A Basic Motivation for Atheism+ … and for Beta Culture

In his post “Value-free atheism,” Justin Vacula focuses on the meaning of the word “atheism” — making the point, as do so many others, that it means only one thing. The argument seems to be coming often these days following the appearance of Atheism-Plus. Vacula says:

The definition of the word ‘atheist’ — a person who lacks belief in any gods — is often misunderstood by many religious people who, at least from my experience, say, for instance, “It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a believer” or “Atheism is just another religion.”

Confusion concerning the word ‘atheist’ isn’t only limited to religious persons. Some atheists across the blogosphere seem to couple certain ideological positions with atheism — arguing that atheism leads to particular positions or that atheists should hold particular positions — although atheism does not lead to, as Pigliucci described, any sort of positive position. It even seems that, in some cases, persons are attempting to ‘hijack’ the term ‘atheism’ by affixing their particular ideological positions.

While many atheists may happen to endorse certain political positions or positions on social issues, this does not mean that atheism leads to those positions and, as described above, it simply cannot. Atheists will obviously not hold beliefs which require a belief in God to be coherent, but they will hold a wide array of beliefs on other issues regardless of the strength of the arguments.

My answer is less an argument against his position and more an evocation of some of the hidden reasons why Atheism-Plus, and Beta Culture, have opened up before us at this moment in freethought history:

_________________________

The impulse to associate (or even ascribe) positive attributes to atheism is strong in some long-term atheists, for the simple reason that SOMETHING must occupy the space in our heads where values are stored.

For newbies, the transition into atheism is tough enough that we’re content to focus on just that, and simply take atheism at face value. Our goal, in the beginning, is only to get free of religion — if not socially, then at least in our own private hearts and minds. For some of us, that is a years-long struggle.

But eventually you also have to re-examine your values and morals. If you’ve been told all your life that these things come from your supposed belief in God, once that God is out of your life and mind you have to refigure where you DO get them, and just what they are.

In this sense, at least, you can definitely say your redefined and reexamined morals and values arise as a result of your atheism. But you’re right, Justin, they don’t actually come from atheism so much as they do from the mentation following atheism.

One of the never-ending chuckles of my 47-year “career” as an atheist is the question “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from just killing and raping at will?” The subtext of which is that this is what THEY would do if they suddenly stopped believing. The question seems to insist that compassion is alien and unnatural to human beings, and only arrives in the human heart after religion has been installed as the underlying operating system.

The darker joke contained in the question is the suggestion that our society’s religious segment has been so trapped in muddled goddy thinking that it seems to have never even CONSIDERED why it might really be bad to rape or kill.

Certainly religion, overall, has done a piss-poor job in the field of morality. Yeah, that moral package delivered by the church is all happiness and light if you’re male, and heterosexual, and have lived in your small community all your life, and are not suspiciously foreign or mentally ill or some such, or simply want to explore different life options … which might be as simple in some religious subcultures as trimming your beard, or attempting to get away when Father McFeely gives you a reacharound every Sunday afternoon.

Maybe atheism per se doesn’t come with morals or values, but it does come with the necessity of exploring the territory in which they reside.

The necessity for individual atheists is that we have to discover or develop our own morals and values. For the socially aware among us, bent on co-creating the better world we’d all like to live in, we have to spread those morals and values, and the reasoning behind them, to our larger society.

 

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  • maureen.brian

    Thanks for that, Hank. Have we not just had a year of strenuous attempts to redefine atheism so that it encompasses both arrogance and rape threats?

    Clearly none of the people now making a fuss ever went to school or they would have noticed that the + sign means (x and in addition y) – or maybe it’s about brains so small they can only hold one idea.

  • astro

    Swell post. Just as an aside, I wonder if there are others like me who would even bother to identify as atheist if it WASN’T for the societal implications. What would be the point? It would be like declaring yourself an a-bigfootist…

    What do you believe about the world differently because of your atheism? What would be the point of rejecting the claims of religion if it wasn’t somehow harmful to you or society?

