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Atheism and Intraorganizational Free Speech (1996)

Michael Martin


What position should atheists take on freedom of speech? In particular, what stand should atheistic organizations take in regard to the freedom of speech of its members? Should they censor members who do not adhere to particular doctrines which, even if they are not entailed by atheism, are deemed important by the organization?

Consider two hypothetical cases that illustrate the problem.

1. The Case of the Gotham City Rationalists and Humanists: The Gotham City Rationalists and Humanists (GCRH) maintain that people who are rational should not believe in God and should accept a humanistic value theory, that is, they should believe that moral values are relative to human experience and that values are made by human decisions, not discovered. Mary Jones is a member of GCRH who disagrees. She believes that there are important values that cannot be incorporated into this framework and has asked if she can present a paper to GCRH defending her claim. Her request is denied and her membership in GCRH is terminated by a polite letter from the President saying that her further participation in GCRH would serve "no useful purpose" and that her membership is being canceled for "the good of the organization."[1]

2. The Case of The Central City Atheists and the Resurrection: The Central City Atheists (CCA) defend not only the view that God does not exist but the falsehood of Christianity. They reject the major doctrines of Christianity including the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation. Bill McCord who is a member of CCA has a new theory of the Resurrection. He believes that a rival hypothesis to the Christian doctrine is that Jesus was resurrected but not by supernatural means. He entertains the conjecture that Jesus was brought back to life by the advanced technology of alien beings who once visited the Earth. Although his theory is not completely worked out, he believes that it has at least as much plausibility as the Christian doctrine and submits a paper outlining this theory to the CCA bulletin. His paper is rejected, his theory is denounced in an editorial in the bulletin, and his membership in CCA is revoked. According to the editorial, his theory not only is absurd but is not in keeping with the "spirit and mission" of CCA.

The Issue

I will not be concerned here with the legal issue of whether GCRH and CCA infringe the first amendment rights of Jones and McCord. Rather, I want to discuss whether GCRH and CCA acted both morally and wisely in taking the actions they did. I will argue that they did not. My position will be based on two arguments. First, using an argument first developed by John Stuart Mill, I will maintain that suppression of the speech of Jones and McCord is unjustified. Second, I will argue that atheistic organizations who censor the views of their members adopt the suppressive methods of traditional religion and thus are in prima facie conflict with the goal of freedom that such organizations have fought so long to achieve. As a result their actions are inconsistent and self-defeating.

The General Case for Freedom of Expression

The classical case for freedom of expression was formulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.[2] In defending freedom of expression Mill foregoes any advantages he might derive from assuming an inalienable right to freedom of speech and bases his defense on utilitarian grounds. However, it might be argued that on these grounds there are strong reasons to silence some speech since some speech is harmful. Mill does not deny this. Expressions are sometimes defamatory, seditious, invasive of privacy, and incitive to violence and, thus, by definition, harmful. In his famous essay Mill is plausibly interpreted as being concerned with speech that does not fall within these obviously harmful categories. About this speech Mill's views are clear and unequivocal. The silencing of expression--be it oral or in print--concerning matters of fact, and about historical, scientific, theological, philosophical, political and moral questions is always more harmful than the expression itself and is therefore never justified. In particular, Mill argues that one should not suppress speech on the grounds that it is immoral, shocking, unorthodox, or heretical, and especially not simply because it is false.

Mill's argument has two branches. On the one hand, he asks us to suppose that the silenced expression is true or at least partially true. Mill then reminds us that there is always a chance that an opinion, however absurd or false it may seem, is true or at least partially true. To suppose otherwise is to suppose that one cannot be wrong. Yet we can be and often have been mistaken. The history of thought is filled with opinions believed to be unquestionably true at the time that in retrospect have proved to be false. Silencing opinions that challenge the accepted view can prevent the elimination of error and the growth of knowledge. Thus, Mill correctly concluded that silencing of opinions that dispute received ideas can result in a loss of truth and in consequence can be harmful.

The second branch of Mill's argument is based on the supposition that the opinion at issue is false. He correctly holds that even here suppression would constitute a loss because false views force us to reexamine the grounds of our beliefs and rethink our arguments; they challenge our dogmas and stimulate us to develop them into living truths.

The Two Cases Revisited

In Mill's terms is GCRH morally justified in suppressing Ms. Jones? Not unless there is good reason to suppose that Ms. Jones' speech falls into the category of obviously harmful speech. But there is no evidence that her speech was defamatory, incitive to violence and so forth.[3] In this case, Mill's two branch argument works well. GCRH mistakenly supposes that they could not be wrong about humanistic values.[4] Yet they can be. Perhaps there are good arguments in favor of nonhumanistic values that GCRH is not aware of, arguments that the make the case for nonhumanistic values plausible. Suppression cuts off the possibility of GCRH revising its views in the light of new evidence. Moreover, suppose that Ms. Jones is wrong. The airing of her arguments might challenge the members of GCRH to rethink their beliefs and, as a result, revitalize their theories.

