penultimate selection, an excerpt from A.C. Grayling’s book, Against All Gods (which I’ve added to my wish list). The chapter is entitled, “Can an Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?” You won’t be at all surprised to learn that Grayling objects to the application of the term, fundamentalist, to atheists. He asks whether a non-fundamentalist atheist would be “someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the world,” or “that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays” (p. 473). He goes on to say,

“Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves…? (p. 473)”

Moving on from this question, Grayling says,

Christians among other things mean by “fundamentalist atheists” those who would deny people the comforts of faith…and the companionship of a benign invisible protector in the dark night of the soul” (p. 473).

Phew! We’ve already got quite a lot to think about. With regard to the question of whether atheists mind that religious believers hold false beliefs, I’ll mention that this question arose in the course of our most recent discussion at Another Goddamned Podcast. My position is this: yes, I do mind that people hold mistaken beliefs and are content to cling to them in the face of a lost of evidence and reason that should dissuade them from doing so. Having said that, however, I respect their rights to believe whatever they want to believe; my opinion is that they’d benefit immensely by discarding their religious beliefs, but I will not impose my ideas upon them. All I ask is that they extend the same courtesy to me.

This brings us to Grayling’s next statement, regarding the denial of comfort and so on. I would not dream of forcibly denying believers of any comforts they may derive from religion. If they ask for my opinion, however, I will share it freely.

A little bit later in the piece, Grayling states that “all the faiths currently jostling for our tax money to run their “faith-based” schools know that if they do not proselytize intellectually defenseless three- and four-year-olds, their grip will eventually loosen” (p. 474).

againstallgodsI will note that he is writing about the British education system, which differs substantially from that in the USA. Rather than addressing religion in public education, I want to address the issue of child evangelism. Readers who have followed this blog know that I have objections to inculcating children with religious beliefs before they are intellectually ready to consider the dogmas rationally. My objections are based on my own experience of having been indoctrinated as a child, and on my experience of having done the same to my children (which I deeply regret now).

Not all Christians believe in child evangelism. Some Mennonites, for example, believe that

all children prior to the age of accountability, being covered by the atonement of Christ, are spiritually safe, and stand in need neither of any ceremony, such as baptism, nor of conversion. Prior to the age of accountability, children are not lost, they are not responsible before God, and they are not able to make the response necessary for being converted in the New Testament sense. The New Testament calls for the Christian nurture and teaching of children.

I first became aware of this belief when I became close friends with a Mennonite college professor in Canada. I don’t know how Mennonites “nurture and teach” children anything religious without evangelizing and indoctrinating them, but I do know that my friend was very committed to the idea that children should not be compelled to convert at a young age. There also have been many views about what constitutes “the age of accountability.” These ideas differ vastly from the tradition in which I was raised, and in which I raised my sons. Frankly, I respect the Mennonite views much more than I respect the ones that have affected (or infected?) my family.

The last bit of Grayling’s piece that I’ll look at tonight is this:

“As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is “naturalist,” denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws” (p. 475).

This idea has been discussed quite a lot in the atheosphere, and it is one that I agree with, for the most part. I dislike that notion that atheists lack something (theism), when the reality is that theists have tried to add something to a nature that was not lacking anything in the first place. And yet, having been steeped in theism for so much of my life, I embrace a term that sets myself in stark contrast to what I once was. I also wonder if using a less oppositional term (naturalist seems much less in-your-face than atheist) is not a denial of who we are as atheists. On the other hand, since “naturalist” may be a softer, much less objectionable term, perhaps it would be politically astute to use it more often. Will Phillychief call me out for “end-justifies-the-means” thinking here? Is being pragmatic and diplomatic in situations that require pragmatism and diplomacy an example of such thinking? I don’t think so.

The best way to conclude this post is with Grayling’s own characterization of the only way in which atheism/naturalism is fundamentalist; according to Grayling, atheism is “fundamentally sensible” (p. 476).

And all the nonbelievers said, Ramen!

— the chaplain


Posted by on February 19, 2009 in atheism, atheist inspiration


24 responses to “Atheist Inspiration #1: A.C. Grayling

  1. Craig

    February 19, 2009 at 12:54 am

    I’ve actually often been bothered by the term “atheist” (for the reasons you state) and wished there were a better way to describe myself. My only problem with “naturalist” is that many people wouldn’t have any idea what you’re referring to, whereas the word “atheist” is in our cultural lexicon. If enough atheists though were to start identifying as naturalists, it could eventually replace the usage – as with any word.

  2. plonkee @

    February 19, 2009 at 7:36 am

    I quite like the idea of using a term that means everything is natural (there is no supernatural) but naturalist means someone interested in nature, and is a bit too close to the word naturist for comfort.

