The atheist movement has seen a somewhat recent boom. Some say it was triggered by the 9/11 attacks and call it the “New Atheism” movement. There are many great things about atheists speaking out and forming a community. It encourages other people to “come out of the closet”, it raises awareness about discrimination against religious minorities, mob rule, threats to secularism etc. On the other hand, many criticize the movement for its aggressiveness, arrogance and lack of diplomacy. Some even claim that atheists shouldn’t be outspoken at all. They say they’re being more religious than the believers they criticize, and attack any atheist association as being hypocritical and turning atheism into a cult.
“Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.” – Richard Dawkins
“Mormonism, it seems to me—objectively— is just a little bit more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.” – Sam Harris
“Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of ‘the flock’.” – Christopher Hitchens
In a way it makes sense. Atheists have been kept quiet for very long, and many atheists had to hide their opinions to avoid social isolation and even persecution. It actually still happens in less developed countries. As a Brazilian vlogger said, the effect can be compared to that of a spring being released after a long period of compression. It will stretch beyond it’s natural rest length and oscillate before it finally stops. It is questionable whether the analogy holds in the long run, considering a spring may oscillate a lot before it stops, but I think it’s illustrative for the “boom” effect at the moment of release and the immediate backlash of criticism that follows most minority movements. As a side note, Greta Christina has a great talk on the phenomenon of atheist anger. But however comprehensible it may be, especially for us atheists, it doesn’t mean we should endorse it.
The atheism movement and PR
In the last decade Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and especially Richard Dawkins have been mentioned countless times as the great “spokesmen” for atheism. The media even coined the term “The Four Horsemen of New Atheism” to refer to them. Before I make any criticism, I should make it clear that I greatly admire and respect the work of all these authors. I haven’t read all their work but I’ve been exposed to enough material to have a fairly good idea about who the four are and form a generally rather positive opinion.
As the explosive heat of the movement cools off, however, one can’t help but wonder if this really is the image we should want for the “atheist movement”. Of course, many will say “they don’t represent me and atheists don’t need representatives”. But let’s be honest, that’s not how society works. There will always be a few who will get more notability and they will inevitably shape the image that people in the outside have of the group whose ideas they preach about.
Of course, there is a limit to how careful and polite we can be without silencing ourselves. As Dennett put it:
“There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly”
Ironically enough though, Dennett seems to be the one closest to succeeding in being polite. Are phrases like “go away and learn how to think” really indispensable for an accurate transmission of a warning against fallacious reasoning? Are “idiotic” and “pathetic” really unavoidable adjectives when criticizing Christianity? Most atheists are bound to offend religious people at one point or another. We think they are wrong, after all. This follows from the definition of “atheist”. Unfortunately there are many people who take disagreements quite personally, so however nice we try to be they’re too used to the special treatment religion has traditionally received and end up taking it as offense. But is this reason enough to give up on being nice altogether? How bad can it be to be religious? Do they really deserve to be offended gratuitously?
Indeed, organized religion has a terrible history in its past, but the line between religion and politics can be very blurry, and the actions of religious leaders don’t always represent the ideals of all members of a religion. Generalizing is always dangerous, so recognizing that no group is perfectly homogenous is enough reason for me to in principle respect people no matter what group they belong to. And that implies respecting religious people and avoiding gratuitous offenses.
Internet, memes and the pop culture atheists
The representatives of atheism I’ve mentioned so far are renowned intellectuals and successful scientists or academics. They may make a slip every now and then, they may have a dangerous thirst for polemics, but they’re very intelligent people and are perfectly capable of having reasonable conversations. What is even more worrying than not-so-diplomatic intellectuals is the horde of religion-hating new atheists on the internet.
I have been quite enthusiastic since I became an atheist, and rather anti-theistic at points, I admit. But I don’t remember, even in the peak of my rage, ever saying anything so blunt. Still, such is the damage done by “troll atheism” that people have accused me of thinking religious people are stupid just for declaring myself an atheist openly instead of avoiding the term and the subject altogether. And this didn’t come from religious people. The atheist movement that, some claimed, would “help fight the taboo against atheism” turned into something that makes people possibly even more defensive than before. So let me be clear: no, I do not think religious people are stupid. Actually, I don’t think the word stupid is good at all. For anyone. Of course, I have referred to people as “stupid” in my life. Both religious and non-religious. But “stupid” is more of a swearing word than it is an expressive criticism. I can’t imagine a context in which this word would be crucial for an argument. Same for “idiotic” or “pathetic”.
