What is the “Atheist Agenda?”

There is none.  An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period!  Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike.  Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:

Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.

Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).

So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.

Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo.  There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense.  For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.”  If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone.  For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,

So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies?  Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?

Topher chimes in,

Indeed.  Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.

Dogfondler adds,

Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence.  It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.

Ituae concurs,

Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.

There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists.  Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes.  No.  I don’t think so!  Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.”  It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus!  Schluss!  Basta!

If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.”  Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers.  In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.

Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior.  I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains.  On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached.  I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage.  I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity.  Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.

In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.”  I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions.  Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him.  It follows immediately from his theory.  Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it.  That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.

Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality?  No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option.  We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally.  It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it.  On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.

Elmer Gantry

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

4 thoughts on “What is the “Atheist Agenda?””

  1. “It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t ”real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it.”

    Interesting. So while you may be right that morality is purely of our nature, would it be reasonable to say then that particular moralities (behavioral expressions) would be more adequate in order for us to be “getting along” better, if only for the means of our social order and survival?

  2. The idea that “particular moralities (behavioral expressions) would be more adequate in order for us to be ‘getting along’ better,” was fundamental to the rise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. For example, from blank slater Geoffrey Gorer (see my “Geoffrey Gorer and the Blank Slate”),

    “One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation. This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

    “Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.”

    Unfortunately, it turns out that there are limits to the extent to which we can “transform ourselves,” imposed by what is known in common parlance as “human nature.” In other words, while there certainly are great variations in the expression of morality, there are limits. We have to deal from the deck Mother Nature gave us. We certainly can’t just jettison morality. However, since she came up with the “deck” at times radically different than the present, it would probably be best for all concerned to keep it simple, and limit its sphere to the bare essentials in the day-to-day interactions of individuals. It would behoove us to be wary of any more attempts to apply morality to the overall “social order,” as was demonstrated by the recent Communist experiment, assuming we actually do prefer survival to the alternative.

  3. Mind you, I was not implying that we should take some sort of grand socio-political initiative to “transform ourselves”, but rather was suggesting that if it is possible to observe particular moralities/behaviors as being more appropriate and/or accommodating for particular environments, that we should at least account for that and consider such moralities to our benefit if need be.

    You say you would prefer a morality that was simple (and I presume to be universal) – So would something like the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) appeal to you?

  4. I think a universal morality would probably be impractical, as it’s implausible that after 40 or 50 thousand years of separation the relevant evolved traits would still be identical in all human populations.

    There are certain important axioms that I like to keep in mind when speculating about what version of morality might be best under given conditions. These include the atheist hypothesis, that no God or gods exist, the hypothesis that evolved traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of what is commonly referred to as morality, and the hypothesis that these traits evolved during periods of time when our environment, culture, and technology were radically different from what they are now. I treat these hypotheses as axioms because I consider it highly probable that they are true.

    Once we are all on the same page regarding these axioms, we can start speculating about which moralities would be best for which human populations. It’s a subject I can hardly presume to speak about infallibly. After all, I’m human, and our species is only intelligent in comparison to the other animals on the planet. Practical application would certainly reveal flaws in any theoretical moralities that I or anyone else might come up with. Beyond that, as we have seen in recent decades, moralities tend to alter over time like languages, whether we like it or not.

    As far as the NAP is concerned, it seems to me that it would be better not to enshrine such over-arching principles, that can easily be applied to matters of state policy, such as taxation, laws of eminent domain, handgun laws, abortion, and the military draft to name a few. I would prefer that, if possible, we apply our feeble powers of reason to the solution of such problems, and restrict morality, as much as possible, to the more elementary application of regulating the day to day interactions of individuals.

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