Atheism’s “Supreme Fiction,” or Today, Let Us Pick on Someone New

Wanna really piss of an atheist? Tellem/er that Atheism is just like any other religion; they’ll do angry rhetorical cartwheels. Of course, the mere assertion is simply polemical. And it’s on the basis of the mere assertion that atheists get so angry. But what they won’t do is engage the claim, ask for qualification, or interrogate the assertion and its terms, despite the emotive charge (and so neutralize it) that’s attached there – thus the response is simply and equally emotive.

Par exemple. Here’s Greta Christina’s response (to the charge as she’s constructed it):

“Atheism is just another religion. And you’re just as close-minded / faith-based as the believers you criticize.”

No, it isn’t. And no, I’m not. It simply isn’t the case that atheists are 100% convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is no God. I’ve met hundreds of atheists — thousands, if you count the ones I’ve met on the Internet — and I’ve encountered maybe half a dozen who thought that. (And most of them back down when you press them on it.) Contrary to popular belief, atheism isn’t an unshakeable faith in the non-existence of God. Atheism is… well, it’s different for different people. But for most atheists I know, it’s more or less the position that the God hypothesis is an extremely unlikely one, not supported by evidence or reason, and that in the absence of any convincing evidence, it’s reasonable to discard it. It’s the position that the Christian /Judaic /Muslim god is about as probable as Zeus or Thor… and that if you don’t believe in those gods, it makes sense to disbelieve in Jehovah /Yahweh /Allah as well. (And the same is true for the Hindu gods, and the Wicca Goddess, and every other god or goddess or supernatural being anyone has ever conceived of. Just while we’re at it.) And it’s simply not true that I don’t give any reasons for my disbelief, and that I take my disbelief on faith. I’ve written extensive arguments about why I don’t believe in God, or a soul, or an afterlife. As have countless other writers, from Richard Dawkins to Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett to Sam Harris. Take a look at The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God in Chapter Eight, and at the Resource Guide in Chapter Fifteen, if you want to yourself.

Notice that neither religion nor faith is really clarified. Note that the charge is merely answered with the claim that reasons not to believe are given, and hence atheism is the only term for which explanation is given.

Now, she does imply something of what religion is. Or, I must confess, I know full well what she thinks it amounts to:

Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

Yeah … maybe … sorta (and if Greta can use the ellipsis promiscuously, so can I).

To find that understanding adequate (and to limit faith to belief in the supernatural) is obviously partisan in innumerable ways. (Surly I don’t need to spell that out here, do I? In any case, it’s beside the point for my present purposes.)

Anyway, one of those hairs the atheists absolutely refuse to split (spose I can’t entirely blame them) is between faith and belief. When the distinction between them is made it often turns into faith-as-hope and it’s usually a lot of bargain basement Schleiermacher and liberal bougie treacle (see Reitan’s Is God A Delusion: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers.)

But, if we accept that semi-theologically entailed in faith in lots of cases is hope in the sense of an expectation with respect to the shape of things to come, then we clearly have to accept that ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are not completely synonymous.

And if the terms of such hope are eschatological (or might we use a less theologically specific term like millenarian?) faith-as-hope cannot so easily be brushed aside, even by undermining the apparent truth-claims that undergird it. For we’re no longer confined to a global image of religion (with Christina’s idea of it at the centre) as a system of ideas (or rather truth-claims); we are in the realm of Simon Critchley’s ‘supreme fictions’ for which attempts to determine their veracity are really beside the point.

Lemme just toss this out there (though it’s hardly original to me). If atheists acknowledged that appeals to millenarian mythology (say, of the decidedly religious sort) in any given historical moment expressed the hopes and fears and ambitions and anxieties (or sometimes death wishes, I’ll grant) of a given community, and “truth” is not and cannot really be an issue, then they’d surely have to acknowledge that an equally millenarian (and identically motivated) mythology runs right through their movement.

So here I get near to my purpose. There’s a broadish swath of atheists whose godless hopes consist of the belief that a secular-scientisty-Star Trek future is just around the corner.

This was brought home to me this week by a coupla posts by the blogger Staks  who belongs to the Planet Atheism network.

Let’s begin with his post of 17/08/12.

I am someone who has hope for the future of humanity. I believe that human knowledge and technology are progressing at an ever increasing rate. Just a little over a hundred years ago, the Wright Brothers flew for the first time. Now we can fly around the globe with relative ease. It was only 43 years ago that we put a man on the moon and now we are sending robots to Mars. What will we be doing 100 years from now?

Well, that’s quite the positive spin. Morbid sort that I am, when I reflect on the history of flight, I’m inclined to think: the Wright brothers’ flights got us the jet fighter and attack helicopter; rocketry gave us the ICBM; and robotics gave us the unmanned drone. In any case, we’ve obviously walked right into the myth of progress. (A low rent version at that: surely I’m not the only midlevel geek who immediately thought of the title sequence of Star Trek: Enterprise here, am I?)

But it isn’t just knowledge, science, and technology that are changing. Morality is changing too. A century and a half ago, we were fighting a war to end slavery. 100 years ago, we were fighting in the streets to allow women the right to vote. 70 years ago, we were fighting against genocide and racial purity. 45 years ago we were marching for civil rights. Within the last 10 to 20 years we are marching for gay rights. Just 5 months ago, we rallied for reason.

Who picked the cocoa in those Almond Joys you scarf whilst playing Xbox? Has the resurgence of European anti-Semitism escaped your notice? I don’t even know what to say about your imagining that minority and women’s rights have made any fundamental progress. And as for the rest, similarly, what a blinkered short-horizoned vision of the state of the world your eyes see. Yeah yeah, I know, it’s all religion’s fault, right?

Religion is still a dominant force in the world. There is no doubt about that. But it is changing. The world is getting more secular; atheism is on the rise and religiosity is in decline. Religion will never be completely gone, but someday it will be viewed in the same way most people view those who believe in astrology or voodoo.

“Secular.” I don’t think that word means what you think it does. Atheists and nones may be a growing demographic, but the world is becoming more secular?

What’s your basis for such predictions? Seems to me that it’s not much more than the bases upon which the original 19th century myth of progress was built. What makes you think that another century will make a difference? Mere hope, certainly not evidence.

BTW, my Indian astrologer suggested that I put off posting this to today since one can’t expect a positive result from actions undertaken on Saturn’s day.

Today we have the internet. The religions of the world can’t hide any more. All the bad arguments they have made can now be shown for what they are, bad arguments. A quick Google search can now educate religious believers. The need for special holy people who are needed to interpret ancient texts for the believer is vanishing. Religious believers are starting to read their holy books for themselves without the need for middlemen. This of course leads to atheism. I believe that we are close to the tipping point. We may even see religion take a steep decline in our lifetime.

Breathtaking. But of course we’ve seen virtual atheist nonsense like this before. Only took 400 years of Protestant bible reading to produce a world full of atheists, eh? And thank the FSM that the internet liberated all those BOOKS so that ppl can finally, finally read them for themselves. Personally, I blame librarians for keeping everyone ignurnt.

This is important because it will pave the way for a brighter future. The Dark Ages began when Hypatia of Alexandria was brutally killed by Christians in a manner far more horrific that the alleged death of Jesus. Carl Sagan claimed that had this not happened humanity might be a 1000 years more advanced than we are today.

I’m speechless. And the atheists think David Barton is a bad historian. Can we call this the myth of regress?

Religion is holding us back. It is robbing us of the future. The more religion fades from prominence the more advanced scientifically, technologically, and morally we become. The future is almost here, but we have to shape it today.

Yeah, damn religion. If it weren’t for that we might have some sorta institution – call it, I dunno, the university – in which all kinds of research might be going on free from the interference of religion and politics and whatnot. Hey wait a minute, didn’t religion invent that institution already?

“The future is almost here.” I actually snorted when I read that. “We have to shape it today.” Buddy has a promising future in nonsensical jingle writing.

Straight up utopianism. I guess he doesn’t think Skynet is going to kill us all.

Anyway, I’m already tired, but let’s soldier on and look at Staks’ post from a couple of days before the one above.

Many religious believers believe that we not only have an immortal soul, but that this soul is our true self. When we die, we live on as our soul. They often ask in a serious manner, “Where will we be in 1000 years?”

[Never mind the theologically goo that gets in here.] Who! Who asks that question?

