How Atheism Can Make the World Better By Tearing Down Religious Irrationality
Few groups are as vilified as atheists. They tend to be viewed as party poopers bent on dismantling the cherished beliefs of "people of faith." While that element of the atheist community does exist--as is verified by the endless websites and books dedicated solely to tackling the logical flaws in religious claims--the reality is that the growing movement of outspoken atheists have far more on offer than winning arguments with people who believe in a god. Atheism is also a burgeoning social justice movement that looks to tear down the social structures that have perpetuated injustice for millennia.
Just as feminists take on the patriarchy, peace activists fight the ideology of war, civil rights activists and abolitionists dismantle the traditions of racism, and humanists erode authoritarian hierarchies, atheists are standing up and saying that the human race needs to evolve beyond religion. And it’s this social justice model that’s invigorating a new generation of atheists to move beyond just quietly disbelieving into openly challenging religious irrationality.
Blame the religious right for pushing atheists in this new, more political direction. The past couple of decades have seen an explosion in fundamentalist energy and power. The immediacy of the fundamentalist threat to science, education and human rights starkly demonstrates that the problem of religion extends beyond its inherent irrationality. Many atheists who find endless proofs against god tiring find themselves drawn to organized atheism as a weapon against this religious threat to liberty and free inquiry.
Even though many liberal religious people exist, at its base, the argument between god believers and atheists is roughly the same argument as that between conservatives and progressives. Liberalism is rooted in the humanist tradition, which demands that society and government prioritize human needs and desires, using the tools of rationality and evidence toward those goals. Conservativism values hierarchy and tradition and rejects evidence-based reasoning in favor of arguments from authority. The imaginary god provides the perfect conservative authority; a completely evidence-free, ultimate authority that can make pronouncements believers are expected to simply submit to. Submission and faith are built into even the most liberal Christian traditions, in direct contrast to the humanist philosophy of questioning and demanding evidence.
Humanism has given birth to progressivism by opening up space to question some of the oldest prejudices: the belief that men are better than women, that gays are “unnatural,” that different skin colors or ethnicities automatically means different roles and mental abilities, that people are wealthier because they’re more deserving, that kings rule by divine right. When you start asking hard questions of these other beliefs, you often discover that the rationale for all of them tends to circle back toward “God said so.” By questioning this most fundamental of beliefs, that there is a god and he’s making the rules, we can call into question the illogic of all these other beliefs.
Despite the atheist movement's emphasis on proofs against supernatural claims, many, if not most people who join the atheist movement came to atheism because they were questioning other beliefs and traditions. Certainly this was my path. I never really “believed” in god growing up, but I didn’t identify as an atheist either. I just didn’t think about the issue much. Feminism compelled me to start looking harder at religious arguments against women’s equality, and in doing so, I realized that without a forceful response to religious irrationality, feminist progress would be stymied. And so I started engaging logical arguments supporting what seemed self-evident to me, that there couldn’t be any gods, and therefore no supernatural beings whose authority can be invoked when anti-feminists lack real-world evidence for their claims.
I’m far from alone in this. Last November, when I spoke on feminism and atheism at the annual atheist/skeptical conference in Springfield, MO, I met dozens of young and eager atheists. A solid majority of them had come to the movement after feeling oppressed by religion. Some people had grown up in fundamentalist communities whose backward beliefs about gender and sexuality drove them to start asking questions, while others had dealt with conflicts between their own love of science and the claims of religion. Still others had mostly dealt with moderate or even liberal churches, but were disappointed by the way even the most liberal religions discourage hard questions. In other words, these people began from a position of valuing progressive ideals, and those values led them to the atheist community.
Online atheist communities find their secular values make a sort of “pure” atheism that’s largely apolitical and impossible to maintain. The popular atheist/skeptic website Skepchick started mainly to highlight women who support atheism, rational inquiry and science, but over time the site made a turn toward the explicitly feminist, in part because of the constant drumbeat of fact-free claims about women’s roles being made by religious figures in the media. Links between atheism and progressivism have also been easy to make for proponents of gay rights and sexual liberation, as demonstrated by recent research showing that those who lose their faith and embrace atheism report an improved sex life.
But atheist progressives shouldn’t feel limited to arguments about gender and sexuality when linking their atheism to broader issues. There’s plenty of room for an atheist environmentalism -- since there’s no afterlife, we should prioritize taking care of the one world we do have. Or an atheist economic liberalism -- since there’s no such thing as “providence,” it’s our responsibility to care for the poor and the needy.
Atheists are only by limited by our imaginations in seeking ways to make our lack of faith as central to our view of a just world as religious people make their faith central to their worldviews.