A main focus of this blog is to consider and compare different political and ethical philosophies so as to promote better understanding of one’s own worldview and those of others. I frequently focus on progressivism/liberalism and libertarian conservativism, arguing that these incompletely overlapping moral/political philosophies each have their own internal logic and validity, but that when viewed from the perspective of the other, each is libel to look stupid and/or even evil.
Close to a year ago, I posted Atheists are Religious. Here I re-post it with modifications. In this article, I argue that while lack of a belief in this or that God is not itself a religion, any value system that an atheist may hold is ultimately ungrounded in any sort of empiricism. Rather, these and all value systems rely on circular self-validation and assumptions and assertions that are themselves unscientific. As I will argue below, this doesn’t make them wrong or deserving of dismissal; it just means that subscribers cannot claim that their values are rooted in nothing but reason and logic. Reason and logic, in these value systems, are applied based on unempirical values, which can be conceived of as faith claims about an implied moral/existential reality.
Just because one does not believe in a God, Gods, karma, reincarnation, astrology, L. Ron Hubbard, or eighteen year old “elders” who knock on your door on Sunday mornings to bring you the good news from Utah, that doesn’t mean that they are not religious. I don’t know that I’ve ever met an atheist who wasn’t religious in their own way. I certainly am. Like other atheists, I subscribe to a sort of religion that is both different and similar to what we conventionally refer to as “religion”.
Like people of conventional religious faith, atheists have beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of humans within it. I’m not concerned here with beliefs based on science (e.g., evolution, quantum physics). I do not consider these to be of a religious nature for they are held with a level of confidence that parallels the level of evidence, are vulnerable to falsification, and are not value-laden. Scientific beliefs say nothing about how humans should live, what is meaningful, and so on. In my view,
The central characteristic of religion is the holding of empirically unsubstantiated beliefs about the nature and meaning of reality and the purpose and moral responsibilities of sentient beings.
These attributes are surely found in our world religions. But atheists, too?
At The Level of Behaviour, We MUST Act In Accord With Empirically Unsubstantiated Principles
We are not bound to believe in a God, Gods, or any of the other religious concepts discussed above. We do not have to pick a stance with regard to the inception of the universe, what happens after death, and the like. We don’t even have to take ultimate stances with regard to morality or purpose. But we have to act, which means that even if philosophically we cannot claim to have deciphered the moral fabric of the universe, at the level of behaviour we have to make moral choices. Analogously, just because our experience and every opinion we’ve ever heard on the matter indicates that unsupported objects always fall down, we cannot know that they always will; nevertheless, at the level of behaviour we cannot be agnostic about this.
As an agnostic atheist, I do not know whether or not there is a God (let alone who that God would be, if there is more than one, etc.), and I do not subscribe to any particular God/supernatural theory. However, at the level of behaviour, I must choose whether or not to organize my life with reference to a supernatural belief system. I choose not to. As such, my behaviour is presumably indistinguishable from what it would be if I was an absolute atheist (i.e., someone who claims to know that there is no God).
Does This Mean That Atheism Is Religious Like Theism?
No. Agnostic atheism is not a belief; it’s a lack of belief. At most, it is associated with the claim that credible cases have not been made for actual beliefs pertaining to theism. It entails no claims about the nature of anything, and it offers no guidance on how to live. In this way, as has been said before, atheism is a religion in the same sense that bald is a hair colour. An agnostic atheist choosing not to live in accordance with certain religious principles is no more religious than him choosing not to live in accordance with the unsubstantiated claim that the world is going to end tomorrow. It is consistent with the general practice of basically ignoring an infinite supply of theoretical possibilities (e.g., there are Martians living 40 feet below the surface of Stockholm controlling the world) until there is reason to believe that they are more than simple what-ifs. In the case of absolute atheism, I’m not sure I would call it religious so much as just unfounded. The reason for this is that absolute atheism merely constitutes a negative stance with regard to particular theories of the universe, purpose and morality; it says little about how the universe really is and nothing about what matters, what is meaningful or what is moral.
