What an Atheist Ought to Stand For (1999)
A Justifiable Lament
There is a common and justifiable lament that atheists are so preoccupied by naming and arguing what they are against, that people rarely hear what atheists are for. This is not only heard from the religious critics of atheism, but can be found in the voices and private thoughts of atheists themselves. Even the very names we take emphasize what we are against rather than for: atheist, agnostic, nonreligious, etc. Even the term freethinker straddles the fence: to stand for freedom of thought still implies that our thoughts should be free from something.
Of course, these terms are not meant to encompass entire value systems. They merely identify a narrow position on one particular point of fact. I am like all other atheists only in that I do not believe there are any gods. Beyond that, I may differ dramatically in my values and beliefs from any other atheist. On both sides of the political spectrum, one can find the quasi-conservative Objectivists and the ultraliberal Communists, both of whom hate each other. These two factions take up nearly opposite sets of values, yet both are comprised of unabashed atheists. I agree with neither. Similar diversity can be found in any other group–agnostics include devout Christians, freethinkers include New Agers, and the nonreligious include among their ranks everything from nihilists to flakes.
There has long been a solution to the above problem that too few have taken advantage of. The term “Secular Humanism” is a clear statement of what one stands for as well as against: being secular, one stands apart from religion, but being a humanist, one stands for humanity. Naturally, religionists have maligned and cursed and slandered this term beyond all measure, and have so equated it with atheism that even the public at large cannot see any difference between the two. Since too few have successfully defended the term and what it stands for, the advantage of the name has been lost in public discourse. But more importantly, it is incorrect to assume that all secular humanists are atheists. Being against religious solutions to our problems is not quite the same thing as not believing there is a god.
I want to talk about atheists, in as general a sense as I can. Although no one can write a truly general statement about what atheists stand for–since there are too many different kinds of atheists–it is still possible to describe what certain atheists stand for, and I have in mind the garden variety American atheist whom I have met many times in my life. It is also possible to suggest what all atheists ought to stand for, and this is ultimately what I intend to do. For there are certain values that have been held by almost all the atheists I have known and studied, values that I believe are not only compatible with atheism, but necessary to it. Besides, whenever we are asked “What do you stand for?” it is helpful to have a ready answer to that question.
The Ethics of Thought
It is probably true that almost all atheists stand for the values of reason and freethought. I will attempt to put these values in more substantial terms. There is the belief that inquiry and doubt are essential checks against deception, self deception, and error. There is the belief that logic and proper empirical method is the only way the whole world can arrive at an agreement on the truth about anything. And there is the belief that it is better to be good to each other and to build on what we all agree to be true, than to insist that we all think alike. The words I have put in bold above are the very things I believe all atheists should stand for.
First is the belief that “inquiry and doubt are essential checks against deception, self-deception, and error.” Even religionists will sometimes give this value lip service, but very often they do not abide by it. And insofar as anyone cherishes this value but does not live up to it, they are living immorally even according to their own value system. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Christians declare this value as a reason to read the Bible, yet blithely ignore it when I ask them to read the Tao Te Ching. We must accept that we are vulnerable to error in any matter in which we lack all doubt or have not led a meaningful inquiry. The honest atheist will regard willful ignorance and blind faith as the more dangerous of sins.
Contrary to theological polemic, it is not absurd to say that you stand for doubt. You should be open to falsifying evidence for any belief you hold, and you should commit to the rule that you will sway your opinion by the preponderance of evidence, and not by the preponderance of faith, tradition, or desire. Even when your faith in some belief is unusually strong, caution is in order. Rather than reject opposing evidence, and rather than give an unjustified weight to confirming evidence, if you know the facts might be incorrect or incomplete, then you should make a solid inquiry into those facts. You should admit your uncertainty, and accept that the preponderance of evidence must always decide, and only careful inquiry will resolve the matter. All of science has been driven by this principle. It has never been enough for a scientist to have faith in a theory. Rather than employ that faith as justification for belief, the scientist employs it as justification for inquiry. Belief is not declared, one way or the other, until some respectable measure of inquiry has been completed. This is why science makes progress and religion does not. I believe this is more than a method shared by science, history, journalism, and forensic law. This is the way one ought to behave, and I think most atheists would agree.
Next is the belief that “logic and proper empirical method is the only way the whole world can arrive at an agreement on the truth about anything” and that “it is better to be good to each other and to build on what we all agree to be true, than to insist that we all think alike.” These are related truths, which atheists are well-suited to accept and adopt, for both are generally rejected by believers in god. It is hard to dispute the fact that almost all atheists stand for science and reason, for high standards of empirical inquiry and rational thought. They believe in perfecting their grasp of scientific discoveries as well as scientific methods, and in honing their ability to apply reason and critical, empirical thought to every field of endeavor, even their daily lives. All the hours and years that theists apply themselves to prayer and devotion and the perusal of scripture, atheists apply themselves to the study of the universe, to the refinement of their understanding of things, and to their mastery of clear and successful thinking and questioning.
