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Why Atheism Demands Social Justice

I’m going to go out on a limb here: being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.

A lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism means one thing and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god. And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more than just not believing in gods or the supernatural. It’s a positive, multifaceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.

But conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications. That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods as much as any other conclusion. When you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice: an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on. For reasons that are high-minded and noble and altruistic… and also for reasons that are pragmatic and Machiavellian to the point of being crass.

*

Thus begins my first column for Free Inquiry magazine, Why Atheism Demands Social Justice. To read more about both the high-minded reasons that atheists should work for social justice, and the crass, Machiavellian reasons, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. karmakin says

    Very good article.

    It’s interesting, you look at atheism, and yes, it’s pretty clear that atheism should have the goal of social justice. However, I’d also say that it’s much more clear, and much more directed, from a rationalistic viewpoint, which often goes hand in hand.

    Even from a self-interest based standpoint, it makes sense to create a society that gives us the greatest chance to be as happy as we can be. We want to give ourselves as good odds as we can get. Social justice does that. But furthermore, it leads itself towards specific policy and political ideas that we can recognize as being rationally the best choice. Generally, depending on a few base beliefs that’s either some sort of Progressivism or Libertarianism. Not that Conservative ideas can never be correct. But the Conservative ideas would need to serve into the same goals. And if they don’t (which we’re seeing increasingly with Conservative parties world-wide) then they’re simply not rational.

    That’s why I think that atheism/rationalism will always lean very strongly towards certain concepts, and to expect otherwise is a bit of a pipe dream that some people have. Are we pushing away some people who might more strongly embrace atheism/rationalism? Sure. But I don’t think it can be helped.

  2. Rieux says

    Very interesting piece—somewhat parallel, I think, to P.Z. Myers’ beefs with “dictionary atheism.”

    One question I think the essay poses (all the more so in light of where it’s being published): does conceiving of atheism, especially atheism-in-society, this way leave little room left over for/little point in humanism, at least by that name?

  3. says

    Great article Greta. I read it already as I subscribe to the magazine. I identify myself as a secular humanist and think your argument is spot on. I can’t separate my secular humanism from my atheism at this point. Well I can, but do not see the point or need to do so. You won’t catch any flack from me on it.

  4. Rieux says

    Oh, and anyone know whether that’s the first (or the first quotation-mark-less) use of the word “fucking” in Free Inquiry history?

    Those Gnu Atheists… you let a few of ’em in, and there goes the neighborhood….

  5. mnb0 says

    I’ll read the article tomorrow, but one thing: I already wanted social justice long before I became an atheist, so this is not really an issue for me.

  6. MurOllavan says

    I think its the other way around. A rational person that wants to make the world a better place tends to be the ones that become atheists over time (if they started out religious).

  7. davesmith says

    Doesn’t the condition of our existence make the demand for social justice? It should be bloody obvious to anyone who observes the human condition, so I like the essay, and I’m a secular humanist, but…

    well, words mean things…

    look, I’ve bought your book, and I read you and PZ and lots of other FTB bloggers on a regular basis. I’m a fan.

    So, please take this in the narrowest sense, but…

    I think it’s taking a wrong turn to co-opt the definition of atheism and try and and re-ism atheism. The problem is that it takes so long to explain to a theist what the word atheist means. this only makes it harder.

    I get what PZ was trying to do — really I do. I just think it’s the wrong word choice.

    And I get what you’re trying to do here, and I agree that atheists should argue for social justice. Hell, everyone should. I just think it’s the wrong word choice.

    I think secular humanism is a better word for what you’re talking about. Nuance matters, and I think atheism is the wrong word.

    … but since I’m being pissy, the term “dictionary atheists” means exactly what? That we like to use the agreed upon definition of words? I think the dictionary definition of atheism is useful. why’s that bad?

    signed,

    dictionary definition atheist dave

  8. 'Tis Himself says

    karmakin #1

    Social justice does that. But furthermore, it leads itself towards specific policy and political ideas that we can recognize as being rationally the best choice. Generally, depending on a few base beliefs that’s either some sort of Progressivism or Libertarianism.

    I have to strongly disagree with you on libertarianism leading to social justice. A socio-economic ideology based on selfishness is hardly conducive to social justice. There’s a difference between wanting drugs legalized and wanting single-payer health care. Libertarians want one but not the other, but universal health care is more socially just than being able to buy marijuana at a liquor store.

