Protest atheism is the belief that there is no God combined with the refusal to recognize or submit to or honor or worship God should it turn out that God does, in fact, exist.
A close bedfellow to protest atheism is another type of atheism that I call affirmative atheism. This is the view that there is no God combined with a positive attitude toward that fact, a happiness or relief, that there is no God.
Consider Christopher Hitchens. He describes what he calls “antitheism”: “By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it.” (God is Not Great (Twelve, 2007), 102, emphasis added) In other words, Hitchens is not merely an atheist. He is an atheist who is happy about the purported fact that there is no God. He is an affirmative atheist.
To illustrate, imagine a child who thinks there may be a bogeyman in his closet. When his dad investigates with a flashlight and reveals there is nothing in the closet but clothing, a baseball mit, and a bucket of toys, the child is relieved. It is not simply that he now believes no bogeyman exists. It is also that he doesn’t want there to be a bogeyman. That’s like Hitchens. It isn’t just that there is no God. It is that he is happy that (so he believes) there is no God.
Another great example of affirmative atheism comes from philosopher Thomas Nagel. In his book The Last Word Nagel writes:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (Oxford University Press, 1997), 130.
Not only is Nagel an affirmative atheist, but in the footnote to this passage he makes the additional claim that the vast majority of people take an affirmative stance either for or against the existence of God. Few, if any people are neutral on the matter: “I am curious … whether there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God–anyone who, whatever his actual belief about the matter, doesn’t particularly want either one of the answers to be correct….”
Of course there could be atheists who accept the position grudgingly, who want there to be a God and are brought to their belief through a painful process. Likewise, there are theists who accept the existence of God grudgingly. For example, C.S. Lewis famously described himself as “the most reluctant convert in all England”. It was only after he had been a theist for some time that he began to take a positive, affirming stance toward the reality he had come to accept.
Whether a person is a protest atheist or, more weakly, an affirmative atheist, it is important to recognize as does Nagel that belief in the existence of God or belief in the non-existence of God is rarely if ever merely a matter of dispassionately considering the evidence. People have their own thoughts on what they want to be true and it is naive to think that those commitments will have no effect on how people assess evidence.