It is beyond dispute that whenever there is any outstanding disagreement about any matter of fact, which is not resolved when everyone looks and observes the same things, then the methods of science and logic must be brought to bear to decide the question. For apart from plain observation–if even after that no one agrees on what they are seeing or what it signifies–then science and logic are the only methods we know that can reveal to everyone the same decisive evidence. If ordinary observation fails to secure agreement, and neither science nor logic nor any equivalent standards of empirical inquiry can be applied to a question, then both sides of the dispute must honestly admit their mutual ignorance. For it is dishonest to maintain that someone is wrong when you have nothing at hand to prove it, and logical and empirical methods provide the only known ways to prove anything to everyone (leaving aside, of course, the lunatics and the irrational, who reject all sound reason and principles of evidence). The humility to admit your own ignorance, and the wisdom to not assume too much, are virtues that atheists should not forget to hold dear–even as they always seek to end their ignorance and go beyond their assumptions, with constant questioning and investigation. And this will affect how we treat our fellow humans, because it leads us to the conclusion that it is better to preach the gospel of ‘be good to others even when you disagree with them’, than to preach the gospel of ‘believe in our religion or be damned’. The former brings only peace, life, and happiness, and teaches us the value of respect and negotiation, but the latter brings only division, death, and misery, and teaches only tyranny and hatred.
The Ethics of Life
The values that play the most important role in any person’s life are those which stem from the meaning they have found in their lives. It is the standard rhetoric of the religious that only god gives life meaning, but to really believe this one must first believe that human life, thought, happiness, even love, are all in themselves worthless and void of meaning. I think any atheist would agree this is absurd. Even if I were the accidental byproduct of a giant rubber tire machine, the mere fact that I live and know that I live would give my life meaning at once. And the moment I felt happiness or love, their meaning and value would be immediately obvious. Anything else would be unnecessary [see Our Meaning in Life]. And as all atheists know, all of these things would exist even without a god. For all that is needed is a person, who is capable of living, loving, and knowing happiness.
The ultimate meaning of life is to live it. There is no big mystery about that. But life would not be worth living if it knew no happiness or love. It has been well argued since Aristotle that happiness is the ultimate aim of living, for it is the only thing we seek for itself. Everything else we pursue for some other reason, but we seek happiness for no other reason than to be happy. And though the preacher loves to attack the hedonism which he thinks this entails, in actual fact his own religion is based on the very same principle. For all the goals of religion are sought for some other reason, except the ultimate goal of eternal happiness. For when a preacher says “worship god” and the congregation asks why, and continues to ask the why of every answer he gives, he can only end the interrogation by answering with the same ultimate answer: “because it will make you happy.”
Thus, happiness is the ultimate value that all atheists stand for. They may vary in endless ways as to how happiness is to be pursued, but all will agree to the ultimate value of the end product. It is here most of all that enlightened religious philosophy is often studied by the atheist. For it is not in belief or ritual that happiness is achieved. It does not come from a god, and in the end organized religion is useless. Rather, happiness comes from understanding and accomplishment, and the wise atheist stands for these two things as surely as anything else. Happiness comes from perceiving what is both good and easily obtained, such as the experience of love and beauty and friendship, and the joy of many other simple pleasures, and from seeking and following the various ways we can have these things in our lives. Happiness comes, also, from perceiving how evils and obstacles can be removed or avoided, and from acting on that knowledge. This is how understanding and accomplishment lead to happiness, and this is why the atheist values all these approaches to life, and strives to embody and master them.
The Ethics of Ethics
Morality is the favorite watchword of the religious. It is also a popular polemic to equate atheism with the complete absence of morality, as if a disbelief in god meant at the same time a disbelief in moral standards. Any inquiry into the beliefs of actual atheists in the matter of morals would prove this assumption wrong. Indeed, the atheist is often possessed of stronger moral convictions than devout believers. Abraham, so the Old Testament claims, abandoned his morals at the mere command of his god. He was prepared to commit murder, even kill his own son, and this was proof of his religious devotion. Like him, many a religious man is willing to push morals aside if he thinks his god has asked or allowed him to, if he thinks it is for “the greater good” of god. Not so the atheist. If god appeared to me and asked me to kill my son, even though I would have undeniable proof that god exists and was the supreme creator and the ultimate power of the universe, I would reject his command at once. I would prefer death to the defilement of what is right. To want murder is evil, and if God wanted murder, he would be evil–and no good man accepts a wicked master.