  9. karmakin says

    @8 Oh I totally agree with you. I just think that given some (what I consider to be utopic, to be honest) per-conceived notions I can understand libertarian thought to maybe potentially come out on the side of social justice.

    Given a libertarian (small l) government that focused very strongly on fraud and power differential abuse as well as protecting individualistic property rights from larger concerns (I.E. You pollute, I breath it in, you get sued for it) that resulted in a market system where the little guy had much more power than he does right now, that could maybe sorta result in a society with more social justice than we see today?

    I just don’t trust most Libertarians (big L) in terms of following through on that. They’re not interested in balancing out power differential abuse, they’re interested in exasperating it.

    To be honest, if you’re taking an USA-centric view on it, I think that libertarianism (again, small l) to positive ends is basically impossible, due to the nature of the US Constitution in terms of not presenting rights and freedoms as goals to be achieved, but as handcuffs for the referee. I do think that a positive libertarian government would be much more likely in say Canada for that very reason. That most Libertarians seem to be strict “origianalists” only makes things much much worse.

  10. Grayhame says

    I agree with dictionary Dave; please don’t co-opt atheism to include secular humanism. Most theists have a hard enough time trying to understand what atheism is anyway without adding another layer of subtext to its definition.

    Social justice covers a large spectrum of ideas but atheism really doesn’t. A lot of bad people can be atheists, and I’m sure they don’t all agree on social justice issues. But they can all agree on being atheists because it’s a simple concept — the rejection of theism.

    However, I’m all for secular humanism! In fact, I’d argue that the label of secular humanist isn’t as tainted as atheist and probably better to use anyway. Just my two cents.

  11. says

    dave (and Gray),

    You seem to have misunderstood the point and structure of Greta’s essay. She is not saying that “the term atheist means a person who doesn’t believe in gods and supports social justice”. What she is arguing is that one of the implications of the statement: “There are no gods” is “Social justice is an ethical imperative”.

    I think she would agree with you that a perfectly good name for “atheists who recognize this implication” would be “secular humanist”.

    There is a very important distinction between the idea that atheists who reject social justice are mistaken (i.e. failing to realize an implication of what they know), and the idea that they are not atheists. Greta, (and I) are arguing for the first, not the second.

  12. says

    Given that atheism is not a belief system in and of itself, but rather the conclusion of rationalism and skepticism, then it’s not unreasonable to expect to see atheism grouped in with the other end results of being rational and skeptical: i.e., recognizing that bigotry is bunkum, and that ethical imperatives are somewhat hardwired, and collective action towards improving human welfare makes all of our lives better.

  13. says

    Exactly.

    According to christians, life on Earth is a mere test of worthiness. We’re just meant to put up with whatever shit gets thrown at us; and at the end, if we passed the test we get taken to a sort of Alton Towers for Dead People — otherwise, we burn in Hell forever.

    Even if that were true, it would surely impose a duty upon every one of us to fight against the monstrous christian God with the last of our strength.

    The harsh reality is, a few dozen journeys around the Sun is the best that any of us can hope for before we cease to exist forever. And if that’s all we get, then we may as well enjoy it as much as possible. And since we’re all the same, that implicitly includes making sure, as far as possible, that everybody else gets to enjoy it too.

  14. M.Nieuweboer says

    I like the Machiavellian reason very much. It implies that I made the right choice in 2000: moving to a developing country with a low rate of atheists (my personal reasons were selfish, but not of a financial nature).
    Excellent article indeed, GC, especially because of its utilitarian elements. My only criticism is that there is no need at all to separate betweeen “higher” and “lower” reasons. That’s just christian bullshit.

  15. M.Nieuweboer says

    BecomingJulie: why is that reality harsh, compared to say the reality as christians depict it?

  16. Gregory in Seattle says

    I don’t think there is anything inherent to atheism that calls for social justice: just as there are many people of faith who are strongly dedicated to social justice, there are many atheists and other non-believers who actively oppose social justice.

    Human decency is what calls for social justice. Religion has shown itself, time and again, to be one of the biggest impediments to human decency, with doctrines such as “God will provide for them” or “It will be better in heaven / their next life.” Without those blinders, it is much easier for us to see, and be moved by, injustice.

  17. says

    I think you went into the weeds with the initial premise, and then got more into the weeds in the middle. Why should I “want to make a world that’s better for atheists” any more than I want to make a world that is better for the liberal, the engineer, the walker, the middle-aged, the sailor and the birder, and the bald? It’s only if someone accepts the notion that atheism is or should be one’s primary identification that that argument makes any sense. Once one steps back from that, what’s left with the drive to make the world a better place. Which is a good sentiment, but has little to do with one’s atheism, either in wanting to do that or in the kind of people for whom one wants that.

