In defense of atheism
I was catching up on my unread feeds on Google Reader when I came across a blog entry by Michael De Dora J. at the CFI blog titled “The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World” in which Michael spells out his arguments against atheism, or more specifically his arguments against atheism as a reliable alternative to religion (so far as I understand).
Michael starts off with giving a very concise, and correct, definition of atheism, one which I have myself proposed as the best definition on various occasions, although not so eloquently.
Firsts: what is atheism? By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes “God definitely doesn’t exist” or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough.
Which is of course right on the money. Saying one is an atheist doesn’t tell us anything about that person, except that he lacks belief in gods. From that point on, any atheist is free to choose the path he takes. There is no central doctrine atheists share, no rule-book to follow. The necessary and sufficient requirement to “join the club” is a lack of belief in gods. However, Michael sees that as the first problem with atheism.
This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.
Which is, strictly speaking, correct, however why are we assuming that atheism ought to be a philosophy or a worldview and be able to carry us forward? There are many other things that people do not believe in, but we do not require those unbeliefs to carry us anywhere specific, so why would we expect atheism to be any different? Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not a worldview; it is not meant to carry us forward. So why criticize it for not being or doing what it isn’t meant to be or do? The answer comes from the second argument against atheism.
This brings us to the second argumen t: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.
Now I am not very sure what is meant by “the problem” here. Surely religion is a problem, but I don’t think any of the mainstream New Atheists is arguing that religion is the root of all evil (and before someone points me to the Dawkins documentary please be advised that the title ends with a question mark), and if anybody does, she’d be wrong! I find this argument very vague; what is this problem that atheism is supposedly trying but failing to answer? The way I understand it, atheism addresses one question, and one question only: Do you believe in gods?
Atheism is not an alternative to everything that religion offers people, let’s be clear about that. For example, religion has a moral aspect to it that atheism can’t, it isn’t meant, to replace. Atheism has nothing to say about morality; moral philosophy does. The only thing that atheism can imply about morality is that one does not need religion in order to be moral, that one can be moral without god, and that secular moral principles are just as good as the religious ones. However, it doesn’t, it can’t, tell one how to behave. So I don’t believe in gods. Fine, should I steal or not? Atheism is not meant to handle that question. Religion is more than just belief in god; it is a social construct that has many dimensions and atheism is not meant to replace those dimensions. The only thing atheism can do is to address the fundamental assumption about god’s existence. After that other disciplines must step in to fill the void: philosophy, science, skepticism etc.
The thir d argument against the march of organized atheism is it’s tendency toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief, thinking that anyone who believes in God or other religious claims is stupid. In fact, neither of these men believes all religious people are stupid, as they have both written and spoken about how a large problem humanity faces is that very smart people can cordon off certain beliefs — for example accepting all the benefits of the modern life sciences but rejecting the what underwrites it, the theory of evolution.
However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer).
I must ask: is Dawkins’ or Hitchens’ attitude any more “strident” than that of a preacher that condemns all of us atheists to a painful afterlife in hell? Why should their “line of attack” be compassionate? When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger was she doing it with compassion vs. the people who were oppressing her? Poll after poll has shown that atheists are the most discriminated against minority in the US, so why would we be expected to be quiet in our revolt? Because that is what it is, a revolt of a group that’s tired of being treated as second-rate citizens. Let us be clear, this is a civil rights issue. There are states in the US that have laws forbidding atheists from holding public office on the books; and even if the laws are repealed no atheist would be chosen for public office if he declared his lack of belief. We use words like “fight for our rights” and “line of attack” yet we expect the fight and the attack to be peaceful?
I guess the idea behind this third argument is that this strategy is not the best to win over converts to atheism; yet let us ask ourselves: is that really the purpose that Hitchens and friends have set up for themselves? I can’t read minds, but I see their work as being more about mobilizing closet atheists to stand tall and proud, rather than converting religious folks to atheism. I think what they are trying to do is, in Dawkins’ words, “raise awareness”, especially within our own atheist community. I think that what they are telling us is that it is not ok to be quiet in a corner; it is not ok to accept discrimination; and that if we don’t stand up for ourselves no one else will. Furthermore, as Michael rightly points out, they are bringing the issue out in the open, making it clear to religious folks as well that atheists are human beings just like them and that we won’t be treated as outcasts anymore. And there really isn’t a peaceful, compassionate way of doing that.