    Also, definitions change in weight and context over time. Check out the etymology of the word ‘silly’

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=silly

  • http://afreethinkingmama.blogspot.com/ sisu

    Astro, have you seen Crommunist’s Because I am an Atheist… series? It’s readers’ contributions exploring that question – so you’re an atheist… now what? It’s interesting.

    • Hank Fox

      I was one of Crom’s early guests on the “Because I Am An Atheist” series. From mid-June, I’m HERE.

    • astro

      Yes! Crommunist is in my A list of FTB bloggers. I check it out daily. His gust posts and PZ guest post ‘Why I am an atheist’ are a good combo. Hey maybe someone can start both. You know, like John Doe answers “why I am an atheist AND Because I am an atheist’

      • Randomfactor

        Glad I’m not the only one to make that connection.

        BECAUSE I am an atheist, I know it’s up to me, not some thunderer in the skies.

        BECAUSE I am an atheist, I can’t depend on said thunderer for my heaven–so I’d better get busy making my corner of it more to my liking, while not screwing up others’ vision of THEIR heaven unless it screws up someone else’s.

  • astro

    People who argue that we should maintain the ‘pure’ definition of atheism as simply ‘no belief in god or gods’ seem to forget that historically atheism has almost always been antagonistic to religion. The idea of ‘atheism’ being free of extra-contextual meaning is the novel notion (exept when used by the religious who want to shut us up, i.e. ‘if you don’t believe in god, why do you bother)

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/ Stephanie Zvan

    I really don’t understand this impulse to point at atheism and declare that because it is values-free (which it isn’t, but that’s another argument), atheists must declare themselves to be values-free or choose between being a public atheist and having public values. It’s one of the more stunning non sequiturs I’ve seen.

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    Atheism may or may not contain any inherent values, but people (individually and in groups) do have values.

    It sort of makes me wonder about the motives of these “amoral atheism” advocates in being public about their lack of belief. Is it REALLY simply a matter of people who giant egos saying “look at me, I’m smarter than theists, I am so awesome!” and nothing else? Because that’s what it looks like more and more, especially since they seem to recognize right and wrong when judging theists, but not so much when forced to look at our community. It makes me wonder if they even understand right and wrong outside of tribal identification.

  • leftwingfox

    Atheism never had any appeal to me until it became linked with moral issues.

    I came from a mushy spiritual pluralistic background. Atheism to me was just another belief system, capable of good or evil. It was politics which led me to read more by the New Atheists. They were the ones attacking the increasingly unhinged Republican positions for being factually wrong when discussing creationism/ID, environmentalism, abortion and contraception, as well as “scientific” justifications of racism, sexism and homophobia.

    In turn, reading more by the New Atheists and skeptics led me to finally finish moving away from agnosticism to atheism. My shift from my old form of pantheistic deism to agnosticism was minor and personal, but the move to atheism was more profound. It was a recognition that science and evidence have a vital role to play in shaping policy and providing a more valid framework for moral behaviour, one where actions can be evaluated by their ability to achieve the values we hold.

    Atheism is still vulnerable to abuse by those who argue from a supposedly “rational” position, or use the sense of tribalism to justify abuse. Unlike religions, we have the tools to tell whether a person claiming the mantle of rationality is justified in their position based on evidence, logic and reason. It has no direct tool for combatting tribalism and political abuse. That’s up to us, to ensure that we live up to the values we espouse.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    Atheists will obviously not hold beliefs which require a belief in God to be coherent

    OK. Let’s do an in-depth examination of which beliefs those are. I’m betting it’s more than Vacula will admit.

  • http://giliellthinkingaloud.blogspot.com/ Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg

    Clearly none of the people now making a fuss ever went to school or they would have noticed that the + sign means (x and in addition y) – or maybe it’s about brains so small they can only hold one idea.

    This.
    The PLUS actually means that those things we add aren’t implicit in the thing we add them to, or we’d join the redundant department of redundancy.
    The dictionary definition has value, IMO. I was certainly a “dictionary atheist” for my childhood because the position came from lack of indoctrination, not from rejection. Only that my atheism today is more than that, yet I was still an atheist back then (does this make sense?) But to claim that atheism cannot have other notions and that we can’t add to it is ridiculous.

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