In the Winter 2013 issue of Sociology of Religion my article (LeDrew 2013a) on atheist identity formation is accompanied by a commentary by Jesse Smith (2013) and my reply (LeDrew 2013b). In my reply to Smith’s comments I wanted to stress one simple but very important point: atheists are also ‘believers’. I would like to clarify what I mean by this, and how approaching the topic from this point of view leads us in different directions.
Atheism is commonly defined as a negation or, more passively, a lack of belief. Smith implicitly adopts this view in his analysis of interview research that finds that atheism is a ‘rejection identity’, or a belief and an identity grounded in the rejection of religion in a theistically ‘ubiquitous’ socio-cultural context. In my reply I argue that this approach is misleading, and that atheism should be approached as a set of complex systems of beliefs. In LeDrew (2012) I identified two major historical categories of atheism that I call ‘scientific’ and ‘humanistic’.
Scientific atheism is a product of Enlightenment rationalism and Victorian Darwinism, grounding the critique of religion in the natural sciences and considering it a false explanation of nature that is superseded by modern science. Religion, from this point of view, is strictly a matter of belief. Humanistic atheism is a product of the emergent social sciences of the mid-19th century, particularly Marxism, grounding the critique of religion in a conception of social justice and considering it a manifestation of, and response to, alienation and suffering. From this perspective religion is a social phenomenon rather than a matter of individual beliefs. These two traditions are not mutually exclusive, but they do involve very different understandings of the nature of religion and its functions at the individual and societal levels.
Atheism may be a rejection of religion, then, but there is a reason for this rejection, and historically these reasons have been tied to intellectual and social developments. At the most basic level, this rejection is typically grounded in one of these two belief systems, or at least some version thereof. For example, New Atheism can clearly be situated within the tradition of scientific atheism. It is a Darwinistic social philosophy that constructs a vision of the evolution of modern societies from barbarism (characterized by religion and superstition) to civilization (characterized by scientism). The ideological bias for scientism is evident in the New Atheist authors’ puzzling over what evolutionary and neuro-chemical processes may be responsible for differences in religiosity among individuals. That these individuals are situated in cultural, historical, and geographic contexts, and that patterns of religiosity can be discerned with respect to these contexts, is rarely considered. Because the New Atheists are already committed to the answer before they investigate the question (the answer is that religion strictly involves beliefs that exist within individual minds, or cognitive processes emerging from physical structures molded by natural selection), they miss some answers that are much more satisfying and much less dependent on conjecture. Their failure – or unwillingness – to recognize the obvious social and cultural nature of religion is stunning.
PZ Myers, a biologist and popular atheist blogger who identifies with the New Atheism, argued in his presentation at the 2010 Atheist Alliance International convention that atheism is ‘a positive explanation of the world based on scientific thinking’. Indeed, this reflects the discourse of New Atheism, where the ‘positive’ beliefs regarding science and progress are inseparable from the ‘negative’ beliefs regarding theism. Atheism, then, is both historically and presently inseparable from various complex and systematic sets of values, epistemologies, and political doctrines. In this respect it should be understood as ideology, broadly conceived as ‘coherent and relatively stable sets of beliefs and values’ (van Dijk 1998: 256).
I have found that if you talk to an atheist about why they don’t believe in God, you will naturally come to what they do believe. This matter of what atheists believe is a significant issue for researchers in this field, which to this point has concentrated more on the ‘negative’ (or negating) aspects of atheism – certainly a worthwhile line of inquiry – with much less emphasis on the ‘positive’ ideologies this negation is rooted in, particularly with respect to their political dimensions. Atheism does not exist independently of other beliefs, and therefore it is not analytically useful or valid to try to study atheism strictly as negation, absence, or rejection, independently of these beliefs. Atheism is itself a kind of belief (or many kinds of belief), in both historical and contemporary discourse and practice.
There may be those who don’t believe in God, or are simply not interested in religion and have no real opinion on the matter, but these are just non-believers. Applying the term ‘atheist’ in these cases is not useful or analytically precise because atheism has never been simply a lack of religious belief. For this reason I think the term ‘atheist’ is best reserved for ‘active’ atheists, or those who participate to some extent in organized atheism (LeDrew 2013a, Hunsberger and Altemeyer 2006). Indeed, the word is now so closely correlated with the atheist movement that it ceases to have significant meaning outside of this context. Even a cursory examination of this movement reveals not a homogenous group united by a rejection of theism, but a diverse array of ideological perspectives that give rise to increasing tensions manifest in ongoing debates regarding goals, strategies, and representations of identity (this is certainly the case in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada – I cannot speak knowledgeably about other contexts). If the tensions in the movement are not related to what atheists don’t believe – that is, they can all agree that they don’t believe in God – then they must pertain to what they do believe, and correspondingly, what they envision the purpose of an atheist movement to be.
Major categories of beliefs found in the atheist movement today include (1) the view that science is the authoritative source of knowledge and that scientific progress drives social progress, and (2) a belief in basic human equality and a perception that religion impedes social justice. In either case atheism is not just a negation or an absence of belief, but is connected to a set of epistemological, ethical, and political positions. When it is institutionalized in social movement organizations or public discourse, then, atheism is ideology. This is not surprising: given that atheists are not defined as a group by similar social characteristics and therefore are not united by a common experience of structural marginalization, what would motivate this level of organization and activism other than a passionate belief in something?
Hunsberger, Bruce E., and Bob Altemeyer (2006). Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
LeDrew, Stephen (2013a). “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-453.
LeDrew, Stephen (2013b). “Reply: Toward a Critical Sociology of Atheism: Identity, Politics, Ideology.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 464-470.
LeDrew, Stephen (2012). “The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches.” History of the Human Sciences 25(3): 70-87.
Smith, Jesse M. (2013). “Comment: Conceptualizing Atheist Identity: Expanding Questions, Constructing Models, and Moving Forward.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 454-463.
van Dijk, Teun A. (1998). Ideology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. London: Sage.
Stephen LeDrew recently completed a PhD in Sociology from York University. His work has appeared in Sociology of Religion and History of the Human Sciences. He is currently researching the politics of organized atheism.