Is atheism like nudism?

I’ve been playing around with this analogy, but one of Keith Parsons’s latest comments made me want to think out loud about it. Could someone defending a privileged social and legal position for religion make an analogy between atheism and nudism, and justify a limited regime of tolerance of nonbelief, excluding it from the common public sphere?

Culturally, especially in conservative places such as the United States and Islamic countries, nudity is considered to be morally dubious in general, dangerous in public, and illegal except in limited circumstances such as nude beaches or the privacy of ones home.

Nudists presumably don’t think nudity is immoral or harmful. They can argue that repressing nudity is a cultural prejudice, and that the “natural lifestyle” associated with nudity has numerous benefits. Politically, they might aspire to have the social strictures against nudity loosened up. In opposition, conservative, morally upstanding citizens consider even hints of public nudity at least symptomatic of a decaying public order, and possibly worse.

Now, many people don’t hugely care one way or the other. It may well be true that the kind of suspicion of nudity we have is a historical and cultural artifact, and that we could live perfectly well in circumstances where nudity is considered less generally offensive. But then, we live with the history we have. In our circumstances, public nudity is disruptive. Those people who are enamored of public nudity can have their own places where they can act out their proclivities, but there is no reason to open up the common public sphere to more nudity, or to ease up on the climate of disapproval of nudity. We have a more-or-less functioning social order. Why exchange it for something else with unknown and dubious benefits? If social change slowly and organically takes us in a direction where public nudity is more acceptable, that is one thing. But it makes no sense to get carried away with abstract notions of freedom of dress and decide nudity will not be sanctioned now.

In conservative religious countries, where religion is thought to be integral to public morality, perhaps a similar argument applies. Atheists don’t think nonbelief is immoral or harmful. We think that disapproval of nonbelief is a cultural prejudice, and that freethinking has numerous benefits. Politically, we aspire to have the social strictures against expressions of nonbelief loosened up. In opposition, conservative, morally upstanding citizens consider even hints of public nonbelief at least symptomatic of a decaying public order, and possibly worse.

Again, many people don’t hugely care one way or the other. It may well be true that common disapproval of nonbelief is a historical and cultural artifact, and that we could live perfectly well in circumstances where lack of supernatural convictions is considered less generally offensive. But then, we live with the history we have. In our circumstances, public expressions of strong religious dissent is disruptive. Those people who are enamored of public blasphemy can have their own places where they can act out their proclivities, but there is no reason to open up the common public sphere to more opposition to religion, or to ease up on the climate of disapproval of nonbelief. We have a more-or-less functioning social order. Why exchange it for something else with unknown and dubious benefits? If social change slowly and organically takes us in a direction where public religiosity fades away, that is one thing. But it makes no sense to get carried away with abstract notions of freedom of expression and decide blasphemy will not be sanctioned now.

No analogy is perfect, and I’m sure this one breaks down in numerous places. But it could be interesting to ask exactly why we might be prepared to live with restrictions on nudity (freedom of dress) and not nonbelief (freedom of expression).

Critical Thinking is Bigotry
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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