Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Atheism

This is a series I’ve been promising nearly from the first year of this blog; taking the analytical ethical tools I’ve discussed and using them to take a really solid look at some of the major ideologies floating around in society today. Current affairs may offer good examples of ethics in real life, but all too often I end up stuck with namby-pamby ‘it depends in the circumstances’ compromises. Ideologies on the other hand, are just ideas, pure and simple. And that makes them much more fun to take apart.

The first of these ideologies to get strapped to the dissecting table is atheism, and I can hear a bunch of you objecting already; “Atheism isn’t a belief system! It’s the rejection of a belief system!” Yup, which in turn makes it a belief system all of its very own. What, you’re going to try and tell me that atheism doesn’t have ideals? That it doesn’t seek to change things? That it doesn’t have end goals in mind? I’m not suggesting atheism has a unified political front or something, but you don’t go around rejecting ideas unless you have a reason for doing so – generally because you think the idea is a bad one and that superior alternatives are available. Serious proponents of atheism don’t just want to tear down religion for shits and giggles, they want to replace these institutions with systems they believe work better, even if that replacement is pure freedom; the absence of a system. Like it or not, this means you want to change how other people live, and that means you are 100% eligible for criticism.

Demanding everyone question their beliefs doesn’t get you a free pass, matey.

So with that established, let get stuck right in: what do atheists believe? Well that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? They don’t believe that one or more gods exist, and that therefore institutions and value-systems based on such higher powers are a load of crap. 90% of the time you hear about atheism it’s in a political sense: separation of church and state for example, keep your religion out of my relationship/uterus/children’s school, etc etc. But these political arguments are based on a far more fundamental criticism; it’s not just that atheists disagree with the ideas or even values of religious groups, it’s that they believe the foundation of those ideas and values is complete bunk. After all, if your politics are based on your values, and your values are based on your belief in a higher power, then if that higher power doesn’t actually exists your ideology is in some serious trouble, right?

Broadly speaking atheists deny the existence of god/s in three different ways; ‘evidence’, ‘evil’ and ‘failure’.

‘Evidence’ is the go-to atheist argument, basically stating that there is no evidence whatsoever that a god exists or that religious value-systems are based on divine will. No god of any kind has ever, y’know, shown up in a way that completely proves its existence. Sure we’ve got burning bushes, angelic messengers and groovy vision quests out the wazoo, but you’ll note all of these are things a person could just as easily hallucinate (or make up for that matter) – you’d think that if an all-powerful divinity wished to prove its existence to us it would be pretty dang capable of doing so. Sure every religion has its sacred texts they claim are the infallible word of their god/s, but once again you’ll notice that books aren’t exactly hard to make up – in fact we do it all the time. The Bible, Torah or Koran could be the unblemished word of the creator, but then again they could just as easily have been written by the guys in charge at the time – something that seems kinda likely considering the ‘word of god’ happens to match the social and legal norms of the period they were written in. Makes you wonder if god would have been fine with homosexuality if those texts got written today.

Of course religious folk generally respond to criticisms like these with faith – their belief in god and his teachings is beyond such earthly needs as ‘proof’. But as I’ve mentioned on here before, faith can seriously backfire for religious folk. If your beliefs are true simply because you have faith in them, and despite any and all evidence to the contrary, then can’t anything be true? If a psychopath honestly believes god wants him to make a wallet out of people’s noses, then isn’t that equally as valid as your faith in a loving and merciful god? How can both be true when they obviously conflict each other? This is the philosophical concept known as Hitchen’s Razor:

Based on evidence, there is no sign of god. Based on faith, his lessons are effectively meaningless. Your choice.

The second category of argument used by atheists is the question of ‘evil’, or to be more specific, ‘where does evil come from’? This is more a problem for monotheists like Christians and Muslims who tend to portray their god as both omnipotent masters of all reality, AND perfect and incorruptible beings of love – a combination many have been quick to point out, is kinda incompatible with the fact that evil still exists in the world. Religious folk have a tendency to explain away evil as the fault of satan, humanity’s corruptibility, or in particularly difficult situations on ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. But here’s the thing about being omnipotent – you’re all powerful. Everything is as it is exclusively because you made it that way. Sure, evil may exists in the world because man has free will, or because the devil is out there corrupting us, but once again, god created everything, and therefore all that corruption can only happen because he made room for it.

