On the Idea of Doing Something “in the Name of Atheism”

Over at Dangerous Idea, Victor Reppert asks, “Why couldn’t there be mass killings in the name of atheism?

I suppose there could be, just as I suppose there could be mass killings in the name of theism, but then I suppose there could be mass killings in the name of… a lot of things. It depends on what it means to do something “in the name of” something else. So it would be most helpful if Reppert were to clarify this: what does it mean to perform an action A “in the name of” X?

Does it mean the agent shouts the words, “In the name of X!”, and then does A? Does it mean the agent believes X and does A? Does it mean A is logically required by X? Or that it is impossible to condemn A if one believes X? Or that it is impossible to condemn A, if one believes X, on the basis of X only (and not on some other, independent grounds)? Does it mean that performing A somehow benefits those who believe X? Or something else?

Let’s return to the specific issue of doing something “in the name of atheism.” Let’s stipulate, as Christian apologists typically want to do, that atheism means the belief that God does not exist, not just the lack of belief that God exists. So, again, I ask, “What does it mean to do something in the name of atheism, i.e., the belief that God does not exist?”

  • The “agent shouts the words, ‘In the name of atheism!’, and then does some action (A) interpretation“:  yes, on this interpretation, it is possible for there to be mass killings in the name of atheism. It’s also possible for there to be mass killings in the name of theism, secular humanism, Christianity, etc., in this sense. I doubt that this interpretation is what Reppert had in mind.
  • The “agent believes there is no God and then does some action (A) interpretation“: ditto.
  • The “performing A somehow benefits those who believe atheism” interpretation”:  Yes, it seems to me it is possible for there to be mass killings in the name of atheism in this sense, just as it is possible for there to be mass killings in the name of theism, in the sense that a theist could believe it somehow benefits theists to perform mass killings.
  • The “A is logically required by atheism interpretation“: No, on this interpretation, it is impossible for there to be mass killings in the name of atheism, since no action, including mass murder, is logically required by atheism. Ditto for theism.
  • The “it is impossible to condemn A if one believes atheism interpretation“: No, on this interpretation, it is not possible for there to be mass killings in the name of atheism, since it is possible to condemn actions and believe atheism is true. For example, it is trivial to condemn mass killings on the basis of secular humanist ethics. Ditto for theism.
  • The “it is impossible to condemn A, if one believes atheism, on the basis of atheism only (and not on some other, independent grounds)” interpretation: Yes, it is possible for there to be mass killings in the name of atheism in this sense. It is also possible for there to be mass killings in the name of theism in this sense, i.e., by excluding other, independent grounds for condemning mass killings.

    Furthermore, there is something that strikes me as very odd about this interpretation. Allow me to explain. On a theistic view of ethics, whether one ascribes to pure voluntarism (pace Ockham), Adams’s modified divine command theory, or something else, it is common among theists to regard morality as having a deep connection to God.

    What strikes me as odd–indeed, downright bizarre–is the further view that atheists must hold the parallel position, viz., that morality must have a deep connection to the non-existence of God. But this doesn’t follow at all. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one single atheist who thinks that way about morality. So, by my lights, the question, “What is there about the rejection of religion that would prevent this?” is the wrong question to ask. A much better question would be this: “On what normative basis would an atheist condemn mass killings?”

    To avoid any misunderstandings, I am not saying that atheism has no metaethical implications. In fact, I think atheism does have at least one metaethical implication: if atheism is true, then divine command theories of ethics are necessarily false. What I am saying is this. The nonexistence of God does not function for atheists as the ontological foundation for their normative ethical theories in the same way that the existence of God (or God’s commands, will, nature, etc.) functions for theists as the ontological foundation for theists’ normative ethical theories.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.


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