    Atheism is fairly unambiguous, and I actually agree with the theist idea that atheists lack something – that I think atheists lack a level of gullibility and theists think something different isn’t necessarily the point.

    I’m a product of exactly the sort of faith based school that Grayling is talking about – from a British point of view, the problem with speaking against them is that they get better exam results on average (and we have an exam focussed system), and they are also in many ways bound up with discussions on multiculturalism and the status of the established church. I’m now opposed to faith based schooling, but I have to admit that the schools I went to were very good, I wouldn’t be the positive confident atheist that I currently am if it weren’t for the supportive environments I was educated in.

  3. PhillyChief

    February 19, 2009 at 9:34 am

    What’s objectionable to the term atheist is not the reaction it inspires in theists (which I believe was Sam Harris’ reasoning for why we shouldn’t use the label). What’s objectionable is it’s inadequate for defining us since it merely points out our position on one topic without even addressing HOW we arrived at that position.

    Most atheists I know would agree that atheism means the rejection of god claims as unwarranted. That implies valuing reason, logic, and evidence, but, sadly, we know one can call themselves an atheist and have little or no value for such things. So this is what I find objectionable to the word atheist. It’s simply inadequate a term to represent anyone, and we had an amusing romp of trying to come up with alternative labels on my blog awhile back.

    As for calling you out for ends justify the means, yes, for your reason (which I see as Harris’) given for abandoning the term, I call you out on it. :)

    Btw, I like those excerpts from Grayling.

  4. the chaplain

    February 19, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I agree with your objections to the term, “naturalist,” which may be why I’ve never adopted the term myself.

    It seems that the British school system has changed from what it was when you attended. Unfortunately, the change does not appear to be an improvement.

    I agree with you about the inadequacy of the term, “atheist.” As noted in my comment to Craig, I’m not high on the term, “naturalist” either. WRT the ends-justifies-the-means issue, since “naturalist” is not really a better term than “atheist,” my stated case for using it instead is weak anyway – it was more of a speculation than a serious proposal on my part (although Grayling’s proposal was, indeed, serious). The point you raised, that we need a better term that describes us more accurately, regardless of how offensive it may be to people who disagree with us, is correct. The point I raised, about using appropriate language in appropriate venues, is correct to a point, on the condition that the terminology employed does not hide, or seek to hide, who we really are. I concede that exchanging “naturalist” for “atheist” probably does not meet that criterion.

  5. yunshui

    February 19, 2009 at 11:23 am

    At the moment, I have to say I disagree with you Chappy, and PhillyChief too. I think the word “atheist” is an ideal term, precisely because it gives no information as to how one arrived at that position. All it means is that one does not believe in a god, and that, in my personal case, is entirely accurate. Everything else that gets hung on the “atheist” label is spurious – we aren’t all naturalists, or rationionalists, or empricists; some atheists even manage to follow a religion! You can subdivide and subdivide as you wish, but according to the dictionary definition, you, me, Craig, Philly and the rest are atheists, pure and simple – because we don’t believe in a god.

    Besides, I like the scarlet letter A. An N would look rubbish.

  6. Modusoperandi

    February 19, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I go with “nudist”. While it’s murky on the theism/atheism side, everything is better naked.

  7. The Ridger

    February 19, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Yes. “Naturalist” sounds like a nudist to me.

    “Atheist” is like non-white, in that it privileges theism as the normal position. It’s one of the reasons what I call myself depends a lot on who I’m talking to.

  8. athinkingman

    February 20, 2009 at 3:26 am

    I’ve been thinking about getting the book and I will now do so. I have been a fan of Grayling for some time, but it will be good to get a handy collection of other writers.

    I too object to people holding onto irrational beliefs, even if it is a comfort to them in the dark night of the soul. I tend to want to discourage anything that is patronising and want to find ways of graciously objecting to that if the occasion arises. One of the best arguments I have heard for doing so came in Christopher Brookmyre’s novel, “Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks”, in which one of the characters objects to it on the grounds that it “clogs up cognitive evolution”.

  9. Sarge

    February 20, 2009 at 8:55 am

    I’ve been called many things when I’ve said I’m an atheist which I don’t think would have been modified no matter what tag I put on my non belief in a deity or religion. It still drops you into the “alien other” category no matter what it’s called.

    I don’t like the willful disregard of reality and magical thinking either. It takes a lot of time and resources from people that they could use to more profit and purpose if they’d just use their damn heads.

    From my experience, though, I have found that as long as there is a night which features a “bump” and there is a time of life which is called “the end” the actuality being kind of scary, needs explanation.

    I think a lot of it is the “but it CAN’T end this way, it has to MEAN SOMETHING” or the simple childishness of not wanting the light to go out. Hamlet in his soliloquy said it best.

