Atheism is Not Just a Rant Against Religion

In 2007, The Washington Post published an article by Benedicta Cipolla of the Religion News Service asking "Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?" The article noted that some humanists have criticized atheists for needing "to offer more vision than rhetoric." Never mind that many atheists have recognized that atheism is nothing but a lack of theistic belief and have embraced secular humanism. Once again, we had a story that helped to publicize atheism while seeming to simultaneously disparage atheists.

At the time the article appeared, I wrote an early version of this post. I thought it might be fun to dust it off and update it, so that's what I'm doing here.

The central point of Cipolla's article was that prominent atheist authors were being criticized by other non-believers, mostly humanists, for not offering enticing alternatives to religion. That is, "vehement arguments against religion" should be supplemented with explanations about "how a godless worldview can be good." It was unclear in the article why this was deemed necessary.

I noted that this struck me as a case of manufactured conflict because the mainstream news media was the only place I ever encountered this debate. I said that I rarely saw it come up on atheist blogs or in the atheist forums, adding that it seemed that atheists and humanists were getting along quite well and were largely united in our opposition to religion and our preference for reality.

Is this still true today? Maybe not so much. Since 2007, it has become clearer that there are non-believers who do not care for many outspoken atheists. Some of them see humanism as a preferable banner under which to organize. And to be sure, some have been quite critical of any non-believer who does not embrace their preferred form of humanism. And yet, I still have trouble seeing this as primarily a conflict between atheism and humanism. I will acknowledge that it might look this way from the outside; however, it strikes me as more of a disagreement around priorities.

In my earlier response to the 2007 article, I said that I did not necessarily disagree with the point that something more than atheism is necessary. I pointed out that I had suggested this in previous posts and expressed frustration at the portrayal of atheists as necessarily opposing this idea. Sure, many of us do criticize religion; however, many of us are also focusing on providing some positive alternatives to religious delusion. It is true that we do not all do that through humanism, but many of us are trying to do it.

Some atheists wholeheartedly embrace secular humanism and fall squarely within that camp. Others prefer to focus their efforts on criticizing religion and working to preserve the separation of church and state. Still others gravitate more toward science and skepticism where they may prefer to deal with topics like science education and the religious threats to it. But across all these groups, one will encounter plenty of people who see no need to replace religion with anything except reality. Atheists have always been a diverse group, and I've never been sure why some seem determined to frame this diversity as a flaw.
"Atheists are somewhat focused on the one issue of atheism, not looking at how to move forward," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association. While he appreciates the way the new atheists have raised the profile of nonbelievers, he said humanists differ by their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders on various issues. "Working with religion," he said, "is not what [atheists] are about."
This is simply not accurate. Many atheists work with theists in organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Who are these atheists who focus on nothing but atheism? I don't think I've ever met one. We do not all call ourselves humanists, but it is simply not true that most atheists are about nothing but atheism. Most of the atheists I've known spend relatively little of their time obsessing about atheism.
"Atheists don't really ask the question, what are the vital needs that religion meets? They give you the sense that religion is the enemy, which is absurd," said Ronald Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit.
I have certainly been asking these questions, and I am far from alone. Most of the atheist blogs with which I am familiar address them regularly. Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett certainly ask them in their books.

The manner in which articles like this often depict atheists does not reflect my experience of atheists particularly well. That was true in 2007, and it remains true today. Reading them, I often get the feeling that the author (or some of those he or she has quoted for the article) is trying to advance a particular agenda. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but they should be more open about what that agenda is and be sure that they do not provide readers with a distorted picture in order to get there.