atheism in name only

Consider the following statements:

(1) She’s a Christian in name only.

(2) She’s an atheist in name only.

It seems significant that (1) makes sense to us, and that (2) seems absurd.

What follows from this? If (1) sounds like it can be said meaningfully, then we can infer that there is a distinction to be made between Christianity as a title (name) and some other sort of Christianity that entails more than taking on the title. The obvious distinction is that this other sort of Christianity involves some sort of practice, some doing, in which this sort of Christian participates. Certainly Jesus said his disciples would be known by their love, so it seems plausible to infer that a necessary condition of being a member of the set called “Christian” would be Christlike love. Thus, if somebody calls herself a Christian, yet fails to meet this necessary condition, one might describe her by uttering (1), distinguishing her as not a Christian as normally understood.

But (2) seems nonsensical to me. This doesn’t seem to be because one is only an atheist in name, for consider the following:

(3) She’s a secularist in name only.

(4) She’s a scientific reductionist in name only.

Both of these seem meaningful. It follows from (2), (3), and (4) that there is some distinction to be made between atheism and what are commonly presumed to be near synonyms, secularism and scientific reductionism. I think this has to do with passivity. One needn’t do or believe anything to be an atheist. The only condition is that one fails to believe in the existence of God. Thus atheism is perfectly passive in its most basic form. In contrast, to be a secularist or a scientific reductionist is to be somebody who believes certain things and acts certain ways as a consequence.

I muse on all this because it implies a “something more” to Christianity.

It’s very easy to go through Christian motions—church attendance, creed recitation, and so forth. But how simple is it, indeed, how often do I find myself finding excuse to, become passive and to become a Christian in name only? I readily confess that’s the position I find myself in more frequently than should be the case. Indeed, until recently—until I came to embrace God’s creation of me as I am and not as I’d often hoped I were—I had fallen into a four-year-long passivity, not even going through basic Christian motions, though still identifying as a Christian. A non-practicing Christian. A pretender.

This is striking, because one cannot pretend atheism—not like one can pretend Christianity.

True, a distinction can be (indeed, probably should be) made between practical atheism and theoretical atheism. The latter refers to atheism as belief structure, the former to lifestyle.

Thus, a nominal Christian can be a practical atheist—calling oneself a Christian, but for all intents and purposes, living as if she doesn’t believe in any God. That was me. It seems to me, then, that Christianity is, in some way, harder than atheism. And I don’t mean by this that it’s hard to believe certain implausible claims. I mean that one must act out one’s Christianity in ways that one need not so act out atheism. Practical atheism seems to be the easiest way to live one’s life—one need merely wander through life reacting to sundry stimuli. Living without purpose is living as if there is no God. And living without appropriating and transmitting Christ’s love to others is living as if one is not a Christian. Practicing atheism.

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4 thoughts on “atheism in name only

  1. Rastabow

    One needn’t do or believe anything to be an atheist.”

    Reconsider those words. They’re yours after all. If being an atheist entails nothing else but a lack of a belief in a deity, then it entails nothings else. It does not entail “one need merely wander through life reacting to sundry stimuli. Living without purpose is living as if there is no God.”

    The slur “practical atheism” is a fatuous strawman that I hope you will recognize as beneath you.

    Rastabow

    Reply
  2. flayed Hypatia Post author

    I suppose some reply is in order!

    First, I wish to make clear that my writing in this blog entry is nowhere as good as might normally be expected of me, since I was musing, and spent maybe a tenth the time on it that I usually spend on posts.

    But I still don’t see any reason to change my position, except maybe to make more clear what exactly that position is.

    Atheism is the position that there is no God. One can be authentically atheistic, thus one who consciously acts in accord with this position, or one can be a practical atheist, which seems to me then to be an inauthentic position, living as if there is no God even though one believes otherwise.

    This isn’t a slur. I apologize if it was understood thus, especially since many of my respected colleagues (and good friends) are atheists. However, they too, I think, would find it apt to call somebody who claims to believe in God, but who lives as if there is not, one who is for all intents and purposes an atheist, a Christian in name only.

    To believe something does not exist is not exactly hard to do. I don’t believe there are little green men on Mars. Okay, so moving on in life.

    I don’t have to do anything with that non-belief. I can live my life without ever considering the problem of little green men on Mars. I also don’t believe that the Earth is flat. Unlike the former non-belief, there was a time when many credible, rational people believed otherwise, and had, for the time, compelling arguments for the flatness of the Earth. But nowadays, there’s no reason to hold a Flat Earth theory, and I can live my life utterly passive to the ‘worry’ that the Earth is flat. Believing that there’s not something is not an active belief. One need not act on it.

    We act on things we believe in, on propositions we hold to be true, not on propositions we hold to believe false or things we don’t believe in. An authentic atheist will believe naturalistic minimalism to be true (and act accordingly) or will believe secularism to be true (and act accordingly) or that some other theory is true.That is what I call theoretical atheism. By this, I mean atheism that has a bite to it, atheism that has some theoretical underpinning. It is something people live from because they have convictions, not something they live by default.

    On the next point you make, perhaps a refresher in basic logic is in order. There is a distinction between logical sufficiency and logical necessity. In the conditional statement “P entails Q”, the relationship goes as follows:

    P is sufficient for Q, but Q is necessary for P.

    That is to say that when P, it invariably follows that Q. In contrast, Q can happen without P, but Q is necessary for P. Thus my statement that living without purpose is living as if there is no God (that is, if one lives without purpose, then one is living as if there is no God, which is logically equivalent to the Aristotelian “All S are P” statement).

