I explain my concept of atheism. A lot of people are going to hate it.
Transcript below the fold.
Several weeks ago, I got a question here in the comments, and I’m finally getting around to addressing it. It’s this one:
Have you figured out what atheism is yet?”
I didn’t feel any particular rush to answer that since I recognized the name: Gerry Wallington has a history of trolling, for example…
Charming, eh? Dawkins Fanboi + misogynist + fatphobic. Don’t try to harass him, even though he included his twitter handle — he was suspended long ago. He’s also blocked on Pharyngula, and has been blocked on this youtube channel.
So enough about him! What’s the answer to his question?
Yes, I have figured out what atheism is about for me. Actually, I figured out my personal understanding of atheism decades ago, and yes, I am a militant atheist. These are MY views, though, not necessarily representative of all atheists, although I do feel free to judge you negatively if you disagree substantially with me, just as you can feel free to hate me reciprocally. I do know that many do, and aren’t shy about telling me.
So let’s start with Diderot, the French encyclopedist from the 18th century. I think we’d get along famously if he weren’t dead and I spoke French. He’s probably best known for this aphorism:
Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
I agree with the sentiment, but not with the metaphorical violence. Unfortunately, he didn’t say it. It’s one of those fake quotes, a paraphrase by a contemporary. He did express a similar sentiment in a poem, though. I’m not even going to try to say the title, having no French.
If mankind dared but to listen to the voice of its heart, changing suddenly the language,
It would say to us, as it would to the animals of the woods:
Nature created neither servant nor master;
I seek neither to rule nor to serve.
And its hands would weave the entrails of the priest,
For the lack of a cord with which to strangle kings.”
That’s lovely. I know, everyone will focus on the last two lines, but I think the penultimate pair of lines is just as important.
“Nature created neither servant nor master;
I seek neither to rule nor to serve.”
No gods, no masters. I’ve heard that somewhere before. It’s a call to break down the hierarchies that dominate us.
I can’t leave Diderot without mentioning another quote I favor. It’s from his book, Philosophical Thoughts.
“We are constantly railing against the passions; we ascribe to them all of man’s afflictions, and we forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures … But what provokes me is that only their adverse side is considered … and yet only passions, and great passions, can raise the soul to great things. Without them there is no sublimity, either in morals or in creativity. Art returns to infancy, and virtue becomes small-minded.”
Well, that’s one the Logic Bros will hate. Feelings and emotions are important, but I know…they aren’t objective. Somehow, though, we evolved an atheism that denied our humanity in the name of some rigid science-worship. I know, here I am, a biologist telling you that science isn’t the be-all and end-all of human experience, and that even science is soaking in the subjective.
So that’s Diderot. How does that reflect my personal views? It’s pretty close.
Like Diderot, I’m an anti-clericist. I think that’s an important distinction — not so much anti-theist as anti-priesthood.
Like Diderot, I oppose these artificial hierarchies that limit human potential and cram us into little boxes that tell us what we are supposed to do.
Like Diderot, I think there is more to the fully human experience than math and science and a pretense of objectivity. Art and poetry and music and culture and society are also essential ingredients in the recipe for a more humane atheism.
So yeah, I figured out what atheism is already. I’m not even original in my conception of it, since others were developing it over 300 years ago. So much for the “NEW” in “New Atheism”.
I can interpret what my interlocutor was trying to say, though, because it’s a common refrain: atheism means only a disbelief in gods. Nothing else. How dare you try to suggest that there are implications to the non-existence of deities, you are not allowed to think beyond the premise. The assertion of atheism is sufficient, and no further extrapolation is permitted.
This is not a very scientific way of thinking. A hypothesis does not stand alone; it must be integrated with other existing facts and it must be tested. Only as part of a whole, with a context and predictions and as a path to further questions and hypotheses. What these other atheists are insisting is that atheism must be an unquestioned dogma with the only implications allowed being ones that preserve the status quo.
We’ve all seen this trope caricatured before. Yet it never seems to sink into its proponents.
It’s true. Atheists participate in society. That should mean that we ought to have social goals to accomplish. Atheists are part of society, and unless you are planning to retreat to a hermitage and never interact with the world, we have social obligations.
So let us consider “society”.
This is a simplistic cartoon of a western medieval notion of society. I’m not trying to show all the details, and reality was far messier — for instance, many historians will portray the church as a parallel axis of power, working with and sometimes against secular rule. Take it with a grain of salt, treat it as a crude approximation.
At the top of the pyramid of power are the rulers, the kings and queens. They are supported by claims of divine favor, reinforced by the priesthood, and also by a crude hereditarian fallacy about bloodlines and authority justified by lineage.