This wedges the ‘god loves us’ crowd into an awkward spot, because the fact that evil exists means that either god can remove this evil but chooses not to, or that god loves us and wants to remove all evil, but can’t. Either outcome makes the big fella look pretty damn terrible.

atheist quotes

And finally there is the third category of atheist criticism: failure. ‘If god is so great’, they ask, ‘then why do his divine teachings keep fucking things up all the time?’. Whether you’re talking about Sharia law’s horrendous injustices, the Catholic ban on condoms effectively spreading HIV across Africa, the Christian anti-homosexual hate machine, the pure ridiculousness of Orthodox Judaism, the horrors of the Hindu caste system, or the poverty and oppression created by the Tibetan Buddhist theocracy, religion has a habit of causing some really terrible outcomes. And this begs the question; if these are the teachings of the all-mighty, all-knowing creator of all that is, then why don’t they work? Why do they lead to such great levels of suffering compared to the non-godly alternatives? Maybe the teachings were changed over time, or maybe the leaders have perverted them, but if that’s the case then why do we follow these ideas at all and how do we know the true will of god? Maybe the systems are working perfectly and this is precisely what god wants for us? But if massive and avoidable suffering is the will of god then that god is not benevolent and is better defied than followed.

The obvious defence here is that these terrible outcomes are religion being used as an excuse and justification by terrible people. Allah never wanted the brutality of ISIS, and Islam does not condone it. The Bible clearly says to love your neighbour and the anti-homosexual lobby are blatantly ignoring this teaching. But even where this is the case, the fact remains that religion has failed to prevent these charlatans from using their god as a tool to gain power – a failure of the ideology in and of itself. Sure religion is hardly unique in being abused for power, but there’s no denying that you get better bang for your buck when you claim to be the instrument of the creator of the universe. to see anyone blow themselves up in the name of socialised democracy.

So based on these three claims you may think that atheists have a rock solid case: three solid logical paradoxes demonstrating that there is no proof for a god of any kind existing and that all religions based on that idea must therefore be wrong. This is not to say of course that religious people should be attacked themselves (since that defeats the entire point), nor that religious folk don’t do some wonderful things in the world. But it does mean that all the good done by those people in the name of god/s is done for flawed reasons, and while that’s not necessarily a problem in the short term, it can have some nasty results further down the line – consider the difference between outcome-focussed aid, and intention-focussed charity.

But before your atheists out there get too pleased with yourselves, there’s a sting in this here tail: these proofs that god does not exist are only true if we assume that ‘god’ means the same thing as ‘religion’. When atheists say that there is no evidence of god, that the existence of evil means he is either weak or uncaring, and that every attempt to implement divine laws leads to disaster, they are criticising religions. And while this may have merit in itself, it is NOT the same as proving that one or more gods do not exist. Why? Because that is a question that simply cannot be answered – there may not be proof that any god exists, but neither is there any that a god does not.

To be clear here the arguments made against the gods as described by various religions are quite valid, but this is because we can show evidence that god cannot be like that – the existence of evil for example shows that he can’t be both benevolent and all-powerful. But if we strip back all those details and stick with the core question of whether some sort of higher power exists at all, then we have no way of answering the question because evidence simply does not exist. By definition a creator god must exists separate to the universe it created, and since by definition the universe is the limit of all the information it is possible for us to ever access, the question is closed. Unless said deity chooses to make a guest appearance (and it’s possible for it to do so) then we have no information to work off.

And this completely tanks the atheist argument. Sure you can criticise the divine authority of religions all you want, go for it. But any claim about the existence and nature of god (from either side) is moot because it is impossible to answer. And since atheism is not merely the disagreement with religions, but the explicit denial that god/s even exist, the idea falls into a screaming heap. To hold to the claims of pure atheism in the face of this total void of knowledge would be illogical – precisely as illogical as the faith-based beliefs of those that atheists condemn.

