On What Atheism Isn't

Yesterday’s Washington Post ran an article in their Metro/Religion section entitled “Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?” With a title like that, and a ginormous picture of God is Not Great author Christopher Hitchens accompanying the article, I had to read the article.

The thesis of Benedicta Cipolla’s article? That atheists like Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), Sam Harris (author of Letter to a Christian Nation), and Hitchens in arguing that god does not exist–a negative proposition–are not offering in its place a positive framework for human existence.

The article takes several stances. First, that atheists are equivalent to religious fundamentalists in the ferocity of their arguments. Second, that the recent high-profile works on atheism are painting the secular humanist movement in a poor light. And third, that atheism can’t grow as long as it alienates the religious-minded.

This article suffers from several flaws.

First, atheism doesn’t have to provide a framework for human existence in the way that religions do, let alone a positive one. Atheism is a statement of the non-existence of god. It’s not a religion. It’s not a philosophy. It’s not an ethical framework. Atheism doesn’t teach ethics or morality. More to the point, atheism doesn’t teach. Period. It’s just a statement that god does not exist, that there’s no higher power.

Second, when authors like Dawkins and Hitchens argue forcefully for god’s non-existence and the destructive power of religion in human history, they’re not trying to replace religion’s moral and ethical framework with a superior framework. Rather, they’re demonstrating how the ethical framework of religion is flawed and has been a dangerous force in history, and thus should be discarded on history’s dumpbin. Fundamentalism is entirely the wrong word to use, as that implies a certain underlying dogma and unalterable beliefs preached as an exclusionary force. If atheist writers like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens can be accused of anything it’s of being strident in their arguments, but they’re strident in the way that civil rights, equal rights, and gay rights activists have been in our recent history. They’re being strident to rise above the din of a society biased against their message. Hitchens himself writes that “the only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason, irony, humor and literature, things of this kind. Just because we hold these convictions rather strongly does not mean this attitude can be classified as fundamentalist.” Strong beliefs. Strident beliefs. To be heard in a society implicitly biased against them.

Third, American society is a religious one, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise, and nothing strikes at the core of most Americans’ identities than the statement that the individual’s core belief about the universe and their place in it is wrong. Atheism is going to alienate the religious-minded for that reason alone. But that won’t prevent atheism/agnosticism/secularism from growing. Instead, the new prominence given to recent works on atheism should encourage more Americans to question their belief systems.

Fourth, whether or not recent works paint secular humanism in a bad light is irrelevant. The Post‘s article quotes Professor Ronald Aronson of Wayne State University: “There are some questions we secularists have to answer: Who am I, what am I, what can I know? Unless we can answer these questions adequately for ourselves, we can’t expect people to even begin to be interested in living without God.” Atheism is a statement that god does not exist, and Aronson’s three questions are wholly beside the point because they are about the meaning of life, questions atheism doesn’t answer because it doesn’t need to answer them. Religion, as an ethical system, answers those questions. Humanism, as an ethical system, answers those questions from a secular standpoint. But atheism isn’t an ethical system. It’s a philosophical statement about the nature of the universe. That’s all, and that’s all that writers like Hitchens and Dawkins argue for, that the belief in god’s existence is flawed and insupportable. The ethical framework about life’s meaning falls outside their arguments. This article’s assumption that life has a meaning that must be filled is its greatest flaw.

Ultimately, the Post‘s article is a frustrating read. A telling quote is this: Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College “faults atheists for preferring black-and-white simplicity to a more nuanced view of religion.” What’s nuanced about an either/or question? Either god exists, or god does not exist. That’s all Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens argue–that god does not exist. There’s no nuance there. That’s all black-and-white. The Post’s article never comes to grips with that simple truth and instead muddles the issue with question–like ethical frameworks–that are wholly beside the point of the questions raised by Dawkins and Hitchens, and that’s why the Post‘s article fails.

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