  18. Sammi C says

    If I have understood this post correctly, it is simply saying “if you’re an atheist, I think you have a duty to also be a secular humanist”.

    If that’s what it’s saying, it adds nothing beyond saying “secular humanism, yay!!”. But let’s call secular humanism that.

    The post makes the mistake of thinking that there is such a thing as “atheism”. No there isn’t. That’s a category error. “Atheism” is not a philosophy, unless you count the group-think of Freethoughts as a philosophy. You can’t create an -ism by wishing it into existence.

    What next, “No True Atheist” arguments?

  19. John the Drunkard says

    Atheism certainly implies a commitment agains social injustice when it is inflicted or rationalized by religion.

    But social injustice can be inflicted and rationalized without gods. Communists and Randroids quickly come to mind.

    Huxley described Fascism/Communism etc. as ‘idolatrous pseudo-religions.’ Perhaps a clearer, if more cluttered, expression might be something like:

    Reason exposes the religious aspect of social injustice, hence Atheism implies a rational approach to social justice which should extend to other irrational beliefs and motives.

    Not much of a bumper sticker, but it answers the l(L)ibertarians.

  20. says

    Good article, Greta! I definitely agree there has to be more focus on social justice. I agree with what davesmith (#7) is saying about the condition of our existence demanding social justice, as anyone can notice that there are horrible things going on in the world and want to fix them regardless of religious belief, but I do think that not believing in the afterlife sort of removes the safety net. If a person’s life in this life is the only one they have, then if we fail to make others’ lives better, there really is no other chance, and that sucks.

    @JesseW (#11):

    There is a very important distinction between the idea that atheists who reject social justice are mistaken (i.e. failing to realize an implication of what they know), and the idea that they are not atheists. Greta, (and I) are arguing for the first, not the second.

    This! I was just thinking that as I was skimming through the comments, and then you wrote it — much more clearly than I would have.

  21. says

    Just wanted to add that this was one of the things that really affected me when I became an atheist. I also supported charity work, equal rights, etc. when I believed in God, of course, but when I thought about the fact that I don’t believe there’s an afterlife, it really made me feel that if I did something wrong or failed to do something to help another person, there would be no way for God to correct that. It’s a terrible realization, but maybe realizing it will be a motivating factor to do something even more.

  22. albiefarinas says

    Being an atheist requires a great deal of diligence, awareness, knowledge and control as it relates to the application of our genetic impulses and that, in and of its self, causes us to strive to virtuous ends in our daily lives…. :-)

    Best regards,

    Albie

  23. says

    I’ve got something of a reversal:

    I was pretty secular when I was a Christian, and I managed to avoid the trap of the afterlife for the most part, but I remember one instance of that thinking that disturbed me. It was a movie I watched in a history class about the civil rights movement. A black man went door-to-door trying to get people to register to vote in a region with discriminatory literacy tests. He met a pair of elderly ladies who refused. He asked why they’re not willing to do what it takes to become genuinely free people. “When God calls us home, then we’ll be free.”

    I couldn’t articulate the rationale for why I was disgusted at the time, but in my gut I knew that apathy was wrong. It just didn’t feel right to sit idly and wait for someone else to balance the scales of justice later. It was usually the unjust who asked others to “trust in God.”

    I suppose one other aspect was the selfishness: It’s not just about yourself, but the lives of future generations. Inaction would only entrench the injustice further, and passing on the apathy wasn’t going to help, either. You’re supposed to fight and prevent injustice, not simply accept and endure it.

    Whenever I saw atheists making a stand for something, they were generally doing the right thing and for the right reasons. They also did it with the same urgency I instinctively felt, and I understood why: They had but one lifetime to give for their cause, and they had no all-powerful being who was going to do it for them.

    To me, it’s not so much that atheism leads to social justice so much as that the struggle for justice only made sense in the light of atheism.

  24. davesmith says

    @11, Jesse W says:

    What she is arguing is that one of the implications of the statement: “There are no gods” is “Social justice is an ethical imperative”.

    and @12, Greta agrees.

    I don’t see what atheism has got to do with social justice. I think it was the wrong lead to the article.

    If there were gods, would social justice be an ethical imperative? Many have argued it is. So gods or no gods, social justice is an ethical imperative. So maybe gods have got nothing to do with it.

    Social injustice (or the possibility of it) is what makes social justice an ethical imperative.