Of course in practice this kind of metaphysical point is irrelevant to those who are more concerned with fighting the influence of religion in politics. But just as good deeds done for flawed religious reasons may accidentally lead to bad outcomes, so too do atheists risk making terrible mistakes in denying the limits of their own knowledge about the universe. I am a huge fan of the scientific method and rational decision-making, but there is no shortage of examples of how it too has been abused for terrible ends by those too arrogant to question themselves.

Personally, I no longer describe myself as an atheist. While I generally agree with the values and politics of the movement, the foundation of the movement it too simplistic for me to embrace. Rather I consider myself an agnostic rationalist – acknowledging my own ignorance about the cosmos but embracing the best tools available to overcome that ignorance. It’s hardly as satisfy a philosophy as either hardcore atheism or devout theology, but it does have one major advantage: it’s correct.

Just so we’re clear that I am aware of smug that sounds. Still right though.

15 thoughts on “Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Atheism

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  2. I’m well behind on a lot of your posts, but I wanted to comment on this one because I do call myself an atheist and this post caused me to do some reflecting and in the end I decided I disagree with you. 🙂 Actually that’s not really true, because I found your breakdown to be more of a critique of what is called the New Atheist movement as opposed to perhaps atheism in general. But here is the thing, one of the things that I have found is that it’s very hard to define an atheism by the people who make up that population. I imagine the same can be said for any group of people having a belief system. I have been repudiated myself in the past for trying to say things like “what an atheist should be like” when I found atheists behaving like dicks. Okay so that’s a fair point and I realized that of course it wasn’t atheists I had a problem with, it was people just being dicks that I had a problem with. lol I completely agree with you that an atheist who tells you they don’t have beliefs is lying to you and themselves. We all do. And oddly even though we are all born atheists, I generally don’t trust young atheists, because it is in our nature to believe. It’s evolutionary. And as I watch my toddler and see the little scientist in him, I also see the imitator. Repeating and believing things I do and say to him without question. We have both a critical thinker in us and a believer. I find the education system in general, at least in the U.S. right now fosters the believer over the critical thinker and that is a problem, but that’s a whole other issue. My point is that I think it takes time to really understand why believing in the existence of the supernatural (at least in how it is defined by religions today) is something that takes time to really understand. It takes the ability to understand cognitive biases, evolution, neuroscience, physics, etc and all these things are not necessarily easy subjects. Although I feel we could be teaching people at younger ages about logical fallacies and cognitive biases as part of a standard high school education.

    So I’m saying I’m a better atheist than a 20 year old? Talk about your self-worth bias. What I really want to say is that I don’t see atheism as a belief system. Because while I agree from a logical standpoint that the existence of God can neither be proved or disproved the other common atheist argument that it is really not up to me disprove God’s existence, the onus is on the believer in deities to prove that God exists. An atheists position on God is the null hypothesis. The default position. You are quite correct though that we can effectively argue against God’s nature as described by holy books. As a result it seems to me that if there is a God we are not even close to being divine it’s nature, or perhaps not meant to, nor do I really think such a being really cares about our worship or praise. Anyway of course it doesn’t mean that the atheist doesn’t have beliefs just like anybody else. My hope, though is that what all atheists should have in common is their approach to beliefs is that they are not so tightly held that evidence would cause a shift in position. Of course we know there are atheists who have fundamental beliefs that they will not shift given evidence and to me that is always a dangerous position to be in. For me I would say my strongly held belief is that the scientific method is the best tool we have for knowing things. I would like to believe that I could change my mind if someone came up with a better tool than the scientific method for knowing, but maybe that’s not true. Right now, with our current state of understanding of the universe, it is the best tool we have for arriving at objective truths and it’s only flaw seems to be that it is used by flawed beings. 🙂 For me the real problem with atheists using the evidence argument is that the theist has different views on what constitutes as evidence. I have written about this topic before on my blog. Basically a theist might see the Bible as evidence of God and God’s nature, but I simply don’t see it as evidence. So the argument becomes moot if we can’t even agree on what constitutes evidence.

    For me, the way that I like to think of atheism is according to what Michael Shermer wrote about in his book The Believing Brain when he discussed the difference between atheism and agnosticism. He considers atheism to be a behavioral position and agnosticism to be an intellectual position. Basically an atheist lives there life as if there is no God or Gods. And that every atheist should intellectually be an agnostic because they also know that logically they can neither prove or disprove God’s existence. So I’m fine in considering myself an atheist behaviorally and my intellectual position is agnosticism. I know not every atheist feels the same way as I do.

