It is never a good idea to try to set fire to your shorts whilst wearing them, I thought to myself, as Darren departed the football field shrieking, white smoke trailing behind him. During my high school years, Darren was the class idiot. (I think he’d been aiming at class joker but had missed, badly: as somebody once remarked, many people who attempt to be a wit only make it halfway). Darren was always ready to interrupt a class with a stupid remark or snide heckle, was often in trouble because of pranks or stupid stunts gone wrong, and was the first person I ever saw wounded off a sports field with scorch marks.
Every community has its brilliant members, its leading lights and all have their single-watt flickering light bulbs, their village idiots. This goes for every community, not least the atheist and secular community.
Over the years it has been my pleasure to read, learn from, and sometimes debate with a wide range of brilliant atheist thinkers and writers. From Michael Ruse to Mary Midgley, Julian Baggini to Luc Ferry, there are many secular thinkers whose work is thoughtful and engaging. Both offline and online I’ve also met thousands of atheists of all ages and backgrounds (some of whom I have had the privilege to call friends) who whilst disagreeing with what I believe have been intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful.
But there are exceptions. The atheist and secular community also has its fruity and nuttier varieties and that led some writers, a few generations ago, to coin the term ‘Village Atheist’ to describe those who let the rest of the secular tribe down by their antics.
Whilst the Village Atheist has always been around, their presence has been amplified by the Internet for to misquote the proverb, a fool and his opinion are soon tweeted. Before the advent of social media, Village Atheists lurked in the dark corners of pubs muttering incoherently, whilst a few of the more gregarious ones clubbed together and formed sad little societies on university campuses. But once the Internet took off, suddenly Village Atheists discovered a currency for badly Photoshopped memes or sarcastic soundbites.
This has proved frustrating to the wider secular community, who have in recent years been working hard to brand themselves as rational and reasonable. The atheist enfant terrible, Richard Dawkins, himself not immune from the metaphorical equivalent of striking matches near his nether regions, contributed to this rebranding exercise, at one point suggesting that atheists should use the term ‘Bright’ to describe themselves. But it’s hard to sustain that image when there’s a local Village Atheist in the corner, muttering and mumbling pearls of wisdom like ‘religion is for idiots’ whilst flossing his teeth with a live electricity cable.
Hallmarks of Village Atheism
So if you’re an atheist or secular type, how do you know if you’re a Village Atheist, or in danger of heading that way. Here to help you out are thirteen hallmarks of Village Atheism:
1. The tendency to mindlessly parrot soundbites
Village Atheists have a habit of lobbing tired old atheist catchphrases into the conversation and then chickening out when asked to defend them. I see this regularly on my social media feeds. A passing Village Atheist sees a link to, say, a book review by a Christian philosopher and, wiping the flecks of foam from his mouth rapidly types: ‘Belief in God is irrational’. When you politely ask: ‘Really? Tell me why you think that?’ there is usually silence or, if I’m really lucky, another entirely random secular soundbite.
2. A binary view of the world
Village Atheists tend to divide the world into polar opposites: rational sceptics versus irrational died-in-the-wool-faith-heads (that’s one of Dawkins’ more charming aphorisms, probably coined on a day he’d misplaced his Ritalin). Somehow Village Atheists missed the part of growing up where you discover that people can hold a different view to you and that doesn’t make them stupid. Over the years I’ve met incredibly smart religious people and incredibly smart secular people; I’ve also met religious people and secular people who are as dumb as rocks. What makes the difference is not a person’s belief (or the lack thereof) in God, but their willingness to explain their reasons and listen to and engage with those who disagree.
3. A lack of awareness of the foundations of your own beliefs
A classic hallmark of Village Atheism is the inability to think about your own dearly held views and what supports them. I remember a Twitter exchange with an enthusiastic young secularist (so passionate, he’d adorned his social media profile with a weird mash up of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Christopher Hitchens, which had the unfortunate side effect of making Hitchens look like Medusa on a bad hair day). During our discussion, the atheist kept insisting that ‘Any fool knows human beings are just matter and molecules’ and yet, five minutes later, was accusing Christianity of being ‘bad for human rights’. When I politely asked how he thought human beings had ‘rights’ if we were ‘just matter’ he admitted he’d never thought about that question.