  25. says

    @davesmith

    First of all, thanks for responding, and for clarifying your argument.

    However, your argument is still faulty. The existence of arguments for social justice that start with theistic premises has nothing to do with the correctness (or incorrectness) of Greta’s argument that valuing social justice is an implication of believing there are no gods (i.e. atheism).

    You’ve repeated, multiple times, that you “don’t see what atheism has got to do with social justice.” But the content of Greta’s essay is precisely a description of “what atheism has got to do with social justice”. I presume you’ve read the essay, which entailed seeing it. So you must mean that you don’t find her description convincing. But you’ve not yet (unless I missed it) ever explained what parts of her description you don’t find convincing, or why. Doing that would be a good place to start.

    I look forward to your reply.

    ————
    Now, on a somewhat lighter note…

    @greta

    Squeeeee! Greta Christina responded to one of my comments! And liked it! Squeeeeeeeeeee! :-) grin grin grin

  26. Ariel says

    Some things I’m going to say are not new; they have been already noted by other commenters. I will try to gather them together.

    Greta gave two reasons for her claim that atheism demands social justice: a Machiavellian and a noble one. Let’s start with the Machiavellian reason.

    If we want to make a world that’s better for atheists, making a world with more atheists would certainly be an excellent step. Safety in numbers and all that. And if we want to make a world with more atheists, an excellent first step would be to work toward a world with greater levels of social justice. […] A world with greater social justice is far more likely to be a more atheistic world

    Let’s reconstruct the argumentation step by step. In what follows 1, 2 and 3 are assumptions.
    1. Atheists should strive for making the world a better place for atheists.
    2. The more atheists, the better for the atheists.
    Therefore, the atheists should strive toward making the world with more atheists
    3. Social justice is an excellent means for making the world with more atheists.
    Therefore, the atheists should strive for the world with social justice.

    The argument seems very problematic. 1 is vulnerable: it depends on making atheism your primary group identification (cf. rturpin #18 for details). But why should you? What’s the point?
    2 is also vulnerable: it’s simply not true in general . The more maoist atheists, the better for the atheists? Hmm … You could make 2 more plausible by modifying it to e.g. “the more tolerant atheists, the better for the atheists” (or some other modifier substituted for “tolerant”). But then the worry is that the expression “atheists” becomes redundant (e.g. it’s valid about tolerant people in general, not just atheists).

    And now the noble reason.

    If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and if you think this world is the only one we have . . . I bet you see where I’m going with this. If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife and if you think this world is the only one we have, then this life suddenly matters a whole lot more.

    As I understand, the argument here is that the atheists have a far better reason to fight for social justice than the believers. This reason is that for the believers “making this life happy and meaningful is not so important”, since they have the eternity to enjoy.

    It’s not clear to me whether this is to be understood as a theoretical or an empirical argument. In the second case, the problem would be that Greta is not giving any empirical data which could convince me that as a matter of fact the atheists care more about “making this life happy and meaningful” than the believers. In the first case, the argument in full generality is simply faulty (although it may be correct in special cases). A given religion could impose on you high moral standards – including an obligation to oppose social injustice – as a prerequisite of your future salvation and enjoyment of blissful eternity. This would give a believer a very compelling reason to fight for social justice. In general, I think that a theoretical approach leads nowhere; and for an empirical one, an altogether different argumentation would have to be presented.

    Sorry if all of the above sounds dry. I’m drinking beer today, but somehow it doesn’t help. Good night!

  27. Sean says

    I wholly agree with Greta. One thing that atheists including Dawkins have at least in the past been criticized for is not pragmatically disassembling theology or using it against the faithful (which we can) for moral reasons (usually it’s limited to quoting Leviticus). Many have begun to parallel Greta’s sentiment by equating political atheism with progressive or humanist values, and I am one of them. But as an academic I consider pre-World War social gospel theology and its counterparts in Deweyan pragmatism as the intellectual basis for this stance. “Atheists for Jesus” is an example of harking back to the historical understanding of moral philosophy instead of inherited commandments of faith or loyalty to tradition. Anyone who’s interested in seeing my to-be-published paper (in Sept.) charting this view can find it here.
    (www.illegaltender.me/uploads/1/1/0/7/11076394/illegal_tender.pdf)

  28. Nihilismus says

    In the column, Greta said:

    If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife and if you think this world is the only one we have, then this life suddenly matters a whole lot more.

    Ani Sharmin @ 21 said:

    If a person’s life in this life is the only one they have, then if we fail to make others’ lives better, there really is no other chance, and that sucks.

    I see many atheists make this argument, usually in response to a theist’s assertion that without god, one’s life has no value. But it seems to me that an atheist could approach it a different way: that life indeed has no objective value — only what we make of it. This is my approach, and I feel it flows more naturally than an altruistic “social justice” approach from atheism.

    Just because this is the only life we get does not objectively mean it matters more. There is no objective imperative to leave behind a better world. If working toward a better world makes your life better while you’re alive, go for it. Even if you know you won’t see the results in your lifetime, if it makes you happy working toward a better world, then go for it. If you just want to sit back and enjoy whatever simple pleasures you can in life until it ends, that’s fine too. The point is, no matter which approach you take, you are working for your own subjective happiness (or at least trying to avoid subjective unhappiness).

    When you are dead, it won’t matter to you what your accomplishments were. Nor will it matter to you whether you left behind suffering people. And when those people are dead themselves, they will no longer be suffering.

    So I don’t think atheism demands social justice or implies secular humanism. I am a secular humanist because I assign subjective value to it for my own life.

  29. Grayhame says

    I agree with Ariel here. Greta, your whole argument is just a series of non-sequiturs. Your assertion that an atheistic worldview implies secular humanistic values is just wishful thinking and doesn’t follow logically or from any evidence that I’m aware of. Do you consider atheists who don’t believe in social justice (like satanists) not true atheists? Faux atheists because they haven’t carried the implication of their non-belief through to your conclusions? Isn’t your position just a no true scotsman fallacy?

  30. says

    I don’t particularly see what the purpose of arguing over this is. Whether atheism implies a demand for social justice or not, social justice is still required by many other legitimate moral arguments.

    This looks like the beginnings of another fruitless semantics game where the entire basis of disagreement is what the meaning of “atheist” — its denotation, connotation, and practice — “truly” is. It’s a word; it’s arbitrary. It may mean anything or nothing, explicitly or by association, with or without greater purpose.

  31. Ted Tyler says

    Although I agree with everything in Chapter 1 of Greta’s “Why are You Atheists so Angry?….” (Just starting Chapter 2); however, I do disagree with Greta’s “being an atheist demands that we work for social justice”. Just as many believers are truly compassionate and care about the welfare of other humans – and this caring is totally unrelated to their belief in the big sky daddy, there are Atheists who would not give a rat’s ass for improving the welfare of anyone. I like the idea of an Atheist as a person who rejects the concept the immortality of the soul and all things supernatural. The focus should be on destroying religions, debunking supernatural beliefs, promoting Science, and in general – trying to make the planet a better place for future generations. To do that – being an Atheist helps a lot – but not all Atheists would be on board.

  32. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    One question I think the essay poses (all the more so in light of where it’s being published): does conceiving of atheism, especially atheism-in-society, this way leave little room left over for/little point in humanism, at least by that name?

    I would say no: they’re different aspects of the same thing, and intertwined. Sort of like “democracy” and “republic.”

  33. rapiddominance says

    Babies aren’t born with morals. Therefore, the default position of humanity is ‘immoral’.

    Babies are also born ‘atheist'; or so I’ve heard.

    What you want to spend your life pursuing is entirely up to you. Its what some within your number refer to as, “Creating your own purpose and meaning”.

    You’ll do what you choose to do and if you can shower up support–to the extent that you can implement your will–then I guess that makes you powerful.

    Then everything is gone forever and the knowledge of this fact serves as the backdrop to everything that you ever do.

    Do you ever wish that, at the end of life, there could at least be a question and answer session where you could evaluate and appraise what your life meant to the progress of the human race?

    Thank you for reading this.

  34. Nihilismus says

    rapiddominance @ 37 said:

    Do you ever wish that, at the end of life, there could at least be a question and answer session where you could evaluate and appraise what your life meant to the progress of the human race?

    Sometimes, and then I realize that even if there were such a session, I will be incapable of thinking about it after it is over. So I won’t be disappointed, nor will I be satisfied. I won’t “be” at all.

  35. Andrew Houghton says

    I’m thick, stupid, absolutely the last person anyone should take advice from. But one thing I have grasped from frequenting this site and the miriad others.

    Those that take great delight in taking apart someone else’s belief system, are neither altruistic in their motives, nor truistic in their denunciation of faith.

