Thank God for Book Reviews

Other than as an assignment for courses taken long ago, I had never written a book review.  Or rather, I had never written a review for the purposes of publication.  So when I volunteered my services for the Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion, I wasn’t entirely sure what the experience, or outcome, would be.  This post is a short story about that, with a specific emphasis on three aspects of that process that stand out in my memory.


I am no stranger to editing, and I hold no envy for those who do it.

I am also, by my own admission, what I call an ’emotional writer.’  This doesn’t mean that I get ’emotionally attached’ to my writing, or that my feelings get hurt when my writing is evaluated or edited.  Rather, my writing is ’emotional’ in the sense that for me the time and place when and where the writing gets done play a large part in how I ‘do’ the writing itself.

In this way, I’ve always been keenly interested in how writers write.  I love hearing about the process, how they establish a place to write, how they do it, whether they type or write by hand, what bizarre and personal little rituals they do.  I love that kind of stuff.  I also think it tells us something quite unique and specific about the character (perhaps even identity) of that person.

For example, Hemingway was notorious for writing while standing, as well as designing the writing process in such a way as to be inspired or influenced by his surroundings. hemingway-standing-deskLegend tells us that a number of his novels, such as The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bells Toll were written in sections, in different countries, to convey a certain mood.

Likewise, my Thesis has been focused on certain novels by Ian McEwan, and I found myself giddily excited a few years back to find this video of him describing his writing process (with, interestingly, an embarrassed curiosity as to why people would be interested in that sort of thing).

See also this description:

When I wrote my review of Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the writing process was divided into two parts: reading and writing.  It took a week or so to read the book, make notes, re-read sections, and formulate the structure of the review.  I made a list of important passages, as well as compiled an outline of the text itself, isolating what I thought was Spencer’s lead argument, and the basic criticisms and compliments I thought I should point out.  When I wrote the review, I created a number of drafts, making sure to return to the text to ensure my consensus was well designed.

A few weeks after submitting the draft I received the first round of edits and suggested changes.  This was an interesting experience.  Aside from my supervisor’s interaction with the Thesis, as well as suggestions and critiques made by lecturers over the years, I’d yet to have any sort of editorial suggestions made about something I had written for publication.

At first I found myself feeling defensive about the suggestions.  ‘Why,’ I thought arrogantly, ‘would there be suggestions?!’  ‘It’s perfect!’  I then reminded myself to grow up a bit.  In fact, and in retrospect, the editorial process was quite rewarding.  The individuals involved made very distinct arguments about structure and style, and in the end I think they truly helped in making the final draft feel much more coherent. However, there was one suggestion that kept appearing that I thought interesting, and it leads to my next aspect.


For whatever reason, I have found myself over the years Capitalising words or terms that really don’t need it.  This occurs most often with research fields, like ‘Religious Studies’ or ‘Ethical Criticism.’  I’m usually quite open to amending this in my writing.  However, where I will stand-fast on capitalisation is in the title of things.

Throughout my research, and even throughout this blog, I have, and will, capitalise the terms ‘Atheism’ and ‘Atheist.’  As well, depending on the context, I will do the same with ‘Theism’ or ‘Theist.’  While the latter is done in direct reference to the former, it has become something that comes up time and again when people evaluate my writing.  My reasoning for capitalising the ‘A’ in Atheism is quite simple to explain.  In my research of the concept itself, I have adopted a particular methodology in order to study Atheism.  While I will likely discuss this in vivid detail in the near future, I can summarise this methodology here as follows:

rather than contribute to the present discourse on defining the term, and in that way avoid the precarious notion of stipulating what Atheism might mean to those individuals who identify themselves as ‘Atheists,’ I approach the term in a discursive manner.  What this means is that I am more interested in how individuals use the term, how it is constructed, what ‘agency’ they give to it, and how that then dictates the way it is given meaning.  I think of the term as an ’empty signifier,’ that is then ‘defined’ by the individual filling it with their particular meaning.  What this also means is that the term itself transmutes from a ‘defined thing’ into an ‘identity.’  In this way, just as we might capitalise terms like ‘Christian,’ ‘British,’ ‘American,’ or ‘Buddhist,’ so ‘Atheist’ receives the same treatment.  This likewise removes it from the category of ‘descriptive terminology’ like ‘blonde’ or ‘short.’  This does not mean, however, that I use the term in an apologetic or promotional manner.  That is, for me, capitalising the term ‘Atheism’ does not mean that I am making the argument that it is equal to ‘Christian’ in that ‘Atheist’ signifies the title of an individual who belongs to the ‘religion’ Atheism.  While that is an extremely interesting conversation I might take up (and likely will at some point), it is not my justification here.          

Copy Editing 

This brings me to my final aspect.  With the final draft submitted, and with my use of the capitalised ‘A’ in ‘Atheism’ accepted, I awaited final approval from the copy editors.

Now, as I have stated, the editorial process was a very rewarding experience, and I am truly indebted to those individuals involved.  The copy-edited alterations are another thing entirely.  Interestingly, a colleague was going through a similar experience around the same time.  For her, the final draft that she had submitted for a chapter in an encyclopaedia came back with a number of ‘re-written’ sections, including her lead argument, thus altogether changing what she had intended to say.  While my experience was in no way this drastic, it did offer an intriguing insight to the process itself.

For me, the changes that I found were mostly structure-based.  Sentences were re-written, and arguments were restructured.  Nothing was so drastic as my friend had found.  Still, it was a bit jarring to see something I had worked on re-designed.  A similar thing happened years ago on a group project I participated in on a course about American politics in the 1960s.  The four of us involved had each elected to write about a thousand words of a group essay, which we then sent off to our group leader, who compiled it all together.  After we got the paper back a few weeks later, we all noticed that our group leader had re-written each of our contributions.  While the grade we received was not as high as we had hoped, my greatest issue with this was that the work that was evaluated under my name was not, at that point, ‘my work.’

I felt a similar feeling with the copy-editor’s re-writes.  While my experiences with the editing process at the start were quite humbling about the benefits of other’s suggestions about my writing, this seemed different.  After all, since I was being critical of Spencer’s work, I felt it should be my writing, and wholly my writing, that did that.  Otherwise, I thought, it wouldn’t be fair to him.  Fortunately, when I returned the final draft with my original writing, there was no argument and the published version appeared as I had wished.  Which brings me to a conclusive point.


Writing this book review came at a very useful time for me.  I am quickly approaching the point where I need to submit the Thesis, and after roughly four years of working on one piece of writing, it was good to have a bit of a distraction (even though the topic was still on Atheism).  However, writing this review was not just a distraction from the Thesis, it was also a healthy reminder of some important things.

  • Now that I am reaching the end of the writing process, it is proving, perhaps for no other reason than anxiety, more and more difficult to accept criticisms about the writing.  My experience with editing the review helped with that.  It reminded me that another perspective is not only useful, but important.
  • Likewise, defending my capitalisation of ‘Atheism’ was a reminder of the methodology I had adopted for the Thesis, and seeing it written out as simplistically as possible in a brief defence helped me clarify my reasoning within the Thesis.
  • Lastly, seeing the copy-editor’s re-writes, and defending my original draft, was a reminder that the Thesis is my work.  While there have been a number of individuals who have played a major and important role in helping me get it done, when I defend it, it will be my writing and no one else’s.  Defending it as such, I would argue, is quite important.

In the end, then, writing this review helped me in a number of important ways, from distracting me from the anxieties of finishing and submitting the Thesis, to reminding me of the importance of taking advice, clarifying my argument, and defending my finished product.  For these reasons, I think it is perfectly fair to say: ‘thank God for that.’

Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism

In our tutorials for Atheism in Debate this last week we discussed Feuerbach.  The week before that was Strauss, and before that was Hegel.  Understandably, its usually around this point where the energy of the course begins to wane.  In order to try and remedy this, I tend to use video clips, usually of one of the four ‘New Atheists,’ to break up the monotony of just talking about the reading.  For this round of clips I tried to find ways to connect the ‘anthropomorphism’ of Feuerbach’s deconstructive theory about religion being ‘human nature reflected, mirrored in itself,’ with the way Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens diminish religion to infantile self-creations.  For those interested, these are the clips that I chose:

As I was searching for these I came across this interesting video:

Here was a listicle of ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”  This got me thinking.  What is the difference between these ‘comedy routines’ and the statements being made by the ‘New Atheists?’  Are they not equally ‘scripted’ critiques of religion?  Do they not function the same way as the rhetorical use of the ‘Atheist discourse‘ being presented by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

I thought I’d look into this a bit more.

I came across the work of Patrick McKearney at the University of Cambridge who, for a few years, was the ‘Atheist comedy guy.’  Aside from the four conference presentations he gave on the subject (“Public Belief and Civil Society: A Case-Study of Contemporary Anti-Religious Stand-Up Comedy;” “The Ridicule of Religion in Contemporary British and Irish Stand-Up Comedy;” “‘What are you laughing at?’ The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation;” “Methods for Investigating Non-religiosity in Stand-up Comedy”), he also participated in a BBC 4 discussion on Comedy and Religion, and published two articles on the subject in The Guardian (“Heard the One about the Pope?”) and Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge (“Slap in the Faith“).  The latter is focused on issues of comedic criticism and the reactions we might see in fundamentalist religion striking back (such as we saw with the attacks against Charlie Hebdo a few months back).

Likewise, my good friend Katie Aston deals with this a little bit in her Doctoral Thesis.

So how might these comedic criticisms present a useful example of an Atheist discourse?  I believe the answer lies in some specificity.  For pragmatic reasons, then, I will be using two methodological points made by Norman Fairclough in his Analysing Discourse (2003).

