ELL, what did you think it was? Let me guess. You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief. And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.
Of course atheism is just a belief. One of my favourite websites says it best:
Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.
The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.
So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions. Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.
Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff. This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”
Rosenau says that
What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.
Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.
Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine. When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs. When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing. There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.
I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping. Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus? Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim. But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.
Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own? Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.
More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.