What Sorts Of Values Do Atheists Have?
There is no one atheist value system. Atheism is not a religion. In and of itself, it’s not even a belief community. It’s a lack-of-belief community. If suddenly people started believing in the Swedish Martians mentioned above and started trying to shift public policy to reflect these beliefs (e.g., lobbying for government funding to sponsor Martian digs), an a-Martian lack-of-belief community would form in an effort to stop the wasteful spending. This community, like atheists, would be bound by nothing more than a disbelief in one thing. Its members would come from a plurality of cultural, racial, religious, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds.
Some of these people, like some atheists, may also actively support scientific rationalism more generally. At first glance, supporting scientific rationalism may seem like an empirically-based value. As noble as I and many others find it to be it is not empirically-based, as will be discussed below.
Secular value systems are often called philosophies. These systems can span as far and wide as those of traditional religion. They include, for example, progressivism, libertarianism, utilitarianism, communism, socialism, secular humanism, and so on. Foundational beliefs include that we should have full rights to our property and not be subject to any form of external force under any conditions (as in libertarianism); that we should protect each others’ individual freedoms but also – as a matter of public policy – provide needed supports to those having difficulty (as in progressivism); that all people should be treated equally and moral decisions should be directed at maximizing flourishing and minimizing suffering (utilitarianism); everything should be publicly owned, and people should contribute to the collective insofar as they are able and receive from it insofar as they need to (communism); etc.
The existence of many different ethical philosophies reflect the diversity of humanity’s opinions on issues of morality, purpose and politics. But amidst our differences are many points of agreement. None of these communities endorse stealing, rape, random acts of violence, child neglect, lying, or a host of other things, and all encourage voluntary acts of charity, friendliness, and so on. This agreement, of course, is not empirical substantiation of these shared values. It’s just popularity. If they are going to be substantiated, it’s not going to be because they won the Moral Mr./Ms. Congeniality Contest.
Can Any Ethical Philosophy Be Empirically Substantiated?
With regard to ethical precepts of conventional religions, substantiation can be left to God. But what about moral precepts accepted in secular arenas? Can any ethical system be substantiated without reliance on circular reasoning or on other premises that are themselves unsubstantiated? A label of pride among many atheists is “rationalist”. Rationalists define themselves by their proclivity to arrive at beliefs through clear, honest reasoning. But reasoning is a formal process that operates on premises. Value systems come equipped with premises (e.g., treat all people equally, as this is fair and leads to the most favourable overall outcomes). But when you get down to the real bedrock foundations of human experience – be they our basic experience of the physical world or the social/moral world – reason ceases to be able to dig deeper. At a certain point, we realize that we cannot substantiate a foundational axiom of a belief system without invoking another element of the belief system itself or some other unsubstantiated claim. To do so would require us to be able to perceive more of reality than we are able. Sometimes we discover ways to see more (e.g., research in chemistry and physics can be advanced through the development of new technologies that allow us to see and measure smaller and smaller things). In other cases we reach an impasse. In the sciences, the impasse is often pretty clear. What’s inside an atom? I don’t know, we can’t see or measure anything that small? In the case of morality, however, it seems that we sometimes hallucinate that we know more than we do, or that our beliefs are more substantiated than they really are.