First, in consideration of the utility of discourse analysis in the study of texts, let’s broaden our conception of that term itself:

“written and printed texts such as shopping lists and newspaper articles are ‘texts’, but so also are transcripts of (spoken) conversations and interviews, as well as television programmes and web-pages” (Fairclough, 2003, 4).  

In this way, these video clips, as edited versions of the stand-up comedian’s routine, are texts, filled with, and exemplary of, particular ‘language in use.’  In other words: ‘discourse.’

Second, let’s specify how we might more directly consider these texts via a three-part interpretation:

“the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (Fairclough, 2003, 10) 

In this way, we can be a bit more specific about the discourse being used, as well as establish a contextual boundary within which it emerged, was presented, and subsequently received.

These things established, let’s look at three examples, two of which were also on ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”

The first comes from Ricky Gervais, and focuses on a critical analysis of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark:

The second comes from Bill Maher, and focuses on examples of religion ‘doing harm:’

The third, and perhaps most famous, comes from George Carlin, and focuses on religion as ‘bullshit:’

From out of a cursory analysis of these three clips as ‘texts,’ we can establish a number of discursive specifics:

  • Each are reactionary, and thus present a criticism directed at a particular subject.
    • The first (Gervais) presents a critical assessment of the fictionality and inherent unbelievability of a Biblical myth through the lens of modernity.
    • The second (Maher) is directed at issues of morality, and the fact, as he sees it, that ‘religion’ is harmful and immoral.
    • The third (Carlin), like Maher, presents a critical assessment of the harmful and equally immoral dangers of religion/religious belief (though with the caveat that his ‘Sun Worship’ (not ‘prayer-to’) is still practical.
  • The ‘religion’ of their collective criticisms is somewhat vague, though we can presume via their language they are reacting against a particular monotheism, likely Christianity (though Maher intermixes this with critiques of Islam).
  • While seemingly problematic, these differences tell us a great deal about their contextual discursive language use.  Gervais’ routine was given in 2010, the same year as Maher’s.  Carlin’s routine comes from 1999.  So, we might concede that Gervais’ and Maher’s routines stem from a ‘New Atheist,’ or post-September 11th discourse, though that might be presuming a bit much.
  • However, simply as ‘texts,’ they do not tell us much about their ‘Atheisms.’  Yes, we might assume (or presume) that they are being inherently ‘Atheist’ by means of their criticisms, it is not as specific as, say, an informant telling us about his or her ‘Atheist identity,’ and how he or she has constructed that identity in a specific way.

So how might we use them as textual discursive sources?  By taking up Fairclough’s three-part interpretive method, we can begin to shift them from mere textual examples to more direct discursive ones.

  1. Learning about how they were produced (written) we can learn a great deal about the individuals doing the writing, the context that writing took place, the type of Atheism they themselves identify with, and the influences that shaped their texts based on that type of Atheism.
  2. Then, our cursory analysis (such as above) becomes a bit more nuanced.
  3. Finally, we can look at how they are received by individuals (audience or viewers) who equally identify as ‘Atheist,’ while equally deciphering how these texts assist these individuals in their own identity constructions.

By weaving these together, we begin to form a much clearer (in my opinion, at least) conception of ‘Atheism,’ such as we might use to better understand the discursive elements that influence the New Atheist clips presented above.  While this isn’t a better means of approach then conducting interviews and ethnographically shaping a textual representation, as a means of understanding the discourse that might underscore or influence the identities that make up such an ethnographic textual representation, this seems quite beneficial.  Likewise, I believe this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.’

Norman Fairclough, Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research (London: Routledge, 2003).

*As an extra bonus, here is an animated version of Louis CK (who is not an Atheist) talking about ‘God as a shitty girlfriend,’ and the oddity of ‘saying Jesus Christ with a shitty attitude.’

Origin Story

Texas is huge.  Of all the stereotypes, that is perhaps the most accurate.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  They’re all pretty accurate, depending on who you talk to, where you talk to them, what you talk about, and the current political climate, both in the US and worldwide.

I was asked recently, as I am often asked, how I ended up in Scotland.  To answer that question I needed to first tell the story about Texas, or at least about my time in Texas.  Without that story, the other one seems less fulfilled, less complete.

We ended up in Texas because my parents retired there, like many other people fleeing California’s waning economy, and we were curious why they would make such a horrible mistake.  We flew to Austin one weekend and found ourselves loving the city.  It was different, and ‘weird,’ and seemed like a fun change of venue from the California we had grown up in.  I ended up at Baylor by writing an email to the then chair of the American Studies program requesting information about their Master’s program.  He returned an email a few days later stating that he liked my interests and that, if I wished, I could begin in September.

The master’s program at Baylor, at least for the American Studies department, is equivalent to a ‘taught masters’ in the UK.  Along with a short dissertation submitted for an oral defence in the Spring of your second year, you also take a number of required courses (up to a specific number of units, in specific areas).  I attended lectures on American history and, most importantly, on Church-State relations.  These latter courses were quite intriguing.  I had not really familiarised myself at this point with the mysteries of Civil Religion, how the Supreme Court’s decisions shaped a particular discursive means of defining American religion, the role the President played in shaping that discourse, and how this all contributed to a larger sense of religion in the American context.

I finished that first degree in one year, and was asked if I might consider joining the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church State studies for a PhD.  I quite excitedly agreed.

One of the main reasons I was asked to join their department was due to my interests in Atheism, a 1/3 aspect to the topic of my dissertation (the other two parts being Fundamentalism and New Religious Movements).  Likewise, because I was a foreigner (not Texan), and because I was, for whatever reason, not shy about diving right into controversial subject matters, I was asked to be the ‘Devil’s Advocate‘ during seminars, the voice of opposition meant to challenge the opinions of the others involved.  I was, of course, not always the only person in the room who disagreed with everyone else, but on the occasions that it did occur, it was quite fun.  Additionally, I found that the other post-graduate students in the department were wonderful debaters, and our conversations and camaraderie is something I will cherish for all time.  Eventually, however, the fun came to an end, and while my eventual demise at Baylor is it’s own story that will likely appear in here one day, it’s not something worth focusing on at this moment.  For summary purposes, I’ll just say that I was not permitted to complete the doctorate.  When I asked whether I might write up another dissertation and receive a second Master’s degree, permission was granted and so I did.

The tacos were terrible.  I was told I wouldn’t be permitted to finish the PhD at a terrible Tex-Mex restaurant in a terrible part of Waco, Texas.  Which is a terrible city.  It was rumoured for some time that the department would be undergoing some changes, and this confirmed much that I had assumed would happen.  It was refreshing in a way, finally knowing the truth.  Equally, it gave me the opportunity to make decisions, to plan accordingly with full knowledge about my future.  In all honesty, I had no idea what to do next.  The terrible tacos add a sensory addition to this memory, a feeling of nausea and uncertainty that would not have made it as meaningful were it not for how bad they were.

I drove back to Austin (we would not have lived in Waco) and started thinking about options.  I contacted a previous supervisor who made the ridiculous suggestion that I look at Universities in the UK.  I had never thought of that.  Moving to Texas was a big move.  Moving to ‘Europe’ was even bigger.  Where would we live?  How would we live?  How could we afford it?  How different would our lives be?  Would we return the same people who left?  Would we return at all?

I applied and accepted an offer to the University of Edinburgh.

My topic would be Atheism.  This was, in all honesty, a bit of a mistake.  Then again, so was religious studies.  I wanted to study Art History.  Religious Studies happened because I took a class I really enjoyed and read Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.  It was like a novel, about real people, in real places, in real time, being religious.  Then I got involved with some Ninian Smart phenomenologists and the deal was sealed.

The Atheism thing only happened because it was what I was studying at Baylor, and I felt just moving on from there would be easy.  I wasn’t entirely correct.  However, it did lead me into the world of Atheist and, dare I say, ‘non-religious’ studies.  Which then led me to fiction, and a sort of return to my original plan: using aesthetic media (art, fiction, film) as a discursive source of Atheist identity construction.  I’ll get into more detail about ‘Ethnographic Criticism’ in a few weeks.

This also led me to become a part of the discursive world in Britain on the study of Atheism/non-religion.  This included conference presentations, roundtables, and blog writing.  For example, for a while now I’ve been struggling to write a post for the Non Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog, not because I didn’t know what to write, but because I was unsure about how to write it.  Mostly, because of my criticism about the term, I didn’t want to take the opportunity they were offering me to exact some sort of ill-determined attack on them.  Not only did that seem pointless, but petty.  It all has something to do with the bizarre ownership I think we all feel about our subjects.

Instead, I took the opportunity to write about my own approach, about the way I have used to the term ‘Atheism,’ and how I might use my ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’

I don’t like definitions.  In my experiences studying religion and Atheism I’ve come to dislike definitions.  This is not some sort of post-modernist idea that nothing is defined or, even worse, that everything is fiction.  Rather, my dislike of definitions stems from the inevitable and troubling notion that we need to define the terms and concepts we use in a general or abstract way.  This is what I mean by ‘definitions.’

In my post for the NSRN I tried to explain this a bit more.  In fact, the post itself is a miniaturised version of my Thesis, which is itself a culmination of my research at Baylor and the subsequent interests I have been studying here in Edinburgh.  Within it I can trace the roots back to the origins of my interests all those years ago, and my writing it, as well as their posting it, seems like a sort of sub-Chapter break in my own story about Atheism.

For this, and other reasons, I implore those interested to not only read my post, but the others there as well.  They are, I believe, not only an excellent source of the particular discourse we have created with our individual approaches, but are equally stories linked back to origins just as fictional as my own.

My post:  

The blog in general:

A Feeling of Ownership

Though perhaps not as many as others I know, I have presented at a good number of conferences.  One thing that I have learned throughout the process is the utility in using these experiences to better shape my research narrative.

