The Atheists For Liberty and Enlightenment Values

PZ has a new post up about a group Atheists for Liberty which proudly announces its embrace of Enlightenment values. Turns out it is a creature of Peter Boghossian, someone whose work I’ve criticized harshly in the past right here on this blog and whose ethics, clearly, are lacking.

Let’s be clear. “Enlightenment values” suck. Sure, Enlightenment philosophers actually move epistemology forward quite a bit. They also provided hugely important arguments for more widespread literacy and education on diverse topics. They developed a contractarianism sufficiently complete to found a country from Hobbes’ proto-contractarianism where “consent of the governed” had more Machiavellian meanings almost entirely limiting it to the practical advice to rulers not to encourage the masses to take up torches and pitchforks because those torches and pitchforks, in addition to being official notice of revocation of consent, were also a bit dangerous to the ruling class.

But the values of the Enlightenment aren’t limited to the promotion of epistemology (and the sub-field of empiricism), education, and the justice of determining in advance a written description of the powers of government to which it could then be limited. Nor are the values of the Enlightenment limited to those of specific philosophers. But let’s suppose that the Atheists for Liberty are particularly ignorant of the broader, Enlightenment-era culture. Let’s (for a moment) consider only the big name philosophers themselves, with a focus on the patron saint of “classical liberals” in the modern USA: John Locke. The values of enlightenment philosophers, including, yes, super-freedom-dude Locke, included tolerance for the horrors of their age.

Now, this isn’t exactly a surprise. Consider what you know of the Anthropic Principle. The AP states, in general terms, that it’s no surprise that the earth manifests geological, climatic, and ecosystem properties conducive to human life (or that the universe, more generally, manifests properties conducive to the emergence of human-conducive planets such as earth), because if the earth or its universe were hostile to human life, then human life would not exist. Likewise, remember that 1650-1800 was not the internet age. This was not a time when anyone could write anything and get it before the eyeballs of a million people if it managed to be sufficiently entertaining, informative, humorous, well-crafted, or cat-filled. In order for writings to become influential, they had to be sufficiently tolerable to the ruling class, else they would not have been allowed to exist much less to spread and be taught at influential schools to influential people who could then exercise enough power to name an entire age of European history. So this is not to say that Locke or other enlightenment philosophers were no better than the regressives of their age, but it is to say that they were a product of their age. Victor Hugo aside, history does not spend its efforts recording and celebrating the thoughts of a Jean Valjean. We should expect to find Locke endorsing the common practices of the governments of his age, and indeed that is what we find.

So what were the limits of Locke’s conception of freedom, and why are they so necessary to elaborate here? Well, PZ has already discussed “Enlightenment values” in his post on Atheists for Freedom. There he asks and answers:

They never get around to saying what “Enlightenment values” are, but it sounds good. I expect that what they really liked about the Enlightenment was the eurocentrism, the racism, the slavery, and the colonialism. Bring back the 18th century!

Fair enough criticism, one might suppose. If they’re going to celebrate “enlightenment values” without ever defining them, it’s certainly fair to assume that those values include the dominant values of their age – exploration and colonialism, being absolutely central to that age, and slave-based mercantilism being central to the manifestation of the age in the North American colonies of Great Britain, which, even if not universally shared amongst other European powers, ought to be considered highly relevant to how the English-speaking world understands the values of the Enlightenment.

But is that really fair? I mean, Locke himself said that Slavery was intolerable for an English man. Yet he also endorsed enslaving persons captured in “just war” and further endorsed the chattel slavery of Blacks born in the North American colonies. Even assuming that kidnapping raids constitute “just war”, the children of such slaves were not war captives. Still, Locke would not condemn this, leading one contemporary, Samuel Johnson, to remark of Locke and his followers, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

Locke also insisted upon the protection of property rights. Yet he extensively theorized that settled agriculture provided an initial title to land for the farmer that justified displacing the hunter-gatherer. This was no casual aside; it was a major project of his philosophy. He created a theory of property which indeed protected his own property, but read in its context is primarily an extended justification of dispossession, exile, and war targeting the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Colonialism and its thefts and abuses weren’t things Locke ordered, but neither were they incidental to his writing. Colonialism was a source of inspiration to Locke, who in turn advocated and inspired colonialism. Whatever ideals regarding freedom and protection of property rights he might have held, they did not extend to peoples other than those he compassed within his comfortable social sphere.

And this brings us to the most damning, the most revolting passage of Locke’s writings when set against the founding of this Atheists for Liberty group. The portion where he asserts that there is no freedom for religious minorities, and especially not for atheists, beyond that required for different protestant denominations to worship freely in a protestant country. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke writes:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

It could not be more clear. The values of the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Locke, include revoking all protections of law for atheists. Muslims as well, of course, but this is not so directly hypocritical for a group calling itself Atheists for Liberty. Tolerance is a privilege earned by being sufficiently Christian, which in other passages he clarifies must also mean non-Catholic.