Besides the chaotic mass of undiplomatic, religion bashing “scumbag atheists” on the internet, there are also some vloggers that gained quite some popularity throughout the years. The peak of my anti-theistic phase has passed quite a while ago, so I’m not that up to date with what’s happening out there in the community as I could be, but the two English language vloggers who I come across most often are The Amazing Atheist and Jaclyn Glenn.
I probably haven’t seen even close to half of their videos, but I’ve seen enough to be able to say that The Amazing Atheist is the personification of everything that I think is wrong in the atheist community, so I won’t even comment about all the ways in which I disagree with him and his attitude because that would take too long and deviate too much from the point of this text. Jaclyn Glenn, on the other hand, seems to be a quite reasonable person. But she doesn’t really help change the hostile image people created of this “new atheism” either. Her temperament at best preserves the image unchanged.
Forgive the joke, I think Jaclyn’s presence online is overall constructive. But things have come to a point where, if we want atheists to have a more positive image, we should actively go against what seems to be the current norm.
“Apparently atheists can’t be moral. Only an ancient book of fairytales and lies gives you the ability to distinguish right from wrong.” – Jaclyn Glenn
Ancient book of fairytales and lies… Check any list of literary styles and you’ll see that at best you could say the Bible is a book of parables. Hum… that doesn’t necessarily make religious people seem dumb and childish, right? Better stick with fairytales then.
What is atheism?
Many question why some atheists “act like a cult”, organize meetings with other atheists, write about atheism, start movements that are explicitly atheist, etc. They only recognize atheism as being legitimate in the form of an intimate and personal opinion. If we act like a movement, they accuse us of “being as religious as the people we criticize”. Well, that’s a big misunderstanding. I may have negative opinions about many aspects of religion, but none of the criticism I make is against religious people building community, organizing meetings or anything of the kind. It seems most people are quite cynical towards this attitude coming from atheists though, and sadly enough, even atheists.
Before we answer what atheism is, I would like to start by asking another question: what is religion? This is an important question because atheism is too often framed as an alternative or even opposition to religion. Countless definitions have been proposed but each of them is only valid in context. There is no consensus around one, perfect, universal definition of religion. For the purposes of this text, I would like to focus on three of the endless characteristics that define it:
- A set of factual beliefs about the universe (e.g. there are angels or hell)
- A system of values based on and justified by these beliefs about the universe
- A set of traditional mechanisms through which these beliefs and values are advanced (e.g. symbolic rituals, parables, etc)
The term theism relates to the first aspect of religion. But it is even narrower: it refers to the specific belief that there is a god or gods. Transcendent, supreme beings who have an important role in the creation and maintenance of the universe, broadly speaking. This is what atheism, by definition, rejects. It doesn’t reject having beliefs about what is true or not about the natural world per se (obviously), it doesn’t reject that our system of values should be based on what we believe to be true about the universe, and it doesn’t reject the advancement of these beliefs and values through rituals and institutions. Technically, it doesn’t even reject superstition in general. Although unlikely, a person could in theory be an atheist and believe in immortal souls, telepathy and other supernatural phenomena.
So as long as gods are not part of your beliefs, embracing any of these aspects of religion does not, in any way, contradict atheism. But should we embrace any of them? Or does it actually make sense for us to be paranoid about “looking religious” and cynical about turning atheism into a movement? Which aspects of religion are desirable for society and which are not?
The secularization of society
“Secularization or secularisation is the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions.” – Wikipedia, 2 November, 2014
Throughout the 20th century, there has been a strong tendency towards secularization, especially in the developed world. The number of atheists and agnostics has been constantly growing and many young believers have loosen their ties with religious traditions and institutions.
Although by definition atheism is the simple negation of a belief, let’s be honest, it always involves some level of common ideology as a consequence. And one of the causes that has traditionally been most strongly associated to atheism is secularism. So much that engaging in religious-looking behavior is seen almost as a “hypocritical betrayal of the movement”. But if secularism is defined as an opposition to religion, then we need to first define religion so we can understand what is this secularism we’re supposed to be fighting for.
If we use as a basis the three-part definition proposed earlier, what could we say about secularism? Should we embrace a secularism that rejects that any individual should ever hold any proposition to be true? Most certainly not. Should we reject that our system of values be in any way based on what we believe to be true about the natural world? That certainly wouldn’t make any sense either. Should we reject any mechanism that tries to advance any set of beliefs or values? Doesn’t sound any more reasonable.