  10. Reluctant Blogger

    February 21, 2009 at 8:05 am

    I have to say that I am against labels of all types. I can see that they are necessary sometimes but I try to use them very sparingly. Religion, or lack of it, is not important to me so I do not use a label. I don’t want to join a clan of non-believers any more than I wish to join the Catholic Church or the Mormons. I am just me. I don’t need to belong with anyone else or compare my beliefs or lack of them with anyone else. I am happy with that.

    I think that religious belief is daft to be honest but that is my opinion. I am very happy for others to think differently as long as they keep their beliefs to themselves. I know that many do not but I can’t see that joining their way of behaving (by making non-religion important) is a good way to deal with it.

    It seems to me that it is only to people who have given up religion that these labels are important. I have never encountered a problem – I am outspoken in the face of religion but just say I don’t believe, am dismissive and move on.

  11. PhillyChief

    February 21, 2009 at 9:46 am

    “…as long as they keep their beliefs to themselves.”

    But they don’t, which is a problem, and random, disconnected individuals have little hope of stopping that. There have been no minority rights won in this country without that minority organizing and clamoring for those rights.

    “I can’t see that joining their way of behaving (by making non-religion important) is a good way to deal with it.”

    “Joining their way of behaving”? You can’t simply mean atheists grouping together and making non-belief important. How can that be objectionable behavior? That’s typical human behavior, to gravitate towards others of similar opinions and to consider those opinions important. Humans do this for all manner of opinions, interests, tastes, and physical characteristics, so I don’t find anything objectionable there.

    So I have to assume you’re implying something with “way of behaving”, am I right? A religious zealotry, perhaps? If so, just say so.

    “It seems to me that it is only to people who have given up religion that these labels are important.”

    You can’t run away from labeling. Whether you choose to label yourself or not has no bearing on whether others will label you. You might as well get ahead of that, and certainly when it comes to unavoidable labels (gender, race, age, height, political persuasion, religious stance, etc), you can’t just sit back and have others say what the characteristics of that label are, which gets back to my first point concerning organization.

    Our nation sadly has a history of vilifying minorities. Nasty stereotypes based on race, gender and country of origin have kept people down until they grew strong enough to object. Today we see that against gays and the non-religious. Have you looked around online, in newspapers, magazines, and even tv news at how atheists are portrayed and referred to? Whether you care for the term or not, if you don’t believe in any gods, you’re an atheist, and how you can just sit back and allow others to claim that atheists are hedonistic, immoral, untrustworthy, selfish, care for nothing, American hating bastards truly escapes me.

  12. MS Quixote

    February 21, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Hey Chaplain,

    I think Christopher Hitchens is scheduled to debate William Lane Craig on April 4. Might prove interesting…

  13. heather

    February 21, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    You’ve made me want to get this book, chappy.

    According to my dictionary “naturalist” means “biologist” (or it did in Darwin’s day) rather than “nudist” (which is a bit of a disappointment.) I can’t see why making a false claim to being a biologist is an improvement over describing oneself as an atheist.

    One appealing thing about being “atheist” is the frisson of smugness you can experience whenever fundies fail to get the i and the e in the right order.

    Grayling might not have managed to rename atheism but, from what you say, Hitchens has clearly redefined “portable”

  14. the chaplain

    February 21, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Trust me on this, everything is not better naked.

    The non-white comparison is apt.

    It’s obligatory that at least one commenter at an atheist blog disagree with the author. Thank you for fulfilling that role today. I wonder if Phillychief could come up with something to change your mind about the “N”?

    I’ve got to read more Grayling. I really enjoyed this piece, even though it was brief.

    A friend of mine told me recently that the biggest reason she continues to believe is because she doesn’t want to think that this is all there is. I explained to her (probably very poorly) that my realization that “this” is, indeed, all there is, compels me to treasure “this” more.

    I’m not fond of labels, either, as they often omit more than they reveal. Still, as Phillychief noted in his response to you, there’s no escaping them; their convenience makes them inevitable.

    I agree that we atheists have to oppose the false characterizations of us that theists love to propagate. I’m pleased to say that I’ve done pretty well lately – I haven’t eaten one boiled baby all week. :)

    The debate may be interesting, but, then again, maybe not. I find that, regardless of who the debaters are, everyone just covers the same ground over and over and over again. It’s like watching old re-runs of tired TV shows that weren’t very good the first time around and certainly do not improve with age.

    Since I could never claim to be a biologist without being discredited within 30 seconds, it’s clear that “naturalist” isn’t a suitable term for me at all. It’s probably just as well. The term with which some, such as modusoperandi and Ridger, may confuse it – “nudist” – is a term (and practice) no one in his or her right mind would want me to adopt.