Ultimately, then, Locke argues for a freedom only large enough to justify allowing him to practice a religion different from England’s kings without being seen as a threat, as disloyal. “Do not execute or imprison me,” Locke appears to say, “for I understand the most important values of my government and I share them. My religious deviations, then, do not go so far as to create danger for the regime. Instead, the Crown should focus its ire and discipline upon other religious deviants, one whose values do not include those I insist are fundamental. For these, there should be no protection.”

The values of Atheists for Liberty, then, include the value that atheists should have no liberty. It is a stunning, nauseating confirmation that “classical liberals” and other arrogantly ignorant participants in Atheists for Liberty and other groups, formal or informal, that share its creed are interested in Enlightenment values in exactly the same way that 21st century heterosexist are interested in the book of Exodus. In order to embrace Enlightenment values, they must dispense with that most central of all those values: education. They will not, must not educate themselves about the names and nature of the values of Locke and his fellow travelers, for they instinctively know that they will not like what they see.

And, yes, I wish every time I see an atheist insisting that they embrace Enlightenment values that they would be forced to read this passage and confront its meaning. Because there’s also an ironic truth in the claims of Atheists for Liberty and their fellows. It’s one that I’m sure they would not like to see articulated, but it is there nonetheless.

The values of the Enlightenment thinkers, including but not limited to Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, consistently claimed a need for sufficient freedom for those men to do and write what they felt moved to do and write while consistently tolerating direct assaults on the freedoms of others. Atheists for Freedom and their heroes both endorse the common horrors of their respective ages, nibbling away at the shadows of injustice only when it gets so close to themselves that they fear those horrors might be able to use that cover to assault them. “Freedom just big enough for me” is the catchy refrain inked over 300 years ago that Atheists for Freedom sing in their showers today.

So it happens that there is one Enlightenment value they have learned well.


  1. DanDare says

    Excellent analysis.
    It’s interesting that the Enlightenment is seen only for a filtered set of its elements. Its value to the modern world is probably that filteted set, from which things have developed.
    These folk then take the reverence for that founding impact and make it an uncritical reverence for much that is dreadful.

  2. says

    Do you think they even thought about this at all? I’m certain that their entire knowledge of enlightenment thought comes from the Cliff’s Notes for “Candide” and skimming Wikiquote. At the bottom of all their quote slinging, schoolyard lawyering (otherwise known as “malicious and situational hyperliteralism”) and faux nobility is a petty, would-be tyrant looking to impose their will on others without any restraint.

  3. John Morales says

    Presumably they’re still atheists.

    Which means they don’t have the luxury of protesting that “God says so” to criticism, they (by their own values) have to sustain their claims about whatever via argumentation.

    Which means that, whenever they’re wrong on matters of fact, they can easily be refuted.

    So there’s that.

  4. polishsalami says

    What I find strange is the belief among Quillette types that the values of the merchant class of eighteenth-century English Protestants are the default for humanity, with anything else an aberration.

    I would be wary of anyone describing themselves as a “classical liberal.” Alex Jones’ English adjutant, Paul Joseph Watson, describes himself this way.

  5. cafebabe says

    Well, I agree with both PZ and CD on the proximate matter of the Atheists for Liberty.
    However, it is a mistake to think that the “Enlightenment” started and finished in the 18th century. I think a more nuanced attitude to the enlightenment is set out by A.C.Grayling in his “Toward the Light”, published way back in 2007. He makes the valid point that many of the enlightenment values that we (or at least I) count as part of the deal, like the universal franchise, were not achieved until the 20th century. So if we want to talk about enlightenment values we have to take the whole process on board, including all those changes that are yet to be achieved.
    And yes, what Locke said, but remember we also had Diderot who is believed to have said “There will not be peace on earth until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

  6. says

    He makes the valid point that many of the enlightenment values that we (or at least I) count as part of the deal, like the universal franchise, were not achieved until the 20th century.

    I would rather call those “Enlightenment ideas” to the extent that they are enlightenment ideas at all (many, like the universal franchise, date back to earlier times and even non-European cultures). I don’t think it’s reasonable to call them “Enlightenment values” when the people of the Enlightenment never put them into practice and the leaders of the Enlightenment – like Locke – were busy rejecting them.

    Wollstonecraft, too, was an Enlightenment thinker, but granting women the franchise was simply not an Enlightenment value – at least to my mind.

    In other words, I understand the argument you’re making, but I don’t think it fits with how I see things.

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I still identify strongly with John Stuart Mill, but I recognize that philosophy has advanced much since then, and I’m thankful for it, such as the work of John Rawls.

    Tangent: So many philosophers in this discussion with the first name “John”.

    Anyway, because of this perception by many, and because seemingly only bad people nowadays identify themselves with these terms, I changed my name, because I want to be an effective communicator. Previously EnlightenmentLiberal. (In times when I want to be provocative, I should go by the name CardCarryingRadicalMarxist.)

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