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”.
How are atheists religious? 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 defining characteristics of religion are the holding of 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 Unsubstantiated Principles
We are not bound to believe in a God, Gods, or any of the other religious concepts discussed at the beginning of the post. 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 and live in the real world, 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 sort of guidance as to how to live in terms of pragmatics, purpose, or morality. 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.
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 are differences are many points of agreement. For example, despite their many differences, progressives, atheistic libertarians and members of the religious right agree on a number of things. 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.
Can Any Ethical Philosophy Be 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 currently 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?
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 (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. Some people (e.g., people who are “spiritual but not religious”) would call this indescribable point of reverence “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 would 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. Meanwhile, the principled libertarian would defend the right of non-whites to exclude white people from their social and work circles if they wished.
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.
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?
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 work. 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.
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, which whose application has brought us automobiles, airplanes, space travel, wireless technologies, medicines and biotechnology, improved understanding of social systems, nature, and so on has more than a leg-up on the practice of believing that one’s interpretation of a 2000+ year old book loaded with contradictions, incessant vagueness, rank barbarism, and claims that are in stark contrast with the findings of modern science, archaeology, and anthropology, written by people who lived in a time when it was believed that evil demons brought illness, eating pig and shellfish were grave moral offenses, and that a guy who is so omnipotent that he was able to create the entire universe and the heavens in six days but needed to take a rest on Sunday? We’re supposed to believe that this God is forever everywhere – constantly monitoring and capable of affecting anything and everything – but that he for some reason was tuckered out one fine Sunday after a busy week?
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 recent post 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.
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: