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Conflationary Consequences in Contemporary Atheisms

Date:26 November 2015
“Born-again atheist badge, c.1987” by Unknown – Personal collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Born-again atheist badge, c.1987” by Unknown – Personal collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s post, Terrell Carver reflects on our atheisms series, noting the ways in which conflation occurs across different concepts in public atheist discourses and the risks, challenges and strategies this raises for analysing as well as engaging with atheisms in contemporary global politics and public life.

Strong binary contrasts promote instant intelligibility, even if – and especially if – one disagrees. When offered a clear distinction, we “know what someone is talking about.” And making a strong binary is easy to do oneself as a “way of being clear” and indeed “sharp” in what one says. “Divide and rule” works in language just as well as in life.

Derrida argued that language is a “play” of “differences”,[i] and Foucault argued that “power/knowledge”[ii] is what language does. A focus on strong binaries links these general theses in the philosophy of language to rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and hence to politics and the public domain.[iii]

But this public domain is not the “public sphere” that presumes consensus, or even presumes the desirability or possibility of consensus (contra Habermas).[iv] In an “agonistic” view of the public domain, the whole point is debate, disputation, even disruption.[v]Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors”[vi] was indeed an army in his pertinent characterization of how we “do things with words”.[vii]

Jeroen Weggen’s excellent research into the diversity of global atheisms takes us straight into the realm of religion, conflict and the public domain. The strong binary that emerges in the discursive media about atheisms that he has gathered is predominantly one of secularism versus religion, the “secular” versus the “religious,” “secularists” versus “believers” of various sorts(or of any sort that could qualify as religious in origin, feeling, language or representation). This binary is apparently well understood, apparently well applied, apparently informative, and used again and again by both “secularists” and “believers”.

But analysed as an “agonism,” that is, a discursive conflict in a rhetorical context where there are political stakes, things begin to look rather different, and that easy and instant intelligibility starts to crumble.

This is not to say that there is an inherent value in academic analysis that deconstructs and makes everything complicated (and indeed often has little appeal to the political participants). But rather my argument is that participants in any conflict are better armed (not just better informed) when they delve into the power of conflation.

Conflation is simply a fusion or amalgamation of concepts into a single term, followed by a process of “naturalizing” this conjunction through repetition.[viii]It becomes “self-evident.”That is, we come to understand the term as legitimately descriptive when circulated by self-appointed legitimizers, and in that way even more useful for what we want to do.

And what we want to do is to create strong binaries, in this case, secularism and religion as oppositional concepts, dividing what there is to know and care about neatly into two and without any “messy” remainder. Much the same applies to supposed binary opposition between science and religion, progress and religion, reason and religion etc. It “takes two to tango” and there won’t be much political “sound” from any “clapping” by one side of a binary.

Thus the process of binarization works from both ends, and excludes the middle. Anyone thinking today about “Western liberal democracy” could – with a bit of reflection – recognize this commonplace referential term as a vast conflation of institutions, histories, geographies, power-practices, instabilities and the like. And of course there have been – and very much are – vast conflations against which that particular conflation is deployed in rhetorical opposition: absolutism, authoritarianism, fascism, dictatorship, communism, theocracy and the like.

None of this is wrong, any more than settled agriculture or modern industry is “wrong.” Rather binary conflations of this type are what we do, and we have ample historical records that are often of little else. “Christendom” or “The Middle Kingdom” have done similar service, as have any number of similar terms through which ideologies are articulated as power-plays.[ix]

From this perspective, then, de-conflationary analysis isn’t necessarily destructive of anyone’s politics or indeed anti-political as a strategy. Forewarned is forearmed, and understanding the conflationary qualities of your own terms is a key to scrutinizing points of weakness, and articulating effective defences. The “other side” may of course be very lazy and analytically unskilled – but it’s unwise to rely on this, and they may of course be bluffing.

As Weggen has shown, New Atheists are in there for the politics, power and influence, and in a democratic setting, power accumulates (ideally, anyway) in and through the public domain. New Atheists clearly conflate their views with the (presumed) views of “atheists” in general. New Atheists come close to positioning “atheists” as a “silent majority” (or anyway getting to that position in relation to “believers”). Dawkins and others have argued that there are many more atheists globally than is shown by statistics, but that these “hidden” atheists don’t “come out of the closet” for fear of negative consequences.[x]

Intriguingly there is also something of an “embattled minority” imagery in New Atheist discourse, as well as an element of daring to “come out” (as per LGBTQ politics of many years standing).[xi] And there are “personal testimony” compilations on easily watchable video. Note that contradiction (e.g. majority? minority?) isn’t much of a problem here, since conflation works to erase this, or at least to discourage anyone from being very “picky” (i.e. analytical).

