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April 3, 2006

Denominations of Disbelief? -- 2. Ivanists

The question is whether atheists, too, have sects. I've proposed one possible denomination: The Shelleyans. Here's a second, named (in a considerable oversimplification) after Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's novel. (The name "Sadists" being already taken.)

-- Ivanists subscribe to a nihilistic, anything-goes view of a world without god:

"Ivan...added...that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality...nothing would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality...egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognixed as the inevitable, the most rational even honorable outcome of his position."

Some Ivanists, especially early Western converts, are tortured by the death of God and what they see as the resulting collapse of all moral scruple. Witness Ivan himself or his "disciple" Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov.

-- Their prophets? An ancient (and not tortured) Indian group known as the Carvaka, one of whose masters observed:

"Can begging, fasting, penance, …be compared with the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes, whose prominent breasts are compressed with ones arms."

-- There is, of course, a fair amount of Ivanism in contemporary culture, which, shall we say, is considerably more interested in ravishing embraces than in penance. sade.jpg

-- Their saint? The Marquis de Sade?

-- Words to live by -- William Blake:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy./ Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead./ The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom./ Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity./ He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

-- Related denominations? Materialists. Carvaka. Libertines. Hedonists. (Nietzsche's relationship to the Ivanists is complex.)

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at April 3, 2006 10:41 AM


I previously remarked, only half-jokingly, that I wouldn't be a member of any atheist sect that would have me. In fact I think the idea of an atheist sect is oxymoronic. Atheism is simply a starting point, a clearing of the decks to get rid of superstitious nonsense and claptrap. Where you go after that is up to you, but it is not a question of "which atheist sect". If you decide to embrace nihilism, you are in a sense no different than the antinomians who believe that since they are saved and everything is fore-ordained, they can do as they please without consequences. (And there is a strong streak of antinomianism in today's religious right; it's all about belonging to the right tribe, and getting to sit in judgment on other people and control their sex lives, rather than applying the teachings of Jesus to one's own life.)

You can decide, on the other hand, to be a moral person and try to make the world a better place. In this case you are electing to follow a path of genuine morality, based on reason and empathy for one's fellow creatures, rather than the bogus self-interested morality, based on superstitious dread, that western religions offer.

In either case, atheism is simply a gate you pass through, after which many roads branch out. None of the roads is an atheist road.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at April 3, 2006 8:16 PM

I'm obviously sympathetic to trying "to make the world a better place." But "reason" can, as Ivan Karamazov indicates, lead elsewhere than to "empathy." And thinking through atheism, not just celebrating it, may require trying to understand what makes our morality "genuine" and theirs "claptrap."

If, for example, atheism is just a "clearing away," what is to prevent empathy and morality from getting cleared away? Why aren't they -- as Ivan more or less argued, as Nietzsche argued -- claptrap? Isn't it odd that we end up with such a "Christian" morality and Judeo-Christian ethics?

I'm not at all sure that it is fair to say atheists have sects -- hence, those question marks. But wouldn't that leave us with just a negative -- oh-no-there-isn't! -- view of atheism?

Posted by: mitch at April 4, 2006 12:42 AM

My point of view is that theism is a disordered way of looking at and interpreting the world. Basically it is a set of blinkers causing one to see the world from an egocentric viewpoint. Everything happens for a reason that is intimately connected with oneself, everything is willed by some invisible spirit. Becoming an atheist means taking off the blinkers and realizing that the universe is governed by scientific, repeatable and (in principle) understandable physical phenomena rather than being at the whim of invisible, irrational forces which must be propitiated with equally irrational rituals.

Morality is in a sense an orthogonal question. (I prefer "ethics" to "morality", but that's a discussion for another time.) Morality is how you choose to act, given your worldview. I believe that if you have a disordered worldview, then your morality will invariably lead to injustice and suffering. Furthermore, Christian morality is based on the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell, which is why I consider it bogus and self-interested.

Why do we end up with a consensus morality that coincides in some respects - thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal etc. - with Christian morality? I don't think that's at all mysterious. Societies evolve, and morality evolves with them. A society with no prohibition on wholesale killing of one's family and neighbors would quickly go extinct. To take a less drastic example, the Shakers went extinct because they insisted on both celibacy and withdrawal from the world, so they had no source of new members. Their morality was a self-destructive meme.

Our western idea of morality is evolving towards a humanist consensus which is - or ideally should be - based on reason and empathy for one's fellow creatures. This seems to be the morality that best "fits" our society for survival, by avoiding and punishing what is obviously evil but being tolerant of diversity and novelty. But because of the evolutionary path our consensus morality followed from Christianity and other dogmatic religions, it comes with irrational baggage and bizare curlicues of superstition and taboo.

I think if a sufficiently advanced society tried to come up with a moral system from scratch, there would be no question of basing it on religion. Why should the code by which we treat each other have anything to do with the question of whether invisible supernatural beings exist? It's immoral for me to kick my neighbor in the head, regardless of whether God exists, and even if God does exist and commands me to kick my neighbor in the head. In my view it's only a historical accident that has made religion the basis for morality, and a very poor basis it is too, leading to irrationality and untold suffering.

In previewing my comments I see that I may be expressing myself too dogmatically. I'm not a professional philosopher of any kind, and I'm trying to convey my thoughts more or less clearly while remaining, I hope, open to new ideas.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at April 4, 2006 4:12 PM

I think it's obvious that there *are* sects of atheism, but I don't think every atheist can be easily classified into a given sect, just as not every theist can be pinned down to a specific religion.

Obvious examples:

Secular Humanism
Buddhism (some varieties)

Posted by: Dayv at April 5, 2006 1:14 PM

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