    • As always an insightful comment Swarn! I did catch a bit of heat for this post from some of more atheist friends for similar reasons, much of which I agree with. For the vast majority of the time ‘atheist’ is a perfectly accurate and justified term to use, given it’s nearly always used in a political or social sense. It’s only when you decide to be obnoxiously precise like I did in this article, that the distinction between ‘not believing in a god’ and ‘absolutely denying the possibility of a higher power’ becomes relevant. I like the concepts of atheism as a behavioral position and agnosticism as an intellectual position – that highlights the difference quite well.

      That said I think it worth making that distinction on occasion. I think it’s only fair that a person who rejects the belief systems of other on the grounds of rationality hold themselves to that same standard – something you rightly note that younger atheists don’t tend to do. But also because while the scientific method is indeed the best tool we have for understanding the universe, it can and has lead us to terrible mistakes in the past – science is no more worthy of our faith than religion is and sadly I’ve noticed some atheists stray in that direction now and then.

      • Can I ask though how you scientific method in of itself has led us to terrible mistakes in the past? I mean the scientific method as a way of understanding the universe holds not political position and has no religious affiliation. In your post you use the example of eugenics, but such a philosophy is not a misuse of the scientific method it is still a philosophy that is belief based. Predicated on the notion that that one set of genes or traits is superior to another. A philosophy formed before we even understood genes, let alone the human genome. One who practices such a philosophy would have to be sure that enough scientific research had been done to truly isolate what those best genes are, or simply be abusing the philosophy and simply have a belief in what they think the best genes are. But even if we could come to some scientific consensus on what those best genes are, we would be ignore another scientific finding which is the benefits of genetic diversity as well as the recognition that our understanding of how the complexity of the genetic composition of life is never going to be as good as say our understanding of the First Law of Thermodynamics. Furthermore we would be negating other social scientific findings that tell us about the consequences of elevating one group of humans to a greater status than an other, limiting their breeding rights, and dehumanizing them as a whole. The scientific method can be applied as I’m sure you know to things like morality and ethics as well as biology or physics. So I guess I wouldn’t see someone who supported eugenics as someone who had a fundamentalist belief in the scientific method, but rather someone who quite honestly isn’t very bright because they are ignoring evidence contrary to their belief that eugenics will produce a better human. This would be exactly the type of thing that an atheist should oppose. Belief in spite of evidence is the same whether we are talking about eugenics, alien abductions, or religion. Anyone who fails to recognize that eugenics falls under that same category would then be no different than a religious fundamentalist in my view. Perhaps that’s not most atheists though, I don’t know.

  3. I think my major criticism of the scientific method is that it’s reactive by nature. It’s by far our best method for understanding the world, but can only provide us with answer once we have the data for it to work with. That’s great in the long term, but not very helpful when we’re dealing with something new.

    Eugenics is a great example of that. Today we know that genes are only a small component of what makes a good quality human being, but at the time the science suggested that promoting good genes and weeding out bad ones, was crucial to the ongoing success of humanity. It was only after we gave that theory a try that we realized how completely wrong we were.

    My point isn’t that the scientific method is flawed, but rather that putting faith in any method is going to cause mistakes because even a perfect method is going to be limited to the information we can feed it.

  4. Pingback: Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Libertarianism | The Ethics Of

  5. Several interesting points here. Some I agree with, others in not sure, and others I disagree with. But this seems to be the crux of your argument:

    And since atheism is not merely the disagreement with religions, but the explicit denial that god/s even exist

    … and it’s pretty easy to search and find that this is incorrect. That is a subset of atheism, and most of the atheists I know do not hold that position. As an agnostic atheist, neither do I.

    What led you to that understanding of atheism?