Similarly, if you’re an atheist keen to use your Reason (capital ‘R’, of course) to beat up on those superstitious religious types, perhaps you might want to think about tough questions like why you can trust your reason and thinking in the first place if atheism is true. As the secular scientist, J. B. S. Haldane famously put it:
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.
4. Ignorance of your own intellectual tradition
When one reads more widely in atheist literature, you quickly find secular writers very willing to raise tough questions that require real thought to grapple with. For example, Bertrand Russell, one of the most influential atheist intellectuals of the twentieth-century, wrote about the conclusions that flow if atheism is true and how, logically, they lead to despair:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins … Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Unfortunately Village Atheists tend to be completely unaware of any of this. I remember a debate I did at Hull University with Andrew Copson, then head of the British Humanist Association on the topic of ‘Can Life Have Meaning Without God?’. Toward the end of the evening, Andrew grumbled words to the effect of ‘I don’t know why Christians think that if there is no God, there any implications for hope or meaning’. I replied: ‘Andrew, I haven’t quoted a single Christian thinker all evening; all the quotes about meaninglessness I have used have been from atheist writers. This is your own team!’
5. Cutting off the branch you’re sitting on
Another classic sign that you may be a Village Atheist is that you merrily make sweeping statements that actually destroy your own position in the process. For example, one conversation on social media recently went like this:
Atheist: ‘You’re only a Christian because you were raised in a Christian family.’
Andy: ‘Were your parents religious, by any chance?’
Atheist: ‘No, they were freethinking sceptics!’
Andy: ‘Aha, so you’re only an atheist because you were raised in an atheist family, then?’
And with a sickening thud, the flightless bird of atheism crashed to the forest floor, after having chain-sawed through the branch it was sulkily squatting on.
Life can be busy if you’re a Village Atheist: so many memes to share, tweets to misspell, and people to shout at. That leaves little time for actually bothering to read or watch things that might challenge your position. (I once met an excitable sceptic who told me ‘I’ve read Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great fifty times’. ‘Fascinating,’ I replied, ‘how many rebuttals to it have you read?’ Answer came there none.
But there’s an even greater laziness that Village Atheists sometimes exhibit and that consists of posting a snarky remark underneath, say, a Facebook link to a video or essay without reading or watching it. I’ve sadly lost count of how many times a Village Atheist has popped up on our Solas Facebook feed, typed ‘But what about …?’ only to have me point out that this very thing was addressed in the video or blog post.
7. Lack of emotional intelligence
Most normal people figure out pretty early on in life that it’s good manners (and a recipe for not getting blunt objects thrown at you) to listen, be thoughtful, take your turn in conversations, and generally avoid behaving like a twerp. And, again, most atheists do a great job—I have had thousands of fantastic conversations online and offline with committed sceptics and we’ve managed to do that without walloping each other. But Village Atheists often lack an ability to read emotional cues, show empathy, or give even a nod to the kind of social graces that the typical five-year-old has already mastered.
8. Caricaturing the beliefs of others
The Village Atheist has no time for trying to understand what somebody actually believes and respond to that; far better to accuse Christians of worshipping a ‘Dead Zombie Jewish Carpenter’ as a Village Atheist charmingly tweeted at me on one occasion. Not merely is this childish, it reduces the whole conversation to the level of the mud pit, as Christians can equally caricature atheism with stupid soundbites: ‘Atheism: The belief that in the beginning there was nothing, and then the nothing did something and now we have a universe.’ Does this get us anywhere? Not really. (And, yes, there are Village Christians as well as Village Atheists, both throwing their memes around like monkeys tossing poop at each other).
Another classic sign of Village Atheism is to take the most simplistic, low-level version of an argument that you can possibly find and respond to that, rather than bother to think about the strongest form of what Christians are saying. (Sometimes this tips over into a full-blown straw-man fallacy, attacking something that no Christian actually believes). I’m in two minds as to whether this Village Atheist tendency is cowardice (I’m too scared to read a big book by a grown-up Christian thinker, they might convince me!) or immaturity. As C. S. Lewis, the Oxford professor and Christian philosopher, once remarked:
Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc.
