Atheism and Tradition Building

Atheism and Tradition Building September 20, 2011

This year on 9/11 I saw a number of my atheist friends dismissing the whole notion of memorializing that nationally traumatic day or even of taking its ten year anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on its impacts on our nation’s values and history in the last decade. For some it was a spirit of “I remember the day, no need to talk about it”. For others there seemed to be an open hostility to memorializing anything. As though nothing need to be said about the past. It’s just past. “We all know what happened, let’s just move on.”

I also find there is a lot of resistance among atheists to discussion of how to build institutions which serve the functions religions have—inculcation of value, creation of forms and rituals for developing and expressing people’s “spiritual” sides and their construction (or discovery) of meaning in life. And, unsurprisingly, there is a lot of moral subjectivism that is instantly suspicious, even dismissive, of the kinds of discussions of intrinsic, naturalistic goods that I raise a lot.

There are some understandable philosophical reasons for people’s skepticism and I appreciate that the onus is partly on me to defend the idea that there are natural, objectively discoverable and defendable goods worth arguing about rather than taking a generally “live and let live” attitude about morality.  I understand, of course, anti-theists’ deep suspicion of religion and their mistrust that it can ever be purged of its corrupting tendencies towards faith, supernaturalism, and authoritarianism that make so much of it so evil in so many of its current and historic institutions.

But partly the problem may not be just good philosophical hesitations. It makes perfect sense that many who become atheists in majority monotheist cultures are likely to be people who are in the first place individualists. Not only bucking, but wholesale rejecting a dominant social institution like religion usually takes some intestinal fortitude and willingness to stand alone, completely comfortable abiding only by one’s own conscience. I remember as a Christian always admiring and being a bit intimidated by the bracing audaciousness of the few unapologetic atheists I would encounter. Their matter-of-fact willingness if necessary to offend and make no compromise with the dominant social institution of religion and with sensitive religious people always struck me as a sign of strength. I’d be lying if I said I don’t now relish that gadfly role myself as the village atheist in many circles in my own world.

And even many atheists who are not natural individualists probably become more prone to reflexive individualism as a consequence of their deconversions. Breaking decisively and uncompromisingly with monotheistic religious institutions makes it a natural next dialectical move to become generally leery of institutions and traditions as such. And many of those raised atheistically may from a young age have had a loose sense of the necessity of tradition unless their parents had some alternative emphasis on tradition in lieu of a religious one.

Then piling on top of all this, Western liberalism in general disposes us to individualism such that many atheists wind up either right wing libertarians or left wing moral individualists who prize the political rights of autonomy and pluralism not only as the highest political values but also, sometimes, as the highest moral values too. I get the sense from many liberals that the need to choose one’s own course in life is so sacrosanct that any moral argument that attempts to influence how someone else makes his choices itself borders on a violation of the right to choose without coercion. It seems like implicitly the feeling is that we must choose not only for ourselves but by ourselves with no one daring to try to change our values, as though this itself would strip our choices of authenticity and violate our rights.

But there are downsides to all of this moral individualism. Liberal atheists are generally more keen than other liberals to some of the downsides–we tend to recognize that secularism is a relatively rare and precious value that must be actively inculcated or it will be continue to be eroded by the increasing attitude that religion is a proper recipient of  numerous legal exemptions, acknowledgments, and other forms of governmental deference and promotion.

Liberal indifference to what people believe about the good life is extremely good from a political point of view. But when it comes to morality, the liberal’s continued indifference means limiting challenges to the bad conceptions of the good which corrode political liberalism when they inevitably seep into the public sphere. In this way, the liberal who rightly defends the rights of fundamentalists to equal treatment before the law is too complacent about challenging fundamentalist morality in the private sphere, lest they impose on anyone. Then when ascendent private fundamentalism turns political and wants to overturn what should be shared Western liberal political values, the liberals are stupefied and can only marvel at how such regressiveness can be so influential and to start trying to pander to the religious themselves just to keep up. And so the erosion of both the moral and political values of liberalism happen in tandem.

What conservatives seem to understand better than liberal atheists is that values must be aggressively inculcated generation by generation and that traditions, institutions, and narratives which unite them are of indispensable value for preserving and transmitting values. Freethinkers are far shrewder about the need for, and the means of, overthrowing decaying or stagnant values. But we have a long way to go in appreciating the positive need to offer people more than a “figure it out for yourself” subjectivism about morality and meaning in life. We need to be innovative cultural creators who are willing to passionately think and argue about conceptions of good lives, and not just be defenders of the political rights to pursue one’s own conception of the good in whatever uninformed ways you like.

Of course the New Atheist movement has made extraordinary initiating strides in this direction by raising non-theist consciousness, getting us out of the closets and onto the billboards, creating community, and making philosophical discussions about religion, epistemology, metaphysics, meaning, and ethics popular among atheists and in the public square in general.  And there are some longstanding humanist and freethinker publications and organizations which have been atheistic beacons for many decades.  

But I still sense a lot of reflexive suspicion of tradition itself (and not just of harmful blind traditionalism) among atheists I encounter. We are not nearly “all on board” about the value of creating the kinds of enduring, pro-active, value-creating and value-shaping institutions (including “religions”) and narratives that will give the movement long term cultural relevance and prove to the average person that with atheism they can still have robust resources for constructing meaning and community and for educating their children in values. People want coherent traditions. Atheists can provide them (multiple ones preferably to accommodate multiple genuinely good paths) in ways that resist faith, superstition, and authoritarianism as matters of first importance, if only our otherwise healthy individualism does not refuse all compromises with the need for healthy institutions.

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