So tired of the “freedom” excuse

You’ve heard it before. “They hate us for our freedoms”. It’s a catch-all excuse, where we can simultaneously pat ourselves on the back for being so “free”, whatever that means, and condemn others for not being as “free”. I’ve developed a bad reaction to that: I want to know what you mean by “freedom”. Freedom to exploit people? Freedom to harass? Freedom to eat bacon? Freedom to pray to your gods? There are a lot of freedoms that are worth exercising, and many of those that I’m happy to say can be exercised in my country. There are also things people call freedoms that are truly awful, and those get exercised, too — like the freedom to take advantage of underprivileged people. There’s also a tendency for my fellow Americans to assume that America is the land of the free, and that everyone is equally and completely free, which is not true. They also tend to get angry if you point out the shortcomings of America, in particular that different people have different degrees of liberty.

So my usual reaction is to wonder how the ‘freedom’ cheerleaders define freedom, and whether they seriously think the ideal is to be free of all responsibilities and obligations. It’s usually used vacuously, as a dogma that is not to be questioned.

Which means that I had to facepalm at this complaint about new atheism. That’s fair; there are good reasons to criticize, and an important part of intellectual growth is to address good faith criticisms. I read this, for instance, and didn’t reject it out of hand.

Many new atheists, including Dennett or Dawkins, have been criticised for being too radical. The phrase “militant atheist” is often thrown about. The general worry is that they have little patience or compassion for religious people and the reasons why they choose religion.

I’ve heard that complaint frequently enough that we should pay attention to it and try to deal with it. I wasn’t particularly impressed that this critic then goes on to babble approvingly of Alain de Botton, one of the shallowest, least interesting, wanna-be replacements for Richard Dawkins ever.

But don’t worry! He’s got a suggestion for what the next generation of atheists need to do.

What should we do then? Is there a genuine, not merely superficial alternative to both religion and the “something bigger” new atheists talk about? I suggest that there is a very simple alternative: we should try to avoid forcing a straight-jacket on our ever-changing self – by religious doctrines or by one of these “projects” the new atheists talk about. We should accept and cherish our freedom to change.

For the new atheists, freedom plays a very limited role. You are free to choose what you devote your life to, but once you’ve done that, your life is on a fixed track – no more free decisions. The new atheists’ “projects”, just as religious doctrines, put unreasonably severe constraints on our inner freedom.

The opposite of religion is not the slavish following of “something bigger” as the new atheists suggest. The opposite of religion is freedom.

Baffling. What “projects”? Is this a thing among the new atheists? (I think I’d know.) What “straight jacket” [sic]? Where is this assertion that new atheists aren’t allowed to change and grow, that they’re on a fixed track? This is news to me.

And what is his alternative? Fucking “freedom”. What does that mean? It’s stunning that this platitude comes from a professor of philosophy. Define your terms. What do you mean by the “opposite of religion is freedom”? Religion is slavery? All a slave must do is accept atheism and they are free?

We need good criticisms because we do need to improve our image and our approach. This is not a useful argument. We don’t need hackneyed bromides. Explain what “freedom” means in a social movement.


  1. rietpluim says

    This is indeed language that I would expect from a theologian, not from a philosopher.

  2. raven says

    …that they have little patience or compassion for religious people and the reasons why they choose religion.

    1. This is wrong.
    The vast majority of people didn’t choose religion.
    They were born into a religion, brainwashed in it from earliest childhood, and often face serious sanctions and damage if they try to leave it.
    Up to and including death in some religions in some countries. Even in the USA, leaving abusive cults like Mormonism and the JW’s, you often leave all your friends and family behind.

    2. Speaking for myself and a lot of New Atheists, a common attitude is, “We don’t care what people believe.” It’s a free country, after all.
    We do care a lot when people try to impose their religion on us.
    Which many of them, notably the fundies do all the time.

    There is a reason why the Freedom From Religion Foundation isn’t called the
    Patience And Compassion For The Religious People Foundation.

