Atheism or Post-Theism in Trump's America?
James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt
The other day, I received an email from a reader of my book Everybody Is Wrong About God (EIWAG) asking me if I think that, given Trump's election and the change in the national mood, if my insistence in the book that a transition away from "atheism" and toward "post-theism" is still advisable. It's a good question, one I was very glad to be asked. To briefly answer: I think a post-theistic mindset is more advisable than ever, and I'm going to post an edited version of my reply to back that case up.
Post-Theism Versus Atheism
The first thing to do, though, is distinguish between "atheism" and "post-theism." (This topic is the third chapter of EIWAG.) The essential difference between the two is that "atheism" positions itself as without (more often against, or fighting, or diametrically opposed to) God (or belief therein) whereas post-theism has dropped the distinction. Post-theistic people are, by dictionary necessity, atheists, but it's no longer functionally important to them, especially as an element of personal identity. Here's how I summarized in a paragraph from EIWAG.
People in this position [post-theistic] realize that the vague, hence meaningless, general use of the term "God" is best ignored as unclear and irrelevant while the specific uses of the term are to be rejected for being incorrect and misleading. The post-theistic position recognizes that theism is not even wrong except when it bothers to be. (p. 71)
To expand briefly on these points: an atheist is more likely to engage about "God" than a post-theist because an atheist will fight or reject even the vague application of "God" while a post-theist will merely ignore it as irrelevant to much of anything. Post-theistic people and atheistic people will, when it is situationally relevant, act nearly indistinguishably when people put forward specific (necessarily bogus) claims about what they call "God," and they're likely to align in all ways (except perhaps dispositionally) where it comes to fighting legal and social-rights battles on behalf of those without belief in any deity. A post-theistic person, as the term implies, sees belief in God effectively as yesterday's news and acts accordingly.
That short paragraph is the capstone of Chapter 3 of EIWAG, but it doesn't end the chapter. The chapter ends by highlighting an almost perfect example of a post-theistic approach to a religious discussion: a debate between cosmologist Sean Carroll and apologist William Lane Craig. The crucial take-home here is that Carroll consistently just treats Craig's theism as another potential model of the universe, and a particularly "immature" one. That is post-theism. It listens to theism and then sees it for what it is: an underdeveloped, obsolete attempt at explaining the universe. That view gives grounding for two crucial divergences from the usual "atheism versus theism" argument.
First, by seeing theistic models as weak alternatives, it gives a post-theistic mind every reason to all but ignore the ramblings of theology. Instead of fighting theological nonsense like an equal rival (as philosophers of religion are wont to do), it simply looks back at theology and mutters, "Up your game, bro, and you'll have a seat at the table." (Notice how this simultaneously dismisses religious nonsense and treats it with real respect by suggesting "yeah, you've got a model, bring it up to snuff and we'll give it real consideration, but that work is on you, no one else.")
Second, it frees the post-theistic person from the endless (yes, thousands of years in, so far) cycle of arguing with theism on its own terms because it rejects the terms of theism entirely. This is groundbreaking. It is also the raison d'etre for EIWAG. (It's also why I'm not really being hyperbolic when I say that everybody is wrong about "God.") That post-theistic theme is, the term "God" means something that isn't really accounted for by theism (because it's a weak, poor model), and so we should reject the terms of theism and move on to more productive conversations. EIWAG is about doing exactly that.
Post-Theism in Trump's America
Transitioning back to the question about Trump's America, and the relevance of post-theism instead of atheism, the specific concern was that a dispositional shift away from fighting, resisting, movement-style attacks, and so on, might not be advisable since the course of history just, as President Obama recently put it, either zigged or zagged, American culture with it. Particularly, the concern is that Trump's American culture will work hard to force religion back into the public square.
Here's a cleaned up, better-organized version of my reply.
Your question is a good one, and I don't know the answer to it. I have a lot of thoughts about the impending Trump presidency (and even about the fact that he was elected at all) and how it will play out socioculturally, and I don't know how things will go.