But then what should secularism be? Can it just be nonsense? I wouldn’t say so. I would just say that there’s something critical missing from our definition of religion:
4. Faith. The belief in unproven claims without rational justification.
Religion for a long time has held the monopoly on values, so once you declare yourself non-religious, you have to define another system of values. Yes, atheists are independent individuals and will inevitably have different opinions on a number of matters, but at least one common ideological belief will always be present: that it is possible to be nice and and live in harmony with others based on a secular system of values.
This is a simple fact for us atheists, and the main premise of secular ethics. I have never met anyone whose lack of belief in gods turned them into anti-social psychopaths with no morality whatsoever. Moral principles are intrinsic to us. They’re biological imperatives. In most social species there is such a thing as reputation and chronic non-cooperative behavior is a pathology with high costs for the individual, bound to be selected against by natural selection. So yes, most of us do find values, and we live peacefully without religion. We just feel bad when we do bad, and we just feel good when we do good.
For us, one of the greatest moral achievements of the modern world was, therefore, the development of legal systems largely based on secular values, which provide equal protection to individuals of different faiths and more recently the universal declaration of human rights, probably the first international attempt to provide a moral framework to guide all nations independent of cultural particularities such as religion.
But again, what does it mean for a system of values to be secular? It means that it rejects not that our values be based on our beliefs about the natural world, as I already argued, but that it be based on beliefs that rely on faith. What’s fundamental to note here is that it’s not the rejection of faith per se, but of the bridge between faith and morality. Faith itself may be attacked or not, that’s an issue worth considering, but technically, however unlikely, a person can be a deep, faithful believer in god and all sorts of supernatural phenomena and still not derive their morals from these beliefs. This person would, technically, be a better example of an adherent of secular ethics than an atheist who believes in karma, reincarnation etc and bases their morality on these premises.
Although under close inspection we may conclude that secularism’s strongest attack on religion is on the link between faith and morality, in practice the tendency towards secularism abandons many other aspects of it. Is this good or bad?
To answer this question, it’s important to note that religion didn’t only hold the monopoly of values themselves, they held the monopoly on the institutionalization of morality, transmission of values, moral education, in many points in history even the enforcement of their ethical system, and maybe most importantly: the practice of their values. And this monopoly it unfortunately still holds. But this is changing. Slowly, but I say it’s changing for the better. Humanist organizations worldwide do social work, organize events promoting secular values and there are already secular “churches” showing up in the developed world. Why should we be so paranoid about them? Should we really be so resistant? Well, it depends.
An effective movements needs a good strategy. And the first step when designing a strategy is defining our goals and priorities. One interesting questioning posed by these skeptics about this vague thing often referred to as “the atheist movement” is worth considering: should we embrace this labelling of the movement as “atheist”?
I’m no philosopher of language, but I like to think of nouns as labels that we assign to patterns we see in nature. If we look at this whole “atheist movement” thing from a distance, the basic pattern we see is a set of causes that can usually be grouped around common themes that are widely supported by atheists. A few examples are:
- Freedom of thought
- Freedom of speech
- Scientific literacy
- Critical thinking
- Democracy and Human Rights
And following from that you have opposition to religious conservatism overall, the widespread support of causes such as the right to safe abortion, LGBT rights, etc. All causes derived from a secular ethical system based on reason as opposed to dogma.
Of course, these causes are not only supported by atheists. Neither do all atheists support all of them. But since atheists are probably the only somewhat coherent group who by and large support most of the causes, they end up lending their name to the movement.
The problem with this is that it ends up driving believers away even though these causes would benefit from any new supporter, atheist or not. And indeed, most progressive liberals would support these causes even if they happen to think that there may be a god, spirit or mystical life force governing the universe. The secularisation process has created an intersection between faith and secular ethics. This can be seen in surveys that show that in France, for example, although 54% of the population say they believe in a “god, spirit or life force”, only 15% say you need to believe in God to be moral. That is, with a population of around 66 million people, 39% believe in a sort of god but still sympathize with our cause most fundamental cause. That’s more than 25 million people in France alone.
I usually like to call myself a secular humanist. It means more than just “not believing in gods”. It’s a statement that better communicates the importance I give to social causes, being good and building a secular system of values. Other people certainly feel “atheist” is not expressive enough to describe their opinions either, and maybe for this reason many other names have appeared in the last decades: secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, brights, etc. On the other hand, some atheists might wonder: how many more concessions are we willing to make in order to be inclusive? Will this really be the only one? Don’t we run the risk of avoiding certain causes because they’re too “polemical” for people of some faiths, even though they agree with our basic tenets? Isn’t this just a milder form of oppression? These are very legitimate questions. Especially considering that exclusive, faith-specific gatherings are tolerated coming from all faiths. Why don’t us faithless enjoy the same rights and acceptance?