  3. cartomancer says

    Roman political discourse was similarly shot through with invocations of freedom – “libertas” in the Latin idiom. Libertas was one of the key benefits afforded to Roman citizens by their republic and their laws.

    Of course, to a Roman libertas was very easily defined. It was freedom from slavery and all that entailed – lack of bodily autonomy, freedom from arbitrary corporal punishment. When Cicero was prosecuting Verres it was these freedoms that he excoriated Verres for infringing – crucifying his rival Publius Gavius despite the latter’s protests that he was a citizen.

    It tends to be slave-owning societies that fetishise the condition of freedom.

  4. says

    At this point I try to define freedom entirely as a negative–that is, it’s never freedom to do something but freedom from something else. Freedom from slavery, freedom from pollution, freedom from a lack of bacon, freedom from harassment, freedom from not being allowed to harass, freedom from taxes, freedom from poverty, freedom from health insurance, freedom from socialism, freedom from capitalism, freedom from shackles, freedom from projects(???), or just freedom from restrictions. If someone says they have a freedom to do something, I rethink it as what they have a freedom from. Because free means nothing.

  5. Curious Digressions says

    Does anyone have a link or information about the “something bigger” to which new atheist adhere? I’m not aware of this thing, and as an atheist, if it’s a thing, I should probably be aware of it. I’m not a fan of Dawkins, so that may account for my ignorance.

    Why would making a discrete choice about “what to devote your life to” preclude changing your mind in the face of new evidence? I’m suspicious of this conclusion.

    When it comes up in conversation, usually about US foreign policy with conservative acquaintances, “They hate us for our freedom” usually means “I don’t want to think critically or hear criticisms about my position”.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … or by one of these “projects” the new atheists talk about.

    Methinks Bence Nanay may be projecting here. (Ba da dump!)

  7. says

    @4 raven

    Speaking for myself and a lot of New Atheists, a common attitude is, “We don’t care what people believe.” It’s a free country, after all.
    We do care a lot when people try to impose their religion on us.

    So then you do actually care what they believe. Otherwise, you would have to be suggesting that they “try to impose their religion on us” without belief. I don’t see how that would work. Why would they do something like that without belief? I would figure they would need to believe in some sort of goal or purpose. How do you suggest this works without belief???

  8. says

    The “something bigger” comes from a single line in an interview with Daniel Dennett. This is the level of rigor that the author accepts. One line in an interview. A closing quip. And we’re supposed to take this seriously.

  9. davidnangle says

    Too much ardent praise for freedom starts to sound like the screams of barbarians to me. It starts to seem like every law, every regulation, every societal norm that isn’t archaic is resented. Government and society and civilization are the enemy to some people. And those people are currently in power.

    In the real-life Sid Meyer’s Civilization, most of the American cities are now red.

  10. sc_e7cb37166b0ed7e2545034076d87e16c says

    I can’t help but hear it as a code word signaling to right-of-center atheists of the Libertarian persuasion. Ayn Rand was an atheist, after all, it’s just her biggest fans in contemporary politics, Paul Ryan, et. al. quietly gloss over that inconvenient fact.

    But screw Libertarians; I get on much better with lefty/liberal Christians as a progressive atheist humanist.

    I keep going back to the Star Trek:TOS episode Omega Glory….where the Enterprise crew finds an alternative history version of Earth, where the Cold War resulted in nuclear devastation and a post-apocalyptic struggle between “Yangs” (Yankees) and “Cones” (Communists)….and the Yang chieftain angrily admonishes Kirk not to use the word “Freedom” because “Freedom Yang Worship word, you must not speak it!”…it’s a corny episode, but I found myself mumbling “Freedom Yang word!” after the re-election of GWB in 2004….

  11. A Masked Avenger says

    Time for a plug: Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free” talks about Germans during WWII, most of whom considered themselves just as “free”in the Third Reich as they were in the Weimar republic.

    If you happen to want only things that are permitted, you can feel “free” in the most totalitarian of regimes.

