Saturday, August 4, 2012

What does atheism have to offer? Nothing--which is everything

I hear it all the time, a criticism of atheism fired from the theistic sidelines and sometimes from within: "What does atheism have to offer?" The question is sometimes serious and more often rhetorical, attempting to point out that atheism cannot compete with religion because it is devoid of the many usual trappings and social functions of religions. Atheism has no dogmas, no doctrines, no creeds, no beliefs, no moral framework, no explanation for the universe or anything in it, no churches, no worship, no songs, no social community, no nothing. This, of course, is all true, and it is the reason that some atheistic folks like Alain de Botton have proposed an "Atheism 2.0," which seeks to fill in some of these gaps and make atheism more popular with the masses. Indeed, how else can it bring more people to it?

This all misses the point entirely!

Atheism fails to offer all of these things simply because it cannot offer them.

Outspoken "New Atheist" and neuroscientist Sam Harris has repeatedly made this point, though perhaps not with the same emphasis as I gave above: "atheism" is a very odd word, a word that should, perhaps, not exist. It is so odd a term because it does not describe a person in terms of what what he is but rather in terms of what he is not. An atheist, as is widely and repeatedly pointed out nowadays, is someone who simply does not believe in gods, someone that is without theism.

Because the term "atheist" merely indicates that someone fails to accept an entire class of claims, it itself is not actually a position at all. Since it is not a position, it cannot offer anyone essentially anything: no dogmas, no doctrines, no beliefs, no moral framework, no explanation for the universe or anything in it, no churches, no worship, no songs, no social community, no nothing. This is not a fault of atheism, nor is it a weakness or a deficiency. If anyone finds this the least bit confusing or disappointing, then it is simply proof that they don't understand why "atheist" is such an inappropriate term in the first place, just as are ahomeopathist and aspiritualist.


Very, very curiously, then, atheism does offer something, in a sense. Atheism offers freedom. Atheists are not bound by any particular dogmas, doctrines, creeds, beliefs, moral frameworks, or explanations of the universe or anything in it. By virtue of this, atheists are freer than perhaps any other group of people to choose from those that are offered by our world's cultures or to work out their own to the best of their abilities. This, of course, is not nearly the same thing as saying that atheists are people without morals or understanding of the universe; it's merely a statement that atheists are free to do most honestly what everyone must do--work out a working understanding of the world we find ourselves in.

So, atheism doesn't offer these things, can't offer these things, doesn't even claim to offer these things, and cannot be held accountable for not doing what it cannot possibly do, by definition. (This doesn't imply that atheists cannot be held accountable for their actions--in fact, it's a stunning statement of the idiocy of some of the non sequitur arguments routinely made against atheists that I even have to clarify this point.) To criticize "atheism" for not offering anything is ignorance, and to try to redefine it to offer something is foolishly artificial. To try to bring people to atheism is silly, as it is simply having them walk away from certain kinds of belief constructs that is actually being asked.

Where, then, do atheists get their morals, explanations for the world, inspiration, etc.? They get them from the same places everyone else does! From philosophers, scientists, social interaction, and, above all, a rational and careful consideration of themselves and the world around them.

Humanism and science are often cited, but they're not the only avenues available to atheists. In stark contrast to theists, who must at least in part consider the mindset handed to them by their religion and compare everything against its teachings (particularly those involved in totalitarian religions, esp. fundamentalist believers of the Abrahamic religions), atheists are free to peruse the religions of the world for suggestions of what to do or not to do and then able to examine the consequences of those choices before determining their own thoughts. This freedom is explicitly denied to the religious, even if they happen to let their cultural secularism trump the dictates of their belief systems on most or all matters.

This, of course, is also not the same as saying that "anything can be considered moral" for atheists. That flatly invalid charge is particularly egregious since it is actually a feature of most religions--many of the most horrible moral vacancies in the world can and have been justified or even raised up as righteous epitomes of virtue by religion, atrocities such as genocide, infanticide, rape, genital mutilation, extreme and violent and murderous sexism, racism, homophobia, slavery, burning people alive for victimless or imaginary crimes, etc., etc., etc., and yes, etc.

Perhaps the best statement of where atheists get their morals that I'm aware of is from Matt Dillahunty, one of the hosts of The Atheist Experience television program. He says:
I get my limits from a rational consideration of the consequences of my actions. That's how I determine what's moral. I get it from a foundation that says my ac tions have an effect on the people around me and their actions have an effect on me and if we're gonna live cooperatively and share space we have to recognize t hat impact and my freedom to swing my arm ends at their nose and that I have no right to impose my will over somebody else's will in that type of scenario. That 's where I get them from. I get them from an understanding of reality, not an as sertion of authority.
Now, for an understanding of the world, many atheists turn to science, though not all--and certainly none are required to (though most people in modern Western democracies are at least somewhat scientifically literate). The huge contrast here between theists and atheists is that atheists are not pinched by the fact that there are scriptures out there that are contradicted by science. This is not trivial, particularly because holding to the theistic or scriptural claims begins to invite (and outright evokes) science-denial, which is a major, major problem in a modern world like ours.

This, though, isn't meant to be a long treatise on where morals or understanding of the universe comes from. It's merely meant to cut the ropes holding up the puppet of an argument that atheism somehow is a faulted position because it lacks these things. Such assertions are vacuous, and though folks like Alain de Botton are well-meaning, their attempts will always be a bit silly. Atheism doesn't need to redefine itself. Secularism, humanism, science, and other philosophical constructions simply need to be brought forward--I can even envision humanistic "churches" operating much like the Unitarian churches now--letting atheism become a term that falls into the margins, a historical note reminding us of the terrifying time when theism ruled all.

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