Shadow Boxing

There’s something apt-to-the-core about the rebuttal to theists who insist on misrepresenting atheism as a religion, or something akin to a religion, that, if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. However, while this identifies the theoretical heart of atheism as the absence of a specific belief, and nothing else, in practice things are a bit more complex.

I glanced through American Atheist at the Santa Monica Public Library this afternoon. I was actually looking for Non-Stamp Collector’s Monthly, but it happened not to be on the shelf. You see the point, of course. Even if atheism is the absence of a specific belief, and nothing else, it also serves, unlike non-stamp collecting, as a rallying point for a collection of causes and interests semi-coherent enough to support organisations, meetings, publications, and such, at least in the U.S. This might have something to do with the position of the atheist community (see, there I go again; a non-stamp collector community is the stuff of a comedy sketch) here, misrepresented and marginalised at all turns (hence with plenty of axes to grind), but also constitutionally free to express itself. It neither enjoys the more mainstream position common in Western Europe, nor suffers the more overt suppression and even persecution of places in thrall to even greater theistic monomania. It has a voice; just a very small one, used to argue for separation of church and state, for teaching of evolution (because it’s true; not because it has any bearing on the god question), rejection of Intelligent Design, and similiar issues which place science and reason at the foreground.

It might partly just be an aversion to joining communities of any sort, but, while wishing more power to their elbows and opposable thumbs, I’m not remotely drawn to such organisations. It might also be a pointlessly stubborn stand against the very fact that there’s even a need for them, in what should be a post-post-post-post-post-Enlightenment society; instead, we have a kind of Hokey Cokey in and out of the circle of reason, to the music of time. The very existence of a word for someone who doesn’t believe in a god (rather than someone who doesn’t collect stamps, for example), never mind organisations and publications, ought to have been buried dinosaur-deep. Reason implies a simple default, and it isn’t theism. The Google search I just performed returned (approximately) 778,000 results for ‘theist’, but about 12,500,000 for ‘atheist’. The moral is pretty clear: it’s (obviously) not that someone is sixteen times more likely to be an atheist than a theist; it’s that someone is sixteen times more likely as an atheist to need to refer to themselves that way, or to be referred to that way, in order to override the societal default. Theism is assumed. This isn’t really any happier a situation than one in which a non-stamp collector had to explicity self-identify that way, in order to override the widespread assumed default, or in which belief in unicorns was sufficiently prevalent to make useful a word meaning its opposite. Society pushes atheists to define themselves as other, by providing unacceptable defaults, then points to those very same definitions as evidence that atheists are something they’re not.

I’ve been meaning to write something about Dawkins’s The God Delusion, too, but haven’t found the words. The situation is analogous: part of me is just angry and bewildered that such a work is even necessary. I doubt he’d agree, but it also seems a poor way for Dawkins to spend his time, rebutting and refuting and knocking down targets which ought not even to be standing. As is often the case, it will probably end up his most popular work without being remotely his best. Notwithstanding that I’m not really part of his target audience (though one of the best things about preaching to the choir is to let them know that the choir exists, because they might not), it’s a choppy, inconsistent work, which digests material he’s covered elsewhere, and at times reads as a literature review.

All of that being the case, I think a work such as this one faces a more or less insurmountable problem, which is only tangentially to do with the subject matter and how well it’s handled. My hunch is that as a species we’re inclined — perhaps for reasons that game-theoretic approaches to the evolution of behaviour might disentangle — to give positive expressions of belief rather greater weight than they deserve according to their intrinsic rationality and likelihood, and negative expressions of belief rather less weight. All other things being equal, we’re more inclined to wish to associate with a positive belief than a negative belief. However kooky, positive beliefs have a siren song which is not necessarily related to believability: rationally, we might reject elaborate conspiracy theories — the moon landings were faked; 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government — but emotionally we’re drawn in. We smile at the craziness of the kooks themselves, but have a grudging regard for their tenacity in the face of the evidence. Conversely, rational scepticism has the bitter taste of negativity, a rational sceptic the killjoy’s role in the proceedings, no matter how utterly groundless the assertion being challenged. “So what do you believe in?” whines the theist to the atheist, as if not believing in their god implies a knee-jerk disbelief in anything and everything else.

For this reason, expressions of atheism generally, and The God Delusion specifically, must carry an inevitable, unreasonable burden. Just as society pushes atheism to name itself in opposition to a default, so society pushes it to be negative in order to counter the vast arrays of positive but groundless theistic assertions out there which obtain a pass simply because they’re positive assertions. The position Dawkins finds himself in is that of a shadow boxer, swinging left and right, left and right, refuting this assertion, and rebutting that logical fallacy, but unable to land any significant punch, both because (the collective) we rather like our positive beliefs to remain standing, however chimeric they might be, and because, well, he’s trying to punch something which isn’t actually there.

I take heart from the fact that the book has indeed sold so well; there’s something very much in keeping with Dawkins’s other works in asserting that, no matter how much we might be inherently programmed to prefer positive statements of nonsense to rational debunking, we’re perfectly capable of overriding those instincts. It takes a shift in perspective, but rational debunking of myth and nonsense is a positive force for good in the world. Such a shift in perspective faces plenty of inertia, though; the linking of theistic cosmology with theistic morality is the greatest confidence trick in the history of mankind.

