June 19, 2006

On the Promotion of Atheism: A Reply to the Atheist Ethicist

Alonzo has a thought-provoking post on promoting atheism at the Atheist Ethicist. In this post, I'd like to share my reactions.

Calls for increased organization among atheists reflect two primary concerns, both of which are warranted in my opinion. First, such calls reflect recognition that increased political power requires organization. Nonbelievers are clearly marginalized in contemporary American politics, and many of us would like our voices to be heard. Second, many atheists long for a greater sense of community among nonbelievers. Being an atheist can be lonely, especially when one finds oneself in a sea of believers. As social beings, we seek increased connection with others with whom we may share common perspectives.

The evangelizing of atheism makes sense only if one buys the argument of Sam Harris and others which says that religious belief is both irrational and dangerous. If one rejects this claim and is convinced that there is nothing wrong with theistic belief per se, then there is little reason to support such efforts. Personally, I do accept this claim, as I am convinced that the world would be a better place without theistic belief. For those of us who accept the claim that theism is irrational, the promotion of atheism follows naturally.

Of course, what is typically promoted here is not atheism but secular humanism. Theism is a belief about the nature of the universe; atheism is the absence of (or rejection of) theistic belief. The claim I described above (i.e., that theistic belief is harmful) is primarily a belief about human affairs rooted in secular humanism. It is certainly not synonymous with atheism. This is where we find ourselves in agreement because secular humanism deals with ethics.

Alonzo says that he does not care whether a person believes that "God exists." I do. I care because this belief is irrational. Stripped from any associated ethical baggage, the statement is irrational on its face because the Christian cannot provide a logically consistent definition of god. However, I agree that the primary issue of concern to most of us are the ethical implications of action based on theistic belief.

Can we work effectively with theists without always feeling the need to challenge theism? Yes. Should we attempt to do so? Absolutely. However, discussion and debate over the existence of supernatural entities must also occur, although not necessarily in the same context or at the same time.

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