In his post “Value-free atheism,” Justin Vacula focuses on the meaning of the word “atheism” — making the point, as do so many others, that it means only one thing. The argument seems to be coming often these days following the appearance of Atheism-Plus. Vacula says:
The definition of the word ‘atheist’ — a person who lacks belief in any gods — is often misunderstood by many religious people who, at least from my experience, say, for instance, “It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a believer” or “Atheism is just another religion.”
Confusion concerning the word ‘atheist’ isn’t only limited to religious persons. Some atheists across the blogosphere seem to couple certain ideological positions with atheism — arguing that atheism leads to particular positions or that atheists should hold particular positions — although atheism does not lead to, as Pigliucci described, any sort of positive position. It even seems that, in some cases, persons are attempting to ‘hijack’ the term ‘atheism’ by affixing their particular ideological positions.
While many atheists may happen to endorse certain political positions or positions on social issues, this does not mean that atheism leads to those positions and, as described above, it simply cannot. Atheists will obviously not hold beliefs which require a belief in God to be coherent, but they will hold a wide array of beliefs on other issues regardless of the strength of the arguments.
My answer is less an argument against his position and more an evocation of some of the hidden reasons why Atheism-Plus, and Beta Culture, have opened up before us at this moment in freethought history:
The impulse to associate (or even ascribe) positive attributes to atheism is strong in some long-term atheists, for the simple reason that SOMETHING must occupy the space in our heads where values are stored.
For newbies, the transition into atheism is tough enough that we’re content to focus on just that, and simply take atheism at face value. Our goal, in the beginning, is only to get free of religion — if not socially, then at least in our own private hearts and minds. For some of us, that is a years-long struggle.
But eventually you also have to re-examine your values and morals. If you’ve been told all your life that these things come from your supposed belief in God, once that God is out of your life and mind you have to refigure where you DO get them, and just what they are.
In this sense, at least, you can definitely say your redefined and reexamined morals and values arise as a result of your atheism. But you’re right, Justin, they don’t actually come from atheism so much as they do from the mentation following atheism.
One of the never-ending chuckles of my 47-year “career” as an atheist is the question “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from just killing and raping at will?” The subtext of which is that this is what THEY would do if they suddenly stopped believing. The question seems to insist that compassion is alien and unnatural to human beings, and only arrives in the human heart after religion has been installed as the underlying operating system.
The darker joke contained in the question is the suggestion that our society’s religious segment has been so trapped in muddled goddy thinking that it seems to have never even CONSIDERED why it might really be bad to rape or kill.
Certainly religion, overall, has done a piss-poor job in the field of morality. Yeah, that moral package delivered by the church is all happiness and light if you’re male, and heterosexual, and have lived in your small community all your life, and are not suspiciously foreign or mentally ill or some such, or simply want to explore different life options … which might be as simple in some religious subcultures as trimming your beard, or attempting to get away when Father McFeely gives you a reacharound every Sunday afternoon.
Maybe atheism per se doesn’t come with morals or values, but it does come with the necessity of exploring the territory in which they reside.
The necessity for individual atheists is that we have to discover or develop our own morals and values. For the socially aware among us, bent on co-creating the better world we’d all like to live in, we have to spread those morals and values, and the reasoning behind them, to our larger society.