Contains ideas some atheists may find offensive.
A well-known joke states that since every religion involves disbelieving the gods of other religions, atheism merely involves disbelieving just one more god. The profound truth upon which this joke relies is that atheism is necessarily theology, and as such, does not involve an escape from religious practices, but merely their transformation into yet another form.
This is one of the great oddities of the European diaspora: the presumption that the atheist is the person who has successfully freed themselves of religion. For many, this is essentially their definition of the term, which is thus the source of the valorisation making atheism an appealing identity to adopt. Those who count themselves as an atheist (of the Christian kind, at least) tend to underestimate the extent to which their thought depends upon the thought practices of the very religion they wish most fervently to distance themselves from. This does not make atheism a religion as such; it utterly fails to sustain a community of care, for a start. Rather, it draws a historical connection between individual atheists and the religions they are rejecting – the most common form of atheism today being a rejection of all things Christian, with all other religions taken as mere variations on Christianity.
This odd qualification – the idea of a Christian-flavoured atheist – reads strangely for precisely the reason that the joke works: the concept of religion it relies upon is dependent upon the form of theology that emerges out of European Christianity, and thus from the philosophy of Plato that influenced it. Not coincidentally, this is also the theology that gave rise to the contemporary sciences (and also their valorisation as the nebulous omnicapable ungod Science). It is the equation of religion with belief, understood as the acceptance of propositions without evidence, and this is a very particular and peculiar kind of theology.
We will find no such propositional theology among Buddhist atheists, such as the Dalai Lama, nor among those of the Hindu traditions, whether or not their path involves bakhti, or devotional worship. And it is not entirely clear what a Shinto practitioner would make of any of this. Similarly, if we look at the relationship between what we now term religion around the Mediterranean prior to Christianity, we find that the different gods were not competing propositions, but merely a pool of different names for the same entities, and this never quite managed to generate a contradiction until emperors made themselves gods-on-earth and spoiled the game for everyone.
It is the peculiar legacy of the core traditions of the Abrahamic faiths (and I exclude here traditions like Sufi Islam, which straddles between the God of Abraham and the Dharmic faiths) to risk founding theological thought upon the assumption that our god is the only real god. The story of Bel and the Dragon in the Judaic sacred texts (apocryphal to Christians) is precisely a forensic investigation at to why Bel (or Baal) is not a god. This scripture is the first detective story, the Sherlock Holmes mythos millennia before its time. Yet to equate this kind of exclusionary theology with all religions is terribly misleading. What’s more, the success of Christianity – or better yet what Kierkegaard called Christendom – is precisely an artefact of the sheer success of this theology, and a reminder of precisely why our sciences were able to grow out of it.
The question of what kind of atheist someone might be when they claim this identity is thus far more complex than it originally appears, in part because of the sheer historical influence of theology in European culture. For many atheists, the rationality of their atheological position depends upon whether god (and even more so God) is a proposition (equivalently: a hypothesis) and therefore whether that proposition is true, meaning, existing in reality (itself a perverse understanding of theology). In such cases there can be little doubt that the people in question are still practicing a variation on the kind of deistic theology well-known to the men and women of the Enlightenment and the centuries thereafter.
The kind of critique I am advancing here entails an uncovering of the practices of thought entailed in personal identities that thrive on distancing from religion – and this is almost completely obscured by the idea that you must be either a theist or an atheist or agnostic. It is in no way natural from, say, Hindu theology to understand matters this way (nor is it in any way accurate to consider those particular traditions to be polytheistic, i.e. as comprising of a set of gods instead of one God). The three way split is only the false choice between the theist presupposing a certain theology and thus requiring theodicy (i.e. the problem of how God allows evil); the atheist presupposing the failure of theodicy and thus requiring atheology; or playing this game without conclusion for the agnostic. The entire framework here is Christian theology.
Thus anyone for whom the joke about disbelieving just one more god adequately works, not just as a joke but as a mission statement, is necessarily engaged in theological practices that are resolutely and inescapably Christian in their origin and nature. Christian-atheist would be a misleading term, but perhaps achristian atheist is not far from the mark. To reject theology entirely requires a very different capacity, and is what I suspect motivates so many deep thinkers today to focus instead upon ontology, which is effectively non-theology. There is no complete rejection to be found here, only various kinds of righteousness to be generated by different kinds of allegiance or conversion, and various forms of non-participation, whether secular or otherwise.
Over a century ago, Nietzsche remarked that “the complete and definitive victory of atheism might free mankind of this whole feeling of guilty indebtedness toward its origin” – and I suppose he was right, but not in the way that he intended. For what has emerged instead, which Nietzsche would have reviled, is a kind of widespread willed ignorance concerning how most atheological thought comes to reach any kind of conclusion about god-concepts. Disbelieving ‘just one more god’ is not rejecting theology: it is just another version of Christendom’s insistence upon a single mandatory theology. Both the religious and the non-religious can do better.