For the last several years, the most common strain of complaint I see in my mailbox is the “atheism only means you don’t believe in gods” comment. Sometimes they try to say it politely, more often it’s accompanied by howls and threats and fuck-shit-cock profanity. It’s been like this for a long, long time — I recall hanging out on alt.atheism on usenet and getting exasperated because the whole forum was about dogma, and that dogma was that you got to shut down any discussion about complex social issues that you didn’t like by declaring atheism to be totally values neutral (the other thing they talked about that drove me mad was the distinction between “strong” and “weak” atheism, and how significant the difference between “I don’t believe gods exist” and “I believe gods don’t exist” was. Jesus. Hair-splitting atheologians.)
Anyway, the main thing people hate me for now is my declaration that atheism has implications and consequences beyond being an abstract philosophical statement that lets you skip church on Sundays, and that further, among those implications is a requirement for those good ol’ Enlightenment values of equality and justice (and that we do more than pay lip service to them, unlike many of those 17th century writers who argued likewise). It’s reassuring that a lot of commenters here at FtB are sympathetic to those ideas, but really, sometimes it’s a little depressing to discover how many other atheists elsewhere turn purple and start screaming if you dare to imply that women, for instance, are fully autonomous, thinking individuals, and that the Biblical tradition of treating them as secondary servants to The Man is invalid.
So it’s kind of a relief to see that James Croft agrees with me, even if he is at that blah pudding of religious pandering, Patheos.
And I think that responding to a post about the relationship between social justice and Humanism with forceful assertions about the values-free nature of atheism is bullshit.
Read the whole thing over there.
It is telling, whenever the relationship between atheism, the atheist movement, and social justice arises, that some of the same commentators who object so strenuously to the discussion of women’s equality, racial justice, or LGBTQ issues under the banner of the atheist movement nonetheless support efforts to to promote secularism, science education, and atheist visibility and acceptance under that banner. Yet if the reason discussions of racial injustice are to be out of bounds is because “atheism entails no values commitments”, then consistency requires this standard be applied equally to these other causes.
Simply being an atheist does not perforce commit you to caring about racial injustice, it is true. But nor does it follow from strict philosophical atheism that one must care about science education, secularism, or even the advancement of atheist acceptance in society. Just as it is perfectly philosophically consistent to be an atheist and to be an out-and-out racist, it is perfectly philosophically consistent (though unusual) to be an atheist who thinks secularism is unimportant, or even believes atheists should be socially ostracized. Simple atheism requires no moral commitments at all – including the ones these commentators are quite happy to fight for under the banner of organized atheism.
So why the double standard? It seems to be purely self-serving. These individuals wish to limit the purview of organized atheism to only the issues they personally feel comfortable about, and which they personally wish to support. They like science education and secularism, so support for those issues can be marshaled under the atheist banner. They don’t like being called on to fight for racial equality, so that’s an illegitimate expansion of the atheist cause. The pseudo-philosophical argumentation – “atheism requires no value positions! We must keep atheism pure (except for those issues I like)” – becomes a hypocritical cover for their own discomfort with some social causes.
Damn. Sounds like something I’d write if I suddenly became a little more polite.
Croft really ought to be at FtB, rather than Patheos. But then, Patheos sucks up to the religious much more, and so has a lot more cash to pay their writers than we do.