A while ago I was talking to a Christian friend whom I rather naively assumed would be openminded about atheism because she was a world traveller. She spent so much time of her life in such a range of foreign cultures and celebrating their diversity (rather than declaring like a missionary that they just needed MOAR JESUS everywhere she went) that I just naturally thought there was no way she could be affected by the kind of provincialism that I am used to finding in atheophobic theists.
So when I pointed out something derogatory about her faith once and she got aggressively defensive and things escalated, I was startled when she attacked atheism as inferior on the grounds that it had no traditions or culture. She talked about traveling the world and delighting in the offerings of so many rich traditions but where were atheism’s traditions? So, I discovered the cosmopolitan, interfaith way of being contemptuously dismissive of atheism that nicely complements the more usual, provincial way of doing so.
I similarly read a Catholic Patheos blogger (
I can’t seem to track down which one or I’d link )Hemant was kind enough to track down the source, Fr. Dwight Longenecker) snidely knocking atheism for being boring. The gist of his post was basically, “Whatever you think of Christianity, it’s at least weird and interesting. What has atheism ever produced? Bus ads??”
That last dig at us for our many bus ad campaigns that have made us more visible is one that I always think about when I think of my friend Bridget Gaudette. Bridget is unable to have a relationship with her own parents because of the wicked Jehovah’s Witness practice of “disfellowship” whereby the church excommunicates all who deconvert and requires their believing family members to disown them as well. This despicable practice of Bridget’s parents’ “weird” and “interesting” tradition causes her and her parents excruciating suffering. And it’s meant Bridget deals with tremendous, unnecessary isolation and grief unfairly as the consequence of simply being true to her honest conscience and saying what she really thinks in religious matters. This courageous woman of integrity didn’t deserve to be completely abandoned and alienated and alone. And when she saw an atheist billboard that said, “Don’t believe in gods? You’re not alone,” that ad wasn’t banal and pathetic, it was a lifeline to a community of people who could support her when her own parents and so much of our religiously hegemonic culture punishes her for her way of thinking.
But I digress. Atheism is not just bus ads. And it does have a long tradition. Where its tradition has been stifled and its history untold this has been because of the power and reach of authoritarian religious dominance. That atheism has been suppressed is not a sign of the inferior imagination or talents of atheists. Many of our greatest scientists, inventors, philosophers, artists are atheists–but they don’t call their work “atheism”, they call it just figuring out actual stuff or just creating actual things and implicitly it’s “atheistic” for not needing gods to do it–and for being possible only by ignoring gods and religious authorities’ meddling. Rather, atheists’ apparent absences are a sign of religious intolerance and not something that a cosmopolitan, ecumenically minded religious believer and political progressive should be proud of or use to bully atheists.
Throughout Western history, those with the conscience to challenge the powerful were accused of atheism as a way to discredit them whether they were atheists or not (most famously in the case of Socrates) and those with the courage to actually express atheistic views explicitly were persecuted. I am quite proud to identify with those people of conscience who either were atheists or whose honest dissents from politically dominant beliefs had them labeled as such.
But even more than that, atheism represents the extreme limit of all challenge to ecclesiastical authority. Though the humanist revival of the Renaissance could only happen with receptive Christians and for a long time be expressed primarily in Christian idioms, it represented a huge moral and conceptual counterweight in the West to Christianity’s characteristically misanthropic mistrust of human nature and worth and its misplaced glorification of a non-existent God instead. The humanist tradition, even when more hospitable to Christianity, was a major force towards the liberation of humanity from its suffocation in Christendom.
Not only that but the rise of political independence from ecclesiastical authority, the rise of science, and, most of all, the rise of Enlightenment moral, political, and intellectual values, each represented the secularization of the West. Though interpreted as compatible with Christianity, each of these advances freed up Western culture to think and act, at least in limited domains, with no reference to God or church authorities with pretensions to speak on God’s behalf. And in the present day the growing number of self-identified atheistic humanists are just the first signs that a steadily increasingly secular and humanistic, and decreasingly religious and theocentric, Western culture is coming to honest terms with its own actual post-religious values and its own reclamation of the value of humans for humanity’s sake, rather than for any gods’.
Essentially, all endeavors that bracket God and function with utter indifference to religious dictates or dogmas are functionally atheistic, in that they are, for all intents and purposes, god-free. And this matters. Because philosophy and science got profoundly more interesting to the degree that genuine discoveries could be made and they could be made to the extent that they didn’t have to worry anymore about conforming to baseless religious assertions. “God did it” is never an interesting answer. It never adds new conceptual or empirical layers of understanding. It was a cop out and a placeholder we used when we were ignorant. And it has become an obstacle for many. Scientists progress precisely by acting as though God is a totally irrelevant explanatory principle, not even worth raising to solve their problems. This atheism is what is so liberating.
Even a sizable number of theists understand this and concede that one shouldn’t do science as creationists try to–by starting with the Bible. Scientifically literate theists approve of “methodological naturalism” that allows that when studying the natural world, it is fine to investigate as though the natural world is all there is. I think they can and should rationally apply a methodological naturalism in ethics too and that it’s in principle possible to do so consistent with their theism, as much as it is for them to be methodologically naturalist in their theism. I have explored this idea of methodological naturalism in ethics in my new post at Empowerment Ethics today on whether Empowerment Ethics is atheistic.
But by granting methodological naturalism in science, they should own up to the fact that they are essentially endorsing a methodological atheism. Now, they may claim that it is still possible that a supernaturalistic metaphysics is true, even though it is methodologically far more effective to think like atheists when doing science. But how likely is that? How likely is it that thinking atheistically, in a god-ignoring way, can be so powerfully explanatory about physics if the fundamentally best metaphysics is theistic? It seems to me that the power of being methodologically atheistic about the natural world is grounds for thinking an atheistic metaphysics is more likely to be true as well.
And all art that ignores gods or which serves artistic goals rather than religious ones is to that degree liberated from gods and religion and is effectively “atheistic” whether its creators are atheists or not, or whether its themes “promote atheism” or not. (As amazing works as the Renaissance geniuses were able to produce within the narrow confines religious hegemony constrained them to, how much greater richness of diversity in art do we have access to now that artists need not make every other painting one of the Madonna and child?)
Every time someone pursues a naturalistic account of why and how things happen instead of a theistic one, they are choosing the “atheistic” way. Every time secular reasoning in government produces greater justice or the greater good for people by bracketing considerations of gods and religiously idiosyncratic/specific beliefs, it is successful in an “atheistic” way. While thinking about the non-existence of gods may not be directly very interesting beyond its connection to interesting philosophical and historical and psychological questions, thinking and acting “atheistically” in the sense of unencumbered by deference to gods and religions, means having no arbitrary and morally irrelevant limits on fascinating lines of inquiry or experiment.
What we atheists are calling for is an extension of all these wonderful sources of fascinating truths and works of art and other cultural practices that ignore gods. We want to extend this god-free rational thinking that can go wherever the evidence and the pragmatics lead. We just want this open-ended rational “atheistic” god-and-religion-ignoring way of liberated thinking to be used in all of life. And we’re confident that it can make as vast improvements in our culture and our ethics and even the so-called “spiritual” sides of ourselves as it already has in science and art and politics, if only given the chance.