Consider The Golden Rule. I suspect that there may be no moral precept in human history that is more universally accepted than the instruction to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But, why should you do this? What if the other person’s wants are unknown and/or different from what yours would be in the given situation? While it could be retorted that you could simply do your best to act in the other person’s interests, what about your interests in the here-and-now, and those of other others? Perhaps the solution is to endeavour to treat everyone – self included – equally, and from this starting point, try to do what best satisfies the personal interests and perceived rights of everyone involved. But what about when one person’s interests conflict with those of another? Furthermore, on what grounds is it your responsibility to serve the interests of others? Sure, people may judge you as a relatively good or bad person based on how you respond to the interests of others, but what if you are not particularly concerned with their opinions, or if you disagree with them? What if you believe that the quality of your personhood has nothing to do with what society says it does? The mere fact that we have an evolved capacity for empathy – as found in research on a number of species – says nothing about what we objectively should or should not do; to argue this would be a case of the naturalistic fallacy. The retort that we should be considerate of each other because it promotes well-being, social stability, trust, safety, sustained peace in a nuclear era, and so on assumes that 1) these are all objectively good things, 2) that we should therefore value them, and 3) we have a responsibility to act in their favour.
If as an individual I want a society with these qualities, then I can act in their service. But what if I don’t feel this way? Can anyone prove that life and Earth are worth preserving? That a safe and stable society is better than a volatile one? Sure, the grand majority of people believe these things to be true, but who made them God? If I were to follow popular opinion, given that I was born, raised and continue to live in Canada, I’d be Christian. If popular opinion in and of itself doesn’t convince me to be Christian why would I ascribe it such power with respect to other belief systems?
In The New Atheists have just changed God’s name, Objectivist atheist Evanescent criticizes left-leaning atheists like Sam Harris for treating empirically unsubstantiated progressive values as if they were substantiated. When this is done, it is akin to deifying or making idols of the values. I would non-combatively retort to this blogger – on whose blog I have had good discussion with libertarian atheists – that libertarian ethics are no more empirically substantiated than progressive ethics. They are on equal ground.
Secular Assumptions of Transcendence
In reality, I do try to promote well-being of myself and others, and generally try to live in a way that contributes to a safe and trusting society. Further, I strongly advocate for reason, intellectual honesty secularism, and progressive causes (though I’m also sympathetic to libertarianism). I have strong values, and I am no less judgmental when I see a moral precept violated (e.g., the telling of a malicious lie) than anyone else, religious or not . Like people of conventional faith, atheists do not simply think that telling malicious lies is wrong for themselves as individuals. We find it to be universally wrong. At least implicitly, we seem to be assuming some sort of transcendent morality that represents, at the very least, a deep sense of obligation to humanity as a whole. Our sense of obligation might even extend beyond humanity or any particular referent. The grandiosity and unspecificity of the referent of this obligation resembles some less personalized conceptions of God.
Just about everyone wants equality. However, we don’t all mean the same thing by equality. Progressives and libertarians both believe that the law is the law and that it should be applied to everyone. They both believe that people should be free to choose whom they associate with. But should a racist white person be forced by society to hire or serve a person of another race? While the progressive and libertarian may both have a strong distaste for racism, the libertarian is less likely to support enforced racial equality in hiring or service provision. To support this could contradict their libertarianism. And the progressive does not want to use force and has great respect for individual freedoms, but they also do not want anybody to be marginalized because of the colour of their skin.
What about taxpayer-funded social supports for those in need of assistance? Progressives believe that we should, as a matter of policy, provide assistance to people in their times of need. They believe that people should pay taxes to enable assistance programs. Libertarians on the other hand want no part of this. They have no problem with voluntary charity; but they are stridently against having the government or anyone else force them to do anything. “Live free or die” is a popular libertarian motto. It’s not that progressives do not care about the individual freedom of property owners, or that libertarians are cold and heartless. Moral reasoning can be messy, and sometimes we have to serve one moral precept at the expense of another.
Why be progressive? Why should people be forced to support others? Why should people be forced to associate with others that they wish not to associate with? How can these questions be answered without resorting to other unsubstantiated value judgments (e.g., happiness, wellness, trust, safety, and cooperation are good; suffering, hate, distrust, and conflict are bad), many of which are intrinsic to progressivism, thereby making the retort a case of circular reasoning?