And note also the next line of conflation: that of atheists with “secularists.” The latter of course, could well include “humanists” and perhaps more interestingly – because in apparent contradiction to the original premises – many religious people. In fact every religious person who doesn’t advocate theocracy (i.e. the sovereignty of religious authorities over nation, state, government and the public domain, to the exclusion and thus subordination of all other authorities) is “secular.”

Historically a “secular” realm – literally, that which is outside “the church” – was set up by religious people precisely so that someone “else” could control in a sovereign manner the “religious” realm (where internecine warfare and dreadful persecution were not uncommon). Historically and today there is no sense in which the “secular” is anti-religious (even if the notorious and now defunct “secularization theory” suggested that in some sense it was). The “secular” is historically by definition respectful of religion in general[xii] (even if it is the case that not every religious group gets the particular privileges, exceptions and recognitions that it wants at any given time), and even if subsequent appropriations of the term have turned this round to disrespect, exclusion and hostility.

What this political analysis exposes is that conflation can be made to work the other way, too. Those who think themselves opposed to the New Atheists, even feel threatened by them, need not accept the easy conflation of (any and all) atheism with secularism. Rather there is more than enough rhetorical ammunition to sustain a counter-conflation of “religion” with a “secular” order.

That “secular” order is already imbued with religion (even in the absence of an established church), and it has a track record of respecting religion (through privileges, exceptions and recognitions, not least in ceremonial performances of national commemorations). What exactly respect for religion consists in, and exactly how that respect is shown (and conversely, what exactly constitutes disrespect) are all contentious, of course. Nonetheless it would be hard to find any example of any national (or even local) politician in any secular state (or quasi-secular state) being uncontentiously disrespectful of at least the familiar run of “faiths” already to hand in the electorate.

Historically there have been only a few – if notable and regrettable – self-styled “atheistic” regimes, which were not therefore “secular.” In fact they were anti-secular, precisely because they were intolerant of religion, disrespectful, exclusionary and far worse. It is unlikely that any New Atheists are conflating themselves with the former Soviet Union, or Communist China, or even Cuba. And a counter-conflation would run so contrary to “Western” secularism, that it would be risible.

Of course a counter-conflation would gloss over binarizing distinctions between self-assured “scientific” atheists, non-committal atheists, agnostics, non-believers, non-religious people and any number of similarly comfortable but fence-sitting positions. This potential coalition is clearly a “silent majority” in the making, but deployed – or at least deployable – in the other direction.

Any political strategy works this way, and usually gets quite heated. Famously “second wave” feminists proceeded from the concept of “woman,” and almost as famously “women of colour” (and various others) exposed and denounced the conflationary presumptions and “unified” strategies in political terms.[xiii] And the struggle continues with “strategic essentialisms” and binarizing exclusions, e.g. of trans-women from feminist groups (and women’s toilets).[xiv] Arguably, New Atheists have embarked on a familiar kind of campaigning, and they can expect similar conceptual but performatively[xv] powerful strategies.

New Atheists aren’t all that new. Hobbes and Darwin had similar issues, given that their major works and general thinking were widely suspected of being atheistic (in political climates where even being non-doctrinal as a Christian was highly suspect). But unlike the New Atheists they declined to cause controversy through provocation and disrespect. Doubtless the New Atheists will fall out among themselves anyway. But maybe not, and maybe a counter-mobilization is needed. If so this movement will seek (and get) traction in the public domain through strategies of conflation. As such, analysing these processes of conflation in the study of atheism will become more and more significant.

Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK.

[i] See Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (Milton Park: Routledge, 2002).

[ii] See Lois McNay, Foucault: A Critical Introduction (Oxford: Polity, 1994).

[iii] See James Martin, Politics and Rhetoric: A Critical Introduction(Milton Park: Routledge, 2013).

[iv] See Craig Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).

[v] See Mark Wenman, Agonistic Democracy: Constituent Power in the Era of Globalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[vi] See Walter Kaufmann (ed.), The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1994).

[vii] See J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd edn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[viii] See Samuel A. Chambers and Terrell Carver, Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics (Milton Park: Routledge, 2008).

[ix] Michael Freeden, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[x] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London 2006), 26-27

[xi] See Whitney Anspach, Kevin Coe and Crispin Thurlow, “The Other Closet: Atheists, Homosexuals and the Lateral Appropriation of Discursive Capital,” Critical Discourse Studies 4:1 (2011), pp. 95-119.

[xii] See Jeff Spinner-Halev, “Hinduism, Christianity and Liberal Religious Toleration,” Political Theory 33:1 (2005), pp. 28-57.

[xiii] See Judith Grant, Fundamental Feminism: Contesting the Core Concepts of Feminist Theory (Basingstoke: Routledge, 1994).

[xiv] Kate Lyons, “I think Germaine Greer is wrong on trans issues – but banning her isn’t the answer,” The Guardian,27 October 2015<accessed 24 November 2015>

[xv] See James Loxley, Performativity (Milton Park: Routledge, 2006).


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