April 22, 2014

Should Atheists Seek to Be More Like the Religious?

A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheis...
A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheists in Rockville's Central Park in December 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Should atheists seek to be more like religious believers? Why, exactly would we want to do that? I don't think we necessarily should want to do that, but the assumption that we should seems to be everywhere these days. Perhaps it is even correct in some limited ways, but it bothers me that it is not being questioned. We seem to be expected to take it for granted, and I'm not sure we should.

I have not seen many people overtly claiming that atheists should work to be more like religious believers. Such a claim would bring a wave of criticism and many questions. Instead, the idea that we should be more like religious believers operates as an implicit assumption made by some humanists who want to mold atheism into something a bit different than what it is.

Let me be clear in saying that I do not necessarily disagree with some of the molding these humanists want to do. At the same time, I believe that it is important to recognize some of the assumptions being made and to question their validity. They may turn out to be correct, but they should not be unquestioned.

For an example of what I am talking about, I'll refer you to Chris Stedman's recent article for Religion News Service. He begins:
When it comes to neighborliness, atheist Americans have some catching up to do—but efforts are underway to change that.

This change is vital because, with greater resources, religious Americans are currently doing more to help others than the nonreligious.
Take a close look at the first sentence and see if you can spot the implicit assumption. This sentence is meaningful only if we assume that atheists should strive to be more neighborly (we aren't told what that means yet, but we will be soon), as neighborly as religious Americans. Should atheists strive to be more neighborly? Perhaps we should, but why and in what ways?

In his second sentence, Stedman provides his answer. It is "vital" that we atheists become more neighborly, catching up to the religious believers, because they are currently doing more than we are to help others. Let's assume it is true that religious believers in the U.S. do more than atheists to help others. How we would ever establish this besides focusing on specific examples of certain forms of charitable contributions is beyond me, but let's assume that the vague statement is accurate. How does it necessarily follow that atheists should be doing more to help others?

Stedman's article appears to be guided by his conviction, a conviction likely rooted in humanism, that atheists should do more volunteer work and contribute more money to charitable organizations. We should catch up to religious believers in these ways. He describes us as having "fallen behind" and links this to the fact that we have fewer organized communities. He even sees the gap between our efforts to help and those of the religious as fueling the perception that atheists are immoral, a perception that many of us identify as a form of bigotry.

Referring to a desire to improve "the conditions of life for all," Stedman concludes:
To me, this commitment is central to atheism. If we take seriously our position that it is unlikely any divine or supernatural forces will intervene in human affairs and resolve our problems, then it is truly up to us. Human beings of all beliefs and backgrounds have to work together to make this world better. This conviction is atheism and Humanism’s call to service.

Some Christians believe that faith without works is dead. Perhaps we could say the same of atheism. Fortunately, more and more nontheists are demonstrating that atheism is alive and well.
By this point, the implicit assumption to which I referred earlier should be quite apparent. Chris Stedman is a humanist. In fact, he's the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. It seems safe to assume that he has humanist values. These values are clearly reflected in this article, and there's nothing wrong with that. I suspect that some of us share at least some of these values. And yet, atheism is not synonymous with humanism. Many atheists are humanists, and many atheists are not humanists. Many atheists may not share Stedman's values. They may place less importance on helping others, at least in the narrow ways he emphasizes here (i.e., volunteer work and donating money to charities). Is this necessarily a problem for atheism? I don't think so.

Should atheists devote more time to doing volunteer work in our communities? Should atheists donate more money to charities? Should atheists be concerned about closing what Stedman refers to as the "civic engagement gap" between us and the religious? I think these are all questions worth asking, but I'd far prefer that we ask them rather than assuming that atheists are necessarily of one mind on them. I imagine that some of us might arrive at answers that may differ from those which underlie Stedman's article, and I think that's okay.

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