Atheism’s Lack of Values is a Bug, Not a Feature

Exploring Ethics

Recently the Friendly Atheist blog kindly hosted an article of mine arguing that Humanists should proudly reclaim the tradition of social justice which has historically animated their work. Focusing on recent events in Ferguson and St. Louis, the article sought to recognize important  critiques of organized Humanism – that it focuses on too narrow a slice of issues, that is insufficiently inflectional, that it excludes many oppressed voices – and to lift up good examples of work that is being and has been done by Humanists.

Just read the comments on the article, though, and you would be hard-pressed to tell it had anything to do with racial justice at all. Rather, you will see multiple indignant commentators passionately insisting that atheism implies no moral positions, and that to take any moral action “in the name of atheism” is to do atheism wrong.

I’m an atheist, and proudly so. I am open about my atheism, and always make it clear that I am an atheist in the interfaith  spaces where I so frequently find myself. I consider atheism an intellectually respectable position, and I abhor all prejudice against atheists: in schools, in the political sphere, in the media, anywhere. I am an advocate for atheist visibility and atheist equality. I do not accept, and fight against, the marginalization and denigration of atheists in American society. I consider atheism to be an important component of my worldview – including my ethical outlook.

And I think that responding to a post about the relationship between social justice and Humanism with forceful assertions about the values-free nature of atheism is bullshit.

It is bullshit, first, because it is beside the point. My article was about Humanism, not atheism, and it was about what we can do to end racial injustice, not about the philosophical boundaries of movement atheism. The point – in Ferguson and across the country right now – is systemic racism, and the fight to end it. Atheists should play a part in that not “because we are atheists”, but because we are human beings who are – all of us – implicated in the current unjust system. To take a discussion of a critical and deadly social issue, and turn it into a discussion of the philosophical boundaries of your metaphysical beliefs, is classic derailment – as as well as a crass and insensitive move. This really isn’t about you.

It is bullshit, second, because it is self-serving. It is telling, whenever the relationship between atheism, the atheist movement, and social justice arises, that some of the same commentators who object so strenuously to the discussion of women’s equality, racial justice, or LGBTQ issues under the banner of the atheist movement nonetheless support efforts to to promote secularism, science education, and atheist visibility and acceptance under that banner. Yet if the reason discussions of racial injustice are to be out of bounds is because “atheism entails no values commitments”, then consistency requires this standard be applied equally to these other causes.

Simply being an atheist does not perforce commit you to caring about racial injustice, it is true. But nor does it follow from strict philosophical atheism that one must care about science education, secularism, or even the advancement of atheist acceptance in society. Just as it is perfectly philosophically consistent to be an atheist and to be an out-and-out racist, it is perfectly philosophically consistent (though unusual) to be an atheist who thinks secularism is unimportant, or even believes atheists should be socially ostracized. Simple atheism requires no moral commitments at all – including the ones these commentators are quite happy to fight for under the banner of organized atheism.

So why the double standard? It seems to be purely self-serving. These individuals wish to limit the purview of organized atheism to only the issues they personally feel comfortable about, and which they personally wish to support. They like science education and secularism, so support for those issues can be marshaled under the atheist banner.  They don’t like being called on to fight for racial equality, so that’s an illegitimate expansion of the atheist cause. The pseudo-philosophical argumentation – “atheism requires no value positions! We must keep atheism pure (except for those issues I like)” – becomes a hypocritical cover for their own discomfort with some social causes.

I feel confident in this conclusion because people who are committed to human dignity and justice would not respond to calls for action on that front with quibbles over the boundaries of their metaphysical beliefs. They wouldn’t splutter indignantly “But my atheism doesn’t commit me to fighting for racial justice!” Rather, they would ask “How can we get more atheists involved in this struggle, not ‘because they are atheists’ but because people are dying and I’m a decent human being?” They would look at the explicit and horrifying racism sometimes displayed in some atheist circles (like the comment threads on a recent discussion around Ferguson I had on the Ra Men podcast) and say “What can we do to stop this?” instead of “My atheism requires nothing of me!”

This all-too-common reaction highlights one of the dangers of building a social movement around atheism. Precisely because atheism alone offers no set of positive ethical values to work from, people can expand and contract the definition of an atheist movement at a whim in order to include or exclude whatever they want. “I’m an atheist” comes to commit you to precisely as much – and as little – as you are comfortable doing for others.

This is a bug, not a feature.

Genuine social change movements must be based on values, commitments, and responsibilities which make concrete demands on people. Atheism, when understood solely as the lack of belief in any gods, does not provide solid grounding for any ethical action whatsoever. We should not celebrate this, and the ethical “freedom” it provides. Rather, we should seek to supplement our atheism with a positive set of values which empowers – requires – us to act.

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