    Atheism leaves a void. If you can’t follow the teachings of others for fear of losing your freedom of free thought or choice, you can never come to an agreement on what is or not a good idea to benefit society as a whole. For one you will have those that say, you can’t do that as it’s a Buddhist philosophy, a tenet of christianity, or those that say it is fate and necessary to balance nature and the status quo.

    Atheists are a disparate bunch, I would liken them to sheep that refuse to join the flock for fear of being the one the wolf chooses to eat. They fail to grasp the concept of being a member of the flock reduces the chance of being singled out.

    Any religion is better than no religion when it comes to morality, motivation and systemic certainty.

    You know the consequences of certain actions, and you have an expectation of others Altruism that negates the need to reinvent one.

    My grandmother knitted a cardigan for my Grandfather for forty years, but every time she finished it, she had to unpick it and start again. He grew fatter then as he shrunk with age, he grew thinner, and whenever she finished it, it was either too big or too small. So it is with life. religion and mankind have evolved together, by denounceing religion, you are throwing away all that is good about something, because you don’t want to believe in the one certainty, whoever and whatever God is, the system could be made to work better without the bickering and constant reinvention of fashion.

  36. Greta Christina says

    Do you consider atheists who don’t believe in social justice (like satanists) not true atheists? Faux atheists because they haven’t carried the implication of their non-belief through to your conclusions? Isn’t your position just a no true scotsman fallacy?

    Grayhame @ #31 (and others who are making more or less this argument): No. I am not saying that. I am not saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice are not true atheists. I’m saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice should care about social justice. Logically, and morally.

  37. Grayhame says

    Greta, thanks for the response and I also want to thank you for writing the article. I’ve always felt that my atheism has informed my morality, although not exclusively since there are many other cultural and environmental factors at play. But after a few days of reflection and re-reading your article a few times, my initial reaction to your article has changed. I am in agreement with you and I do believe atheists should care about social justice. They don’t have to, and many don’t, but those atheists need to be challenged, because simply “winning” the atheist debate isn’t enough.

  38. ischemgeek says

    @Grayhame: To clarify what I think Greta’s overall argument was (though my roommates are being annoyingly distracting so I haven’t been able to digest the article fully) – and, actually, provide a walk-through of how I reasoned myself from right-wing libertarian fuckhead at 15 (some of my parents’ friends were working on me to believe that because women raise babies, giving us the vote results in female supremacy because women get to mold the babies’ political views and then vote on our own – though, thankfully, I wasn’t so far gone that I didn’t point out that if men were so worried, they could take a greater hand in raising the babies and they never really had an answer to that) to the social leftist/economic center-leftist I am now.

    To religious people, everything unsupported by evidence boils down to God’s will. Women are worth less than men because it’s God’s will, God made more than one “kind” of people, and so on, and so forth. Pretty much every nasty thing ever supported by religion was supported because they claimed it was God’s will (see: current debate about birth control and abortion in the States, segregation laws in 20th century, slavery, women’s rights, etc).

    So if you reject God, obviously you have to reject God’s will because something that doesn’t exist can’t have a will. Therefore you have to reject anything for which the only unfalsifiable argument for it is God’s will (because of course God’s Will is unfalsifiable by design – it’s an untestable hypothesis). This includes stuff like discrimination and embryonic personhood (because frankly a blastocyst is not the same as my neice, despite the Religious Right’s insistence on referring to both of them as babies).

    In many cases, there is in fact a dichotomy: If you don’t support discrimination, you must support equality (even if it’s just in a lackluster, “yeah it doesn’t seem wrong” sort of way). There is no middle zone between discrimination and equality. There are different degrees of discrimination and different levels of vehemence of support of equality, but there is a place where a solid line in the sand may be drawn, and that’s where you stop believing that women, gay people, transgender people, people with disabilities, people of different cultures, and people of visible minorities are less than a straight, gendercis, physically able white guy of your cultural background.

    Likewise, if you support that a woman is equal to a man, you support that she has the right to bodily autonomy (because men have it and women are equal to men so women have it, too), so you must support that she has the right to make medical decisions about her body (because if you don’t have the right to make your own medical decisions, you don’t have bodily autonomy), and therefore that she has the right to choose abortions (a medical decision). To be unsupportive of abortion is to be unsupportive of women’s bodily autonomy and therefore her personhood, because what are you saying by not being supportive of abortion besides, “I know better for your body than you,” a statement that by its very nature takes away her bodily autonomy?

    Likewise, if you believe there is no reason for races to not be equal, you believe that races are equal and therefore you must believe that discrimination and racial profiling are wrong. Again, there’s no middle ground on this.

