Hard Atheism, Soft Atheism

Let's have some terminology:  as far as I'm concerned, you can't be an atheist at all unless you believe there are no gods (not even one).  It's not enough to not believe in God/gods--or we're going to have to call my cats atheists.  So that's what all atheists have in common:  they see the universe as being deity-free.  They are the opposite of theists, who think the universe includes a deity (or two, or three...).

Beyond this common ground, atheists can disagree with each other, and even disagree about religion.  By religion I don't mean bare bones belief or disbelief, I mean practices, rituals, a whole constellation of attitudes and activities.  Some atheists are anti-religion, some neutral about religion, some even pro-religion. Back in the 20th century, before the "new atheists" came along, I knew both anti-religious and pro-religious atheists.  One friend was forever railing against the silliness of Christianity (anti).  A teacher was both adamantly atheist and sending his Jewish children to religious school (pro). So if you take "new" literally (and make the inception of "new atheism" coincide with Sam Harris's book The End of Faith), then old/new isn't really the distinction we need.  How about, instead, hard vs. soft?

Hard atheists believe that religion is on the whole a bad thing, and wish it would go away, and may even actively work towards its demise.  They think of religion as being like, maybe, crime, or disease, things that are essentially bad even if you can find an occasional good crime (stealing drugs for ailing children) or good disease (Lance Armstrong says cancer is the best thing that ever happened to him).   They tirelessly make their case against religion by talking about pedophile priests, brainwashed children, suicide bombers, sexism, etc.

Soft atheists believe that religion is not on the whole bad, and don't have the same desire for it to disappear.  They think of religion as being like, perhaps, sport.  Sport is premised on some dubious attitudes--competitiveness, the notion that there are winners and losers; bad attitudes like team spirit--bad because that sort of partiality is irrational.  Vast amounts of money and time are poured into sport at school, amateur, and professional levels--money that could be spent on much worthier things like alleviating poverty and disease.  You can see all that accurately, and yet not be on the whole anti-sport, because you see both the bad and the good in sport.  Soft atheists likewise see both bad and good in religion, and don't feel, on the whole, opposed to religion.

So, who are the real atheists?  Hard atheists are the ones most in the public eye, thanks to the high profile of the "new atheists" ... who are mostly hard, most of the time.  So to the public they are the real atheists.  I think hard atheists see themselves that way.  When they are criticized by soft atheists, they regard the latter as traitors, apostates, quislings,"faithiests."  On the other hand, they don't see themselves as traitors (etc) when they criticize soft atheists.  Hard atheists have "the essential position" in their own minds, and soft atheists aren't true believers--or rather, true unbelievers.

But why is hard atheism "the essential position"? Whether God exists is one question, the value of religion is a completely separate question.  How can religion be valuable if so much about it is problematic?  Think sports.


s. wallerstein said...

As a soft atheist myself, I agree with you completely.

I don't follow sports myself and have zero interest in sports, as little interest as I do in religion.

In fact, two of things that I was obliged to participate in as a child were sports and religion; I didn't enjoy either of them, but they left no trauma, and I recognize that they serve varying purposes in the lives of others.

There are some sports which should be banned, boxing for example, just as there are some religious practices which should be prohibited.

Similarly, there are sports, chess for example, whose elegance I can admire, although I don't play chess myself, just as I can admire the beauty of certain cathedrals or of religious music.

Finally, if so many people find purpose or meaning in their lives in practices such as religion or sports, unless there is overwhelming evidence that they are harmful (and there is no overwhelming evidence with some exceptions, for example, boxing or stoning adulterers), let those people continue with their practices, which once again, are not mine.

Alan Cooper said...

Well, according to your definitions, I guess I'm a pussy cat, but I am definitely *not* soft on religion.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Nice examples. I like the analogy more and more.

Alan, How's that?

Paul said...

Hard and Soft atheism ? Ye gods what next one wonders ? :-)

Peter said...


Why do you think boxing should be banned? Seems an odd choice of example.

s. wallerstein said...

I thought that proposing banning boxing was the most politically correct example that I could imagine and that all those who participate in a blog concerned about the suffering of animals would agree.

However, boxing is a violent sport, which often causes serious damage to those who engage in it.
Look at Muhammed Ali, who now has Parkinson's Disease, as a result of boxing, and Ali was a great boxer, one who received few blows and who, by the way, has the money to pay for good doctors. Imagine a 2nd rate boxer who received more serious blows than Ali and is poor, without decent health insurance.

Boxing is such a brutal sport that only kids from a poor background participate in it. It's a way that a kid from the ghetto can get rich or end up with brain-damage.
Kids from the middle class don't engage in professional boxing, not because they're weaklings, but because they don't need to risk the brain damage to make a good living. So in that sense, boxing basically involves two poor kids beating each other for the pleasure of those who can pay the price, sometimes a high price, of admission to the stadium. It reminds you of the Roman aristocracy getting off on slaves fighting each other as gladiators, doesn't it?

Boxing foments a culture of brutality, of rewarding the most vicious boxer, the one most willing and most capable of damaging the other boxer. Example: Mike Tyson.

Finally, I think that those who enjoy seeing two people beat each other should seriously consider why they enjoy that. It seems strange that anyone who considers suffering is bad would endorse boxing. I would put boxing in the same category as a sport as bull-fighting and cock-fights.

s. wallerstein said...

Boxing is so brutal that the Chilean Medical Association (I live in Chile) prohibits its members from acting as doctors during boxing events. Not all doctors in Chile are members of the association. By the way, the Chilean Medical Association, unlike its equivalent in the U.S., tends to be a progressive organization, very concerned about public health issues.

Jean Kazez said...

I like the boxing example, but another case of sports awfulness is gymnastics for very young girls. You could even make some nice parallels with Dawkins' ideas about how religious indoctrination is child abuse. So is early induction into extreme sports.

Paul said...

Jean would you consider public education political indoctrination ? What better way for the state, with taxes paid by citizens, to produce people who will tow the party line. As for boxing, I did it and I wasn't born poor or in a ghetto. I had a cousin who was a ranked (top 10) heavyweight ffrom the same background so Amos is not totally correct in his assertion. Brutal-I find politics and social engineering to be brutal. At least in boxing, it was mano y mano. Our intellectual "betters" know what is best for the hoi polloi. NOT!! My daughter teaches at Cambridge University in England and she wouldn't agree with you either.

s. wallerstein said...

Paul: Since you speak Spanish,
I include an ethical report on boxing from the Universidad Alberto Hurtado, which sums up the position of the Colegio Médico de Chile.


One of the chief reasons for banning boxing, according to this report, is that the goal of boxing is a knock-out, that is, to cause unconsciousness in one's opponent, and unconsciousness inevitably involves some negative effects, which may be serious or not, in the brain.

By the way, since we are discussing the pro's and con's of religion, the people at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado are Jesuits. I would say that their ethical stance on boxing is a point in favor of the Jesuits.

Paul said...

Amos I never boxed with a Jesuit. That being said the goal of a boxing match is to win-not always by knock out. Boxing is much more honest a sport than one in which academician's spar and often less bloody.

s. wallerstein said...


I never said that boxing isn't honest nor that academics are more honest than boxers.

Paul said...

Amos I'll grant that you know more about academicians that I do. Give me the same respect when it comes to boxing-"the sweet science". :-)

s. wallerstein said...

Paul: Actually, I'm not an academic myself, so we both may be equally ignorant about their character. My son is a university professor, but you said that your daughter is one also, so we have something in common.