But even if the label is kept, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a hostile attitude. There are plenty of male feminists, straight LGBT-rights advocates and white supporters of black social movements. There’s no reason why liberal believers should hesitate in supporting atheist movements. But if we want them on our side, it’s also our responsibility to show we’re more than anti-faith missionaries, regardless of the name we choose. Regular Christian meetings may not be so radically inclusive of other faiths, but that doesn’t mean they will kick Non-Christians out or spend their mass time plotting on how to eradicate the competition.
I’m not going to discuss here which name is the best and should be used by everyone. And I hope that this will never be the cause of division and conflict as South Park prophesied. Each word is valid and captures different nuances of the movement. What’s important to realize is that it’s very different to simply “be an atheist” and to be an active supporter of secular ethics and its related causes. Mixing these things up can turn out to be a real obstacle.
Many atheists do mix them up, however. They are vocal but the only cause they seem to fight for is convincing more people that there is no God. But if this is a cause in itself, and not just a means to a greater end, then I have to agree, it looks more like a proselytic religion than a social movement. Especially if you’re aggressively insistent in the process.
This lack of a moral aspect in some segments of the atheist movement and the monopoly religion has had on the subject may be a reason why religious people struggle to understand how atheism can be something good. Indeed, if you think of atheism as an alternative for religion, it’s really incomplete. Religion has played a strong role in shaping people’s morality throughout history, so for some it’s harder to see it as something personal and intrinsic. And if on top of it, when atheists discuss with religious people, moral progress isn’t at all central to the conversation, then they just confirm their prejudices. But why is it not? It should be. Of course, a philosophical conversation with a highly educated theologist, for example, can certainly be interesting and constructive. But when it comes to the average believer, there are much more noble causes to be vocal about. If we focus on them and less on philosophical opinions, believers can not only learn to respect us, but actually join our movement.
The truth is, there are people who have faith and for whom religion is too important. They won’t be convinced by our arguments and won’t become atheists. But that’s no reason to consider them “lost cases” and give up on cooperation altogether. If they’re progressive liberal people they can join the movment! And if they’re not, well, we can still try to convince them that we’re decent people and that we won’t conjure up Satan and destroy civilization if we are elected. If we want political voice and the promotion of secular values, more important than convincing people that God doesn’t exist is persuading them that regardless of whether we believe in it or not, we can still live in harmony and preach goodness. It’s a pity that such a high percentage of us is focusing so much more on the former than on the latter.
It may seem pointless to argue about morality without the nonexistence of God as a shared premise, but it’s not one bit more pointless than discussing the existence of God itself with this same person. Of course, if you manage to convince a person of the latter, the job is pretty much done for the former, so in this sense I’d say this is a valid path to progress. But it’s not the only one. For every “convertible” person, there is a number of people who are too attached to religion to ever accept atheism but who would have no problem recognizing the legitimacy of secular humanism or even sympathizing with it. And if our primary goal is social progress, they cannot be ignored.
But should our primary goal be social progress at all? Well, progress is by definition “getting better” and social “relating to society”, so unless we admit we’re consciously and shamelessly evil, this pretty much has to be our primary goal. As Sam Harris argues in The Moral Landscape, we must, imperatively, strive for the well being of conscious creatures.
Of course, as individuals we all dedicate ourselves at least to some extent to “selfish” goals that aren’t very easily traced back to “the good of the world”. We may strive to finish a painting, play a successful concert, excel in a sport or even start a family or just have a healthy life with some time reserved for entertainment. I believe this is legitimate, after all each of us are conscious creatures, so our well-being also counts. But if we are to think of a common goal that we all should strive for collectively, as a society, there seems to be only one possible answer. And when it is realized, all other goals are overshadowed. Many of us in the atheist community are compelled to be vocal exactly for moral reasons (e.g. child molestation in the Catholic Church, Human Right abuses by radical muslims, etc). So it’s time we make this a more explicit part of the movement.
Sam Harris is one of those who’s already doing it. In his book The Moral Landscape, he urges us to think that there is such a thing as moral truth, and that it should be the object of scientific investigation. Science should be able to tell us what’s good and bad morally just as it’s able to tell us what’s good or bad for heart disease. But I would say there’s something else that’s very important and that is usually not explicitly focused on.
Advancing secular values
Considering that atheists are a minority, there is great reason for us to stick together and speak up. Granted, atheists probably don’t go through as many difficulties as other groups, especially considering that they’re are mostly educated and middle to upper class. But as soon as democracy comes in and we need public support, we do worst than any minority. In the US and in Brazil, for example, people were least likely to vote for an atheist (only 54% and 13%, respectively) than any other minority group. I guess you can imagine what the number of atheists actually holding public office must be. Is it really so much audacity to wish for a better image and political representation?