    It’s not coincidental that we see rhetoric of “freedom” coupled with ruthless suppression of deviation. In their ideal world the minorities know their place, non cis-hets are deeply closeted or better yet eliminated, unapproved religions are suppressed, atheists tip their hats to Christians and Jews wish each other “Merry Christmas.” Once this order is properly established, boom! Everyone is free!

  12. ridleykemp says

    Only related via a tangent, but that whole “they hate us for our freedom!” nonsense drives me up the wall. It’s trotted out to dehumanize anyone the speaker wishes to paint as an enemy. In the history of these United States, I can only think of one time when a conflict was waged against America over a wish to deny freedom and that war ended at Appomattox over 150 years ago.

  13. woozy says

    @9 Leo Buzalsky

    Otherwise, you would have to be suggesting that they “try to impose their religion on us” without belief.

    What on earth are you using for logic? Your reasoning is beyond incoherent.

    So if I came up to you and said “Hey, I need you to work in my basement for the next three years on my research project; come on let’s go” and you said “Um, no thanks”. And I said “But you don’t know what my project is” and you said “I don’t care what you project is. I don’t want to you knocking on my door demanding I give up the next three years of my life for it.” So I then say. “Then you do care what the project is! Otherwise you are suggesting I don’t have a project at all.”

    I wouldn’t know how to counter that because I honestly can not see how anyone could conceive of that being a coherent argument.

  14. unclefrogy says

    I suspect that most of the people who I have heard that argument from are just parroting an argument they have heard from someone else. They are not thinking at all. The argument is a made up deflection by those who probably know what the real reasons are and have some reason to want to hide their role in them.
    Those who I hear making that argument are fearful, angry and ignorant they want an easy simple answer. Those who made it up are calculating and manipulative, their only interest is to maintain their own personal power, influence and wealth.
    nothing else holds their interest. no nation, no god, no politics
    uncle frogy

  15. mykroft says

    This looks like a restatement of the dictionary atheist argument. They don’t like the idea that being an atheist implies one should then think about the nature of our limited lifespans and be motivated to leave the world a better place. Much easier to be a self-centered asshole.

  16. davidrichardson says

    I’m always a bit bemused when I read about this type of debate among atheists in the US. It strikes me that what you’re really arguing about is social-democracy. I live in Sweden, which is a country formed and shaped by 44 years of continuous social-democratic government. It used to be just as conservative as the US is today … but then the Social-Democrats won office in 1932. Nowadays the Swedish church is slowly dying (I sing in a church choir, which is a bit unusual for an atheist, but I can see the average age of the congregation every time we sing at a holy communion). Decades of experience of a relatively equal society, coupled with decades of proper state education are what’s caused this, in my opinion. Social justice hasn’t been achieved (Sweden’s still got a firmly capitalist economy), but most of the issues US SJWs are still fighting for were settled decades ago in Sweden. As for Ayn Rand, no-one’s heard of her … but if they did, they’d immediately see what weird ideas she was propagating. Atheism is a topic that just doesn’t come up nowadays – it’s just so obvious to the vast majority of the population.

  17. voyager says

    My father always taught me that debt limits your freedoms. I think that most Americans feel that they are free to do or buy what they want without seeing the other half of the equation. Nothing is ever really free, nor should it be. Rights come with responsibilities.

  18. handsomemrtoad says

    “Free-domm? That is a worship-word! You will not say it!” –STAR TREK, episode “The Omega Glory”.

  19. Raucous Indignation says

    Nobody chooses religion that first time around. They inherit it from their parents and family.

  20. Doubting Thomas says

    Freedom is a convenient myth. Everyone wants it. No one wants to define it. The one quote, (don’t who said it) that comes to mind is “Your freedom (or right) to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”

  21. leerudolph says

    ridley kemp @15: “that war ended at Appomattox over 150 years ago.”

    Oh, if only.

  22. rietpluim says

    You know what the backlash will be, don’t you?