Like a story in itself, the thing that we research often becomes something told and retold on so many occasions that it transforms into a part of our personal discourse.  That is, our research topic transmutes into something that describes us, and vice versa.  It becomes a part of our identity.  This is, partly, why my twitter handle is  Moreover, at the early stage, when we are focused so myopically on the PhD Thesis, this is ever more prevalent as we begin to try and describe (and in the process come to realise) what it is that we are actually researching in the first place.  This is perhaps best reflected by a friendly exchange that recently took place between myself and two other individuals who are studying Atheism/Non-Religion.

The three of us met at a cafe in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of shaping together a roundtable discussion for our Atheism in Debate course here at New College, which we each tutor on.  I wrote briefly about the course in a  previous post.  The locus of the idea came from Liam Fraser, who’s research on Atheism and Fundamentalism argues “that these apparently irreconcilable movements share a common intellectual structure, and derive from a common theological and philosophical source.”  Very interesting stuff.  The other in our group was Christopher Cotter, who I’ve mentioned previously, and who’s research at Lancaster University on the discourses that underly the social constructions of notions about Non-Religion and the ‘secular’ is definitely worth a read.

While Chris and I have known each other for a few years now, this was our first introduction to Liam, so our conversation, as so often happens when three individuals who study similar things meet for the first time, was focused as well on what Liam so aptly called our ‘elevator pitch.’  I’ve heard this phrased a number of different ways, perhaps the most popular of which is the ‘three-minute thesis,’ which is also the name of a world-wide competition that began in Australia.  In essence, the ‘three-minute thesis’ is as the title suggests, or as the website states: the reduction of an 80,000 word thesis into a three minute presentation.  It isn’t really that easy, despite the ease with which some are able to do it.  See, for example, this last year’s winner Megan Rossi:


Regrettably, I have never really tried to reduce my thesis in this manner.  So when Liam asked for my ‘elevator pitch’ he, perhaps begrudgingly, received a fairly long and detailed account of how I intend to change the academic world with my substantial and original ideas.  As I was detailing all of this to him (and Chris, who got to hear it all over again) I began to consider how this pitch not only describes what it is that I’ve done these last four years, but me as well.

This thought returned recently as I sat down to write up another conference presentation, which I will expand on a bit more later this month.  In the process, I came to realise that there exists an odd feeling of ownership to these subjects, a bizarre association with ‘Atheism’ and my name, or the way I feel as if I have some sort of hold on the notion of Atheism and fiction and Ian McEwan’s novels, the latter of which always seems to surface when I meet someone who’s read one of his books and we carry on in a special conversation only we understand.  It’s like having an exclusionary knowledge about a subject, being ‘in the know,’ or privileged in some odd way.

Whenever I find myself thinking this way I am reminded of a line Malinowski noted in his diary during his observations in New Guinea for Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa].  I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts.  Photos.  Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.[1]

Though he never, as far as we might assume, intended to publish these personal thoughts, and though their publication made way for the Writing Culture debate that would follow in the next two to three decades, I would argue that Malinowski’s own feeling of ownership is not all that surprising.  In fact, because he saw himself as the translator of Trobriand culture for the Western World, his sense that he ‘owned’ it is as equally reflective of his idea that this would be his subject.  He would introduce it to the world.  He would translate their ‘imponderabilia,’ the nuanced and specific day-to-day that only one who has lived amongst his subject might be able to understand.  He would create them.

Beyond the conversation we might have about how an observer’s textual representation (or even interpretation) might in any way equal anything akin to ‘creating a culture’ (which will come up eventually, I assure you), this might better explain what i mean by a ‘feeling of ownership.’  When we undertake these sorts of research projects, we not only immerse ourselves fully into the subject, the subject begins to infect us as well.  There becomes a blurring of sorts, a consolidation of subject and object.  This might explain why, on occasion, and especially depending on the subject of one’s research, we often get confused with what we do.  This appears infrequently in religious studies.  On a number of occasions I have been asked by friends and family if my intention is to become a ‘minister,’ or if I ‘actually believe’ what it is I study.  Likewise, this might explain the jealousy we feel when we discover someone who studies what we study, but with (horrifically) a different perspective.

While this sort of thinking resurfaces from time to time, it is not something that I would argue is entirely an inaccurate assumption.  We are our subjects, because our subjects shape our research narrative.  They play an integral role in not only shaping the story we intend to tell, but the story of that story as well.  In this way, when we reduce our research into an ‘elevator pitch’ in order to easily describe it, we are likewise finding a way to describe ourselves.  Of course, and again, I do not have an elevator pitch.  Rather, I have a blog.  This is my elevator pitch.  However, the elevator is very slow, and this building has a whole lot of stories.

So, as I once again cobble together a presentation on Atheism, Atheist Narrative, Fiction as Ethnography, Atheism in McEwan’s Fiction, and Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism, I am once again reminded that, for no other reason than the obsession it takes to fully baptise oneself in a subject, when I give this presentation I will be the one who owns it.  I will be the one to describe and create it.  Of course, that does not mean that it is entirely mine.  This is just a story I tell myself, a feeling of ownership I pretend exists, to keep me from feeling like what I have to say means something beyond the boundaries of my own thoughts.

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Norbert Guterman, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 140.

‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’

In 1992 the Fantoft Stavkirk in the borough of Fana in Bergen, Norway burned to the ground.  Originally erected in the mid-12th century in Eastern Sognefjord, and then transported in the 19th century to its present location, it was the first in a string of church burnings to take place in the early 1990s.

A stavkirk, or ‘stave church,’ gets its name from a type of medieval construction that consists of a timber-framed post and lintel design.  Once found throughout northern Europe, the majority of those still in existence are only found in Norway.  The term ‘stav’ refers to the load-bearing posts that hold the structure in place.

Though rebuilt, the Fantoft Stavekirk still shows signs of its destruction, particularly the chain link fence that surrounds the structure and the warning signs about alarm systems and closed-circuit recordings.

In 1994 Varg Vikernes (born Kristian Vikernes) was convicted for burning, or attempting to burn, the Åsane and Storetveit Churches in Bergen, the Skjold Church in Vindafjord, and the Holmenkollen Chapel in Oslo.  He was also sentenced for the murder of Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth.  burzum_aske_burning__Fantoft_Stave_ChurchHe was found not guilty of burning the Fantoft Stave Church, but has been connected to the arson both for his support of the act, as well as for the image of the burnt structure used as the cover of his album, ‘Aske’ (‘ashes’ in Norwegian).

Accusations of Satanism as the reason for these burnings have been generally established.  This derives heavily from the type of ‘Theistic Satanism’ espoused by the members of the early Norwegian black metal scene, such as that promoted by bands such as ‘Mayhem,’ ‘Emperor,’ ‘Thorns,’ and Vikernes’ ‘Burzum.’  Also known as the ‘Black Circle,’ this group of individuals established an ideological discourse of misanthropy, an inverse Christianity that focused more on promoting ‘evil,’ rather than on any sort of Satanic philosophy.

Admittedly, this discourse is not something I know all that much about.  In fact, for anyone interested in this topic, I would highly recommend these sources:

  • The work of Asbjørn Dyrendal in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • The doctoral work of Cimminnee Holt at Concordia University, Montreal.
  • Michael Moynihan’s book on the subject, The Lords of Chaos.
  • The work of Jesper Aagaard Petersen in the Programme for Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • The work of Titus Hjelm at the University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
  • The 2008 film ‘Until the Light Takes Us,’ which chronicles the black metal movement’s ideologies. 

As well, it is not the focus of this post.  Rather, my interests herein have to do with a comment made in passing with a friend about the Stave Church and the fact that it was burned by a ‘Satanist.’  When discussing the burning and the black metal scene in Norway, this individual, knowing I research Atheist discourses, and perhaps feeling it might be interpreted as a compliment to Atheism, stated: ‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’

While there is much to be said about the accuracy of this casual assurance, regardless of the intricate discursive details that could support or refute its simple categorisation, it reminded me of a theory I put forth a few years ago in a paper presented in a seminar at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

As occurred on occasion during this time, and a bit over the years since, I have found myself unwittingly defending Atheism against accusations of seemingly bizarre connections.  One of these, which does not happen often, but still with enough occurrence that it warrants a bit of a chuckle, is the idea that Atheists believe in/worship/support Satan/Satanism.  In their defence, these individuals’ ideas are likely the result of discursively combining what they deem as ‘evil’ into a singular abstraction.  For them, Atheists have denied God, and are thus evil, just as Satanists have taken up with God’s opposite, and are thus equally evil.  Regardless of the fact that an individual who denies the existence of God might still believe that God’s opposite might then still exist is a bit logically absurd, this sort of thinking is more about categorising an individual as an opposite of oneself, rather than constructing any sort of accurate description.

This got me thinking, partly because I was asked to be the contrarian in the room for these seminars, the voice of opposition or devil’s advocate that might inspire more passionate discussion.  Is there a connection between Satanism and Atheism, beyond the shared similarity of ‘evilness’ in the eyes of certain individuals?  That is, is there a connection beyond this sort of generalised stereotype?  So, I looked at two origins of each term: the first derived from a particular means of defining a particular discursive example of Atheism, and the second from the context of its usage in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.


As I’ve written about previously, the concept ‘Atheism’ is one that is not easily determined, regardless of the fact that we might perceive it as such due to the inherent nature of it being the ‘belief (or absence of belief) in the existence of God.’  In fact, the history of its definition is one of abstraction and creativity, demarcated by historical representations and theoretical stipulations.  What this equates to is a discourse that is not altogether cohesive.  Which is neither a bad thing, nor is it in any way detrimental.  That is, of course, as long as we are not set on defining the term in a manner that might be representative of any and all types, uses, and iterations.  If this is our goal, then this becomes quite an issue.  Which might explain why we have so many additions to the latter, theoretical, category.

