In the 2000s there was a sudden rise atheism due in part to the events of September 11th, 2001 as well as what is no doubt a myriad of other reasons. At this time, the names of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in particular became well known to more of the general public. Two at least were already public figures but their outspoken atheism is what really brought them their fame. Coupled with this on the Internet at the same time there seemed to be legions of their acolytes populating every part of the Internet. Whether your message board was about My Little Pony, stamp collecting, video games or taxidermy, chances are there was at least one resident atheist ready to leap into any topic related to religion to share his opinion.
This is not to say everybody was either an atheist or believer. It also didn’t mean that there weren’t religious people with a similar monomania; it was just that these people tended to stand out and they became quite annoying. They became so annoying in fact that in the following decade there was something of a revolt against them. This was partially prompted by mockery of things they said and things they wore but also what seemed to be mental exhaustion with people like this in general. This didn’t go much in favour of organised religion though as by then, people were for the most part apathetic and didn’t care either way.
We are now entering what seems to be the early stages of a revival. This might be hard for believers and non-believers alike to recognise but there is some evidence of it. As this happens it might be tempting for religious and newly religious to continue to mock atheists as they have (often accurately), been caricatured. This could be a mistake depending on the atheist you are mocking though. Let me explain why.
The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God, They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one.
Yes, the fool does. It would be a mistake to dismiss all atheists are fools though because they don’t all say this in their heart. It is significant that this doesn’t merely state, “The fool says: There is no God” and that is because there is a significant difference. There is such a thing as an honest atheist but they are not at all common among people who identify as atheists. What I am going to do here is set some conditions or a heuristic by which you can identify an honest atheist. This will not be perfect but I think it will give an indication whether or not someone’s unbelief is sincere or not.
1. They harbour no personal hostility to any one religion or religion in general.
This is probably the most important indicator of whether you are dealing with an honest atheist or not. An honest atheist may or may not call himself an “atheist” depending on his education, personality or other factor. He may simply say he is not religious or “non-religious”. He might use “agnostic” and for the purposes of this post, the differences between atheism and agnosticism are irrelevant.
An honest atheist won’t be hostile to religion in general and especially not to Christianity in particular. I single out Christianity because most people in the West don’t really have a good understanding of religions they didn’t grow up with (or even the one they did). They also misunderstand the actual beliefs and practices of other religions such as believing Buddhism is peaceful and atheistic or just naively thinking adherents don’t really believe all that stuff. Where Christianity is concerned, they might have been brought up in a strictly religious home or had a legitimately bad experience with religion that has coloured their view of it. Whether they truly suffered some abuse or not, this makes their true feelings less reliable than someone who didn’t have such experiences.
Someone may have grown up with a tyrannical Baptist (or yes, Catholic) father who never let them go out and drink beer when they were 15 but that’s no reason to hate Christianity or religion in general. That is an emotional response. What will happen with more intelligent atheists who hold this hostility is that they will find reasons to be against the religion because of or after having these experiences. Science, philosophy and reason in general are the go to areas to rationalise an existing prejudice. And most of us are guilty of this for similar reasons and in other ways. The point is that hostility towards religion indicates that the person is very unlikely to approach the topic in good faith.
2. They have no psycho-sexual perversions or addictions that cloud their judgement.
This can come with number one but they can both easily stand alone as well. There have been plenty of people that detest religion but as best as can be established; have still lived reasonably moral lives. They get married, raise children, work hard and die without giving anything to God. As Vox Day pointed out in The Irrational Atheist though, people like this are moral parasites. They can live like this because the more religious around them or the legacy of those that came before them made it at least socially expedient to live this way. Some might even live so as a point of pride as if to prove religions isn’t necessary to be “good”, for whatever that means without a point of reference.
As the irreligious have increased, people like this have started to decrease and what is seen as good or even normal has lost almost all meaning. Marriage, family, chastity and fidelity are either not taken seriously, not necessary, something from the past or something not understood at all. There is however a general understanding that religions in general and Christianity in particular do teach these things and expect people to imperfectly follow these teachings.
An atheist who has a particular sexual fetish or perversion whether it be sodomy, pornography or perhaps something much worse, will not be very attracted to the idea of having to stop engaging in this behaviour. If they don’t want to give up their perversion, they can quite easily find reasons to reject religion; even if those reasons are merely something to cover what their real motivations are.
It is interesting that many famously non-religious people or atheists that would be quoted by atheists, have had rather questionable private lives even by the loose moral standards of today. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov are two such examples I’ve learned of recently. God only know what else might be discovered about other famous atheists in the future. These observations can’t simply be dismissed as personal attacks either as their moral lives and their opinions about anything that would stand in opposition to what they consider moral are very relevant.
3. Their atheism is a result of upbringing.
Those who are brought up without religion or in a non-religious household are less likely to be exposed to religion. What they are exposed to will vary and depend very much on who they meet. In other words, they are atheist through no real fault of their own. This is a short one but it is important unless one and/or two also apply. If they don’t then it is fair to assume you’re dealing with an honest atheist.
4. They have a genuine interest, even admiration or envy towards believers.
This cannot exist with number one and is very unlikely with number two but this alone does indicate you’re dealing with an honest atheist and even a truth-seeker. Someone with this outlook didn’t necessarily come to it by upbringing and might have even been brought up in a nominally religious home or just fallen away without developing any hostility towards religion. They might have just let friends, family and society at large guide them.
To some up simply:
1 or 2: Probably not.
1 & 2: Almost certainly not.
3 or 4: Probably.
3 & 4: Almost certainly.
3 or 4 & 1 or 2: Maybe.
As I stated at the beginning, this is not perfect but I think it will give anyone a good idea of whether or not someone is an honest atheist. I say someone because we are usually better judges of others than we are of ourselves. I may also do a follow-up post where I give examples of public figures I consider honest atheists and ones who are not by applying this heuristic.