What Atheists and Republican Strategists Have in Common

I recently wrote a post (“The Perils of Decentralized Philosophy“) as a response to Friendly Atheist Hermant Mehta’s attempt to limit the definition of humanism to exclude the gunman who attacked a school board.  I argued that atheists and humanists were hurt by a lack of community or sense of responsibility for other people who shared their beliefs.  Commenter March Hare took issue with my argument, saying:

There is no need for atheists to band together in that way. It’s not like when a Jew does something all non-Hindus gather together to defend the action or denounce the non-Hinduism of the person. “He wasn’t a real non-Hindu, a real non-Hindu wouldn’t do that.”

The reason non-Hindus don’t unite in defense of a Jew as a fellow non-Hindu is because, whether they are Christians, Jains, or Jews, ‘non-Hindus’ belong to philosophical communities that carry more weight than ‘non-Hinduism.’  Non-Hinduism may be a definable set of people, but it’s not an interesting or compelling one.  And, most of the time, neither is atheism.  Although atheism may be a very important political category when dealing with church-state issues and creationism, it is pretty well near useless as a philosophical category.

Atheists belong to some other group, even if that group doesn’t have a well known name or tradition.  Some atheists are nihilists, some are existentialist, and some are crazy, mixed up proponents of absolute moral law like me, but we all have actual beliefs to defend beyond our lack of belief in God.  If you talk about atheists as  having a primary loyalty to the philosophical category of athiesm, you’re going to run into trouble, just as a couple of prominent atheist blogs did this week.

John Loftus of Debunking Christianity posted an excerpt from one of his books which stated:

When Christians ask if I have taken the outsider test for my own “belief system,” I simply say “yes I have, that’s why I’m a non-believer.”

They’ll ask if I am equally skeptical of my skepticism, or whether I have subjected my non-belief to non-belief, or my disbelief to disbelief. These questions express double negatives. When re-translated they are asking me to abandon skepticism in favor of a gullible faith, for that’s the opposite of skepticism—something no thinker should do.

Either Loftus is a skeptic in the tradition of Sextus Empiricus and doesn’t really believe anything or being glib and/or disingenuous.    But what the Christians are talking about when they ask him about his ‘belief system’ isn’t his skepticism– they want to know what he claims his skepticism reveals as true.  What does Loftus think constitutes virtue?  What is the goal of human life?  Does it matter if we don’t know?

When atheists assail Christians for holes in their theology without ever revealing anything about our own metaphysics and ethics, I get flashbacks to the GOP strategy of cherrypicking budget items to discredit the Democratic budget proposal without ever revealing a full budget proposal of their own.

When atheists don’t talk about their own philosophy or pretend they don’t have one, we are walking away from some of the tough discussions we need to have.  We’re turning a blind eye to some troubling philosophies that are entirely compatible with atheism.

That’s why I disagree with some comments Hermant Mehta made at Friendly Atheist while explaining why he’s not troubled by divisions within atheism:

We’re not going to be unified when our disbelief in any gods is the only common thread binding us. It’s fine if we support one group or another or none at all. I think we all benefit when we can be counted in some way, but if you choose not to do that via a particular group, so be it.

[...]

Diversity in what we call ourselves, and who we vote for, and where we stand on morality just shows we’re not a homogeneous bunch. That’s a good thing.

Diversity in opinions on morality is NOT an intrinsic good.  I’ve known atheists who were nihilists and/or relativists who had an incredible disregard for the suffering of others as a consequence of their philosophies.  I don’t talk to a friend who holds these beliefs and feel reassured that I’m part of a vibrant, diverse community of atheist thought– I want to convince them to change their mind because I think their philosophy is false and is likely to hurt my friend and the other people in their life.

I’m glad bloggers like Loftus and Mehta are trying to curb some of the political excesses of the Religious Right, particularly when the evangelical wings try to compromise science education, but that can only be a part of an atheist agenda.  If our philosophies are true and compelling and helpful, we ought to discuss our ethics and metaphysics openly and enthusiastically, even if that opens us up to inter-atheist fights.  Papering over important moral differences is a good strategy for building political coalitions, but a bad habit for philosophers.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Anonymous

