"The Atheist Agenda"

Yesterday I attempted to do some shopping while listening to Point of Inquiry on my ipod--the result being that I lost my shopping cart in Target several times, the episodes were so interesting.  I listened to two shows--one a debate between Chris Mooney, Hemant Mehta ("The Friendly Atheist") and David Silverman (president of American Atheists) and the other an interview Robert Price did with John Shook, author of the new book The God Debates.  Right, that's a lot of time in Target.

One of the bones of contention between Mooney and David Silverman was whether today's vocal atheists "want to convert people."  Or perhaps "deconvert people," as John Shook likes to say.   Silverman insisted nobody was going door to door.   Yet Mooney pointed to Silverman's excitement over statistics showing that "none" was the fastest growing religion in the US.  At the very least, energetic atheists do want to see religion vanish from the world, however the change comes about.  Mooney said he didn't especially want that, since some people are better off with religion than they'd be without it.

I think it's too often assumed that atheism is not just a belief--that there is no god--but some set of desires.  Atheism automatically comes with an agenda.  That's what John Shook seems to be assuming in this passage from his blog--"Primatologist and ethnologist [sic] Frans de Waal has recently stated his opposition to atheism’s agenda, unable to imagine a world with no religion."    Atheism's agenda.   Surely there's no such thing.  Atheism is a belief, not a desire or set of desires.

But wait, if you believe something, how could you not want everyone else to believe it too?  Actually, pretty easily.  When I think about free will, I (often) reach the conclusion that there isn't any.  But no, I don't want everyone else to believe that too.  Life probably goes much better if people keep believing in free will.  A different sort of example:  I believe that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist ever.  But I have no particular desire for everyone to believe that.  In fact, the world's probably a better place for the fact that people have different beliefs about what's good literature. Sometimes you want others to share your beliefs, sometimes you don't care, sometimes you do. Having beliefs is one thing, having preferences about who shares them is another.

I think some of the negative charge of the word "atheism" stems from the connotation of an agenda. That's why many atheists don't use the word, or use it, but say "I'm an atheist, but..." (to Richard Dawkins' chagrin).  What they're trying to emphasize is that atheism, for them, is a matter of belief, not of desire.  It's a needed clarification, the more that people like Silverman and Shook take it for granted that there's such a thing as "atheism's agenda."


crystal said...

Being a Catholic, I'm constantly inundated with church rants against the "atheist agenda". I don't believe such a thing exists :) There are some beliefs I have that I wish others would share, like that animals deserve to be treated better, but I don't care if people share my religious beliefs.

Jean Kazez said...

That's interesting--I'd love to hear one of those rants. The atheist agenda consists of...what? If you'd like to tell...! Getting rid of religion? What else?

Anonymous said...

Hunh. I always thought atheism's agenda was to get people to make decisions based on a sort of rationalist vision of reason and critical thinking, rather than relying on revelation and/or religious authority.

Jean Kazez said...

I really don't think so. There's nothing about just being an atheist (= believing there is no god) that has to make a person a missionary for critical thinking.