Instead, if we focus our attention on the historical definitions, that is, the definitions of the term based on real people in real places and at real times, either called ‘Atheist’ or who identify as such, then we turn toward discursive interpretations.  These are ‘definitions’ that are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong.’  Instead, they simply exist as examples, as contributions to a larger discourse about what we mean when we talk about Atheism.

Within this category we find examples of what has been demarcated as ‘ancient Atheism,’ labeled as such in regard to the way it differs from ‘modern Atheism.’  While this is a discussion that will likely re-occur throughout this particular discourse on the subject, to summarise, this differentiation is made by two specific actions: imputation and self-description.  In cases of the former, Atheism is a term used to describe an other, particularly an other who, through his beliefs and arguments, has acted against the status quo of the state.  These individuals are deemed ἄθεος.  In etymological terms, they are ‘without god.’  Now, this takes on a number of different types of ‘absence,’ from Socrates’ corruption charge for turning the youth of Athens away from worshipping certain gods, to Milesian philosophers like Prodicus of Keos who used philosophical logic to argue that the gods were in fact, as Euripides’ Sisyphus also argues, created by man to make sense of one’s day-to-day needs.

One of the underlying themes of this ‘ancient Atheism’ is a sense of doubt.  This doubt, likewise based on the individual expressing it, fluctuates from mere hesitation in believing something outright, to more direct rejection or disbelief.  We see this evinced by philosophical arguments that we might, from a modern perspective, deem ‘Atheistic.’  For example, consider Anaxagoras’ argument that the sun, heliosrather than the god Helios moving across the sky, is in fact just a molten ball of iron.  Or the naturalistic arguments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes who defended the idea that nature and the natural world could be understood without an allegiance to mythology.  These are unique types of doubt, reflective of individuals who questioned the prevailing or popular beliefs of their time.

As discursive examples of ἄθεος these illustrations of doubt lead us to the notion that Satan, as a concept itself, embodies a particular type of Atheism.


In its Biblical manifestations the notion of ‘Satan’ is, in many ways, as difficult to clarify as Atheism.  For summary purposes here, we might distinguish different discursive examples, designed and determined by the way the term is used.  This, we might even further resolve, is divisible between ‘Satan-as-concept’ and ‘Satan-as-character.’

Beginning with Numbers 22:32, the term ‘Satan’ (שָׂטָן) meant ‘opponent’ or ‘adversary:

The angel of the Lord asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?  I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.

This continues in 1 Samuel 29:4, in reference to David amongst the Philistines:

But the Philistine commanders were angry with him and said, ‘Send the man back, that he may return to the place you assigned him.  He must not go with us into battle, or he will turn against us (opponent, שָׂטָן) during the fighting.

Again, this notion of ‘Satan’ as ‘adversary is repeated in 2 Samuel 19:35 (“This day you have become my adversaries!”); 1 Kings 5:4 (“But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster.”); 1 Kings 11:15 (“Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary”); and 1 Kings 11:23 and 11:25.

While these examples represent an adversarial or oppositional position, in the Book of Job, the term is not only embodied by an individual (Satan-as-character), it is also imbued with the overall sense of doubt that becomes commonplace with the concept itself.  In this manifestation שָׂטָן becomes a necessary entity for God, a position of Devil’s advocate, without whom God would not be able to prove the fealty of His creation.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.  The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’

Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.’

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’

‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied.  ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)

Once again, ‘Satan,’ though embodied as an angel (son of God) presenting himself before God, is the representation of an adversary, an individual who, when presented with certain facts, responds with doubtful criticism.  This occurs, almost in an exact manner, in Job’s second test:

On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him.  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’

Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.’

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.’

‘Skin for skin!’  Satan replied.  ‘A man will give all he has for his own life.  But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.’

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. (Job 2: 1-7)

In the Gospel narratives, this doubtful characteristic becomes something more personal and direct, a character (known here also as ‘Devil’ or ‘διὰβολος’) who exists in order to once again present a pragmatic challenge, the resolution of which assists in directing the narrative itself toward a certain conclusion.

In Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13 Satan (σατανᾶ) directly tempts Jesus in the desert, a necessary evil in order to further determine Jesus as the Christ, an act of identity formation wherein a certain individual is defined by his interaction with an opposition.

Later, this same sort of oppositional necessity is depicted by Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 in the act of Satan ‘entering’ Judas, thus causing his betrayal.  In this way, Satan acts as a conceptual entity, the notion of Judas here enacting a necessary deed in order to fulfil the prophecy of Christ as a sacrificial lamb.  Though this appears as the ‘work of Satan,’ we might also see it as the work of doubt or opposition.

As a narrative device, the notion of ‘Satan,’ a title that functions as a pun, creates a dichotomous relationship between certain characters.  Almost mimetic of metaphorical or allegorical character development within a milieu prepared and designed for such formational interactions, the idea of Satan is one of narrative utility.


In combining the lexical process of being deemed an ἄθεος (scepticism, doubt, critical debate) with the doubt, opposition, and adversarial nature of Satan (שָׂטָן; διὰβολος) we might confortably conclude here that Satan is, in fact, a representative sort of Atheism.  Which brings us back to the Fantoft Stave Church, its demise at the hands of ‘Satanists,’ and my friend’s assurance that ‘at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’  In this sense, my friend was in fact incorrect.  Etymologically speaking, or even conceptually speaking, Satan is an Atheistic character, designed for the sole purpose of driving along the narrative toward a particular conclusion.  Satan is, in this manifestation, not only an Atheist, but a necessity as well.

My theory, then, might be summarised as such: as a discursive concept, and when interpreted from within the context in which it was established, the notion of ‘Satan’ shares enough of the characteristics that we might find in certain discursive manifestations of Atheism.  In this way, Satan was an early Atheist.  Does this make any sort of modern Satanist an Atheist?  No.  After all, discourses are plastic things, and they change and alter over time.  Just as ‘Atheist’ has come to mean a number of different things to a number of different people over the millennia, Satan has as well.  Of course, I might argue on the side of the illogically absurd notion that since these two concepts, when isolated within the borders of certain Western monotheistic milieux, originated from similar sources, and are thus inextricably linked to a distinct genesis.  Then again, that might just be me playing devil’s advocate again.


Jan M. Bremmer, “Atheism in Antiquity” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Michael J. Buckley, “Introduction” in Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

A.B. Drachmann, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (Chicago: Ares Publishing, 1922).

David Ferguson, “Atheism in Historical Perspective,” in David Ferguson, Faith and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Donald E. Hartley, ‘HEB 11:6—A Reassessment of the Translation ‘God Exists’ (Trinity Journal, 27, 2, 2006).

Charles H. Kahn, “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment” (Phronesis. Vol. 42, No. 3, 1997).

John Navone, “Satan Returns,” (The Furrow, Vol. 26, No. 9, 1975).

Elaine Pagels, “The Social History of Satan, the “Intimate Enemy”: A Preliminary Sketch,” (The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.84, No. 2 Apr., 1991).

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

J.P. Reid and B. Mondin, eds., “Atheism” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 2003).

T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

The Bible: The New International Version.

Assholes: A Theory of New Atheism

Is New Atheism New?

This week we begin a new semester of tutoring, and for the third time I have the privilege to tutor on a course at New College called ‘Atheism in Debate: Dawkins and his Allies.’  While the last two versions of this course have found progressive successes, not only in bringing in students, but also in how the content is presented, there have been, as might be expected, a few complaints.[1]  However, overall it would seem a marginal success.

Of all the discussion points that resurface each year, one has perhaps been brought up more often than any others: the question of comparison.  How, we are often asked, are the New Atheists similar to the ‘old’ ones?  Or, said otherwise, how is New Atheism in any way ‘new?’ These are indeed precarious questions.  After all, when we look at the larger discourse that feeds into the definition of Atheism, we might argue that, in fact, New Atheism is not all that new.  Rather, and as our course tends to conclude, New Atheism is merely the repetition of many of the facets of ‘old’ Atheism.

For instance, one might consider the philosophical positions of those who contribute to the discourse that forms this ‘old’ Atheism, such as Voltaire, Hume, Strauss, Marx, Feuerbach, Hegel, or Nietzsche, in comparison to the critiques made by the New Atheists.  Many of these same thoughts are, presumably, ‘recycled.’

However, I might offer a discursive defence of New Atheism here.  Yes, we might see similarities between these two Atheisms, or even almost identical critiques in Harris’ The End of Faith or Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Yet, I would argue this sort of criticism overlooks the much larger distinction of contextualization, so that, even though the criticisms made by these ‘New Atheists’ seem like recycled arguments from the ‘old Atheists,’ they are still being made in completely different contextual milieux.  The time in which Strauss was writing his Life of Jesus, or Voltaire his Candide is not the same as the context that birthed Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Hitchens’ God is not Great.  That is, while I would agree that through comparison we might not find anything inherently ‘new’ about New Atheism, I would also concede that it arose out of an entirely different time and place, and thus offers us, if nothing else, an insight into that context so that we might locate why and how these particular critiques took shape.

In this way, the New Atheism is a discursive product.  The language used is that of particular individuals in a particular time, and in particular places.  For me, then, trying to compare or contrast the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ fundamentally overlooks the fact that comparisons are not necessary, and, what’s worse, can become abstractions, distracting us from finding value in each of these ‘types’ of Atheism as discursive or cultural data. Yet, New Atheism as a title still persists.  Is that a wholly negative issue?  Yes and no.  On one end, giving even a nominal distinction to this discursive sample engenders a dichotomous perspective, demanding a comparison, and leading us back to those same abstractions where we might find ourselves lost amongst an apologetical argument that one is more ‘genuine’ or ‘original’ than the other.  On the other end, we have the issue of too slack a distinction.

