In this article, I continue my survey of concepts commonly associated with atheism by considering anti-theism. For the previous installment on atheism and secularism, click here.
For the last fifteen years or so, the public face of atheism has been synonymous with the new atheism of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. In other words, it has often been pugilistic, aggressive, and expressed deep hostility (and condescension) toward the idea of God.
Hitchens, in particular, was keen to express in no uncertain terms his deep-seated hostility toward God, one which was expressed both in a desire that God not exist, and an unqualified opposition toward God should it happen that God does exist. Thomas Mallon observes, “Preferring ‘antitheist’ to ‘atheist,’ Hitchens liked to draw comparisons between Christianity and North Korea, both mental kingdoms offering their inhabitants the chance to commit ‘thought crime’ and to deliver ‘everlasting praise’ of the leader.” Indeed, Hitchens would often equate God to the celestial equivalent of a despot who monitors your every action. Needless to say, in Hitchens’ view, we’re better off without any such being. Thus, he would declare, “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influences of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”
That which Hitchens refers to as antitheism has also been referred to as protest atheism. In a recent speech former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes protest atheism as follows:
“The God of Jewish and Christian faith is seen as an agent who has the power to prevent the world’s evil yet refuses to do so, so that there is the appearance of a moral incoherence at the heart of this tradition. Or he is seen as an arbitrary tyrant whose will is inimical to the liberty of human creatures; or else as an impotent and remote reality, a concept given a sort of ghostly existence by human imagination. In all these instances, it is clear that the refusal of belief in God is something essential to human liberation. We cannot live with a God who is responsible for evil; we cannot grow up as human beings if what is demanded of us is blind obedience; we cannot mortgage our lives and our loving commitment to an animated abstraction. Atheism here is necessary to maturity, individually and culturally.
“Even those who argue at length about the simply [sic] conceptual inadequacies, as they see it, of Western religion, classically, writers in the Bertrand Russell style, will frequently deploy the language of moral revolt as well. “Protest atheism”, as it is often called, has become a familiar element in the armoury of modern intellectual life, perhaps more often repeated than expounded, but culturally very powerful.”
One doesn’t simply find antitheism or protest atheism among the polemical new atheists. One of the most highly respected atheist philosophers today, Thomas Nagel, appears to endorse antitheism in his book The Last Word:
“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.”
There can be no doubt that many atheists are antitheists. But there can also be no doubt that atheism is conceptually distinct from antitheism. (Note again Hitchens’ own observation that he is better thought of as an antitheist than an atheist, an observation which maintains a conceptual distinction between the positions.)
Indeed, not only is atheism not necessarily opposed to the idea of God, but a given atheist could actually wish that God exists. Hitchens himself recognizes as much when he says there are “atheists who say they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or who have relinquished belief only with regret.” There are many reasons atheists might wish theism were true including the hope of an afterlife and the guarantee that justice will be satisfied or a perception that God is required to secure objective meaning, value, and/or purpose.
It must be said that Christians are at least partially responsible for the common conflation of atheism with antitheism. The problematic equation traces back to the teaching, which is all too common in some Christian circles, that declares all atheists to be actively suppressing a natural knowledge of God. In a short video on the topic, Christian apologist Greg Koukl provides the analogy of a person trying to hold a beach ball under water. Just as it is nearly impossible to hold the ball beneath the surface for any length of time, so it is nearly impossible for the atheist to restrain the overwhelming evidence for God’s existence and nature. The only way they manage to accomplish the feat of maintaining apparent disbelief is through concerted, strenuous effort to suppress God’s natural revelation which is borne by an inexplicable hostility toward God.
I call this thesis that atheists are in rebellion against God the Rebellion Thesis and in my view, it is both false and does great harm to Christian-atheist relations. But that is a conversation for another day. The only point I want to make here is that whatever one might think of the nature of antitheism in individuals like Christopher Hitchens or Thomas Nagel, the fact remains that many other atheists have no hostility to the concept of God. Indeed, as Hitchens observed, some do wish it were true and they relinquish belief only with regret.
 Thomas Mallon, Introduction in Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practice (London: Atlantic Books, 2012).
 This kind of hostility toward God or rebellion against God is nothing new. One sees it reflected, for example, in a famous passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov when the atheist Ivan describes to his pious religious brother Alyosha his deep rebellion against God: “I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity, I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”
 Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 55.
 Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Continuum, 2012), 282.
 Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) , 130. Nagel reiterates this perspective in Mind and Cosmos. For a sympathetic interpretation of Nagel’s comments see the discussion in my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor?
 Hitchens, “Introduction,” in The Portable Atheist, xxii. For an example see my interview with Jeff Lowder in Is the Atheist My Neighbor? (Cascade, 2015).
 David Owens writes: “Religious worldviews may not be true, but we may not be able to do without them unless we can find some other way of imbuing the cosmos with meaning.” “Disenchantment,” in Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Anthony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 165-6.
 Greg Koukl, “Are Atheists Just Suppressing the Truth in Unrighteousness?” Stand to Reason Blog (October 5, 2015), http://str.typepad.com/weblog/2015/10/are-atheists-just-suppressing-the-truth-in-unrighteousness.html (Accessed on July 1, 2016).
 I critique this concept in Is the Atheist My Neighbor.