    A lot of “secular” religious right types (I use the scare quotes because their arguments are the same old religious arguments dressed up in the clothes of secularism) and self-inconsistent athiests will make the same arguments and substitute Mother Nature for God. “Of course women have to have babies when they get pregnant, that’s not me that’s Mother Nature.” is something I heard out of the mouth of a raging misogynist athiest recently. These arguments fail for two reasons: 1) Mother Nature doesn’t exist as a force for supernatural will any more than God does so any argument predicated on Mother Nature falls apart right there for the same reason Argument from God’s Will falls apart, and 2) just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good. Or right. You wanna go back to nature? Fine, eschew all technology, and go live in the woods. Get back to me on how that’s working out when a cougar has made lunch of you.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

    @Greta: Sorry for hijacking your thread with a blog-post-length comment.

  39. Sheesh says

    There is no objective imperative to leave behind a better world.

    This is not a normal human point of view. Most humans are empathetic and have social connections (and it’s unlikely all humans will die simultaneously). Thus, there is an objective imperative to “leave behind” at the very least, a world no worse.

  40. Hal says

    Besides, with all this talk about being concerned with social justice, do you want to get the Vatican’s episcopal thought-police coming down on us as they are now investigating the nuns for their focus on social justice?

  41. MurOllavan says

    Comment #30 nailed it. There are no logical implications of atheism other than a rejection of deities and related nonsense. It certainly does remove a lot of baggage that prevents people from accurately accessing moral facts.

    Having a system of ethics and being able to identify right and wrong is based on reason. But why a given human does right or wrong things is pretty much the same reason as why that given human eats or sleeps – because they want to and are motivated by their own subjective happiness to do so.

    I think most of us are pretty immoral even by our own individual standards.

  42. Harold says

    Greta,

    I have been told by atheist that atheism is not a belief. That atheism is like non stamp collecting. Now you are making it seem like atheism is about beliefs. So who is 2wcorrect? Is atheism about just not believing in God or is it also about other beliefs like social justice? It is confusing to have atheist telling you contradictory things.

    Secondly, should atheist join together with other religious people to fight for social justice or should they remain separate and fight for social justice on their on? If atheists are joining with religious people to fight for social justice does that mean that accommodationism has a place in the atheist movement.

    -Harold

  43. says

    Ten or fifteen years ago I knew a lot of people who called themselves atheists who hadn’t really thought very much about why they were atheists and who didn’t think their atheism implied any kind of social awareness or responsibility. Dictionary atheists.

    One of the great success of the new atheist business and the brilliant conferences we keep having is that there are fewer of these buggers. To be an atheist in practice these days is to have an opinion on this kind of stuff and to have it *because* of our atheism.

  44. says

    “Is atheism about just not believing in God or is it also about other beliefs like social justice? It is confusing to have atheist telling you contradictory things.”

    Atheism is often based on reason. Atheism is one reasonable conclusion, helping others is another…. Is this really not obvious?

  45. Greta Christina says

    I have been told by atheist that atheism is not a belief. That atheism is like non stamp collecting. Now you are making it seem like atheism is about beliefs. So who is 2wcorrect? Is atheism about just not believing in God or is it also about other beliefs like social justice? It is confusing to have atheist telling you contradictory things.

    Harold @ #48: My thesis is this: Technically, all atheism means is the conclusion that there are no gods. But conclusions don’t exist in a vacuum. They imply other conclusions. And IMO, the conclusion of atheism implies the conclusion that we should care about social justice. Again: I am not saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice are not true atheists. I’m saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice should care about social justice.

    And atheists will say different things because atheists think different things. We don’t all agree about everything.

    Secondly, should atheist join together with other religious people to fight for social justice or should they remain separate and fight for social justice on their on? If atheists are joining with religious people to fight for social justice does that mean that accommodationism has a place in the atheist movement.

    I personally think we can do both: work in alliance with believers on issues we have in common, and work on our own. But I also don’t think that alliance building is the same as accomodationism. I think diplomacy and alliance work has a place in the atheist movement. I think accomodationism does not.

  46. abb3w says

    I’ve a basic though minor is-ought philosophical quibble. The argument seems to presume an “ought” goal, that increasing the number of atheists is preferable; or, alternately, an is-ought bridge basis, via the human moral impulse to justice (equitability/reciprocity). These seem commonplace, but not philosophical necessity. Use of some other bridge may lead to philosophically valid, such as the asinine approach of Ayn Rand. But ought-orderings over a set of choices require specifying which basis of ordering relation is involved.