In this way, we might find ourselves, such as occurs in the larger discussion of the definitions of Atheism or ‘religion,’ with having to contend with the differentiation between ‘nominal’ and ‘virtual’ terminology: the former denoting a word that can be used in any number of iterations, and the latter denoting a use of that word in a more unique or specific way (see Jenkins 2008).  This also brings us into discussions about the differences between real or essential definitions (terms that act to summarise the ‘essence’ of a thing) and lexical or historical ones (terms that have particular meaning to particular individuals at particular times [see Baird 1991]). While these are worthwhile discussions, and are quite pertinent to the issue at hand, this is neither the time nor place to truly devote our attention to such issues.  Rather, I will from here on adopt a perspective that might be deemed more on the side of the virtual or lexical, and try to make some sense out of the persistent question concerning the ‘newness’ of New Atheism within the context of it as a discursive source.

Assholes: A Theory

The erudite and somewhat famous theorist of religion, Ninian Smart, was said to have a method of teaching that perfectly exemplified his notion of epoche.  A practice employed by researchers and lecturers, ‘epoche’ essentially means the suspension of one’s disbelief, a pragmatic mindset utilised in order to remove the individual from either interpreting or Ninian_Smartpresenting the concept religion with any sort of confessional bias.  For Smart, this did not mean the complete abandonment of one’s personal beliefs, but rather was a means with which the researcher/lecturer might objectively approach a subject like religion without muddling the data with subjective opinions.

After all, we might remark, studying something is not the same as advocating it, just as studying that same thing is not the same as being without an opinion about it.  It’s a fine line, indeed, but in the pursuit of objectivity it’s always useful to recognise and acknowledge the utility of these sorts of distinctions.

As the stories go, Smart would stand on one side of the lectern (let’s say the right) when lecturing, giving ‘just the facts.’  When asked, or when he felt inclined to do so, he would switch to the other side (the left) and give his opinion.  This bipolarity would, one might imagine, be quite entertaining, especially when dealing with religious beliefs and practices that might seem ‘taboo’ or ‘provocative’ to a particular audience. For my intentions herein, this little anecdote is quite useful.  While I (on the right side) approach Atheism as a discursive term, something that is imbued with meaning through the use of particular language by particular people in particular times and places, and thus approach it with a strict objectivity, that doesn’t mean that on the left side I do not have an opinion of my own.  However, I also might acknowledge that a strict binary between these sides is not always the most useful.  Thus, the following theoretical approach might be best understood as a sort of ‘tacking,’ a ‘back-and-forth’ approach that demonstrates both a right and left side perspective.

For me, what makes New Atheism new is that the New Atheists are assholes.

In his, Assholes: A Theory, the political philosopher Aaron James defines an asshole as someone not only immune to his or her own criticisms, but who, when criticised with the same sort of language, feels that he or she is, in fact, an unprovoked victim.  assholesIn summary, his brief definition states:

Our theory is simply this: a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people. (4-5)

More focused on a few ‘stereotypical’ examples, such as demonstrated by individuals like US General Stanley McChrystal, US General Douglas MacArthur, Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson, and Ann Coulter, an asshole is someone who, like these individuals, believes their opinion to not only be correct, but infallible via a sense of privilege.  In three parts, this is as follows:

(1)   allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;

(2)   does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and

(3)   is immunised by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. (5)

To further define this individual, and in order to lead me toward my association of New Atheism and James’ theory itself, he offers a few more examples:

So, for example, the asshole is the person who habitually cuts in line.  Or who frequently interrupts in a conversation.  Or who weaves in and out of lanes in traffic.  Or who persistently emphasises another person’s faults.  Or who is extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to his crustiness with others. (5)

Now, to differentiate the asshole from, say, a ‘jerk,’ the former is defined by inclinations or incentives:

What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way.  the asshole acts out a firm sense that he is special, that the normal rules of conduct do not apply to him. (5-6)

Thus, because the asshole is immune to his or her own criticism, and because he or she sees him or herself as unique or different or special, he or she equally becomes incensed by the beliefs or opinions of others:

Because the asshole sets himself apart from others, he feels entirely comfortable flouting accepted social conventions, almost as a way of life.  Most important, he lives this way more or less out in the open.  He stands unmoved when people indignantly glare or complain.  He is ‘immunised’ against anyone who speaks up, being quite confident that he has little need to respond to questions about whether the advantages he allows himself are acceptable and fair.  Indeed, he will often himself feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised. (6)

New Atheism and Assholes:

New Atheists are assholes because their language (discourse) is imbued with the sort of criticism James associates with the definition above.  They are overly critical of a particular position, and yet they feel as if they are immune to counter criticism because their position is incapable of being incorrect.

This is partly shaped by the style of their arguments, the way they seem, with such ease and skill, to set up straw man positions, only to easily knock them down.  Look at Harris’ opening characterisation in The End of Faith.  The-End-of-Faith-283644After giving a short description of a young man who has detonated himself on a full public bus, he casually, with almost Dan Brown efficiency, refers to these as ‘the facts:’

These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on- it easy—to guess the young man’s religion? (11)

In a note at the end of this characterisation, he offers a description and some details about a Sri Lankan separatist movement known as the Liberations Tigers of Tamil Eelam.  However, this does not mean that the description of the young man on the bus is in any way based in fact.  We might ask, why?  Why not just provide a detailed and cited description?  Why make something up?

As an introductory statement about his treatment of ‘religion’ this fictionalisation perhaps best describes his asshole nature.  Rather than engage with these sorts of atrocities in a manner that might be conducive to a rational or objective criticism, he instead creates a violent example that he then uses to demonstrate his larger criticism of religion as inherently violent.  As he blithely states with the cited paragraph above, associating this sort of action with religion is a trivial connection, so easy, in fact, you could bet your life on it.

While each of the four New Atheists (which I would argue wholly embody the concept ‘New Atheism)’ use this same sort of argument in their own ways, they are not equal in their assholeness.  In fact, Dennett, whose career as a philosopher has distinguished him as a rather erudite examiner of cognition and scientific philosophy seems somewhat out-of-place in this discourse.  Aside from the fact that his argument in Breaking the Spell breaking the spellthat religion could, and should, be scientifically examined, might be roughly dismissed if someone merely walked him across his campus to the Religious Studies department, the language he uses is not altogether that of an asshole.  On the other hand, Dawkins is perhaps the larger asshole of the group.  god is not greatThough Hitchens comes in a close second, Dawkins’ vocal and vehement language, as well as his seemingly evangelical passion, easily characterises his asshole nature.  god delusionIn fact, as perhaps the predominant voice in shaping the New Atheist discourse, his being an asshole is what really shapes this discourse in this way.

There are a myriad of examples to cite here.  Perhaps too many.  Here are just a few.

One of the possible reasons Dawkins seems like such an asshole is the fact that in his obsession with arguing the inherent violence and uselessness of religion, he is betraying the objectivity of his position as a biologist.  One might even ask why a biologist would be in any way interested in religion, which is all too obvious given his extremely poor, almost amateur level of criticism in The God Delusion.  What’s interesting here, though, is that his need to point out the problems of religion seems to overpower his notion that there is, in fact, grandeur to be found in his scientific worldview.  Look at the opening discussion in the trailer of his and Lawrence Krauss’ The Unbelievers:

When asked which is more important, teaching the beauty and majesty of science, or ‘destroying religion,’ his hesitation, and then later acceptance toward the latter, is quite telling.  First off, why would anyone assume that he might actually be able to do so, even with the power of scientific discovery on his side?  Second, rather than promoting something that he finds more useful or beneficial than religion, he would prefer the latter, to point out the negative aspects instead.  A clear ‘asshole move.’

Interestingly, his asshole nature is even utilised by others.  For example, in the first year of our course on Atheism in Debate, one of our guest lecturers played the following video clip, not just because it provides a useful sample of the sort of ‘asshole Atheism’ that Dawkins himself seems to promote, but because it equally demonstrates how his Atheism is used by others to facilitate debate.

The part of this clip discussed in that lecture begins around the 2:40 mark.  Dawkins has joined the circle ‘on stage’ and immediately begins his all too expected attack on religion, particularly aimed at mormonism, embodied by another guest, Brandon Flowers (the lead singer of The Killers).  Note the way he describes the Book of Mormon as a ‘modern fake,’ the product of a charlatan or crook, the way he vehemently attacks his opponent with no real provocation.

This not only demonstrates Dawkins’ asshole nature, it also exhibits the way he represents a discursive entity.  Judging by the way this conversation goes, by the way it is directed by the host, by what Dawkins says, and the fact the Brandon is given really no time to defend himself, this clip provides for us an insight into how others view and use particular discourses to their benefit.  As the signature asshole Atheist, Dawkins has become a useful example.  He is placed across an adherent to a religious belief system that he would, presumably, disagree with, and is then prompted to respond about Mormonism as if the person across from him stands as an equal representative of his objections.  One could even hypothesise that prior to his joining the group ‘on stage’ he was prepared ‘backstage’ with points about the discussion, yet not told, perhaps pragmatically, that his opponent in this debate would be whisked away without given the chance to respond.  In fact, around the 4:46 and 5:00 minute mark it looks almost as if Dawkins is embarrassed by his actions, even apologising to Brandon, as if he was unaware that he would be leaving without the chance to defend himself.

This gives us a glimpse at the asshole realising he has been an asshole, and then regretting, even briefly, his asshole nature.