    Papering over important moral differences is a good strategy for building political coalitions, but a bad habit for philosophers.What makes you think that the contributors to the Friendly Atheist blog have given philosophy any thought at all?The deepest post I can remember was about moral relativism, where Hemant embraced it because he had no idea what moral relativism was. He thought it was the same thing as situational ethics, and that's not exactly the kind of mistake anyone who had ever looked into moral philosophy would make. ('Situational ethics' is such a vacuous idea that it doesn't even come up in moral philosophy – every ethical theory says that what's right and wrong in any given situation depends on the circumstances. Nothing illuminating there…)Other than that moral relativism post I haven't detected the slightest hint of interest in anything to do with metaphysics or ethics or kindred philosophical issues. You say:When atheists don't talk about their own philosophy or pretend they don't have one, we are walking away from some of the tough discussions we need to have.It's true that there are tough discussions that need to be had, but I think you give the average atheist – even the average outspoken atheist – too much credit. You're a bit too quick to discount the possibility that many atheists really don't have any philosophy because they've never had any curiosity about philosophical differences. Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, and so on do not strike me as people who've ever taken an interest in even taking an intro philosophy course. These are bloggers, not philosophers.So it's true that atheists only have their lack of belief in god in common. Some are interested in separation of church and state and don't give a wit about arguments for atheism, or what kinds of views atheists might have about moral philosophy or metaphysics. Some are the exact opposite – they're interested in arguing for atheism against believers but don't give a wit about separation of church and state.While you might find some rare bird that cares about both, in my experience most atheists fall into one category or the other. That would explain why there were two different atheist groups at the one university in Ohio awhile back. One was interested in discussion, the other in activism. Why? Because few atheists are interested in both, apparently.

  • Kogo

    *You're a bit too quick to discount the possibility that many atheists really don't have any philosophy because they've never had any curiosity about philosophical differences. Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, and so on do not strike me as people who've ever taken an interest in even taking an intro philosophy course.*Yeah. That pretty much describes me. I do not care about philosophy. And I do not want to care. Philsophy is theology is superstition. Why bother with any of it? I have a graduate degree in science–y'know *real* knowledge–and have constructed a decently functioning adult life. On what grounds exactly am I to believe I'm "missing" something?Plus, I'll take "building a political coalition" over "building a coherent philosophy" eight times a day and twenty times on Sunday. Because philosophy pays NO dividends. Incoherence holds big majorities in most of the legislative houses of the world these days.*So it's true that atheists only have their lack of belief in god in common. Some are interested in separation of church and state and don't give a wit about arguments for atheism, or what kinds of views atheists might have about moral philosophy or metaphysics.*Yeah. That's me, spot-on.

    • Tara S

      Hee hee. This is like if Thomas Hobbes abandoned ownership of his ideas. Insisting that it is nonsense to try to understand the ‘how and why of human understanding and actions’ sets you into a default support of “might is right”, whether by intent or otherwise, because (like Leah says) ideas have consequences. If physical information is the only important kind, then it doesn’t matter what we do to each other, because morality does not exist. If philosophy is only superstition, then what coherent argument could you provide to dissuade me from eating my family and neighbours? If I were sneaky I could elude societal punishment, and if I were deranged it might seem like a desirable thing to do. So what makes it objectively morally unacceptable? Philosophy is something that tries to describe the world we see in coherent and useful terms, and to allow for building something constructive. It’s like math for social behavior! I’m not that good at math, but I do see its usefulness. :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08395703772492059721 Benjamin Baxter

    You're too Catholic to be an atheist. I'm not being glib, either. You remind me of the Anglicans who believed there was still hope for the Church of England 10 years ago — and are now crossing the Tiber. You have a broader swim, certainly — the Adriatic? — but it is not insurmountable.Catholic moral theology is very deeply intertwined with the natural law — how things are observed to work — and is founded on a supremely and rightly radical notion of love — universally still the most-high ideal for everyone who does not justify those cold evils that rightly irk you. If Catholic moral theology does not hold all the right answers that can be known, then something very similar does.Catholicism has the intellectual heft you're looking for, but intellectual heft is rarely the whole way there — there is more to you than your intellect. When I reverted it was wholly because of the moral rightness of the Church. Within that, there was one more relevant reason: The Catholic Church seemed, dare I say it, divinely providential in serving the whole of a person. Not merely their intellect.http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/

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  • anon

    Hey welcome to Christianity, but count the costs. Its not an easy path, happiness is not guaranteed. If you are convinced of its moral code, consider the Bible defines it, not other men.

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  • RHO

    Welcome to Catholicism! You have picked a very interesting time to join our church. We are under siege from a hostile administration. Secularists cannot abide religion and seemingly feel compelled to destroy it. Don’t worry that not every little bit of the Catholic religion is comfortable to you. I don’t think it is supposed to be so. If it doesn’t require some work and some inner conversion, you aren’t getting the benefits. Besides, there probably wouldn’t be any religion that wouldn’t have facets or tenets that are problematic to you. What good is a religion that caters its message to the whims of the individual members? One appeal of Catholicism is that it is philosophically stable over the long term. This is one religion that takes itself seriously, and it will not abandon long held principles in favor of short term trends. You can be generous and tolerant of gays without endorsing gay marriage. The sacrament of marriage is for men and women. It is the essential truth, because only men and women can bring new life into the world naturally. It isn’t bigoted or mean to recognize a truth.

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