July 6, 2019

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

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For as long as there has been an atheist blogosphere (and probably much longer than that), atheists have wondered about whether atheism is something that should be promoted. Should we work to actively encourage our neighbors to realize there are probably no gods, or should we continue to wait for them to come around on their own and hope they don't make too much of a mess of things in the meantime? It is not difficult to find atheists who come down on either end of that artificial spectrum and at various points in between.

Back in 2006, Alonzo Fyfe (Atheist Ethicist) wrote a thought-provoking post on promoting atheism. At the time, I wrote a brief post sharing some of my reactions. Since I found myself thinking about this topic again recently, I decided to update that post from 2006 into the one you are reading now.

Calls for increased organization among atheists have often struck me as reflecting two primary concerns, both of which are warranted in my opinion. First, such calls reflect a recognition that obtaining increased political power requires organization. Despite recent growth in our numbers and some evidence of shifting attitudes, nonbelievers make up a small proportion of the population in the United States and continue to be marginalized. This is particularly evident in the case of our politics. Second, many atheists long for a greater sense of community among nonbelievers. Being an atheist can be a lonely experience, depending on where one lives. Many of us can relate to the experience of feeling adrift in a sea of believers. As social beings, some of us are interested in an increased connection with others who may be able to relate to at least some of our experiences.

The promotion of atheism only makes sense if one buys the argument of Sam Harris and others that religious belief is both not merely irrational but dangerous. If one rejects this claim and believes that there is nothing wrong with religious belief aside from being false, then there is little reason to support such efforts. Personally, I side with Harris and others who make this claim. I see religious belief as holding us back in many ways, and I am convinced that the world would be a better place (though still far from perfect) without it. For those of us who view religious belief as harmful, the promotion of atheism would seem to follow naturally.

Of course, it can (and probably should) be argued that atheism is so small in scope that promoting it does not amount to much more than encouraging religious believers to question their god-belief. For many people interested in promoting atheism or secularism, it would be better to have something more positive to promote. I think this is a big reason why much of what typically ends up being promoted is not atheism but something that more closely resembles secular humanism. Atheism is limited to the lack of belief in gods, but secular humanism builds on this in many ways (e.g., making a case for why god belief is detrimental). It is much broader than atheism and lends itself to promotion in ways that atheism probably doesn't.

When Alonzo wrote that he does not care whether a person believes that "God exists," I can't agree. I care because I recognize that this belief is irrational. Stripped from any associated ethical baggage, the religious believer cannot provide a logically coherent definition of gods or evidence to support their existence. But Alonzo is correct that the primary issue with which most of us are more concerned has to do with the ethical implications of what people do based on theistic belief.

Can atheists work effectively with theists without always feeling the need to challenge their god-belief? Yes. Should we attempt to do so? Absolutely. Still, it is difficult to imagine that some discussion and debate over the existence of supernatural entities is not needed as long as such beliefs continue to drive abhorrent behavior. Perhaps the key is that while these discussions should occur, they do not need to occur constantly or in ways that prevent healthy relationships with religious believers. Discussions or debates about the existence of gods certainly have their place; however, it probably isn't helpful if we allow them to prevent us from being able to get along with religious believers.