10. Overly focussed on the West
There’s a tendency for Village Atheists to ignore the rest of the world outside of the West when they think about Christianity. Thus they make comments about the Church shrinking without being aware of the rapid growth of Christianity in places like China or South America. I even caught one Village Atheist mouthing off about how Christianity was a ‘European faith’ and I had to gently point out that Christianity began in the Middle East and that the majority of Christians now live in the southern hemisphere. A cautionary note to atheists: when making a sweeping statement about Christians, perhaps think how your words might sound to somebody who is from Asia, or who is being persecuted, or who is poor, or who isn’t as privileged as you are.
11. Confusing science with scientism
This, sadly, is a common trait marking Village Atheists and it manifests itself as a temptation to think that science and only science can give us any access to knowledge. Who could think anything so daft, I hear you cry? Well, here’s a typical example:
Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.
That pronouncement was made by Harry Kroto, a man who is no dribbling halfwit but rather a Nobel Prize winning chemist. Here’s another example from another leading atheist, Peter Atkins of the University of Oxford:
Humanity should be proud that he [sic] has actually stumbled into this way of understanding the world and that it really can attack every problem that concerns humanity with the prospect of an outcome. Science also gives you the promise of understanding while you are alive, whilst religion offers the prospect of understanding when you are dead.
On many levels, I can understand why science has been elevated to religion-like status: it has graphs, statistics, flashing lights, and Professor Brian Cox. It also attracts huge amounts of funding, and, of course, even a gibbon looks intelligent if you stick him in a lab coat and give him a pair of spectacles. But for all that, science is only one way of knowing and there are a myriad other ways: everything from economics to geography, art history to philosophy, and a thousand other disciplines beside. That science can’t answer everything is also shown by simply asking the question: ‘What experiment would you perform to prove it can answer everything?’ When Village Atheists wave ‘science’ around like a monkey brandishing a bone, it does science a terrible disservice as well as making themselves look silly.
A sure sign that you have been infected with Village Atheism is that you don’t just hate religious people, you go totally nuclear on anybody who disagrees with your favourite writer. (‘Dawkins is never wrong!’ one Village Atheist once shrieked hysterically across the room at another student at a university event I was at. Their poor target wasn’t a Christian, just an agnostic who had dared to say they had read Dawkins and didn’t agree with everything). This tribal fury is directed with particular ire onto those who dare to leave the atheist camp. Thus when Anthony Flew, one of the most celebrated atheist philosophers of his era, moved from atheism to theism, Richard Dawkins let rip with both barrels, implying that Flew was going senile, unable to comprehend that somebody might consider the arguments carefully and change their position. Flew wrote a very witty response, which concluded:
This whole business makes all too clear that Dawkins is not interested in the truth as such. He is primarily concerned to discredit an ideological opponent by any available means. That would itself constitute sufficient reason for suspecting that the whole enterprise of The God Delusion was not, as it at least pretended to be, an attempt to discover and spread knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of God but rather an attempt to spread the author’s own convictions in this area.
13. Magical and naïve thinking
Village Atheists have a tendency to uncritically swallow any number of beliefs, but one of the most common is their insistence on the idea that if one removed religion, the world would magically be a peaceful harmonious place, with kittens dancing with unicorns, and rainbows and tinsel bedecking the clouds. For many Village Atheists, John Lennon’s song Imagine has been adopted as something of an anthem, especially that bit about imagining a world without any religion and all the people living in peace. (Imagine also asks us to picture a world without possessions and greed, a bit, er, rich coming from a man who died with a net worth of 800 million dollars). But to anybody a little more critical, some questions arise: haven’t there been (and still are) secular states that are pretty violent, everything from Stalin’s Russia to Pol Pot’s Cambodia to and Mao’s China? The secular historian Tom Holland also points that Village Atheists frequently fail to realise that much of what they enjoy in the west (freedom of thought and speech; human rights and dignity etc.) is actually the legacy of Christianity.
Fascinated by God
For all of the annoying traits that characterise Village Atheists, I still find them a fascinating sub-species of secularism. I’m particularly fascinated by how they’re drawn to talking so much about God (as one comedian once quipped: ‘Nobody seems to talk as much about God as those who claim they don’t believe in him’). What is it that draws angry Village Atheists to hang out on religious pages on social media, for example, furiously typing snarky comments like a monkey trying to turn out a page of Hamlet? What motivates them? I don’t spend hundreds of hours trolling atheist social media accounts—why do Village Atheist types spend so much of their time doing so to Christians? I do wonder if the fact is that they can’t help themselves, indeed it’s almost as if they were wired to be drawn toward God and thus to slightly paraphrase Shakespeare: ‘Methinks some of them doth protest too greatly.’