    More practically, it seems a decent piece in terms of its emotional persuasion. As careful philosophical argument, it seems less so. Contrariwise, determinedly cold-blooded and meticulously analytical philosophy may tend to have less impact on human listeners than a more emotionally appealing piece.

    Nohow, I point out the quibble, as you seem to be the sort of atheist who places value on validity in reasoning.

  47. colinmackay says

    A limb it is Greta, a limb it is!
    Of course your right, “Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.” So I fail to understand why you would argue that the atheists conclusion, that an interventionist gud does not exist, cannot stand in a vacuum like a conclusion that ‘the sky is blue’ for example?
    Political numbers and the associated influence upon the definition of ‘justice’ may well make the world safer for atheists. Equally, political numbers currently serve to make the world less safe for atheists.
    True, it makes sense that atheists, from the Macavellian perspective, should join the fray, leverage their numbers and attempt to secure their future…but, it does not, by extension validate a semantic redefinition of atheism.
    For an evangelical, justice is served by reminding the sinner of their sins perhaps contributing to everlasting salvation…what could be more just than that?
    It would seem, regardless of belief and, based upon limited data, that atheists coalese around an autonomous social core compass http://www.thinkatheist.com/profiles/blogs/political-atheism. Universally it would seem.
    Isn’t it better, rather than the philosophical minefield of redefining atheism for political purposes, to understand the reasons this is the case?

  48. alexmartin says

    The absence of god or gods or the divine, the metaphysical, super- or supranatural DEMANDS…. something?

    What, of squirrels?

    Oh, you mean we, us, sentient beings, because we can “think” or form thought?

    Purposeless, undirected natural forces coalesce to admonish us to do something? Does my reification offend?

    Certainly, this writer means well. Keep up the good work. But a nonsensical non sequitur has been posited here.

  49. Greta Christina says

    …the philosophical minefield of redefining atheism for political purposes…

    colinmackay @ #55: I’ve now said this several times, and I’m getting a little cranky at having to say it again: I am not “redefining atheism.” I am not saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice are not real atheists. I’m saying that they should care about social justice.

  50. says

    The absence of god or gods or the divine, the metaphysical, super- or supranatural DEMANDS…. something?

    Yeah, the absence of a supernatural authoritarian father-figure demands we assume adult responsibility and think for ourselves. Just like the absence of my father demands I stop expecting him to help me if I get in trouble. And the absence of supernatural anything else demands we think rationally and not gum up our decisions with ignorance and obscurantism.

    Oh, you mean we, us, sentient beings, because we can “think” or form thought?

    Well, yeah, if we have the ability to reason and learn, then we’re kinda obligated to use our abilities to do the right thing for ourselves and each other.

    Purposeless, undirected natural forces coalesce to admonish us to do something?

    Well, yeah, circumstances demand an intelligent response.

  51. says

    So I fail to understand why you would argue that the atheists conclusion, that an interventionist gud does not exist, cannot stand in a vacuum like a conclusion that ‘the sky is blue’ for example?

    You sound like an AGW denialist insisting that science should never influence actual human decisions. (And no, the conclusion that “the sky is blue” does NOT stand in a vacuum; it’s part of our overall knowledge of the universe, which we use to make sensible decisions every day.)

  52. says

    I’m thick, stupid, absolutely the last person anyone should take advice from. But one thing I have grasped from frequenting this site and the miriad others.

    Okay, thanks for admitting up front that you have no credibility.

    Those that take great delight in taking apart someone else’s belief system, are neither altruistic in their motives, nor truistic in their denunciation of faith.

    Who are you talking about — atheists, or evangelical Christians who tell you your belief is wrong without even knowing what you believe?

    Atheism leaves a void.

    Speak for yourself. I din’t feel empty when I became an atheist. I did, however, feel pretty empty listening to born-again morons prattling on and on about Jesus this and Jesus that and how everything not-Jesus was going to burn in Hell very soon. (If I had any respect for that lot, I’d look them up and ask them how fulfilled they feel twelve years after they said the world was going to end.)

    Oh well, at least you’re honest about your stupidity.

  53. joey says

    When you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice…

    Hmmm, lack of belief in gods “implies” a demand for social justice? Nope, don’t see it.

    Anyway, Ariel in #27 pretty much eviscerates the entire article…and does it rather politely.

  54. colinmackay says

    #58 I know what you saying Greta. As it happens I don’t think atheists ‘should’, based on their atheism, do anything.

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