Besides, secular values don’t benefit only atheists. It benefits anyone who doesn’t identify with the religion of the majority. But how long will it take until morality becomes a mature field of science, and until schools actually include “morality classes” in their curricula? Very long. Religion is still way too powerful and this is way too controversial an approach for this to become reality any time soon in most places.
Moreover, should we always expect the government to solve all problems for us? This relying on the government for absolutely everything is a rather modern tendency that isn’t necessarily the healthiest. The concept of social rights is very recent in our history, and the fact that religion predates it explains a lot about how efficient it is. In a world with no schools, no police, no judicial system, how do we teach what’s right and wrong? A strong sense of community, of family, and a shared responsibility for the transmission of these values would certainly be of help. And that’s what the church for a long time fostered, and still does, with or without government support.
This Christmas at work, the company participated in a charity campaign called “You too can be Santa”, in which the participants received letters written for Santa by poor kids in Romanian villages and sent back a reply and some presents. The campaign was organized by World Vision, a Christian organization, and in the letter I got, among other things, the kid asked for a Bible. On the one hand I wanted to give what the child wanted, but on the other hand I didn’t want to collaborate with the indoctrination of a child with values that I don’t agree with. But what alternatives did I have to the Bible? The Quran? The Vedas? As Dennett says, religion is the only game in town. I didn’t want to give him a science book. That misses the point. The Bible’s main message isn’t about facts of physical reality. What I really needed was something like a “Humanist Bible for Kids”. But I couldn’t find it so I ended up just sending an unrelated book for children.
So why aren’t we secularists as independent and pro-active when it comes to advancing our values? Why wasn’t this charity organized by a secular NGO and why didn’t I find a Humanist Bible for Kids? Well, we haven’t had much time, but we’re starting to act. The Sunday Assembly initiative is a great example. In an interview for the Huffington Post, Sanderson Jones, one of its founders, said:
“There was so much about [church] that I loved, but it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in. […] If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”
And the best part about promoting good through secular organizations is that we don’t have to be divisive. From the FAQ section of their official website:
Is Sunday Assembly exclusively for atheists?
Absolutely not. We say in the Charter that we don’t do supernatural but we won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do. One of the unique things about Sunday Assembly is that it is radically inclusive – allowing us to celebrate life together, regardless of what we believe in.
But it doesn’t matter if you like the idea of churches and organized meetings or not. As Emma Watson said in the context of feminism, even people who aren’t vocal can help the movement by independently advancing its values, like the “inadvertent feminists” in her life. Many Christians and other religious people have a more intimate relationship with their religion and prefer to develop their spirituality without being limited by the constraints sometimes posed by institutions. And that doesn’t stop them from being spiritual, sharing their values and playing an important role in transmitting them by teaching their children about their vision of right and wrong, being a good example and an influence on their close ones, and even by keeping worthy traditions alive by taking part in rituals that remind us about the importance of being good. Abandoning the belief in gods shouldn’t imply abandoning all of this.
Paranoically rejecting even the most positive aspects of religion seems to me much more radically anti-religious than embracing and adapting them in order to promote what we think is good. Religious institutions have served a purpose, but they’re antiquated for our modern needs. We can reinvent them to fit this new reality of scientific advance and cultural diversity. And in a context where religious institutions are still so important as to have special legislation concerning them, we have even more reason to take inspiration from them and even claim the same legal status.
In this text I argued against two things:
- The gratuitous and indiscriminate anti-religious hostility sometimes present in the atheist community (not to be confused with respectable, constructive criticism).
- The (maybe consequential) cynicism towards the atheist movement and activism that is widespread both outside and inside the atheist community.
I hope I have convinced the reader that there are many positive aspects in having a movement that promotes secular values and that we have many common causes to cooperate and fight for. But being vocal about these causes shouldn’t be confused with being vocal about atheism as the only legitimate philosophical opinion. If we choose the right priorities, there should be no reason to be cynical and skeptical about engaging in activities that attempt to advance them, even if they draw inspiration from religious traditions.
So yes, I really think God doesn’t exist. And I believe we should all have the right to say it openly without being considered rude. But when it comes to being vocal about atheism, isn’t it much more constructive to focus on how we can be good without a god than on how stupid you think religious people are?
“To suggest that one can’t be good without belief in God is not just an opinion, a mere curious musing—it is a prejudice.”
– Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University