Atheism 101: Atheism vs. Anti-Theism

Atheism 101

Anti-theism is another non-theism that gets confused with atheism. People often assume either that all atheists are anti-theists or that anti-theists are atheists and all atheists share the same opinions as the anti-theists do. Both beliefs are problematic.
Where atheism is the belief that gods don’t exist, a belief held by anti-theists, anti-theism is the active opposition to theism. In fact, while many theists believe that atheism can be defined as against god, this is actually the definition of anti-theism. Both anti- and a- are negation prefixes that come from ancient Greek. However, a- simply means not. The ancient Greeks did not use a- to mean against. If they wanted to signify being against something, they used anti-, or, more commonly, the words epi or pros, both of which literally translate to “against.” As such, it is not accurate to say that atheism means “against God.” But that’s enough of a Greek lesson for today.

Anti-theism is a term that refers to the belief that theism and religion are very likely to be false, but that they are also unreasonably restrictive, dangerous to people both inside out outside of the religion, and primitive. Anti-theists aren’t so much against God as they are against the things done in the name of religion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “anti-theist” as “One opposed to belief in the existence of a god.” This is to say that they don’t simply not believe in gods, they are actually against the very belief in gods. Many anti-theists regard theism as both dangerous or destructive to both people and society as a whole. In fact, many of the best known atheists identify as anti-theists. Christopher Hitchens, one such anti-theist wrote “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an anti-theist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.” I do agree that religion has been used to cause a lot of harm, however, unlike Hitchens, I don’t believe there’s any point in trying to get rid of it. For one, the people who wish to cause harm ill just find another excuse to cause it. For another, most religious people don’t cause any problems. In fact, it is the institutions built up in the name of religion that causes the problems. If I were going to suggest that we get rid of anything, it would be the institutions that I would suggest getting rid of.
Anti-theism can be seen in various arguments and opinions that are highly critical of religion. A common criticism of religion is that theism is dangerous to society and limits human progress. Some argue that religion must be eliminated in order for humanity to achieve its full potential. Anti-theists often take an outspoken approach in the name of fighting against religion. They will campaign against religion in various ways and even write books on the subject. Anti-theists tend to reject the supposed benefits of holding religious and theistic beliefs, as do most atheists. They do not accept the claim that religion is the cause of morality or that theists are more likely to commit charitable deeds. While many theists find comfort and hope in their beliefs, the anti-theists that reject theism’s suggested positive benefits argue that they could find enough pleasures and can do good with a secular worldview.
Anti-theism is also called militant atheism by some people. Militant atheism is generally just atheist activism, or atheists who are outspoken about discrimination suffered by atheists. However, a large number of people conflate atheist activism with anti-theism. This is understandable, because a large number of anti-theists are atheist activists, and anti-theists are more likely to refer to themselves as militant atheists than other atheists are. However, the term militant atheism is often used by anti-theists and so-called strong, ie. atheists who assert as fact that they believe gods don’t exist (gnostic atheists), atheists alike. Many modern atheist writers who express what is viewed as strong atheistic or anti-religious stances are accused of being militant because they directly criticize religion. However, these writers are rarely threatening, or even hostile, towards religion. An exellent example being Chris Stedman. They are merely trying get people to question their presuppositions and eliminate problems that actively hurt people. Religion’s encroachment into governments and politics are well within the rights of atheists and theists alike to debate, criticize, and discuss. Saying anything against religion does not make one an anti-theist, nor does it make one militant or angry. And those who are not religious have just as much right to criticize religion as the religious do. After all, we are all affected by government policy.

While anti-theist indicates being against theism to an atheist, many theists have there own explanations of what an anti-theist is. The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1953), defined anti-theism as “an active struggle against everything that reminds us of God.” I don’t think that this is an accurate explanation, because it assumes belief in God. In order to struggle against everything that reminds you of God, you must associate things with God. This may be something that some anti-theists do when they are coming into their atheism, but it isn’t something that all anti-theists do. For one thing, not all anti-theists were raised to have any concept of God. For another, not everybody feels the need to pull away from everything that they once associated with religion, or God. Some people are perfectly willing to keep those things around, they just think that religion is harmful. In fact, there are other terms that better define this opposition to God. Dystheism means “belief in a deity that is not benevolent.” With dystheism, you can believe in a god that you are against due to the god’s lack of benevolence. There is also misotheism, which means “hatred of God.” People who are misotheists believe that God exists and hate him.
It is necessary to be careful when assuming that somebody is an anti-theist. Very few atheists are anti-theists (although it isn’t uncommon for atheists to go though an anti-theist phase). And neither atheists nor anti-theists hate god. As I’ve said in earlier posts, these words have meanings for a reason, and that meaning gets destroyed when we use them however we wish. At the same time, people give themselves labels for a reason. Applying labels to people that they have not applied to themself is both rude and likely to lead you to misunderstand them.