The question of what is good, what is moral, is complicated by the fact that we are ignorant of most of the things we would need to know to answer the question. Our capacity to predict the future is greatly limited, yet is essential to any decisive answer as to what is right and wrong. Our ability to know the secret thoughts of others is also limited, and just as essential, and so on. Thus, the ability to do the right thing, to even know what the right thing is, will depend upon your wisdom and knowledge, which will never be complete. The degree to which you really know the consequences of what you do, and the significance of what you embody when you do it, will determine the degree to which you can ascertain what is right or wrong in any given case, and that is hard to put down on paper.
The complexity of moral thought, like the complexity of other crafts and enterprises, is thus often replaced with rules which various experts have learned to be the most useful or universal. But just as no man can be good at anything simply by learning the rules, true morality cannot be found in them. Rather, it is found in wisdom and a skilled intuition. Even a chessmaster must know much more than the rules of chess if he is to be a good player. But in morality, the rules cannot even be fixed. Any set rule can fall upon an exception. Thou shalt not murder–but what if you must kill a villain to save an innocent? And any set rule suffers from the flaw of ambiguity. What if you kill by mistake? Rules are useful because they allow us to act quickly when we lack the time to think something through. And when we practice at the rules long enough, they become instinctual, and thus even more effective–assuming the rules were good ones in the first place. For there are such things as bad ideas which seemed at first to be good ones, and these can become bad habits which are hard to break, even when we discover their faults.
Atheists know this. They seek moral truth not in rules, which are merely man-made expedients devised for those cases when one must act without thinking. They seek it in broader principles. No matter what language or what philosophy an atheist uses when he outlines his moral beliefs, every atheist I have known has always fallen back upon the one concept echoed worldwide, and taught by religious and secular leaders throughout all time: the famous “Golden Rule.” Jesus was repeating an old Jewish proverb when he said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Confucius was recording an old Chinese saying when he wrote “Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.” All atheist systems of morality seem to derive in various ways from this core principle, and so it would be appropriate to say that atheists stand for the Golden Rule in its fullest meaning and significance. I believe that any rule or belief which violates this principle is discarded by most atheists as immoral, and they live up to that ideal more than a great many believers do.
I have my own belief as to why this is so, and I will end with this. For the religious are always charging that atheists have no reason to be moral, no reason to hold the Golden Rule as their highest moral ideal. It could be proven at length that the religious actually have no better reason to be moral than atheists do, but I devote myself to that task elsewhere [see Reasons to be Moral]. For here it is enough to explain why I think atheists stand for the Golden Rule, or at least why they ought to. When we see a wicked person, someone who disrespects or mistreats another, who causes misery rather than happiness, we hate them. These feelings of loathing are natural and inescapable–for we could never be happy ourselves if we did not loathe the enemies of happiness. But it is not the actual evildoer that we hate as much as the kind of person who does such a thing. And there’s the rub. For as soon as we become such a person, those same feelings of loathing will again be inescapable, but now they will be feelings of self-loathing, and one who hates himself, at any level of his being, will always be handicapped, even sabotaged, in his own quest for happiness. He will find himself falling all too easily into misery or crippling delusion, and his life will all too often be difficult and unsatisfying.
But look to the other side of the matter. For when we see a good person, someone who embodies virtues we love to see, who causes happiness rather than misery, we love them–indeed, we love the very kind of person who would do that. And when we become such a person, we come to love ourselves–in the way we ought to, with respect and humble satisfaction. We will then not have to work for our happiness nearly as much, for genuine self-respect brings its own happiness. And the return in love, affection, and respect from others that our virtues generate will also expand and protect our sphere of happiness. Unlike the wicked, the good man will find himself stumbling into happiness, and he will bounce back from misery almost by nature. And even when miserable, if he has paid attention the good man will already know what must be done to recover, and how to make the best of his situation until he does. And so it is that the Golden Rule is merely an expression of a basic fact of human psychology: if we embody what we already hate, we will hate ourselves, and be hated by others, but if we embody what we love and respect, we will love and respect ourselves, and be loved and respected by others in turn. We might thus restate the Golden Rule most simply: be a hero, not a villain. For this is the way to be happy.
Atheists ought to stand for inquiry and doubt. They ought to stand for logic and sound empirical method as the only things capable of sorting true facts from false, to every reasonable person’s satisfaction. They ought to stand for the humility to admit ignorance, and the wisdom to not assume too much, as well as the consequent political reality that finding common ground and negotiating differences is far wiser, and better for all, than maintaining adamant opposition on matters that do not even warrant an adamant opinion in the first place. The atheist ought to stand for using faith as justification for inquiry rather than belief. And the atheist ought to stand for happiness, and the understanding and accomplishment that are needed to achieve it. Above all, the atheist ought to stand for being a hero to himself and his fellow humans, rather than a villain. I believe that when the reasons for these values are truly understood, any man would hold to them and keep them, even if god himself appeared and ended all dispute as to his existence. Indeed, I believe an atheist ought to live her life so she can say with all sincerity, “even if God’s existence were proven, I would change only my understanding of the facts, and not the values by which I guide my conduct and thought.”