    This is absolutely not equivalent to saying what you accuse me of. You accuse me of saying that if one lives as if there is no God, then one lives without purpose. You, Rastabow, mistake a necessary condition for a sufficient one, and thus completely misrepresent my position.

    The verb ‘is’ is not strict identity. Reading it thus is careless. Rather, all living without purpose is living as if there is no God, but it need not be that all living without God is living without purpose. You see aimlessness, you see (for lack of a better term, and I don’t mean to imply any moral connotations here) “Godlessness.” But it just does not follow that every time you see “Godlessness” you see aimlessness. Living without purpose is (a kind of, a way of) living without God. In Aristotelian logic: ‘All S are P’ is not equivalent to ‘All P are S’.

    The straw man was yours, not mine.

    Reply
  3. Samuel Skinner

    Strong atheism is the position there is no, and can’t possible be, a God. Weak atheism is the simple lack of belief.

    You are right about “practical atheists”- people who are theists but don’t realize the implications of their belief. It really has been a problem since people stopped doing active things to show their devotion- pilgrimages, sacrifices and the like. As you can imagine, not having to show their faith they stop thinking about it.

    Reply
  4. Rastabow

    “One can be authentically atheistic,”
    —There is no such thing as authentic atheism in the way you have expressed it. There is no way to act “in accord with ” atheism. There are religious atheists and nonreligious atheists. There are atheists who believe in spirits, past lives, souls, psychic powers and a whole host of other things that we could spend the rest of our lives listing. There are atheists who adhere to naturalism. There are atheists who are nihilists and atheists who lack direction in their lives beyond the choice of the moment. Each is as “authentically atheist” as the others.
    —There is in fact no way to be “authentically theistic” either. It’s just a belief in the existence of at least one god. In and of themselves, theism and atheism neither proscribe nor compel. As you would say, both are “perfectly passive” in their most basic form.

    “However, they too, I think, would find it apt to call somebody who claims to believe in God, but who lives as if there is not, one who is for all intents and purposes an atheist, a Christian in name only.” “Thus, a nominal Christian can be a practical atheist”
    — Someone who, with truthful intent, claims to be a Christian but who lives as if Christian doctrine were untrue is for all intents and purposes living as a non-Chrisitan. You said so …of yourself. They are neither atheists nor living as atheists (see above).

    “True, a distinction can be (indeed, probably should be) made between practical atheism and theoretical atheism. The latter refers to atheism as belief structure, the former to lifestyle”
    —Atheism is the opposite of theism. It is not the opposite of Christianity. There may be a Christian lifestyle. There are no lifestyles that can be said to be necessarily in accord with either atheism or theism.

    “Practical atheism seems to be the easiest way to live one’s life—one need merely wander through life reacting to sundry stimuli.”
    —“Practical atheism” is a slur that has been bandied about by religious folks to describe the undesirable lifestyles lead by their fellows: aimless, inauthentic, shallow, immoral, greedy, violent, etc… It is meant as an insult. The undesirable things that they see in others are labeled as being one and the same as the negative behavior one would expect of an atheist. Were you not aware of this? Undoubtedly what you charge is milder than much of what has been ascribed to “practical atheism” but still it is consistent with the use of the slur. Why are you bringing “atheism” into it at all?

    “perhaps a refresher in basic logic is in order…””all living without purpose is living as if there is no God,” ” ‘All S are P’ is not equivalent to ‘All P are S’.”
    —-“Living as if there is no God”? What is it supposed to mean as a general case of “ALL living without purpose”? Your clarification need not have extended beyond this statement: ” Living without purpose is (a kind of, a way of) living without God.” The logic lesson was over the top. But I knew that you had not stated “All living without God is not living without purpose” and so it in no way excuses my sloppy words. You took the time and effort to explain your point. I just didn’t want to sidestep the issue especially as it appeared quite clearly that I was accusing you of explicitly stating something you didn’t. I apologize as that was not my intent.

    “It does not entail ‘one need merely wander through life reacting to sundry stimuli. Living without purpose is living as if there is no God’.”
    —-More importantly. This is a reaction to your unnecessary conflation and not your text proper. As I reject your pseudo-dichotomy of “theoretical” and “practical” atheism, how the words play out in Aristotelian logic is somewhat beside the point. Using “atheism”, no matter how you want to qualify it, to define what you see as undesirable in a Christian (like wandering through life….) is inappropriate and that was the impetus of this admittedly less-than-cogent quote.

    —- I’m not quibbling with you over the details. I’m rejecting the whole exercise. You give every indication that you should recognize that “atheism” has nothing to do with your non-practicing Christian. Yet, you go out of your way to reach for a label with a history of pejorative use without any good reason to do so. Since you give the impression that you are thoughtful and careful with words, can you be truly be surprised that your choice of words seemed either the result of prejudice or malice?

    I’d like to think that at most your musing lead you to an unfortunate choice of words and nothing more: that a single post and one to which you devoted less time than you usually do is not sufficient to start inferring intent.

    Then again, did you have to end your original post this way:”Practicing atheism.”
    —- Not enough “bite” in just saying that a Christian “living without appropriating and transmitting Christ’s love to others is living as if one is not a Christian” ? Even when I was a Christian, reaching for the “practicing atheism” characterization would have struck me as gratuitous (no matter how you justified the usage); ironically, the statement that precedes it would have given me pause and been a source of more lasting concern.

    Reply

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