However, it must be said that being steadfast in our beliefs and our demands for equal treatment, should not lead to arrogance; and we’re all guilty of slip ups in that area, especially blog writers, given that a blog entry is an off the cuff thing. I agree that we should not be calling people stupid, but that does not mean that we should shy away from calling nonsensical religious dogma nonsense. Ridiculing religious ideas is not the same as ridiculing people. I think the first is fair and the second not quite so. We should blaspheme, but we should not engage in ad hominems.
This brings us to the fourth argument: this view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together. This is a symptom of the atheist tendency to see the world through religion. It is seemingly as divisive as seeing the world as a Catholic and nothing else. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found — and kindled — more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing mostly or even entirely on theism divides us too cleanly on religious affiliation. Defining oneself as an atheist gives off the impression to those who do not define themselves as atheists that you have nothing in common. There are many good things included in religion (to be sure, they are found elsewhere and many are a product of the evolution of human nature) that cut to the core of human experience — community, fellowship, awe and wonder, a desire to transcend yourself and do collective good. To stand opposed to all religion is to give off the impression you deny these.
Well, actually I disagree; I think the religious worldview divides people with its sectarianism and it’s rules of conduct. The divide has been created by religion and its treatment of “heathens” and “infidels”, not the other way around. Atheism is rejecting the assumption (god) upon which such divide has been built and justified, and if that does not go down well with religious people there isn’t anything atheism can do about it. Religion created the divide and swept atheists under the rug, as if we didn’t exist; all the new atheists are doing now is crawling out from under the rug and saying “excuse me, but I’m still here“.
Those last couple of sentences bother me to no end. Community, fellowship, awe and wonder are not exclusive to religion; in fact most atheists one way or another in their debates with religious people will find themselves justifying how a secular lifestyle does not exclude any of these things. Only very poor communicators will come across standing opposed to such values; and only those that are not willing to listen to what we have to say will maintain this misconception of atheists. But then can we really change the mind of someone who is not willing to listen to us?
The fifth argument against using “atheist” is that atheists already face is that people have the tendency to see the atheist approach as “against” and not “for.” Of course, one cannot debunk or be against anything without really being for something. We are seemingly only able to critique if we have something to weigh the critiqued belief against. When Hitchens rips apart a religious idea, he is surely tearing something down — but he is doing so because he values evidence, reason, critical thinking, science, democracy, and more. The term atheism doesn’t tell others the reasons for critique.
Well, Michael provides the answer to the fifth argument himself. Hitchens does value evidence, reason, science and critical thinking, and he makes it very clear whenever he is debating folks, as do most atheists I know or whose works I’ve read. What Michael is hitting upon here is the popular misconceptions about atheists. Now the options are to either come up with a different label (anyone remember the Brights fiasco?) or correct the misconceptions. I think it is best to correct the misconceptions, because regardless what label you choose for yourself, the moment you answer “no” to the question “Do you believe in god” people will immediately in their minds say “Ah, he’s an atheist” and attribute to you all the negative connotations they attribute to atheism. As such it is better to fight to educate the public and change the misperceptions than try to coin new labels.
We need to move beyond and above atheism. I am not arguing we ought to avoid admitting who we are. I am also not arguing all atheists want to organize their lives around atheism (11). But many do, and given what I have said, it seems to be a mistake: it is too empty, too narrow-minded, and too divisive. Instead, it would seem smarter to develop something more comprehensive (12).
But we do have everything in place. We have science, skepticism, moral philosophy (humanism for example). Atheism is only a small part of what we are. Michael said it himself, all atheism can tell us is that a given person does not believe in gods. Everything else has to come from other places, and we have these other places already set up; we just have to popularize them. But we will not be able to do that until we’ve first established our existence, that we are here to stay and that we’re not going to accept the second-rate citizen treatment anymore.