Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Atheism is Not Enough

Coughlan666 from YouTube once a video posted a video in which he read a poem he had written entitled "Atheism Is..." For a such a simple a straightforward piece, I always found it particularly powerful. The message was simple: Atheism is... Nothing. It is merely a lack of belief that has no direct effect on society or the individual. Paradoxically, this fact, in effect, makes atheism meaningful. With it comes the freedom from faith, which does have a marked effect on society and the individual.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with Hassan in what has since been termed a "philosophy booty call". He was driving home from school and was plagued with the idea that atheism could be possibly be considered a religion. He asked me to prove him wrong. When I pointed out that atheism wasn't even a belief system, that is was just a single belief on a single issue, he told me that atheism seemed like more than that because of how his way of life changed upon rejecting religion. I believe his exact wording was "When I realized there was no god, I thought "hey, I can do shit now!"".

While this is probably a common reaction among newly deconverted atheists, I gave the statement some thought and realized what a troubling statement this actually was. One of the more common assertions we hear thrown at us from the religious camp is the notion that we're only "reject god" because we want to live our lives they way we see fit, without listening to the commands of a deity. Rightly, most of us find this notion insulting. We aren't nihilists a la Ivan Tergenev who wish to do away with the established fabric of society simply of the sake of doing so. Yet even I was thrilled at that prospect of not going to hell for having premarital sex, cursing the names of deities or believing blindly in the untestable. I have come to realize how easy it is, even for the supposedly rationally minded among us to fall into the trap of mistakenly thinking that atheism is permissive.

Even in the context of religion, it is not the belief in god that binds us to the deontological morality that permeates faith. The beliefs we have about the god in question are what permit or forbid certain actions. Take, for example, premarital sexual activity. Sex before marriage only becomes a sin if we believe that our god values virginity or "purity" before getting married. It does not come directly from the theism itself. If we were to examine a pagan belief system in which ritualistic sex was a part of the religious sacraments, premarital intercourse would no longer be condemned despite the fact that the practitioners of the religion would still, by definition, be theists.

Of course, most modern atheists reject not only the theistic belief but the entire religion. This is entirely rational considering the fact that, without theism, most western religions lose the premise on which all of their other beliefs rest. Even so, this does not mean that our atheism, or even our rejection of religion necessarily gives us permission to partake in behavior forbidden by the religion. There are many behaviors forbidden by religion that may be perfectly acceptable, this is true. But the reverse may also be true. The fact that religion X is wrong is not sufficient grounds to say that the things forbidden by religion X are permissible. If there were a good moral argument against all premarital sexual activity (I don't believe there is, but let's keep the examples consistent), that argument would be sound regardless of whether or not religion X forbids it and premarital sex could be termed immoral. What we need in addition to atheism is a comprehensive and constant philosophy that helps us determine how to live our lives and improve our society.

This is not the post in which I tell you exactly what this philosophy is, but it certainly need not be a rule based system of ethics as we find in Christianity. The problem comes when we discount philosophy entirely, mistaking it for the tiresome mumbo-jumbo used to rationalize belief in the supernatural. As non-religious atheists, we have released ourselves from the shackles of dogma, but emancipation is not the last step in our intellectual development. If we want to term ourselves enlightened, we need to remember to keep thinking. What atheism gives us is not the freedom to act, but rather the freedom to figure out how to act. Let's not forget that not having been given all the answers comes with the responsibility of having to find the answers ourselves. Next time a religious person asks you "where do you get your morality from?", make sure you can answer the question before you laugh at their ignorance.


  1. Where do you get your morality from? ;)

  2. I don't really see a need to convince people that atheism is not a religion. That doesn't mean we have to accept the label outright, but there's a difference between elaborating on the reasons for rejection than insisting that the differences justify shirking the label. I think efforts would be better spent in the former, and that an atheist should be prepared to allow the label of religion so long as (s)he's ready to not let the theist dominate the conversation from then-out. There are simple ways to control the discussion.

    As to whether or not atheism is itself a belief, while it strictly isn't I think that most atheists focus too much on strict definition. For virtually every atheist you will meet, it very much is a stance at least, an affirmative position on the null hypothesis that there is no God (and of course, the null can be falsified, so it's not a statement of absolute fact). The only atheists you'll meet that are atheists according to the strictest definition haven't once thought about religion in their life. Atheism in general, and especially the Movement, is centered on a belief, that there's worth in identifying with the null hypothesis and that there's good reason to. This is true even before we consider the humanistic side of the Movement, or whatever political and social goals there might be.

    1. I was thinking a bit after I posted this and might not have elucidated (don't often use that word) well enough: I don't think that from a philosophical view atheists hold the null to be true, rather that it's not false; from a practicality perspective though we act as if it was true.

  3. Interesting post. It does lay open the question that Dave asks above though -- what moral or ethical code do we then follow? It's well and good to, say, recognize that cannibalism is a highly moral act in some cultures -- eating your deceased loved ones, consuming who they were, is better than letting their body be wasted by fire or burial. But here, even among atheists, we would admit that such actions or behaviour would be socially destructive. And that's the fear non-atheists have -- because it's impossible to know what moral framework an atheist follows. So where exactly is the common ground? And is that ground solid or constantly shifting on whim like sand?


Please be civil. :)