Why Atheism Does Not Demand Social Justice

It is always discomfiting to disagree with Greta Christina – she’s one of the finest bloggers and thinkers in the freethinking community and I have enormous respect for her work. Whenever I feel I disagree with something’s she’s written I force myself to think it over more fully, because I’ve found in the past her cogent arguments have been persuasive, even when I’ve initially resisted her conclusions. That’s why I didn’t respond when “Why Atheism Demands Social Justice” appeared in Free Inquiry - I wanted to let my thoughts mature a little before making a fool of myself.

My thoughts have matured.

I applaud Greta’s commitment to social justice and issues of oppression – her passionate writing on sexism and homophobia, for example, is an inspiration. But atheism does not demand social justice. And I want to argue that it’s important that we recognize that it does not. Nothing about being an atheist – about simply disbelieving in god – demands you take a specific political or social view. Humanism, by contrast, does encourage adherence to certain ethical principles, and this is one reason why I seek to promote Humanism in my work, and see promoting atheism as a smaller (though important) facet of that project. Greta recognizes that this disagreement will be raised, and seeks to preempt it at the start of her piece. I quote at length so as to convey the full argument:

I’m going to go out on a limb here. Being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.

A lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism means one thing, and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god. And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more than just not believing in gods or the supernatural: it’s a positive, multi-faceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.

But conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications. That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods, as much as any other conclusion. And when you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice: an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on. For reasons that are high-minded and noble and altruistic… and for reasons that are pragmatic and Machiavellian to the point of being crass.

So the argument is that recognizing there is no god entails a commitment to social justice work, even though atheism includes no specific ethical principles. Why? Greta gives two reasons: first, because working toward a more just society will likely create more atheists; second, because the understanding that we have but one life to live makes this life more precious, and therefore places a responsibility on us to care more for it. Greta claims that these points constitute a logical and moral case that atheism demands social justice, saying “atheists who don’t care about social justice should care about social justice. Logically, and morally.”

Both arguments fail to make the case. The first argument can be put aside – the notion that working toward social justice will generate more atheists is merely a pragmatic consideration, not a moral one. There is no case there, logically or morally, that atheism entails a particular social justice stance. Just because making the world a better place might make more people atheists is no moral reason to make the world a better place unless you also want to generate more atheists, and wanting to generate more atheists is not, in itself, part of the definition of being an atheist.

The second argument seems more compelling, but fails for similar reasons to the first. I certainly agree that the recognition that we have but one life to live supercharges my sense of moral responsibility. But it does just that – supercharges it, not creates it. Any heightened sense of moral duty I have toward my fellows due to being an atheist piggybacks on the moral commitments I already have. It’s only if I have a moral sense that human life – particularly the lives of others – is valuable at all that my atheism will make that seem more important. It’s only if I care that other people live in misery and despair that the fact that it’s their only life and they are living in misery and despair makes any difference.

Other moral positions – ones which don’t care a fig for social justice – are fully consistent with atheism: I have a good friend who is a thoroughgoing nihilist, for instance, and we all know many Randian atheists who clearly do not agree that their atheism demands any commitment to social justice as Greta understands it.

In short, atheism doesn’t demand a stance in favor of social justice. To someone already committed to social justice, embracing atheism might further commit an individual to those beliefs. Becoming an atheist might also lead to a reevaluation of your moral system, as certain changes in certain views (like the likelihood of an afterlife) alter your moral calculations. But atheism entails no particular moral view – not even a broad one, such as a commitment, in general, to social justice.

Why is this important? Because if you take Greta’s position then you might think the moral challenge we face is to create more atheists. If we care about social justice, and atheism demands social justice, then creating more atheists would be a good way to promote social justice. I think this is mistaken: the challenge, morally speaking, is to generate a commitment to Humanist values (the “specific principles of ethical conduct” Greta mentions in the piece). This will lead to us encouraging more to consider atheism, but the central cause is to develop a respect for ethical living among more people (i.e. to make more Humanists), not to make more people atheists.

The idea that atheism demands a commitment to social justice is also problematic in that it suggests that our moral worldview has significantly advanced once we become an atheist, since our atheist worldview “logically and morally” entails a commitment to social justice. But the truth is that many people come to atheism without deeply considering moral questions, and have little understanding of questions of social justice and oppression. Atheism is, morally speaking, only one step in the journey toward a moral worldview. By treating social justice as necessary to atheism, we shortchange the discussion of social justice itself, which deserves a more detailed and consistent hearing.

Finally, if we accept that atheism demands a social justice orientation we run the risk of obscuring from view the real moral commitments we have – instead of talking about our belief in human dignity and equality, for instance, we talk about our atheism and assume that the former is implied. This would be a catastrophic mistake: what we really need to do is the opposite, putting forward a clear atheistic moral vision, couched in the language of values, of which atheism is a component rather than an organizing principle.

The open discussion of ethics in the public square is of extraordinary value, and one of the signal achievements of the contemporary atheist movement is to hold religious practices up for moral scrutiny. If this practice is to continue, we must recognize that our moral commitments don’t simply stem unproblematically from our atheism. Rather, we should embrace the fact that many atheists have profound ethical values which demand and require their own justification beyond those we offer for our atheism.

Atheism is an invitation to consider your moral perspective for yourself. I hope, after such consideration, you will join me in affirming Humanism – but your atheism alone does not demand that you do so.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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