Atheism or Non-Theism?

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism

Atheism or Non-Theism?

In other words, atheism seems to be superior to agnosticism. Does that mean that atheism is the best position? In a certain sense it is. Atheism in the sense defined before is highly defensible. The only problem is, hardly anybody follows the semantic convention that I, following Nagel and others, have proposed. In popular parlance atheism is associated with all kinds of negative ideas and attitudes, especially due to the way it can be defended (and undoubtedly has been defended). Atheists have a reputation for being arrogant, militant, missionary, zealous, and also impolite if not rude. For that very reason George Jacob Holyoake coined the word “secularism.”

George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) is most famous nowadays for his trial on the grounds of “blasphemy.”[183] During one of his lectures in Cheltenham he was confronted with a question from the audience about man’s duty to God. Holyoake’s response was that England was too poor to have a God. So it would not be a bad idea to put Him on “half pay.” For this remark he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to six months in jail. After his release he returned to Cheltenham. There he reiterated the exact words that had gotten him into trouble the first time.

Less well known is the fact that Holyoake coined the word “secularism.” He did this because he was convinced that “atheism” was in bad repute. He defined secularism as concern with the problems of this world. He summarized his position in the following words:

(1) Secularism maintains the sufficiency of Secular reason for guidance in human duties. (2) The adequacy of the Utilitarian rule which makes the good of others, the law of duty. (3) That the duty nearest at hand and most reliable in results is the use of material means, tempered by human sympathy for the attainment of social improvement. (4) The sinlessness of well-informed sincerity. (5) That the sign and condition of such sincerity are – Freethought – expository speech – the practice of personal conviction within the limits of neither outraging nor harming others.[184]

Holyoake may have been a learned man but he did not possess the gift of making snappy phrases. Nevertheless, in one respect he was right: the concept of “atheism” is hopelessly tainted with negative images, and any author who wants to put this epithet on the banner advertising his lifestyle is confronted with almost insurmountable difficulties. He is constantly obliged to explain his use of the term “atheism” while his audience reacts by saying: “All right, but is not atheism also …?” And then the whole litany against atheism starts all over again: isn’t it a bit arrogant to pretend to know that God does not exist? (Answer: the atheist does not proclaim that God does not exist, he affirms that the reasons to believe in his existence are inadequate.) Why are people not allowed to believe in God? (Answer: atheists are not against free speech or against freedom of conscience or freedom of religion; they only claim the right to disagree with anyone who affirms the existence of God.) Isn’t atheism a bit arrogant? (Answer: atheism is no more arrogant than agnosticism or theism. The “arrogance” is not in the position itself, but in the way that people hold their opinions: that is, if people are dogmatic or not willing to discuss their views. Atheists are usually fond of discussions.)[185]

That means that although atheism is a defensible position, the odds appear very much against it. This has brought many people to the conclusion that it may be better to keep the position but to change the name. We find this with A.C. Grayling (1949- ), for instance. He avoids the term “atheism” when he writes: “I subscribe to a non-religious outlook, and criticize religions both as belief systems and as institutional phenomena which, as the dismal record of history and the present both testify, have done and continue to do much harm to the world, whatever good can be claimed for them besides.”[186] So Grayling speaks of a “non-religious outlook.” He also writes: “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.”[187]

Another author who avoids the term “atheism” as a designation for his own position is Paul Kurtz (1925- ). Kurtz favors the term “humanism” and speaks of humanism as eupraxophy (good wisdom and practice). By this he means “that humanism expresses a distinctive nonreligious life-stance.”[188]

Specifically, it advocates a cosmic outlook based upon science and philosophy and a practical ethical approach to the good life. Unlike theoretical science, which seeks to explain how nature operates, or pure philosophy, which is concerned with analysis, eupraxophy attempts to apply knowledge to practical normative issues. I especially wish to contrast humanistic eupraxophy with both transcendental theistic religion, which often considers the highest moral virtues to be faith, hope, and charity, and the skeptical nihilistic attitude, which denies that there are any objective grounds for the moral virtues.[189]

Holyoake (in countering the atheist Bradlaugh)[190] seems to be animated by similar concerns. He proposed the term “secularism” as an adequate formula for the convictions outlined above. This is possible, but I will argue that it would be better if the term “secularism” were reserved for the position that I will discuss in Chapter 4 of The Secular Outlook. Perhaps it is better to use the term “non-theism” for the position of a conscious rejection of the thesis that God exists. And if one wants to retain the word “atheism” for its respectable historical lineage it might also be possible to add “private” to the term. In sum, atheism as an integral part of the secular outlook should be “private atheism.”

There is some risk involved in using the word “private” in this context, though. Private atheism in the sense expounded above ought not to mean that the atheist should refrain from voicing his or her worldview in a public context.[191] Nor ought it to mean watering down the claim that the position is better defensible than the theistic one (an atheist is not a relativist). It only means that the atheist should not commit to the view that all people have to subscribe to his or her view of life in order to live peacefully together. Atheists and theists can live together under a constitutional framework that recognizes the “right to read”[192] or freedom of speech and freedom of religion for all the citizens of the state. In that sense there is no need for an atheist to be “missionary” or “militant.”

Perhaps the following example can serve as a clarification. A man, let’s call him David, does not believe in the existence of God. And not only does David not believe in the existence of God as a kind of gut feeling of the secularized non-reflective individual, but he has read about the topic. He has studied books on the philosophy of religion, has read about the proofs for the existence of God, but, all things considered, he claims to have good reasons not to believe. Nevertheless, he does not make a great point of his unbelief. He specifies the reasons for his unbelief only when his position is challenged. That happens when someone, let’s call him Peter, says:

“What, you are an atheist? How can you find meaning in life?”