A final qualm about The God Delusion is that, aside from all of the above, I actually think The Selfish Gene, for example, is a far more powerful expression of atheism — in the sense that it conveys that life works perfectly well without a divine hand, thanks very much, rather than the sense that it has some sort of subtextual agenda. Partly this comes from the fact that it’s an extraordinary progression of positive assertions about how life works, from the small to the large, the microbiological to the social and behavioural, so it benefits hugely from building a positive case, a positive thesis, a positive argument, quite aside from the truth-value of any of the assertions. Rather than boxing a shadow which isn’t there, it’s about elucidating exactly what is there, slowly, carefully, and with just the right combination of rigour, clarity, and language which inspires while being sure not to do nothing other than that. Accepting that society pushes people such as Dawkins into some unavoidable combination of the boxing of shadows and the building of reality, I think I prefer to get my own inspiration from the latter.


  • You make some excellent points, Paul. I’ve been considering for some time now buying The God Delusion, as I’ve been waiting for it to come out in paperback.

    I find particularly interesting your point about non-stamp collectors. Of course, you are absolutely right about non-stamp collectors not having the need to define themselves as other. No one would ever assume a person to be a stamp collector, so it is just not the same.

    I do want to offer you one thought. Over the past several years, I’ve been examining my faith (or lack thereof) and trying to sort out what I truly accept and what I reject. I completely distrust organized religion. I was raised Lutheran, and have only recently come to realize how much I simply accepted as true, simply because trusted people told me they were true.

    Marrying a Jewish man forced me to step back and really question what I’ve been taught. I simply cannot believe that this man who is so loving and good can be condemned because he doesn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. So, I’m pretty sure that I don’t qualify as a Christian anymore.

    Anyway, my point is that, while I’m swimming in all of these confusing contradictions and questions, I appreciate hearing all of the different voices out there. Not just to know that these “choirs” exist, but because these choirs sing melodies that I’ve never heard before. Ideas that are common sense to the average non-stamp collector are brand new to me, and help me to sort out what I personally believe and to reject ideas that I’ve held as true simply because I was told to do so.

    I’m definitely going to look into The Selfish Gene. Any other recommmendations?

    All the best,


  • Rose,

    So far as Dawkins is concerned, TSG is a great place to start, and bookends very nicely with TGD. If what you’re interested in is hearing voices that you might not have heard before, I think you’ll find a lot to chew on in TGD, even if you don’t agree with all of it. But all of his stuff is good. I’m a bit hard on TGD, for the reasons I tried to discuss, which partly have to do with the difficult job it’s trying to do, as much as its intrinsic qualities.

    Other than that? Daniel Dennett writes well from a more philosophical perspective. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a pretty thorough exploration of the implications of evolution by natural selection. There’s quite a bit out there on how concepts such as morality and cooperation might have evolved. Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation is great fun, and Dawkins mentions others in TGD.

    But until relatively recently there really weren’t all that many books explicity presenting an atheistic world-view. It’s why the current batch of four or five (Dawkins, Hitchins, Sam Harris) is seen as a trend. Go into pretty much any mainstream bookshop and the religion shelves easily outnumber the science shelves. It always makes me gloomy.

  • Paul writes:

    “The moral is pretty clear: it’s (obviously) not that someone is sixteen times more likely to be an atheist than a theist; it’s that someone is sixteen times more likely as an atheist to need to refer to themselves that way, or to be referred to that way, in order to override the societal default. Theism is assumed.”

    It might also be that believers are sixteen times more likely to refer to atheists as a group, to narrow them into this (not) little group they can define and stereotype. The rants out there about the supposed dangers of atheism for the soul are numerous and a little scary. (And I say this as a theist, as you know, though a very liberal one.)


  • Boy am I late!

    Anyway, being a theist who is also a non-stamp collector (and proud of it, beyotch!), I found the analogy HILARIOUS and I saw an entire Monty Python skit in my head.

    I’ve always found calling Atheism a “religion” to be incredibly … well, stupid. It’s sort of like calling “black” a color, isn’t it? Didn’t we learn in about the 7th grade that black is the absence of color (well, the absence of light, therefore the absence of color – but that may have been 10th grade before I learned that – Physics class)?

    Then again, when describing the perp to the detective you wouldn’t say, “He had blue eyes, and his hair was void of color, as it reflected no light.” (Although, I triple dog dare ya!) So, when someone says, “What religion are you?” to someone who defines themselves as an atheist and the person says, “I don’t believe that God exists.” Well … we’ve created a word for that, haven’t we? Creating one word for it makes saying it much quicker.

    The problem lies, I think, not so much in the atheists who define themselves with that word or need to group together through magazines or meetings, or what have you (all humans use labels to figure out where we fit). The problem is in the OTHER people who assign traits to that label that are just … well, they’re bullshit, Paul. And that’s the most eloquent I can be at 3 am. I have seen people in my own family who call themselves – well, let’s just say “theists” because I don’t want to drag JC’s name through the mud right now – act COMPLETELY differently toward someone who called themself “agnostic” than they did toward someone who called themself “atheist.” Agnostic implies a chance for redemption as the person is still “searching.” “Atheist” implies a complete lack of morals and character because one has decided there is no God. (I’m not saying I agree with that, btw.)

    The fact that under this kind of societal pressure atheists would want to seek some kind of solace or comfort in each other doesn’t surprise me in the least. After all, one isn’t inundated with the pressure to collect stamps everytime one goes to a family gathering, turns on the television, answers their door on a Saturday morning, goes to a NASCAR event, goes to a school football game, etc. (Again, sooooooo could write that sketch.)

    I probably got WAY off base from your original thesis, but I guess I felt like playing a little Devil’s Advocate (so to speak, HA!). If I rambled, blame it on the fact that it’s LATE! 😉

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