  15. Modusoperandi

    February 21, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    MS Quixote “I think Christopher Hitchens is scheduled to debate William Lane Craig on April 4. Might prove interesting…”
    Craig wins. How do I know this? Hitchens won’t debate his points on God. Instead, he’ll debate the points that he won’t make, on the people that purport to work for Him.
    …and, yes, it annoys me to have to say that, but Craig consistently debates people that aren’t debaters. In this case, though Hitchens is an excellent rhetorician and polemicist, he will spend his time debating someone who isn’t there.

    the chaplain “MO: Trust me on this, everything is not better naked.”
    Are you sure you’re doing it right? Remember to limber up first.

    “I explained to her (probably very poorly) that my realization that “this” is, indeed, all there is, compels me to treasure “this” more.”
    Plus, there’s a whole lot of “this”. There’s more “this” around than most people realize. I dare to say that there is more “this” than the human mind, with its limited quantity of “this”, can comprehend. I mean, the only mystical experience I’ve ever had was set off by simply watching a millipede amble on in its multilegged way. That little bit of “this” was more than enough for one mind.

  16. Sarge

    February 21, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Chaplain, you’ve said it better than me. Try to tell people that we are here, it is now, and all we’ve got is each other so lets work together and help each other and all you get is sputtering.

  17. DB

    February 21, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    I get the best responses when I simply say “I am not a Christian” rather than calling myself an atheist. It is almost as if they know not to fuck with me. I find that when I “label” myself an atheist, they feel they need to recruit me or question me (when I think it is far easier to question them!). When I make the “not a Xian” distinction, they seem to know that I am not just rejecting God, but their entire religion.

    Btw, everyone should own The Portable Atheist. It has an awesome collection of atheist thoughts, plus it puts more money into Christopher Hitchens’ pocket to fight the battle ;-)

  18. MS Quixote

    February 21, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    I don’t recall sending up the Mosignal over here :) I pretty much agree with you and the Chaplain both regarding this debate, abd these debates in general, but Hitchens is a wildcard. You just never know what he might say…

  19. Ubi Dubium

    February 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I like the term “rationalist” better than “naturalist”. When I hear “naturalist” I think of an archaic term for a biologist. “Rationalist” says that I arrive at my opinions through thinking about things rather than just believing what I am told.

    I also like “Humanist” since I think any answers to our problems have to come from other people.

    And “Pastafarian”, of course! RAmen!

  20. the chaplain

    February 22, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Sputtering is often the signal that you’ve won that round of the discussion.

    “Hitchens is a wildcard.” You got that right. He’s pretty entertaining. Is he still off the cigarettes, or can viewers expect to see the familiar pose – tumbler of whiskey in hand and a stick hanging on his lip?

    I also like the term “rationalist” pretty well. “Humanist” is good too, except for the fact that some Christians are calling themselves Christian Humanists and muddying the waters some more. Good Lord, you’d think they have enough labels for themselves without having to co-opt ours too!

  21. Lottie

    February 22, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Great discussion!

    I agree wholeheartedly with yunshui. I only wish I wasn’t too tired to contribute something more substantial.

    Thanks for another good post, Chappy!

  22. Reluctant Blogger

    February 23, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Ooops, I didn’t come back and check for responses. Silly me

    I suppose I feel the same here, “dealing” with atheists or whatever other labels people choose to use, as I do “dealing” with those who are Christians or whatever. That everyone is a bit prickly and that just being oneself is like battering one’s head against a brickwall. I mean I suppose that one is made to feel an outsider because one decides to operate in a different way.

    I just don’t like groupings and clans and avoid them like the plague so I guess it is just a personal thing. I just think you all have to be careful that you don’t exclude people ie make yourselves into another clan without meaning to do so – I think you are beginning to do that a bit in the same way that those in religions do.

  23. Vitamin R

    February 24, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    I’m one hundred percent with Plonkee:

    Atheism is fairly unambiguous, and I actually agree with the theist idea that atheists lack something – that I think atheists lack a level of gullibility and theists think something different isn’t necessarily the point.

    Fundy theists go around offending and annoying anyone with an ounce of good sense. Freethinkers and Secularists and Humanists should just dispense with the niceties and manners, and get into some faces, too. Maybe atheists should go aggro–WWPD? (what would Paine do?) bracelets, Campus Crusade for Reason–even get some kinda weird Theists For Atheism thing going, like Jews for Jesus–

    Beat ’em at their own game.

    “Portable” really isn’t at all portable. It’s not something I can carry around for random enlightenment. Though it’s great for literally pounding some logic into theists’ skulls. . . .


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