I'm an atheist, therefore nothing

April 2013

A fellow calling himself Crommunist has posted an essay on Freethought Blogs trying to rebut the claim that atheism makes people immoral or nihilistic. Unfortunately, his defense is as indefensible as the accusation, but it follows a trend that is becoming way too popular in the atheist community these days. That is the trend of conflating atheism with our reasons for being atheists. Crommunist notes with approval a section of P. Z. Myers' blog devoted to turning atheism into something besides the "simplistic tautology" of nonbelief in gods. Nevertheless, atheism just is nonbelief in gods, and throwing a sneer word at it won't change that.

Of course, there is such a thing as the atheist community, as Richard Carrier has been trying to tell people (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=au2i3xxgv7U), but not all atheists regard themselves as members of that community. It is at least possible, and I'm guessing probable, that the nonmembers are a majority of all the atheists there are. The reasons for this are complex, but one of those reasons is that atheists, qua atheists, have literally nothing in common except their membership in the species Homo sapiens. We are human beings, and we don't believe in a any god, and there is nothing more to be truthfully said about all of us.

The atheist community became a community because many of us do share a few additional characteristics, including a particular reason for being atheists. We either became atheists or never became theists because of a commitment to a certain way of thinking. We might call that way of thinking a worldview, or a philosophy, or a paradigm, or whatever, but it led us to the conclusion that theism is inconsistent with the proper exercise of reason—an exercise to which the label "critical thinking" is often applied. And, for most of us, a commitment to critical thinking entails a commitment to scientific thinking and thus a rejection of various nonreligious ideas that, notwithstanding vigorous protests by their adherents, have failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

From that perspective, I offer the following comments on Crommunist's list of a few benefits of being an atheist.

1. "Because I am an atheist, I am more open to new experiences." To put it as charitably as possible, this is a simple non sequitur. Whatever reason Crommunist has for his adventursomeness, atheism is not it. He mentions elsewhere on his blog that he used to be a Christian. In that case, he had to be "open to new experiences" before he ever became an atheist. Otherwise he would still be a Christian.

2. "Because I am an atheist, I am on the organ donor list." A rational morality says we should all be organ donors, and all objections to organ donation, particularly including religious objections, are irrational. That is reason enough for anyone to be an organ donor, and it works for plenty of theists as well. The plain assertion "There is no god" tells us nothing about whether we should even be either rational or moral, and it is an observable fact that there are plenty of atheists in the world who are neither.

3. "Because I am an atheist, I feel connected to all life." I suppose it's easier to feel that way if you're an atheist than if you're a Christian. Even a Christian who accepts evolution can find scriptural support for seeing a disconnect between humans and other animals. Nobody really needs the Bible, though, to reject any good idea or embrace any bad idea. Human exceptionalism is alive and well in plenty of secular ideologies. Our kinship with all other organisms is established by the fact of biological evolution, and that is a fact quite regardless of whether any god might exist. A few Christian fundamentalists are still saying that "God is real" and "evolution happened" cannot both be true, and entirely too many people within the atheist community seem to believe them. Those people have no right to call themselves critical thinkers.

4. "Because I am an atheist, I think of my actions on a long timeline." As a presumed contrast with certain religious dogmas, this is especially puzzling. Christians believe that their current actions will determine their fate for all eternity. How's that for a long timeline? Of course, what Crommunist means here is that he thinks of the effects of his actions on other people, not only in his own lifetime but in generations to come. To which we can all say amen, but that kind of morality does not follow from God's nonexistence. It follows from the application of critical thinking to the overall question of how we distinguish right from wrong, and there is nothing preventing a theist as such from doing just that. Not everyone who believes in God is under the impression that this life is nothing but an entrance exam for the next life.

Crommunist seems, like too many other atheists, to have succumbed to the notion that because right thinking tends to foster atheism, we should suppose that atheist thinking is itself right thinking. This is absurd. All thinking is atheist thinking except only that which includes a god's existence among its premises. Science is atheistic in that sense, but only in that sense, and so is any ethical code that does not include any reference to divine commands. 

Carrier suggests that one of the primary goals of the atheist community is the propogation of atheism. I do like to think of myself as a member of that community, but I'm not quite on board with that goal. What I want to see propogated is not atheism per se, but the kind of thinking that led me out of Christianity and into atheism. As certain apologists never tire of reminding us, atheism is at least consistent with, if not responsible for, certain reigns of unprecedented terror during the 20th century. They seem to imagine Stalin and his soulmates thinking to themselves, "Because I am an atheist, I think it would be a good idea to torture and murder people by the millions." I don't suspect for a moment that they thought anything of the kind, and if they had thought so, it would have been illogical. But it's just as illogical to think "Because I'm an atheist, [something good]." Nothing evil follows from atheism, and neither does anything virtuous. Nothing at all follows except only the negation of propositions that presuppose God's existence. (If there is no God, then Jesus of Nazareth was not his only begotten son, because nonexistent gods cannot have existent sons, but that doesn't mean he couldn't have risen from the dead. We have plenty of good reasons to doubt his resurrection, but denying his divinity isn't one of them.)

Atheism is just one component of the worldview that I wish were more prevalent, and it is not even a basic component. It is just an inference from the components that are basic to it, and it is my own inference. There are those who share this worldview in general but still believe in a god of some kind. They don't belong to the atheist community, obviously, but they are in a community that is made up mostly of atheists, and I counted myself part of that community long before I realized that I was an atheist. There is, to my knowledge, no generally accepted label for the worldview represented by that community, but some call it scientific rationalism, and that's what I called it before learning that others did, too. GMTA, perhaps.

The world at large is not going to adopt scientific rationalism anytime soon. Whenever it does, it will be a far better world than what we have now, even if a few people in it can still accomodate a god belief in some form. Any version of theism that can accomodate itself to science and reason is bound to be innocuous at worst, and we atheists can live with it, if we are as rational as we like to think we are. What we most need to remember is that it wasn't our atheism that made us rational. It was our rationalism that made us atheists, as it also made us open to new experiences, willing to put our names on organ donor lists, feel connected to all life, and sensitive to the consequences of our lives on future generations.


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(This page last updated on April 16, 2013.)