Why be libertarian? Who says anything objectively belongs to anybody? On what grounds can one stake a claim on something? Everything there is was there before you got there. Of the things one makes oneself, one makes them out of things that they have no claim to. If I tore down your house and built a new one, I couldn’t say that it is my house. It wasn’t my land or materials. So how is your house your house when you have no objective claim to any of the materials or space needed to make it?
Why defend science and truth? The primacy of science and truth is valued by secularists of all value systems. But why should one feel obligated to value truth or honesty? Why is one obligated to do what promotes understanding, fluid and trustworthy social relations, this or that form of “progress”, and so on? I’m surely not saying that we shouldn’t do these things; I greatly value them. But on what grounds do I substantiate this value?
God Is On My Side
As with conventional religions, progressivism, libertarianism and indeed all ethical/political philosophies and systems of meaning are unsubstantiated. Even more like conventional religions, they can be divisive and even lead to bloody conflict. The same goes for more universal moral tenets. What do we do with people who kill or rape? We lock them up or kill them. What is our opinion of people who lie? Do we not feel that they are behaving badly; that they are wronging someone, or even transgressing something bigger than any individual (e.g., the entire social order)? Even though our secular philosophies are ultimately unsubstantiated, we are just as libel to take them deeply seriously as are religious people with their ethical beliefs. And when we defend our beliefs, we will often fervently believe that we are doing the right thing. A religious person might say that God is on their side, or that they are doing God’s Will. An atheist fighting a moral cause might say that they are defending truth, reason, justice, fairness, civility, or human rights, all of which are profound universal concepts that go beyond individuals and communities, and space and time. While some religionists might claim that God is on their side, some atheists may claim that reason is on their side. Both sides are, in effect, presenting their unsubstantiated moral beliefs as if they have been substantiated. And this is usually not a dishonest act – both sides are libel to genuinely belief that their values have an objective truth to them.
What does all of this mean? Does this mean that atheists have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing beliefs such as that the world was created six to ten thousand years ago by God in six days? Absolutely not. Not all questions are the same. While our ability to learn about the world is inherently limited by our limited perceptual and conceptual abilities, some methods for discovery are more substantiated than others. The scientific method, by devising and rigorously testing theories about how reality works has brought us automobiles, airplanes, space travel, wireless technologies, medicines and biotechnology, improved understanding of social systems, the ability to predict weather patterns, and so on, has more than a leg-up on the practice of building a worldview by interpreting a 2000+ year old book loaded with contradictions, vagueness, and claims contradicted by modern science, archaeology and anthropology.
I definitely think that we can and should do better than religion has when it comes to gaining honest understanding. I also think that we can and should have as keen an understanding as possible of the nature and foundations of our beliefs and those of others, especially when it comes to issues of values. As I wrote in a post last Fall entitled “There Will Be War”, I believe that our moral differences are a key factor underlying what I deem to be the near complete impossibility of world peace. However, I think that we would have fewer and less destructive conflicts and generally get along better if we had a better understanding of the epistemological limitations of our own beliefs and the nature and meaning of those of others. And if nothing else, as someone who has a deep appreciation for learning and trying to understand things, I think it’s simply interesting and worth thinking about.
Atheist Bloggers Across the Political Spectrum
As Evanescent pointed out, there appears to be more atheists on the political left than right. Some atheist/nontheist blogs that tend to lean left include Pharygula, Sandwalk, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Progressive Proselytizing, Unreasonable Faith ,The Friendly Atheist, The Barefoot Bum, Daylight Atheism and Always Question Authority. Right-leaning atheist/nontheist bloggers that I know of include Evanescent and Secular Right. There is also Reason.Com. I’m not sure how the Atheist Ethicist would describe his personal ethical philosophy.
A Parting Question For Discussion
I hope that this post has inspired people to think about why they hold the moral beliefs they do, as well as why people of differing moral views belief as they do. For anyone who still believes that their values are not of a religious nature, I ask you a question that I sometimes ask people of religious faith: