If you’ve followed my writing these past few years, you know that I’ve often taken up arms against prominent atheists who’ve made clueless, sexist comments or worse. I’ve also insisted that the atheist movement as a whole needs to pay more attention to social justice, an area where it’s historically been deficient. In all these things, I insist that we nonbelievers can and should do better than we currently are.
I’ve been asked by various critics why I don’t leave atheism behind and join a group explicitly built on promoting social justice, if that’s the cause that matters to me. Here’s my answer to that: I stay, and I speak out, because I believe that atheism has value as an end in itself. It’s too important a cause to be sabotaged by those who foolishly speak on topics outside their competence or knowledge.
In fact, I’d go further and say that a politically active, engaged atheist movement is a force for good in the world. The more success it enjoys, the more potential it has to benefit everyone. As such, it deserves our support and advocacy, even when it may stumble or go astray.
In what ways is atheism a force for good? There are so many answers to this question. I could write about people suffering nightmarish trauma from their fear of hell, or people with mental illness who are treated with prayer and exorcism instead of medicine. I could write about children in faith-healing sects who suffer and die from curable ailments, or the crushing burden of guilt and shame over sex, or cults that box all their members into a narrow, rigidly defined role in life. Defeating all these pernicious beliefs, and offering an alternative path to people harmed by them, is a positive good.
As well, I could say that atheists do good deeds in the world. I could write about atheists who support each other in community, or who’ve given money and time to help the needy. I could even say that atheism contributes to peace around the world.I could write about all these things, but I won’t. The better answer is more fundamental: because atheism is the acknowledgement of reality, and reality matters.
There are many liberal religions that don’t perpetuate the evils I listed. There are believers who’ve built hospitals, who’ve marched for justice, who’ve helped to feed and clothe the poor. I don’t scorn them for their activism. But I do insist that even their ideas, however laudable they may be, are ultimately based on things that are unreal: the promise of another life beyond this one, the idea that prayer and scripture-reading can be used to discover truth, the belief that morality consists of obedience to the decrees of an unseen being.
Even if taught with the best intentions, these beliefs subtly denigrate reality. They encourage us to focus not on the here-and-now, on the tangible and the real, but on some other realm that’s held up above this life. Even when they call for social action, they promote the belief that evil and suffering are in some sense necessary, part of a greater plan that’s beyond our grasp. And just when it’s become most crucial that we collectively make the right decisions if humanity is to survive and flourish, they assert that beliefs based on ancient folk tales, wishful thinking, and nebulous personal conviction are just as good as, if not better than, beliefs founded on science, evidence, and reasoned reflection.
The great moral conflicts of the next hundred years must be settled on the basis of what’s true, not just on who believes more fervently. Even when we aim at the right ends, letting faith guide our steps will always lead to diverted and wasted effort, will always threaten to trip us up and lead us down blind alleys, and will always breathe life into the very fundamentalisms that pose the threat in the first place.
Most of all, faith keeps us from what’s real. The cosmos is beautiful enough as it is, deep enough as it is, glorious enough as it is; we need no small human fantasies to embellish it, nor a dusting of mythology to confer it all with meaning. The real story of how everything came to be and where we fit into the grand picture is more spectacular and awe-inspiring than any religion, and it has the virtue of being true. Embracing reality in all its fullness, unclouded by false hope or illusion, is the most profound of all the gifts that atheism has to offer the world.