Below them, and possibly in parallel or even the power behind the throne, are the priests who justify their existence by invoking the will of God, which, conveniently enough, they are in charge of dispensing to the citizenry.
Then we have the aristocracy, a class where individuals accumulate wealth in the form of inherited lands and property and privileges. Again, this is justified by some imaginary virtue of heredity.
Then below that we have the great mass, which I’m not going to try to classify to any significant degree. We’ve got our shopkeepers and middle managers and people who directly serve the wealthy aristocracy, and we’ve got the laborers and craftsmen, and then we have an underclass of people living hand to mouth, often oppressed, who are often exploited to serve the needs of the aristocracy.
It’s never this simple, and the boundaries are never this sharp, but let’s roll with it. Several concurrent processes have occurred in the modern era to restructure the pyramid.
We’ve had the successes of science to undermine belief in god. Materialism seems to work so much better, you know? So atheists and agnostics and even some religious freethinkers managed to mostly kill god.
Then we started to get rid of kings and queens. Here in the USA, we made it explicit and threw them out with a revolution, although other countries seem to have succeeded without the bloodshed, creating constitutional monarchies, or reducing their monarchies to an entirely ceremonial role, or just squeezing them out altogether with legal forms.
And then the priesthood was diminished in power. We didn’t quite carry out Diderot’s suggestion, but instead set them to the side of the main axis of power (which also could be argued was a medieval idea, too), essentially leaving them alone but simply leaving out of the chain of commands. Again, the US was explicit in our Constitution, but other countries effectively did the same thing by, for instance, setting up an official state religion. The US solution was not very satisfactory, since at the same time religions were granted incredible privileges, like freedom from taxation and policies that look the other way at outrageous violations of common decency.
So here’s where we stand now. No gods, no kings, the priests are still around and some are constantly pestering everyone to reinstate a theocracy, to varying degrees of effectiveness. We’re still left with an aristocracy of wealth. Here in the US, that’s also implicit in the Constitution — it was originally intended that America be ruled by propertied white men. Our reverence for a kind of pseudo-capitalism has meant that the fortunate few with vast amounts of inherited wealth can make that wealth vaster and vaster. Why, hello, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Bill Gates, you parasitic scum.
The American revolution, and the evolution of democratic societies in other countries, will not be complete until we clean this all up. It ought to be part of the atheist agenda to participate in this transformation — but keep in mind, there are also many theists who will agree with my priorities. That we can find common cause with believers does not mean this isn’t an atheist project, too.
So I’m going to specify four very broad atheist objectives — also very difficult objectives, I’m not pretending it’ll be easy. We could also lose.
First, abolish the privileges of religion. No gory stranglings required: just strip religions of things like tax exemptions or the absence of scrutiny of their so-called charitable works. Almost every atheist can get behind this one: we have organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists who are happy to martial legal opposition to the erosion of secularism. And don’t forget Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which is NOT an atheist organization. This one is easy to convince atheists of its importance — I bet even Mr Wallington is all for it.
Part of the program of reducing the harm of religion would also involve greater support for good, secular education.
The second one is obvious, our kneejerk capitalist/libertarian colleagues will gasp in horror. We need to eliminate the privileges of excessive wealth. Billionaires, and the unregulated capitalism that produces them, must be taxed out of existence. If we must, I guess we could demand that they produce lengths of intestine that we can use on the repulsive preachers of the prosperity gospel. Ha ha, just joking. Tax ’em all.
Thirdly, it ought to go without saying that the humanist mission ought to be to uplift the poor and oppressed. Atheists ought to support a universal basic income. We ought to be lining up to agree that Black Lives Matter. Equality for women. Trans Rights. Removing the knees of the jackbooted thugs we call police from the backs of the people. End the drug war. Universal health care. I told you none of this would be easy, but it’s all part of the idea that the nonexistence of gods leaves us all obligated to rely on our fellow human beings and build communities that provide a moral framework for our lives.
Fourthly, we must protect and sustain the environment. It’d be a shame if something happened to the planet and all of us atheists ended up dead — that would be an effective way to prevent thos objectives from being accomplished. Right now it seems our society is mainly geared to protect and sustain the extraordinarly rich. We need to shift our priorities.
You can ask me what atheism is, and this is my answer. What atheists should do is not unique to atheists, but a shared goal derived from our common humanity. Shoulders to the wheel, everyone, we must get these things done.
At the last, let me leave you with a few words of wisdom from the brilliant Peter Kropotkin. One of the accusations often leveled at atheists is that we lack a basis for morality…but here’s a challenge to that idea.
Men passionately desire to live after death, but they often pass away without noticing the fact that the memory of a really good person always lives. It is impressed upon the next generation, and is transmitted again to the children. Is that not an immortality worth striving for?
― Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist
In the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.
― Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
Pay attention to Peter.