The Gravitational Pull of Fundamentalism
But what’s the attraction of Village Atheism? Why would you spend your time flinging soundbites, shouting at people, searching out things you disagree with just so you can sound off? In some ways it reminds me of the famous cartoon:
But then I also think it’s more than that: namely that Village Atheism is at its root a form of fundamentalism and fundamentalism can be deeply attractive to a certain narrow kind of mind. For starters, it’s safe (you can shut the doors and windows of your mind and not let anything in that disturbs you). Furthermore, if you’re unsure of your identity and place in the world, fundamentalism can help build it: in that sense, Village Atheism is a bit like a cat spraying around the house. You mark your territory, your viewpoint, and woe betide anybody who seeks to question you.
And then Village Atheism is also very modern, a low calorie atheism-lite for the social media age. Social media tends to flatten everything to the banal, shallow, and ridiculous and it’s done that for some forms of atheism. What philosopher David Bentley Hart said of New Atheism holds for Village Atheism too (and the New and Village varieties of atheism are close cousins):
In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.
Sidelining the Idiots
Thankfully the vast majority of atheists are not Village Atheists. I remember a wonderful radio debate with the atheist philosopher, Michael Ruse, who is incredibly smart, very funny, and a delight to dialogue with. During that debate Michael said:
Christianity is a very serious answer to a very serious question. I have no time for anybody who thinks they can dismiss it with soundbites. It is, I say again, a very serious answer to a very serious question. I don’t believe that is the right answer, but nevertheless, as an atheist I need to consider it and weigh it carefully.
Many atheists are also as much disturbed by the Darrens in their midst as I am. On one occasion, after describing to an atheist friend in Toronto (who was at that point the leader of a secular organisation) some very rude messages I’d been sent online by an atheist, he looked at me with a pained expression and said: ‘Please, please don’t judge the secular community by that behaviour. Every community has its the lunatics.’
He’s absolutely right. Every community does have its lunatics, the atheist community and the Christian community. Christians have Fred Phelps; atheists have Ricky Gervais. Both our communities have our Village Idiots attempting to wreck the conversation for everybody.
What Michael Ruse said about Christianity, I would equally say about atheism. Atheism deserves to be taken seriously, its arguments listened to, its advocates engaged with, and those who identify as atheists taken seriously. Let’s leave the Village Atheists in the corner to set fire to their shorts whilst those of us who are capable of a grown up discussion can get on with the real conversation about the big questions that really matter.
For Further Reading
Whilst I was working on this essay, I came across two other writers (one Christian, one secular) who had similar concerns to me and had also written critiques of Village Atheism. Do check out their work:
- Sincere Kirabo, ‘Three Warning Signs That Village Atheism is Your New Religion’, com, 3 May 2016 (https://thehumanist.com/commentary/three-warning-signs-village-atheism-new-religion
- Randall Rauser, ‘The Problem of Village Atheism’, The Christian Post, 27 August 2018 (https://www.christianpost.com/voices/the-problem-of-village-atheism.html)
 J. B. S. Haldane, ‘When I Am Dead’ in On Being the Right Size and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 30.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Collins, 1990) p.36.
 Cited by atheist P. Z. Myers in the article ‘There’s Something Obvious Missing From This Argument …’ on his Science Blogs website (now a dead link, alas, but accessible via The Internet Archive here).
 Peter Atkins, Burning Questions TV documentary, Episode 2: ‘God and Science’. I resisted the temptation to point out that especially in chemistry, scientists who are not too careful may actually end up combining understanding with death. “Is this hydrogen? Is this a naked flame? Why, I do believe th—” BANG!.
 See Antony Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Transworld, 2006) p.82.
 Antony Flew, ‘Documentation: A Reply to Richard Dawkins’, First Things, December 2008 (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/12/001-documentation-a-reply-to-richard-dawkins).
 See Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown, 2019).
 David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p.313.