Atheists in America – Part 4

                This is the last blog of my series on atheists which is based on a book, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). You can see the first three entries of this series here and here and here. In the past blogs there has been a debate with my use of the term “belief” in describing atheism. I have discussed my use of that word in my previous blogs and read nothing that discourages my use of “belief.”  Since I have already spent considerable space debating this term in my previous blogs, I will not debate it in this entry. Others wishing to register their disagreement in the comment section are free to do so, but I will not respond. New visitors to this blog series are free to go back to the previous blogs to see my comments on this matter.  

                In this last entry, I would like to discuss atheist morality. Several Christians have argued that atheists do not have morality. I know what they mean in that atheism as a philosophy cannot lead to moral conclusions. I will leave that debate to philosophers. When I think of morality as a sociologist, I am thinking about claims of right and wrong.  Since some have criticized me for “making up my own definitions,” I will provide the online Webster definition of morality which is “a doctrine or system of moral conduct”. To understand moral conduct Webster defines moral as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” My notion that morality deals with encouraging what is considered right actions and discouraging what is considered wrong actions is consistent with Webster’s definitions.

            Beyond the philosophical arguments about atheism as a source of morality, there is another reason why Christians do not believe that atheists endorse moral conduct. Traditional Christianity has created a set of moral rules that atheists do not accept. Because they do not accept the particular moral rules Christians endorse, some Christians believe that atheists do not use moral rules to order their lives. These Christians would be wrong.

            Traditional Christians, as well as traditionalists in other Western religions, legitimate their moral beliefs with appeals to a supernatural deity. Obviously this is not a source for those who do not accept the existence of such a deity. My previous blogs help us to understand an atheist social identity which can illuminate how atheists legitimate their moral expectations. An atheist social identity emphasizes rationality as a key principle. It is the concept of rationality that atheists tend to use to justify what we should do or not do in society.

            For example, several of our interviewed atheists, and atheists from our online questionnaire, freely talked about how individuals should use rationality to order their lives. Atheists tend to see themselves as rational and able to run their lives without religion. In fact they see themselves in control of their own happiness instead of reliance upon deities.

If I was not a person who sees my life as being in my control and my happiness a result of my own effort, I would be terrified of the Christian Right because they are attempting to create a theocratic state where sacrifice is the standard of good and where selfish living is considered evil.

As an atheist, you just know that, number one, there’s no expectations that you need to follow any rule that is not something that you can just rationally understand. So there’s more responsibility.  You can’t just read a book and be told what to do.  You have to actually think, so there is a pressure to be responsible for yourself more so than a Christian.  You can’t take solace in the idea that God will forgive me if I make a mistake.  If I make a mistake, then it was just me being stupid; I should have known better.

These quotes represent an ideology whereby religion leads to irrational actions based on foolish beliefs whereby atheism leads to self-control. Atheists trust humans to use their own intelligence to make their lives better. What is moral is doing what is rational. Religion is not merely irrational but it is also immoral.

This perspective is not limited to the actions of individuals but also reflects the direction we should take as a collective group. In other words, not only should we seek to use rationality to justify our personal actions, but we should also attempt to be rational in our social and political policies. Religion is seen as the antithesis of rationality and thus it becomes our enemy in the creation of a rational society. We can see representations of this philosophy in these quotes from the interviews and online surveys:

The perfect world for me would be you wouldn’t have religion.  Everything would be based on evidence and science and people would treat each other well regardless of it.

In general I want the government to be neutral in regards to religion, and that is what I fight for.  I would hope that conversation and being an example of non-Christian but a good citizen and promoting education and rational thinking will help elevate the country.

As you can see rationality and scientific thinking are core principles that many atheists use to justify individual action and their notion of how society should be organized.

            As I pointed out in a previous blog, atheists envision science as the opposite of religion. Science is also connected to the idea of a rational way of approaching the world. Thus science, and the educational systems that support science, are seen as morally beneficial. Religion, being seen as the opposite of science and rationality is seen as morally dysfunctional. This is not to say that all atheists believe that nothing good can come from religion. When we asked them about the benefits of religion, some atheists talked about how religion helps some people to feel better about themselves and for those individuals to do good deeds. But many atheists see nothing good coming from religion, which is to be expected from individuals who value rationality and conceptualize religion as irrational. So as it concerns moral expectations it is not surprising that atheists tend to see religion as bad while institutions they conceptualize as rational such as science and education are good.

            Beyond the obvious distaste atheists have for religion, there are specific values and norms that atheists tend to endorse. For example, all 51 atheists we interviewed discussed, to some degree, progressive political ideas in a positive manner and/or discussed conservative political ideas in a negative manner. Furthermore, while we did not directly ask them about their political ideology, the atheists from our online survey overwhelmingly showed support for progressive political philosophy and/or opposition to conservative political philosophy. Neither sample is a probability one; however, research based on probability samples have also confirmed that atheists are more likely to endorse a progressive political agenda than non-atheists. This endorsement does not seem to be limited to particular political issues as the atheists in both samples discussed support for progressive political positions as it concerned cultural issues, economic issues, governmental issues, foreign policy issues and any other political issues one can conceive. Perhaps future research can identify which particular progressive issues appeal to an atheist’s sense of rationality, but for now it is reasonable to say that atheists tend to endorse all parts of a politically progressive agenda.

            I find this endorsement fascinating given the atheists’ emphasis on rationality. Whether one agrees with a conservative position on abortion, aggressive foreign policy, capital punishment, a smaller federal government, restrictions against undocumented workers, cutting taxes or other issues, there are sound rational arguments supporting these positions. It seems unlikely that the highly progressive disproportional support from atheists on these issues comes from simple rational deductions. I contend that this support can be understood given a point made in the last blog whereby the ideals of atheists often come from a reaction to the religion of the day. This is understandable given that atheists tend to see themselves as the opposite of emotional, irrational religion. If religion is bad then what people who are highly religious endorse must also be bad. Today the general image is that religion endorses conservative political philosophy. Thus, the opposite of conservative political philosophy, or political progressive philosophy, could be seen as a moral good by atheists.

            Let me elaborate on this point. There are religious and secular justifications for both good and bad ideas. The social gospel compels us to take care of the poor and is supported by religious justification. One could also use the ideas in a rationally based document such as the Humanist Manifesto I and II to justify the worth of the poor in society and enunciate a need to take care of them. On the other hand, white supremacy had religious support among Christians in the early part of our country’s history. Scientific ideas found within evolution have also been used to legitimate white supremacy (Check out the writings of Jean Philippe Rushton). Both religion and rationality can be used to argue  both sides of social and political issues. There is a social constructiveness to both religion and rationality which often makes it difficult to argue that religious belief or rational discourse automatically leads to a certain social or political outcome. So in looking at why atheists use rationality to support political progressiveness, it is not sufficient to enunciate that progressive policies are innately more rational than conservative policies. Rational arguments can be used to legitimate a variety of contradictory positions. We generally have sociological and philosophical reasons why we see some ideas as rational and other ideas as not rational. Their belief in the dysfunction of religion and opposition of all aspects of religion provides a powerful potential explanation for why atheists support political progressiveness.

           This leads to a final topic which is the sort of social world atheists state they want. We asked our respondents about the type of social world they would like to see. Generally they wanted a world where individuals were free to be religious but they want religion to be dying in that world. A few enunciated a desire to forbid religious individuals to hold public office, but for the most part, atheists espoused the ideas of religious neutrality and freedom. They saw religious neutrality as a two edge sword that not only kept the government out of religion but religion out of government. The value of church/state separation was also a powerful mechanism in the construction of atheist morality. Thus atheists did not talk of outlawing or removing religion by political or legal force, but they hoped that it will die out as people voluntarily choose to ignore religion in a rational society.

         Of course it is one thing to be asked when one does not have the power to create the social world and it may be another thing if one gains that power. Whether atheists would truly allow for religious freedom or they would incorporate some of the government mechanisms used in communist, and officially atheist, countries to oppress religion remains to be seen. For what it is worth I believe that the individuals I interviewed were sincere in their desire that people of faith were not oppressed for their faith, even if those respondents did not have respect for what religious individuals believe. Furthermore, some of the newer secular countries such as Sweden illustrate a society whereby religious individuals retain their social and political freedoms. Indeed several respondents referred to Europe as their vision of an ideal society as it concerned the presence of religion.  I suspect that there is a strong desire among many atheists in the United States to reproduce a European society over here in the New World, at least as it concerns issues of religion. When understanding the moral desires of atheists, it is reasonable to argue that whatever brings us closer to that European style society is good and whatever moves us farther away from it is bad.

          I hope you have enjoyed this blog series even if you have disagreed with parts of it. I am a believer in debate as an important way to understand the issues of the day. Nevertheless, I am limited by this sort of format to fully enunciate the points made in these four blog entries. So if you are interested in looking deeper into the issues raised in this series then please look up the book.