“You do not believe in God? How come you behave like a responsible moral agent?”

“No belief in God? How can you raise your children without the idea of an objective moral law?”

David is not only surprised by so much arrogance and lack of knowledge about the topics he has read about but also annoyed. He answers:

“You believe in the existence of a perfectly good, omnipotent and all-seeing God? How can you give meaning to your life if – on the basis of your own suppositions – you are nothing more than an automaton that plays a part in a play predestined by His script? What about human freedom?”

“What? You simply execute the will of God as revealed in His Scripture? So you are going to kill simply because that is written down in an ancient text the origin of which you know hardly anything about?” Or:

“How do you raise your children in a morally justified manner if you do not clearly spell out that the moral law has primacy over all other considerations, religious considerations included? Should you not teach your children that their religious choices have to be made on moral grounds instead of vice versa?”

And let us now ask how David’s position should be qualified. Is he an ordinary unbeliever? Not quite perhaps. Is he an atheist? In a certain way he is. One may also qualify him, perhaps, as a “contextual atheist.” It is only in certain contexts that he will specify the reasons for his unbelief, for instance in the context of a conversation, as mentioned before. But the most important is that it would be quite unjust if Peter were to react with this: “You’re a bit of a dogmatic, stubborn, fundamentalist zealot, aren’t you? Member of the Church of Dawkins, are you?” This would be unjust because what David does, is what may be expected from every self-conscious citizen and moral agent. David follows Socrates and reminds us that only the examined life is worth living. He tries to give reasons for his moral choices and he takes his discussion partner seriously. He does not hide behind “personal choices.”[193] He does not shy away from addressing the great questions of life. He does not consider it an intrusion of his privacy when asked about his ultimate commitments. On the contrary, as a non-believer he tries to take his believing friends seriously.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacque Louis David, 1787.
The Death of Socrates, by Jacque Louis David, 1787.

It is often said that the debate between theists and atheists is senseless because both positions cannot be proved in any conclusive way. Here is a comment on the debate by the American sociologist Rodney Stark (1934- ), whose thoughts on the secularization thesis I have already discussed in my foreword: “It is entirely impossible for science to discover the existence or non-existence of Gods. Therefore, atheistic and theistic assumptions are equally unscientific, and work based on either is equally deficient.”[194]

This seems to me a not very satisfying approach. It may be true that science cannot establish whether God exists or not. But that does not mean that we cannot sensibly argue about the matter. This is particularly the case when the concept of “god” is sufficiently specific to make a rational debate possible. The theistic god, “God,” is sufficiently specific.

Finally we should clearly proclaim that atheism in the sense of private atheism or non-theism does not imply that atheism should be some kind of state doctrine as was the case in the former Soviet Union. So that brings us to three kinds of atheism, or rather three positions an atheist can take towards his own view of life. First, there is “private atheism” or what I will call “non-theism”: the view of someone who rejects the theistic worldview and proclaims to do this on good grounds. This is the position of David expounded before. Second, there is “public atheism.” Here the atheist creed is perceived to be something that we have to share with fellow citizens, because otherwise no decent society is possible. Here some “missionary” element is involved: the atheist actively wants to “convert” his fellow citizens to his personal conviction. Third, there is “political atheism”; the conviction that the state has to eradicate all kinds of religious belief, as was done in the Soviet Union and in Albania.

Atheism as part of the secular outlook should primarily be private atheism or non-theism: skeptical towards public atheism, and downright dismissive of political atheism. But because using the term “atheism,” even in the first sense, has overtones of atheism in the second and third senses it may be advisable to refrain from using the term altogether and rather refer to “non-theism.” By doing this, atheists acknowledge that they have won the intellectual battle, but have lost the debate when it comes to public perception.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[183] Levy, Leonard W., Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1993, pp. 453–7; Bradlaugh Bonner, Hypatia, Penalties Upon Opinion: Some Records of the Laws of Heresy and Blasphemy, third edition, Watts & Co., London 1934, pp. 71–75.

[184] Holyoake, George Jacob, and Bradlaugh, Charles, “Is Secularism Atheism?” in: Gordon Stein, A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1987, pp. 345–369, p. 348.

[185] Although there is a tendency among some liberals not to discuss religion. They mistakenly consider this reluctance to be part of the liberal attitude. See on this: Dacey, Austin, The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2008.

[186] Grayling, A.C., Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness, Oberon Books, London 2000, p. 9.

[187] Ibid., p. 28. See also: Kors, Alan, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, Vol. I, The orthodox sources of disbelief, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1990, p. 7. Kors writes that Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and also Erasmus were all decried as “atheists” in the debates on their work.

[188] Kurtz, Paul, The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism, Praeger, Westport, CT
1997, p. 2.

[189] Ibid., p. 2. See also: Kurtz, Paul, Eupraxophy: Living without Religion, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY 1998; Kurtz, Paul, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY 1988; Kurtz, Paul, What is Secular Humanism?, Center For Free Inquiry, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2006.

[190] Holyoake and Bradlaugh, “Is Secularism Atheism?”

[191] This is the trap warned against by Austin Dacey in The Secular Conscience.

[192] Blanshard, Paul, The Right to Read: The Battle Against Censorship, The Beacon Press, Boston 1955.

[193] See on this: Dacey, The Secular Conscience.

[194] Stark, Rodney, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2001, p. 5.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 Aug. 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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