In the letter terminating her membership, the president of GCRH says that Ms. Jones' further participation in GCRH would serve no useful purpose but this is precisely where the organization is in error. Mill would correctly argue that, if her views were true, her further participation would help improve the doctrines held by GCRH , whereas if they were false, her participation would challenge them to clarify and defend its doctrines. The cancellation of her membership was not for the good of the organization but for its harm.

Much the same thing can be said for CCA and the Resurrection. It is morally unjustified for CCA to silence McCord. There is no good reason to suppose that his speech is defamatory, incitive to violence and so forth.[5] Once again, Mill's two branch argument works well. CCA wrongly supposes that it could not be mistaken about the Resurrection. Yet it could be. Although McCord's theory sounds absurd there might be arguments of which CCA is not aware, and evidence that could make McCord's theory at least as plausible as the Christian view, even if not wholly plausible. Suppression cuts off not only the possibility of revising CCA views in the light of new evidence but also the possibility of developing a new argument against the standard account of the Resurrection. Moreover, suppose that McCord is wrong. The publication of his theory might have challenged the members of CCA to rethink their own arguments and, as a result, revitalize their theories.

The editorial claims that McCord's theory is not in keeping with the "spirit and mission" of CCA, but this might well be a premature conclusion. If the mission of CCA is to further atheistic thought and provide a critique of Christianity, publishing McCord's seemingly bizarre theory might have helped. If true, the theory would provide new arguments against Christian and, if false, it would revitalize CCA's position by forcing CCA to refute it.

The Lessons From History: Inconsistency and Self-Defeating Action

Atheistic thought has been suppressed until relatively recently. Even during the Enlightenment when the Divine Right of Kings was challenged and religious toleration defended, John Locke, a firm advocate of toleration, denied free speech to atheists on the grounds that they undermined religion. It was not until 1869 that atheists were allowed to give evidence in English law courts. Even in contemporary times some Christians have argued that the Bible teaches that atheistic thought should be suppressed. To take one example, although Greg Bahnsen was careful to argue that the Bible allows atheists freedom of belief,[6] he claimed that laws should be enacted making blasphemy a capital offense. According to Black's Law Dictionary blasphemy is "any oral or written reproach maliciously cast upon God, His name, attributes, or religion. In general, blasphemy may be described as consisting in speaking evil of the Deity with impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others from the love and reverence of God."[7] The enactment of blasphemy laws as so defined with the death penalty as a punishment for noncompliance would put severe restrictions on atheists' freedom of expression.

In our two hypothetical examples a type of blasphemy laws is enforced on the members of the imaginary organizations. This, however, is inconsistent and self-defeating behavior. One aspect of being consistent is being willing to apply to oneself the moral principles one uses to judge others. Atheistic groups have not only condemned the suppression of atheistic thought but have criticized the suppression of expression within religion denominations. In all fairness and consistency, atheistic groups can hardly do this and then practice a similar type of suppression within their own ranks. Such action is self-defeating for it drives away atheists who do not wish to toe the party line and also carries with it a charge of hypocrisy that damages the reputation of atheism thereby hurting the atheistic cause.


The suppression of expressions not only has harmful results but is inconsistent with atheists' criticism of religion's suppression of speech. It also defeats what is in the atheistic organizations' own best interests. I conclude therefore that atheistic organizations should not suppress expression of opinion in their ranks unless such expressions are defamatory, seditious, invasive of privacy, or incitive to violence.


[1] It goes without saying that atheists and rationalists organizations have no business silencing their members who express either a liberal or a conservative ideology. However, the present construal of humanistic values is neutral on the question of whether humanistic values are liberal or conservative. For example, either conservative or liberal values could be made by human decisions. However, one might argue that, although atheists could be either liberal or conservative in their values, they could not be nonhumanistic. Mary Jones' claim to the contrary is what makes it so controversial.

[2] See John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, edited with an introduction by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), Book 2.

[3] Even if there were evidence of this kind, there is a question whether GCRH itself should suppress the speech. It might be argued that if harmful speech of this kind is uttered by a member of an atheistic organization, this should be handled through the criminal or civil law. For example, suppose Jones tends to making defamatory statements about people in the GCRH. Should GCRH itself take action to silence her? One might argue that the defamed members should try to silence her through tort law and the RCRH should notintervene.

[4] See Michael Martin, "Atheism and Humanistic Value Theory," Sept. 26, 1996 /library/modern/michael_martin/values.html

[5] It is not clear that CCA itself should intervene even in the event that McCord's speech falls into these categories. See note 3.

[6] Greg Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 174.

[7] Black's Law Dictionary, Fifth Edition, (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co. 1979), pp. 155-56

"Atheism and Intraorganizational Free Speech" is copyright © 1997 by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.