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).

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13334760668814206222 Brian Taylor – PRO for British Naturism

    Atheism and naturism are also both the absence of something (religious belief or clothes). But there the similarity ends. For many naturism is a belief, a belief that it is better to not feel embarrassed or ashamed of the human body in all its shapes and sizes.

    There is no contradiction between most religions and naturism, for example, we have a Christian Naturist Society in the UK. I doubt there is a Christian Atheist Society anywhere in the world!

    Modern humans (h. Sapiens) have been on this planet for about 200,000 years; we have only worn clothes for the last 71,000 years, so 129,000 years of the history you mention has been spent naked.

    There is good reason to "open up the common public sphere to more nudity". Those nations that have done this have much lower rates of teenage pregnancy, abortions and STI's. Surely a benefit to any society.

    A religious belief can have a positive effect on a society given the moral codes that come with most religions. I would argue that naturism can also do this, so it perhaps has more in common with religion than with its absence – atheism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16624603521338516156 DFB

    The post goes on for several paragraphs elucidating many similarities between Atheism and Naturism. Then you just blithely assert that the sole similarity is "absence of something." Nice going.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13334760668814206222 Brian Taylor – PRO for British Naturism

    I'm sorry, perhaps I didn't make myself clear. My comment that both are the absence of something was supposed to be an additional similarity (hence the 'also'), but that I couldn't find any more after that.

    I couldn't argue with the points made and I did find them entertaining. But I think it not unreasonable for someone in my position to point out some of the differences, don't you?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07562892416982454329 Rick Gondella

    Isn't the whole thing sort of a confused prejudice? Nonbelievers are painted as "freethinkers" while believers are cast as "conservative, morally upstanding citizens."

    I'm not sure that "morally upstanding" is generally regarded as a pejorative. In this case, I guess it's being used as such, for the author's purposes.

    Now, I'm familiar with the argument that we should not necessarily, aspire to some ideal of morality.

    But, I'm not sure amorality would serve society well.

    Also, I'm not conservative, and frankly, I don't care if atheists walk around naked.

    I am a theist.

    And I think that in a universe (perhaps a multiverse) as vast as ours, that to discard belief out of hand simply on the basis that it cannot be empirically proven is a bit of Emperor's New Clothes.

    Frankly, I think, nudists would admit that it gets a bit cold in the wintertime to go 'round buck nekkid.

    There are times, too, I believe, when it's a bit of a benefit to atheists to come inside where it's warm and discover that "freethinkers" come in all shapes and sizes, including theists.


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