As to moving toward post-theism, my feeling is that it's needed now more than ever. Being post-theistic is far, far, far less confrontational and inflammatory than movement-style atheism, and it isn't a position that a religion can compete against (as movement atheism definitely is). Post-theism is just "I've moved on," to which the only reply religious people can muster is "come back;" whereas atheism is "You're wrong!" to which the religious reply, "No, you are, and we'll show you!" The result of the "atheist" approach is that the religious get to talk about how great they are to a very receptive audience who has, at this point, had quite enough of atheist whinging.
This follows because one thing I think is certain is that the underlying mechanism of moral tribalism (which generalizes religion) is in full revival, and Trump's ascendancy (and comparable movements globally) are partially the fruit of that far bigger problem. As for what that will do for "atheists" is unclear. At present, I don't feel like it's too likely that there will be a huge, successful push of religion back into the public square as the bulk of its opposition will be further disgusted by the attempt and move away from it. Just as I think Christian resistance to gay marriage had more than anything to do with the rise of the Nones, I think attempting a Trumpian forcing of religion back into our public space will ultimately backfire unless his victory is shockingly total in nature.
To quickly generalize that thought, I strongly suspect that Trump is going to do such a horrible job that the backlash against his presidency is going to be astounding, but then I also thought there was almost no way he could win until the week before the election (so I might be way off on this). I don't know how things will play out, and I don't know what the ultimate result of the story will be, but my suspicion, frankly, is that the GOP will fracture finally and have to reorganize. That will place "conservatives" on one side and "Conservatives" (like the Tea Party) on another, and Evangelicals (who resoundingly supported Trump) largely in the latter group, tied to Trump's sinking ship. (That is, unless Trump's victory is even over American Constitutional institutions.) I don't know what will happen with the Democrats and their supporters, but if they seize the opportunity correctly, it will probably work out in their favor in many ways in the long term. That might take decades, though, given the Court. Like I said, I'm not sure. (It's also looking grim for them as they seem to be missing the point spectacularly still.)
[In EIWAG I used the metaphor that Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is now part of our cultural furniture, indicating that the time to move away from atheism and toward a post-theistic mindset is here.] I think it's possible Trump could call in "furniture movers" to get rid of non-theistic cultural furniture, but what would they do? Ban The God Delusion? Convince everyone to suddenly be religious... or else? That won't work. Just like Andy Dufresne articulates in the film The Shawshank Redemption (based upon a novella by Stephen King) with regard to music in solitary confinement, they can't take away what's in your mind, or not easily. Religion may become official, but the more it does, the more people who know anything will become resentful and eventually take it back even more finally. Even many among the religious--most of whom will be losers in such a maneuver--will fiercely resist such a theocratic move once they realize it only favors the favored groups.
To summarize, I think a new approach than "atheism against theism" is more advisable than ever. It will quell the rampant identity-type divisiveness that poisoned our political well to the degree that got us here; it can therefore encourage cooperation on other objectives that are blasted off the table by identity-type squabbling; and it changes the nature of the argument about religion completely, putting religion in a position where it already lost instead of one where it stands a reasonable chance of winning via continued argument and insistence.
As many of you know, I'm currently reading American Atheists President David Silverman's firebrand atheist manifesto, Fighting God, and while I obviously disagree strongly with a great deal of it, I find a lot to agree with as well. I may not be interested much in the good-cop-bad-cop routine he suggests as a motivation for firebrand activism, but I do stand behind his insistence that activism of some kind will be necessary, and particularly legal advocacy will be. There's little dispute between Silverman and I in that regard, and in Trump's America, it's likely that the legal battles about matters of religionism will multiply rather than diminish. They must be fought, unfortunately, but they also must be fought well, which means, inter alia, in ways that don't encourage a raging dominant minority to use resentment and backlash to undo what has been done.
You can buy Everybody Is Wrong About God here. Please and thank you, and Merry Christmas, LOL.