7 responses to “Atheism 101: Atheism vs. Anti-Theism

  • talkingpetunias

    Interesting post. I think that the evolutionary psychology of religion would be an interesting thing to bring up here. I’ve been reading “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures” by Nicholas Wade on and off for a while, and the book posits that religion’s function, evolutionarily, is to help groups of people form strong enough bonds that they can survive. Sometimes that means keeping them together in the same physical space so they can share resources, and sometimes that means uniting them so they can compete with other groups (read: win wars against them). So, in some ways, what makes religion (in some sort of organized form) so great, as a social glue to build strong community is also what makes it dangerous. It seems to me like religion will always unite and organize people, and you can’t really chose whether it’s for good or bad, in smaller groups or larger institutions, beforehand. Personally, I’ve found the community aspect of organized religion to be a huge positive force in my life, and wouldn’t want to give it up. Perhaps what we need, instead of a lack of organized religion, is some force to check and balance it. Anti-theists unite?

    Liked by 1 person

  • smlea

    Thanks for post. I’ll have to read in the morning with nice fresh brain cells. It was too dense for this evening.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Ros

    Interesting post. Whilst my knowledge of Greek is sufficient for me to understand the difference between an atheist and an antitheist, I have to say that the term antitheist was not one I had heard until I came upon your blog. I don’t know if this is a pond thing, an age thing or an academia thing, but it’s not a term that is in common use in the UK. Antitheists here would be much more likely to be called militant atheists.

    I’d also say that atheist discrimination is a somewhat peculiar thing here. There are aspects of the constitution that still favour churches – particularly the Church of England. And it is still a legal requirement for schools to hold a daily act of worship of a broadly Christian nature. However, it is not a requirement that children attend. And, although most do, very few actually appreciate the experience. So, any child who said that they did would be likely to face ridicule. At the same time, trying to find a member of staff who is willing and able to stand up and lead said worship can be a real challenge.

    I wonder then, what was the context of the words ‘an active struggle against everything that reminds us of God’? This was 1953? In France? So are we talking then about the secularisation of society and hence the removal of any reminders of the fact that France was once a Catholic country? If so, then perhaps the struggle he describes is not against God so much as against the hegemony of institutional religion? Hence the struggle could be properly described as antitheist if it seeks to remove religion altogether.

    Interestingly, some 60 years on, the secularisation of France has led to what I would see as some rather bizarre rulings. A parent I know has spoken of a school that allows crucifixes to be worn by Goths but not Christians and which banned a pumpkin mask at Halloween on the basis that it covered the head in the same way as a niquab. Ho hum… 😉


  • The Brain in the Jar

    Great read as always.

    ” If I were going to suggest that we get rid of anything, it would be the institutions that I would suggest getting rid of.” – You’re right. I’m not well-versed in History, but from what I know Christianity truly became violent when it gained power and a lot of people in high places became religious.

    I also have issues with Hitchens’ statement. It seems more like an angry comment than a serious thought. Religion did harm, true, but in order to convince me that one or all religions did NOTHING but harm, it’d require a long, extensive study of History.

    I do think that maybe we’re now better off without religions, but I won’t oppose anyone who’s wrong. I will just oppose anyone who abuses human rights.


    • hessianwithteeth

      Well given everyone is wrong about some things, it would be counter productive to hold people to the standard of never being wrong and would promote the dangerous sort of arrogance which leads to people think that everything they do is right. From there nearly anything can transpire.

      And yes the good old hitch was not a a glorious divine man of perfect moral fortitude or logic, but he was an excellent speaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  • pcoffeythoughts

    Great read! Very well thought out and explained.

    Liked by 1 person

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