As a last example, we might look at his ever-entertaining comments on twitter, two of which should suffice for this analysis.  The first, focused on his opinion about aborting a child discovered to have Down Syndrome, presents the sort of language inherent in James’ definitions above.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.22.26

While the opening line is a somewhat benign representation of someone’s opinion, its the second part of the tweet that truly demonstrates his sense of immunised and entitled beliefs.  Perhaps this is reading a bit too much into the ‘tone’ of the words here, but it nonetheless reads like a pre-emptive defence of what he might perceive as an attack on his equitable logic.

Next, we have his opinion on rape.  While we could easily discuss the way he might be categorising different ‘types’ of rape here, its really his response that earns his language here true asshole status.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.25.15

Again, the tone is pre-emptive.  It even inspired a secondary rejoinder:

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.26.20

His tone here, his inability to accept that what he has said might be misconstrued or misunderstood outside of his initial intention, not only shows a lack of empathy, but also a type of arrogance, a refusal to acknowledge that his language might be understood in a malignant manner.  In other words, it reads like the words of an asshole.

Are Atheists Assholes?

There is perhaps an easy comparison to be made between the asshole mentality of New Atheism and the criticism that shapes Atheism-in-general.  Atheism is, if we define the term within the context of a modern world, a position built upon the rejection or denial of another person’s position.  It is, in this modern manifestation, an ‘A-Theism,’ and is thus dependent upon Theism in order to exist.  This, then, makes it a critical position.  After all, to be simply ‘without God,’ an etymological reading of the term promoted by advocates of separating the concept between positive (explicit) and negative (implicit) notions, is not the same thing as shaping one’s identity on the belief that another’s belief is not true.

So are Atheists assholes?  If so, is the asshole nature of New Atheism proof of this?  That is, as New Atheism is a lexical example of Atheism-in-general, does it not depict the latter as having an inherent asshole nature?

No.  Or maybe.  That’s not really my point here.

Rather, my use of the theory of the asshole has not meant to impute this notion onto Atheists or Theists, or anyone in a ‘general’ sense.  Instead, I have used it herein to dictate a particular discursive source, to create a border around a distinct lexical field, so that we might make better sense of a smaller part of the larger Atheist whole.  As a discursive unit, the asshole nature of New Atheism does not necessarily mark it as ‘new’ in the sense that it is in any way different or unique from the ‘old’ Atheism.  Nor should it be seen as a definitional assessment of Atheism in a general manner.  Alternatively, its use as a boundary marker represents a type of utility, a pragmatic separation used not so much to acknowledge New Atheism as new, but as a distinct discourse in and of itself.

Further Reading:

Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Doubleday, 2012).

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006).

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Warner, 2007).

Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Richard Jenkins, Social Identity, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religion, 2nd ed. (Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1991).

See also this useful video of the four New Atheist authors in a roundtable discussion:

[1] For example, perhaps the largest complaint we have received has been about the lack of discussion on the four New Atheist texts themselves, replaced, it seems, by a more predominant focus on 17th-20th century European philosophy in order to critique New Atheism as providing nothing ‘new.’  While this did indeed cause a few issues in the beginning, the amendments to the course over the years have endeavoured to address this.

The Bone Wars

Ever since I first learned of the term, I have not been the most avid fan of ‘non-religion.’ It’s always felt a bit too general, a little too ambiguous, and fairly equivocal in its meaning. Perhaps my greatest critique, though, is its use of ‘religion.’ As a relational term, the ‘non-religious’ individual is defined by their relationship to ‘religion’ which, for quite some time now, has been a term we just can’t seem to define with any certainty. So, for me, using ‘non-religion’ is like saying we’ve somehow figured out what ‘religion’ is, even if that just reflects our acceptance that it is a category ‘defined’ in yet an equally broad or general manner. One of my favorite requests of colleagues who us it, then, is to provide a definition of religion against which they are using ‘non-religion’ relationally. This has provided fun discussions, and at times erudite descriptions and defenses. I’m still not quite convinced.

While this post is about my dislike of ‘non-religion,’ it is also a criticism of the discourse within which the term ascended: the theoretical approach of defining and examining tricky terminology by creating, using, and promoting new terms, which I discussed briefly in last week’s post on Rumsfeldian Atheism. So, while ‘non-religion’ might seem to get the brunt of my discussion here, it is also aimed at terms like ‘ir-religion,’ ‘un-belief,’ or ‘positive and negative’ Atheism. To borrow their own language, then, I am using ‘non-religion’ here in a relational manner, allowing it to stand in as the direct representative for what I determine as ‘terminological abstractions.’

Which brings us to this post, and a look back. My first face-to-face encounter with ‘non-religion’ was at the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s conference in 2012, held at Goldsmith’s University in London. I was very new to the field, and was thus a bit ill-prepared, so my attempt to criticize the term itself was perhaps a bit too mired in tangential humor. However, I still think the argument stands, which is why it is presented herein. First, though, and before delving into my criticism, I believe ‘non-religion’ deserves a fair introduction, which I present here with minimal commentary.


The term itself, upon which the research organization The NSRN has built its foundation, stems from Lois Lee’s Doctoral Thesis, “Being Secular: Towards Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion, and Epistemological Culture,” as well as a number of subsequent publications.[1] However, for the definition of ‘non-religion’ I will be using two sources connected to the NSRN, one from a description of their research agenda, and the other from their glossary of terms.

From the ‘about’ section of their page:

The two concepts of nonreligion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious (see Lee, 2012). Thus, the NSRN’s research agenda is inclusive of a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as most forms of secularism, humanism and, indeed, aspects of religion itself. It also addresses theoretical and empirical relationships between nonreligion, religion and secularity.[2]

From the glossary:

Something which is defined primarily by the way it differs from religion. E.g.s might then include atheism, ‘indifference’ to religion and agnosticism would all be examples. Humanism would not be an example (although empirical cases of humanism may well be considered profoundly nonreligious in practice). Alternative spirituality would not be included where this spirituality is defined fundamentally by its autonomous principles and practices.[3]

With these two examples we get a better idea about why the term itself was constructed and how it might be made useful. They also provide what I feel is the ‘double-edge’ issue of using this sort of terminology. On one end, it provides a pragmatic, even practical, signifier that can summarize and house any and all sorts of relatable concepts under a general canopy. In this way, when we discuss individuals who share ideologies such as ‘Atheism’ or ‘agnosticism’ or ‘humanism,’ but do not wish to be labeled as such, using a term like ‘non-religion’ alleviates the issue of externally defining an individual rather than simply allowing them to internally define themselves. This, perhaps, works best when conducting sociological or survey-based quantitative research. On the other hand though, using a general term, even in all its practicality, might create larger issues concerning clarity. As well, and like I cited in my introductory critique, this also leads to a somewhat normative notion about what we mean by ‘religion.’ This, perhaps, is more problematic when conducting qualitative research.

So, while I definitely see the merits in using such general terminology, I still believe the bad outweighs the good. Moreover, I have frequently felt that constructing a new term, rather than focusing on a singular term that would then contribute to the discourse being formed by our collective examinations, seemed more like an impractical abstraction. Classifying all of us under a canopy might make practical sense in a sociological manner, but for the sake of clarity—perhaps even ethnographic clarity—this sort of generalization does more harm than good.

This argument took up the root of my presentation at the NSRN conference, which, with all its tangential and anecdotal non-sensory aside, I hope will make better sense of my argument.

Dinosaur Disparity

In 1877 Othniel Charles Marsh, a professor and paleontologist at Yale University, documented and published the discovery of a number of large vertebrae that he associated under the genera ‘sauropod.’ He named this specimen, Apatosaurus, or ‘deceptive lizard.’ Soon after, he documented another find, the largest, partially in-tact fossilized remains of any sauropod ever discovered. He named this one Brontosaurus, or ‘thunder lizard.’ While this might seem like an innocuous series of events, the discovery of these two dinosaurs speaks directly to the issue of terminological disparity, mostly because the latter dinosaur, Brontosaurus, never technically existed. Rather, what Marsh labeled as an entirely new species—Brontosaurus—was really just an adult specimen of the smaller Apatosaurus vertebrae. Thus, the Brontosaurus never really existed. It has always been an Apatosaurus.

While on the surface this presents an issue of taxonomic accuracy, which I will discuss below, the underlying problem concerning accuracy doesn’t become a major issue until a century later in October 1989. In that year, and as a promotional ‘tie-in’ with the video cassette release of Universal Picture’s The Land Before Time, the United States Postal Service released four ‘dinosaur stamps’ with the images of a Pteranadon, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus, and Stegosaurus.

stampland before time

For the Postal Service, these stamps were meant to provide more scientific depictions of the dinosaurs featured in the film. For the scientific community, however, they merely represented a misguided insult. Not only did they dismiss the fact that the Pteranadon was, in fact, not a dinosaur, but their perpetuated use of ‘Brontosaurus’ demonstrated an allegiance to familiarity rather than accuracy. After all, these were teaching aids, and they were teaching the wrong information.

Of course, the US Postal Service is not alone in its guilt. This is an issue that has carried on worldwide, demonstrating a discursive allegiance to the generally familiar mistake.  For example:


This becomes an especially troubling issue when one considers the role commercial marketing plays in the discursive construction of conceptual identities. Consider, for example, the beloved ‘Littlefoot” in The Land Before Time, and the 13 sequels that have perpetuated his likeness as a ‘Brontosaurus.’

littlefootScreen Shot 2014-12-16 at 17.21.36

Then again, the blame of perpetuating this mistake is not solely the fault of stamps and blockbuster animated films.

In fact, the popular misidentification of Brontosaurus has been happening since 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur helped spawn a number of Lost World themed comics all depicting a sauropod titled ‘Brontosaurus.’


Equally guilty is the marketing campaign of Sinclair Oil, which has used the image and name of the Brontosaurus since their two-ton animatronic sauropod was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and then re-cycled again in the New York World’s Fair’s Dinoland in 1964.


Walt Disney, of course, also has a hand in furthering this mistake, specifically for his use of the term ‘Brontosaurus’ in 1940’s Fantasia, a film that not only perpetuated the incorrect name, but also featured a battle between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Stegosaurus, an impossible interaction as the latter had been extinct for at least 80 million years before former ruled the Cretaceous period.


Even today, this controversy carries on in books and toys and hideous t-shirts, proving that when marketed properly, an incorrect term can over-power and even supplant an accurate one.


While I might conclude here, using the metaphor of the perpetuation of an incorrect, yet popularized term as a warning about the use of constructed definitions for the sake of generality, it is the genesis of this disparity, not just the disparity itself, that I believe offers an even clearer argument.

The Bone Wars

Between 1872 and 1892 two men, Edward Drinker Cope

copeand Othniel Charles Marsh,


vied for paleontological superiority, going to outrageous—almost comical—lengths to out-accomplish one another with discoveries and publications. They lied about their findings, stole specimens, sabotaged each other’s digs, and forged their data. They constructed whole skeletons using a ‘splitting’ technique, the combination of fossilized remains from completely unrelated sources, mixing bones of different age, sex, and species to create a more complete—and generalized—specimen. For example, Marsh used the skull of a Camarasaurus to complete the incomplete skeleton of his Brontosaurus, altering the way he and other paleontologists assessed the eating habits and environments of his greatest find.

splitting Brontosaurus body with Camarasaurus head splitting2

splitting4 Brontosaurus body with Apatosaurus head splitting3

Moreover, this equally led to a vague description, and drawing, further occluding the facts about the correlation between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus

bro skello

Brontosaurus excelsus, gen. et sp. nov.

  “One of the largest reptiles yet discovered has been recently brought to light, and a portion of the remains are now in the Yale collection. This monster apparently belongs in the Sauropoda, but differs from any of the known genera in the sacrum, which is composed of five thoroughly co-ossified verte-bras. In some other respects it resembles Morosaurus. The ilium is of that type, and could hardly be distinguished from that of M. robustus, excepting by its larger size. One striking peculiarity of the sacrum in the present genus is- its comparative lightness, owing to the extensive cavities in the vertebrae, the walls of which are very thin.

  The lumbar vertebras have their centra constricted, and also contain large cavities. The caudals are nearly or quite solid. The chevrons have their articular heads separate. The sacrum of this animal is, approximately, 50 inches (l-27m) in length. The last sacral vertebra is 292°TM in length, and 330mm in transverse diameter across the articular face. A detailed description of these remains will be given in a subsequent communication. They are from the Atlantosaurus beds of Wyoming. The animal was probably seventy or eighty feet in length.” [4]

As might be expected from this sort of confrontation, their feud bred factions, so that the next generation of palaeontologists, whose job it was to make sense of this chaos, took up sides within either camp.

One of these individuals was Henry Fairfield Osborn, osborn a contemporary of Cope’s, who took it as his personal duty to destroy Marsh’s reputation and undermine all of his findings, particularly his sauropod specimens. To do this, he divided Marsh’s collections into synonymous taxonomies, using terminology that seemed similar, but still different, so as to deconstruct the larger concept into something that appeared otherwise ambiguous or dubious. What this also meant was a shift in terminology, not only removing Marsh’s influence in how these specimens were labeled, but altering them in such a way as to support his own stipulations.

Later, and in order to condense Osborn’s taxonomies into something more cohesive, Elmer Samuel Riggs, riggs conducted his own survey, concluding even more decidedly—and objectively, as well—that many of the discoveries made by both men were equally synonymous. Most pertinent to this discussion here, he proclaimed with finality that Marsh’s notorious Brontosaurus was not in fact a unique species, but was rather a mislabeled adult skeleton of the previously discovered Apatosaurus.

After examining the type specimens of these genera, and making a careful study of the unusually well-preserved specimen described in this paper, the writer is convinced that [Marsh’s] Apatosaur specimen is merely a young animal of the form represented in the adult of the Brontosaur specimen. …In fact, upon the one occasion that Professor Marsh compared these two genera he mentioned the similarity between…their respective types. In view of these facts, the two genera may be regarded as synonymous. As the term “Apatosaurus” has priority, “Brontosaurus” will be regarded as a synonym [5]

With just a few sentences, Riggs made the closing statement on the issue of the Brontosaurus, demoting it from an identified thing, to a synonymous mistake.

Yet, and even though attempts at correcting this inaccuracy are constant reminders of the Apatosaurus’ true identity,

apato correct

Brontosaurus still lives on. This is perhaps mostly the result of public discourse, of the way a term is consumed and propagated, and thus crystalized by its very usage. It is also, I might add, a warning against using synonymous—generalized—terminology in place of more correct terms.


One might think that this critical little anecdote about the dangers of terminological creativity is my attempt at promoting the term ‘Atheism’ above the term ‘non-religion.’ This would be, as I hope to elucidate, an incorrect perception. Rather, my criticism is not made here to promote my own work, but rather to suggest a bit more caution.

That is, I would argue that the ‘bone wars’ represents an ideal correlation to the discourse that develops out of an emerging field, such as the study of Atheism, non-religion, humanism, secularity, etc. Likewise, I think it in many ways echoes the difficulty in attempting to find a singular group identity out of the variants that we produce in our research. Like the larger field of Religious Studies, we are each providing a discursive sample of a larger entity, so that a general definition, such as ‘non-religion,’ though pragmatically used to provide a canopy under which we might all co-exist, is just as disparaging as generalizing the term ‘religion.’ Of course, one might then argue that even when we are actually researching something quite unique in the larger field of Religious Studies, we are still doing so under the canopy of a pragmatically ambiguous ‘religion.’ Which I agree. However, I do not see this as the end result of using the term ‘non-religion.’ Mostly, this is because our acceptance of the term ‘religion’—though not everyone has accepted this—comes with the caveat that we have progressed along a distinct tract beginning with sui generis notions about the substantive vs. functionalist quality of ‘religion,’ and arrived at a point with no real conclusive and final ‘definition.’ Which is the point, I think. For this reason, I avoid using the term ‘non-religion’ because I do not beleive adding a further ambiguous term to our discourse provides any sort of assistance in the process. Does this mean the study of Atheism, non-religion, humanism, secularity, etc., falls under the canopy ‘religion?’ I’d say yes. Which is likely where I separate myself from the NSRN.

So, in the end, this discussion is not so much about my issue with using the term ‘non-religion’ as a replacement for terms such as ‘Atheism,’ but is rather an argument that a synonymous umbrella is not really all that necessary. After all, we have at least a vague idea about what a ‘dinosaur’ is, even when that concept is amended and altered and changed within the discourse on what might constitute an Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus. Like ‘religion,’ ‘dinosaur’ is a fluid, plastic term, a discursive entity that does not need to be defined, but that is rather imbued by the discourse on entities like Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus. Which for me works for Atheism and ‘religion.’ That might not work for everyone, which I accept. Yet, I’d much rather contend with the disparity between ‘Atheism’ and ‘religion’ than place myself under a terminological umbrella that seems like an established concept merely given a new name. That’s a bit too much like calling an Apatosaurus something it isn’t.

[1] See also Lois Lee, “From Neutrality to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other in British Non-Religious Discourses” in Maren Behrensen, Lois Lee, and Ahmet S. Tekelioglu, eds., Modernities Revisited (Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011); Lois Lee, “Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-Religion Studies” (Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1), 129-139; and Stephen Bullivant & Lois Lee, “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-Religion and Secularity: The State of the Union” (Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1), 19-27.



[4] Charles Othniel Marsh, “Notice of New Jurassic Reptiles” (American Journal of Science, 3rd series, v. 18, 1879), 501-505.

[5] Elmer Riggs, “Structure and Relationships of Opisthoceolian Dinosaurs, Part I, Apatosaurus Marsh” (Publs. Field Col. Mus. Geol., Ser. 2, 1903), 165-196.

See also:

Pixar’s upcoming film ‘The Good Dinosaur,’ which is described as such: “Arlo, a 70-foot-tall teenage Apatosaurus, befriends a young human boy named Spot.”

Stephen Jay Gould’s own discussion in Bully for Brontosaurus

Rumsfeldian Atheism

A few years back a friend asked if I wanted to be a part of a panel he was organizing for the Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) Conference held at the University of Chester. At the time, I had never attended an academic conference, and was keen on developing my CV, so my emphatic and immediate agreement to participate somewhat overshadowed the fact that I was a bit out of my purview. As I would later discover, the topic of the panel was to be on ‘Conspiracy Theories and Religion,’ a topic about which I knew very little beyond the few aspects that might have inadvertently popped up during my master’s research on New Religious Movements. Therefore, and in an effort to quickly cobble together some sort of correlative connection between Atheism and Conspiracy Theories, I threw together the following theoretical approach. In the years since, I’ve mostly forgotten about this theory, until I was reminded by a recent Facebook discussion pertaining to Pascal’s Wager.

As a reminder, and which will become important shortly, this ‘wager’ is one of many that make up the mathematician Blaise Pascal’s pragmatic approach to the existence of God. To summarize, it can be divided into four conclusions that lead to either infinite or finite results:

  • If an individual believes that God exists, and God does exist, that person achieves an infinite result: Heaven.
  • If an individual does not believe that God exists, and God does exist, that person achieves an infinite result: Hell
  • If an individual believes that God exists, and God does not exist, that person achieves a finite result: neither reward nor punishment.
  • If an individual does not believe that God exists, and God does not exist, that person achieves a finite result: neither reward nor punishment.[1]

In conclusion, Pascal ‘wagered’ that a life lived in the belief that God existed, whether or not He actually did, would lead to both a life lived in happiness on earth—without persecution, etc.—as well as a life lived in heaven. If it turned out that God did not exist, then the individual who didn’t believe so, but still lived as if He did, would experience no real loss. On the other hand, were God to exist, the individual who did not believe so, and lived as such, would be privy to unhappiness on Earth, as well as in Hell. This led to the argument that the former outweighed the latter in terms of a pragmatic and happy life.