Of course the reality is that in 1000 years we will be dead and just as there was no consciousness before we were born, there will almost certainly be no consciousness after we die. But I like to refocus the question on the collective “we.” Where will we (as humanity) be in 1000 years?

Oh, ok, that theological nonsense above has nothing to do with your point. But I smell uptopia coming on.

The religious never stop predicting the end of the world and it always seems to be going to happen soon. They always think that we are living in the end times. The really scary thing is that many of them hope that we are because the standard Christian interpretation of Revelations is that the world needs to end in order for Jesus to return and give special few Christians “God’s kingdom.”

[Pedant in me says, uh, it’s the book of REVELATION, singular.]

One, you don’t know much about (Xtn) eschatology, do you? Two, they may not ever stop talking about it, but they talk a lot more in historical circumstances of widespread anxiety and uncertainty. Maybe you wanna pay attention to that sorta thing.

More interesting to me is the fact that you flip out about Xtn (and Islamic) apocalypticism and offer in its stead Sci-fi utopianism, ignoring, of course, Sci-fi apocalypticism and Xtn utopianism.

Oddly enough, I thought they would be much happier in Heaven. Why bother trying to create a kingdom of God on Earth after the whole world is destroyed when you can sit up in Heaven enjoying bliss for all eternity. Something doesn’t make sense here… I suspect a great many things don’t make sense here actually.

But let’s move on to where I hope humanity will be in 1000 years. As an atheist and a humanist, I hope that we have ditched religion and other superstitious beliefs and that human beings have socially evolved past our petty differences, greed, jealousy, hate, etc. I dream of a world similar to Star Trek (which is a mere 200 to 300 years in the future) in which we are exploring strange new worlds far from Earth.

Doesn’t make sense? Then fucking work to make sense of it. Or get on with your life. But no, that’s not your plan, you’ve got a story to sell. You foresee a world of peace love and understanding. And seems that you think religion (whatever that is) is that thing holding back your utopia. But no matter, now we’re down to brass tacks. For …


Are you fucking serious? Lemme get this straight, a view of the future entailing the idea that the hour is coming and is now is morally and reality challenged, but hoping for a future in which we travel at unimaginable speeds to planets we haven’t even identified is reasonable? No, atheism isn’t a religion, that’s just crazy talk.

But we’ve seen this atheist sci-fi-myth-love before. Remember Guy P. Harrison?

When I’m not staring at a blank computer screen hoping that words will appear, I’m likely to be running, hiking, reading a science book, working out at a gym, or trying to teach life lessons to my children via repeated viewings of Star Trek. When normal people are busy thinking about politics, economics, and the Kardashians, I’m usually daydreaming about time travel, the singularity (nerd rapture) ancient Greece, extremophiles, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and robots.

Funny thing about these nerds and their Star Trek theology – they all neglect the fact that in the mythology, before we get to the United Federation of Planets and all those good times, we have the Eugenics Wars and World War III.

Jeebus, and they chide the religious for cherry-picking.

This really is the stark difference between the theists and atheists when it comes to our hopes for the future. Now sure, not all theists think this way, but a most do. And even if a theist shares the atheistic hope for a better future, they should realize that religion is one of the main things holding us back from reaching that goal.


I don’t even know what to say. But we’re clearly no longer in the realm of an atheism that even pretends to offer a substantive critique of religion; we’re squarely in the realm of fantasy. Or rather, we’re in the realm of what Simon Critchley calls “Supreme Fiction” which he describes thusly: “It’s taking something that does not quite exist and, as it were, forcing it into existence through a certain declaration, through a certain act of faith.”

There’s simply no winning with these geeks: science and tech are absolute goods and religion an absolute evil, and don’t let historical and contemporary fact stand in the way of faith in that. ‘Atheism is just another religion’ is not an argument I’d make as baldly as that, but in the face of nerd utopianism like Staks’ … and Harrison’s … and of other atheists by the dozen, it must be recognized that we’re dealing with a kind of evangelism for an old myth no less eschatological than that of the (Western) religion it rails against.

If I had my way, anybuddy who’s attended a Star Trek convention, Comic-Con or the like would be barred from holding public office. (My friend June excepted.)


1 Comment »

  1. kbcloss said

    Qapla’!! (And “amen” just in case.)

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