Why Atheism Itself Isn’t the Nexus to Human Progress

Why Atheism Itself Isn’t the Nexus to Human Progress September 7, 2015

Atheism may be a step closer to an evidence-based reality, but does that mean it’s the “evolutionary step” needed for humanity to get past pervasive societal turmoil and inconsistencies?

Many nonbelievers hold the belief that atheism—wedded to the rejection of religious dogma altogether—is, itself, a nexus to human progression. To think the social and cultural advancement of our species can be heightened merely by discarding ritualistic devotion to deities seems to reflect a one-dimensional state of mind. Entangled in this outlook are a host of assumptions buoyed by selective perception that makes this line of reasoning problematic.

Much conflict related to human affairs are due to violations of universally understood social constructs. An instance germane to this inquiry can be seen in the way the term “human rights” is habitually taken for granted. What lies at the core of this concept is the assumption of “human dignity,” an idea that’s existed since the early stages of human recorded history, and has been expressed in virtually all cultures and religions known to humankind.

The notions of human dignity and human rights are, for example, reflected in the Southern African humanist philosophy “Ubuntu.” It’s also seen in the often cited “golden rule” that stipulates one should treat others as one would like to be treated oneself, an idea that far precedes its appropriation found in Biblical text. The same is true for the fundamental beliefs of social justice, its intent built on identifying with the humanity of others and intertwined with the objective of human rights.

These basic components of consideration that ignite a sense of kinship allow us to treat each other with some level of appropriate decency. Nevertheless, the perpetuation of tribalism, negative stereotypes and microaggressions that denigrate the value of socially marginalized groups are common. Despite wanting to be a nexus in humanity’s maturation process, this problem is conspicuously evident in atheist circles, a subculture within a nationwide ethos that possesses identical forms of disparity.

Once upon a time, at the end of my deconversion from Pentecostal Christianity, I considered atheism an “end game.” My intellectual nourishment primarily consisted of The Four Horsemen rhetoric and my beliefs were assembled around the mantra, “Religion Poisons Everything.” Eventually, through maturing, expanding my reading selection, and constantly observing atheists take stances that contradict the tenets of “logic and reason,” I discovered much more was needed. I realized my provincial “war against religion” hampered my ability to recognize a multitude of issues that greatly affected society distinct from the conversation of supernaturalism.

Secular humanist author Dale McGowan once said, “Atheism is the first step. Humanism is the thousand steps that follow.” This isn’t me saying secular humanism is The Answer, as what I’m discussing also applies to many who embrace the humanist label while also being committed to a parochial frame of mind. However, this statement eloquently summarizes the importance of development and implicitly cautions against stagnant complacency.

There are those within the atheist community that will appeal to a prescriptive definition of atheism when desires are voiced in favor of certain social matters that affect marginalized groups not usually featured in mainstream discourse. They will shout-down or otherwise scoff at the concept of privilege. They will appeal to hasty generalizations or dismiss strawman constructs of social justice. They will do all of this while simultaneously objecting to religious hegemony (more specifically, Christian privilege in the U.S.) and campaigning for a sanitized scope of social justice germane to a whitewashed secular agenda.

Why does this happen? How can so many recite declarations of “Good Without God™” and ostensibly promote equality when their assent to this goodness and egalitarianism lacks the internalizing of a more all-inclusive intent and mentality?

The problem is disconnect. Privilege—a myriad of social advantages associated with being a part of a particular in-group—creates a rift based upon experiential existence. Those benefits, which exempts the privileged individual from encountering certain realities out-group members are routinely subjected to, biases judgment and inhibits one’s ability to identify with the real-lived context of marginalized groups.

Shirley Chisholm—politician, educator and feminist—once said: “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread, and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.” I’d argue this is the case with many states of structural oppression, and not just racism. It’s too often the case those within movement atheism prefer to discuss the latest display of religious hypocrisy and not the wide-ranging expressions of transantagonism and homophobia. We’ll intricately deconstruct creationism yet gloss over the adverse effects of patriarchal, sexist and misogynistic attitudes. We pride ourselves on having an intimate relationship with reality while denying the indelible influence white supremacist ideology has on our social systems.

As an atheist, I’ve encountered numerous believers who accused me of being mentally disturbed, or they imagined my lack of belief as the result of past trauma, or they asserted I hated god, ignorantly confusing atheism and misotheism. Atheist activists endeavor to allay these kinds of misconceptions, as well as advocate for scientific literacy and contest the preferential treatment extended to religious belief. The atheist activist is very much about confronting privilege and fighting for social justice–it’s just typically expressed in an overly-restricted form.

It’s awesome that there’s an influx of people choosing to think critically about the faith they were indoctrinated into believing, but let us not forget critical thinking isn’t limited to the realm of faith. There are various issues we should also be fighting the good fight for. It is only when these truths are more widely accepted that we will see meaningful growth within social institutions. Why? Because intersectionality—the intersection of privileges and discriminations—demands destabilization of the various streams of inequality for a fight against inequality to be broadly effective.

Outspoken atheists tend to critique religion, god-beliefs and theocracy seeped into politics and legislation. I stand in total agreement with this. But this is only a partial portrait. If you are incapable of extending concern to the diverse ways humans are adversely affected beyond myths and dogma, just realize you are part of “The Problem” (i.e., the status quo that perpetuates systems of oppression and social stratification). It’s disingenuous for one to proclaim they are for human progress yet discount chronic interpersonal and institutional inequalities that inhibit human progress.

One needn’t observe a strict humanist philosophy in order to counter prejudicial views. Challenging imbalanced treatment associated with privilege that dehumanizes (depriving human dignity, human rights, and social parity) an individual or group isn’t exactly pushing for sainthood, it’s the consequence of a mindset that actually gives a damn about people.

Atheism itself isn’t the nexus to human progress. Nonbelief in supreme beings and perceived holy edicts isn’t a panacea for social ills, nor does it preclude cognitive error. That said, it’s certainly possible for those who make up movement atheism—organizers and participants—to be contributors to a more evolved resolve intent on dismantling disparities and replacing them with more egalitarian, charitable and empathetic ways of thinking. Whether or not a more inclusionary, intersectional approach will be adopted as mainstream ideology remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the band played on.


Note: An example of a heightened sense of responsibility amongst organizers and individuals associated with movement atheism is reflected in the Secular Social Justice efforts.

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