    • Hi ratamacue0, thanks for the comment.
      The definition of atheism I used is based on a few things. Primarily I get it from the common dictionary definition which states Atheism is “a : a disbelief in the existence of deity, b : the doctrine that there is no deity”, as well as my experience with popular atheism. However as I sort of alluded to in this article, it’s also the only non-political definition of atheism that makes any sense. I appreciate many/most atheists are really just anti-religion, but in terms of the idea behind that, we need something more precise. We could define atheism as skeptical disbelief in a higher power due to a lack of information (which I agree with entirely) but we already have a terms for that in agnosticism. Why conflate the two? Either atheism is it’s own specific idea (the outright rejection of god/s) or it’s just a synonym for agnosticism. And given there definitely are those that outright reject the existence of god/s, surely the atheism term applies specifically to them?

      I appreciate that I’ve taken an extremely diverse set of beliefs and simplified them in this article, and that naturally means I ignore a hell of a lot of nuance. As someone who rejects religion and its involvement in politics, but is skeptically uncertain about higher powers, the term ‘agnostic atheist’ fits pretty well. But if we’re going to make any progress at all with a discussion about the core ideas of an ideology, then a strict, un-nuanced definition of that idea is a necessity.

      Honestly though, it really doesn’t sound like the criticisms I made in this article of atheism apply to you at all. The only concern I really have about atheism is that strict, uncritical adherents might fall for the same mistake as the religious via faith. Given your position is as specific as it is, I seriously doubt that criticism applies to you or others who hold the same position.

  6. Hey there!

    Apologies in advance for the long comment.

    Great post. I don’t agree with all of it, but really it’s based off of little nitpicky things. You do a great job of assessing atheism as it is popularly used to glibly attack religion; it’s a nice counterpoint to the views expressed in Hitchens’s “God is Not Great.” To say that religion in and of itself is terrible most often relies on a nest of interwoven thoughts.

    However, there are a lot of atheists on the web expressing their atheism in different ways. They don’t always become a system of beliefs. Granted, there are people out there who will say because I’m an atheist, I believe x, y, or z, but that doesn’t mean that the belief is dependent upon atheism. For example, one could have an atheist and theist agree that killing people is morally bad; they’ll just reason differently towards it. Then, the Internet being what it is, they’ll argue about why each other is wrong.

    Even though they agree on the result.

    Most of my exception to the post comes from the idea starting with, “[T]hese proofs that god does not exist are only true if we assume that ‘god’ means the same thing as ‘religion’.” If I’m understanding your point correctly, it’s that atheism falls apart if someone tries to claim that there is conclusive proof that a deity or all deities don’t exist. Based on operations of logic, this is correct.

    Nonetheless, one can be reasonably certain that deities don’t exist. Lack of evidence is a perfectly valid reason to not believe in something. It’s the same way that people dismiss the existence of unicorns and mermaids (although to be fair, I did meet a woman a couple years back that believed mermaids exist, were being killed by the government, and the government was covering it up). Practically, it means that one can reject reasoning which relies on deities to work. That would be a function of logic though, and not necessarily the result of a larger ideology at play.

    All that said, to be completely fair, it doesn’t mean that entire conclusions that have deities in the premises somewhere should be dismissed out of hand. Walking that line is difficult at times, and as I’ve noted above, I would agree that some atheists simply eschew thought on the matter and just say no to anything offered with a deity attached.

    • Hi Sirius Bizinus, thanks for the comment and my own apologies for the delay replying!

      Yeah the big problem I’ve had with these posts on ideology is that for each of them there are dozens and dozens of variations of the idea, which it’s impossible to address in 4 or less pages. Unfortunately that means I have to choose one set of core ideas to use and stick with it, which means all those variations get lumped in and ignored.

      I agree entirely that labels like ‘Atheist’ should be descriptive, not prescriptive – your beliefs are what they are, and the labels are only useful in describing that, not in dictating what frame you fit in. As I’ve discussed with other comments, if you’ve thought enough about this to come up with a nuanced position then my criticisms of atheism almost certainly don’t apply to you. As you say, lack of evidence in an argument is plenty of reason to reject it, and so it is for organised religion and higher powers in general. The fact that our understanding of the universe still leaves room for such a higher power to exist is interesting, but still no support for believing that one DOES, much less that we should follow it’s unstated dictates.

      So since my entire criticism of atheism hinges of on nitpicking, it’s only reasonable that you nitpick in return!

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