The link between this sort of thinking and the ‘Rumsfeldian Atheism’ I will define below can be made via similar logical conclusions. However, how this sort of logic might also assist us in making sense of how we might define Atheism as exhibiting differing types of ‘Atheisms,’ is a bit more difficult.

A little background, then, in two parts.

First: Rumsfeld.

As the United States Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, Rumsfeld had the difficult job of justifying a ground incursion on Iraqi soil. This was a particular issue because the reasons he had stated before—evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—were without evidential proof, and were thus unverified. Therefore, to further justify what would come to be known as the ‘Bush Doctrine,’ Rumsfeld made the argument that the lack of evidence for something did not equate that something as not existing. In other words: an absence of evidence was not the evidence of absence. This argument, as we soon discovered, reasoned the utility of a pre-emptive strike, an incursion made to rout out threats before they could be actualized. His argument, though quite logorrhean, is as follows:

Now what is the message there? The message is that there are known ‘knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.

There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist. And yet almost always, when we make our threat assessments, when we look at the world, we end up basing it on the first two pieces of that puzzle, rather than all three.[2]

Here’s a short clip of his statement (the full version is difficult to find, and most clips have been edited or amended for humorous effect)

His logic here is pretty straight-forward, which I have amended as such:

  • Known Knowns: Things that we know exist. (Chemical and Biological Weapons manufacturing)
  • Known Unknowns: Things we know we don’t know. (The development of Chemical and Biological Weapons for the purpose of selling to American enemies, such as terrorist organizations)
  • Unknown Unknowns: Thing we don’t know we don’t know. (Are there Weapons Manufacturing we don’t know about just yet—are there threats we may not have perceived yet?)

The first category is justified by evidence.[3] We know these things are true. For instance, we know Iraq used Chemical Weapons (mustard/nerve agents) against the Iranians and Kurds between 1983 and 1988, as well as tested Biological Weapons (anthrax, aflatoxin, botulinum) that were to be destroyed between 1988 and 1991.

weapons testing

Evidence of Weapons Tested

Likewise, Iraq also continuously tried to establish un-sanctioned nuclear weapons facilities, as well as enhanced their soviet scud missiles and launching towers for longer-range attacks.


Map of Nuclear Facilities

The second category is a direct result of the things we know from the first. For instance, knowing that Iraq had used similar weaponry, as well as had built manufacturing plants for nuclear and biological weaponry, these sorts of later images justified the fact that there may be things we don’t know: known unknowns.


Chemical Manufacturing


Biological Manufacturing

Now, given this information, and by accepting there might be things we know we don’t know, we are inevitably led to conclude that perhaps there are things we don’t know we don’t know, which might lead to imminent and deadly threats. It is better, then, and because of this existing evidence, to live one’s life believing that there are things we might not know exist, and shape our perceptions into a pre-emptive preparedness.  This, in essence, is not unlike a Pascalian notion.  We brings us back to Atheism

Second: Atheism

For those un-familiar with my work on Atheism I am quite the advocate for dispensing with ‘defining’ the term, and the promotion of a more discursive analysis, what I quite precariously refer to as an ‘ethnographic approach.’ By this, I mean I would rather allow the individual Atheist define him or herself, rather than have that individual be defined by an external observer. One of the leading reasons for this defense is because of the way our own discourse on studying Atheism has seemed to lean more toward the latter.

While this discussion might extend beyond the limits of this present forum, how we came to this point can be briefly drawn out via two distinct categories: historical and theoretical. That is, if we take the discourse on defining the term ‘Atheism’ and treat it like a ‘field of discourse,’ we get a better idea about how the scholars who have done this defining over the last century have followed along a particular progression. In fact, the locus of this turn from defining Atheism via the way individuals have either historically been defined by others, or defined themselves, and theoretically stipulating what the term might mean in a ‘general’ capacity, is found in the way scholars have tried to cope with the differentiation between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ Atheisms. This has proven most troubling when the meaning of the former—a political term of censure or imputation given to an individual whose ideas or actions seem threatening to the status quo—and the meaning of the latter—a theological based and ‘parasitic’ conclusion made via re-emergent rational-naturalism that shifts the concept of ‘God’ from omniscient object to subject of inquiry that is then found evidentially false—is combined into a categorically mistaken conglomerate.

Out of this emerges a formulaic theoretical stipulation, what I have determined as the ‘positive vs. negative’ paradigm. For the last few decades just about every scholar who has written about Atheism has adopted this formula, determining an Atheist as someone who either positively asserts themselves as such, or someone who is an Atheist either by their ‘non-theistic’ beliefs—a rather normative and Western-centric idea—or through their ignorance or lack of knowledge about the existence of ‘God. In this way, Atheism has become a term that denotes a philosophical generality, so that it might be used to define any sort of denial, rejection, skepticism, or doubt. This is also why we find people defining ‘Atheism’ as a rejection of any and all sorts of religious or supernatural thinking, or the notoriously troubling notion of ‘Atheist religions’ defined by their innate differentiation from the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As a scholarly ideology, it has been standardized, which is evidenced by its use in Martin’s (2007) Cambridge Companion to Atheism and Bullivant and Ruse’s (2013) Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Even Wikipedia has adopted it.[4]

Though I should also note that my intention here is not to argue that this paradigm is wholly ‘incorrect.’ Rather, I have found that it’s formation, promotion, and advancement provides an intriguing insight into how theoretical thinking alters how difficult to determine concepts like Atheism or religion come to embody the meanings they have. For the former, this is a direct result of a generalization, a pragmatic attempt at making sense of a term that we ourselves have convoluted with our own theorizing. In fact, prior to the advent of this paradigm, Atheism was always defined via historical examples, using individuals as sources. It was not until the 1970s, and Anthony Flew’s Presumption of Atheism, that we began to see the term as encompassing an explicit or implicit nature. Which, really, makes its usage seem all the more precarious as Flew’s initial treatment—as we see repeated by Eller’s (2004) Natural Atheism and Baggini’s (2003) A Very Short Introduction—was made in order to argue that Atheism was mankind’s default position, as all people are born ‘negative Atheists’ because they are simply ‘without’ the belief that God exists.

While this discussion is one I tend to repeat with vigour, and though more of it will undoubtedly continue throughout this blog, this intro will have to suffice for now.

Rumsfeldian Atheism           

If we adopt Rumsfeld’s Pascalian logic from above, the positive vs. negative paradigm takes on a whole new meaning. In fact, we might even say it adopts a quasi-conspiratorial logic. If nothing else, it helps us make a bit more sense of how we might find ourselves thinking that there are differing types of Atheism across a polarity between explicit and implicit.

Let us begin with the Known Knowns: Atheism and Theism. This represents a dependent binary, the Theist and the Atheist equally ‘knowing’ what they believe: God exists and God does not exist. This is where we find ‘positive Atheism.’

Then, let us look at the Known Unknowns: Agnosticism. Here, if we define the term as a methodology—like Huxley originally did in 1893—used to answer the question of the existence of the Theist’s God, the ‘agnostic’ would fall under the purview of the known unknown. This individual acknowledges the existence of the Theist’s belief in the existence of God, as well as the Atheist’s rejection of that belief, but is not willing to commit to either side. In other words, and based on the first category, they know something that they acknowledge they don’t know in the way the Theist or Atheist does.

Finally, we arrive at the Unknown Unknowns: Negative Atheism. Defined as either an implicit absence of belief—due to a complete ignorance—or an implicit or explicit ‘lack’ of belief—leaning predominately on the etymological alpha privative ‘A’ in Atheism—this individual does not know what they do not know. In other words, they do not know that they do not know what the Theist or the Atheist believes, and are thus not only without the knowledge of the belief that God exists, but are without the knowledge of that knowledge as well.


If this sounds somewhat inane and confusing, that’s the point. While Rumsfeld’s argument about the threats we might not know about seems somewhat justified given the context in which it was made, my use of his categories was, and is, a critical one. It was adopted to point out the convolution we inflict upon ourselves in our attempts at theorizing around an issue, such as how to define a term that seems more and more confusing the more and more we try to define it. Scholars of religion know this all too well, as defining that term has generated the essential basis upon which we have built our ‘theories of religion.’

Yet, my use of it has meant more than just that. It’s also meant to point out that when we are examining or analyzing something that seems uncertain or confusing, the worst thing we can do is try to over-theorize about it. Rumsfeld, as well as the Bush administration, both learned this the hard way—some might say—and I think the academic study of Atheism is heading directly down that path. Rather than take a step back and try to understand the concept with which we are dealing, we seem overly destined to mark ourselves as presenting something unique or different. That is, rather than looking back at how this term has been defined by those who came before, and thus discover the manner with which we have progressively ended up with these sorts of abstractions, we seem happily set on making the discourse all that more excessive and incoherent—logorrhean—by adding to it with precarious and inane concepts like ‘ir-religon’ or ‘non-religion.’

In the end, I think we can learn a lot from Rumsfeld and his logic. If we just took the time to acknowledge that the discourse in which we are both analyzing and contributing to is merely a construct built upon a particular foundation, the less we might find ourselves sounding like someone trying to justify a judgment that we’ve already made.

[1] See Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: E. P. DUTTON & CO., INC., 1958), available online:


[3] This evidence can be found at: 1/iraq_wmd/Iraq_Oct_2002.htm#07