Is Atheism a Humanist Value?

In a word, No.

There is nothing inherently “humanistic” about atheism, and some forms of militant atheism–the outwardly obnoxious, deliberately offensive kind now primarily associated with the Center for Inquiry and the minions of the new atheism–are unhumanistic.

I have been at work pari passu (meaning “when I feel like it,”) on a “Little Lexicon of Humanist Values.” It will never be the OED. It will never be Webster’s–maybe not even the Yellow Pages.

Instead it is a half-serious, occasionally flippant attempt to reflect on values that humanists might agree are important to the pursuit of a humanist worldview or life-stance. The definitions sometimes approach the famous discussion between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in chapter six of Through the Looking Glass, when Alice says to the Eggy creature (who has used the term “glory” in an unusual way),

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”….’

“Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

“`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected….

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

In any event, as my thinking on the subject unfolded–and as it continues to unfold–it occurred to me that terms like “beneficence,” and “godliness,” and “happiness,” “honesty” and even “virtue” all have assured places in a lexicon that a humanist might consult. So too, oppositionally, do words like “despair”, because a humanist needs to know what to feel desperate about, and “sadness” and “tragedy” and “heroism” (which I have defined in a completely negative sense, one to make classicists shudder).

But you will not find a definition of atheism in the lexicon, because it is not a value and carries no subordinate values with it. It is not a virtue, because virtue (when I get around to defining it) has to be grounded in human good and happiness.

Atheism does not make you good, in a practical sense, and by its very nature it does not make you wise. It may be a position against a certain kind of wisdom, traditionally associated with metaphysics, ontology and theology in favor of a strictly scientific, falsifiable understanding of human reality as squeezed through the grate of naturalism. That is to say, atheism may be a specific category of skepticism applied to a specific object (God). But in rejecting a very big idea like God, it must also reject a very big metaphysical idea like wisdom.

Moreover, if it is true that non-falsifiable statements are meaningless (Ayer v Popper–remember your “demarcation principles,” boys and girls) or senseless, then the most atheism will get you is to the point of being able to smile and say “You’re talking nonsense when you talk about God.” (I have fantasized such a conversation between Bertie Russell and Anselm of Canterbury to this effect in these pages….). The kind of atheism that limits itself, pretty dully, to the nature of propositions we can mark off as “statement atheism.” It has the same ontological status as a crossword puzzle.

Of course, most people when they say, a little proudly, that they are atheists are claiming a good deal more. They are claiming that “none of it is true,” meaning religion. “Whole-cloth atheism” assumes more than that God does not exist. It assumes that religion (nevermind theology) is untrue and positively and actually harmful.

Philosophers have argued this point since Hume, poets since Shelley, social theorists since Comte and later Freud, polemicists since Paine. Sometimes it leads to a hierarchy of Bad to Worst Religions, with the achievement laurel often going to Buddhism, Unitarianism, paganism, or Eco-feminism for being interesting if also terribly timid and incomplete approximations of unbelief–and Islam, at least in the twenty-first century, getting the prize for the most backward, hateful and generally obnoxious system of belief ever devised.

If you deny not just God but all of his works, titles, all of the doctrines, all of the “ways to the center” that comparative religionists talk about in their introductory courses, and all of the arguments devised to support belief systems and caste systems and priestly hierarchies from India to Rome, you have a lot of work to do. Most atheists, even when they come from the academy (especially when they come from academy) do it very badly. (Refuting Thomas Aquinas alone could easily take you from graduate school to retirement without a breath along the way.) Wholecloth atheists would be better limiting themselves to statement-atheism unless they are willing to study theology. (For that matter, maybe all evangelical theologians who believe in a six-day creation should be sentenced to study physics at the University of Arkansas–assuming they would not be able to test into MIT.)

Wholecloth atheists are very good at short-cutting the philosophy and history of religion–like metaphysics, an embarrassing chapter in the history of philosophy?–and relying instead on the opinions of other atheists, especially ones with name value. –Just like, in the days when God still reigned, theologians (yes, even Aquinas) relied on the authority of other theologians. And when that failed, the authority of reason. And when that failed, the authority of scripture or a pentecostal inner light.

So “atheism” is not a natural ally of humanism. One thing humanism does not tolerate is intellectual short-cutting and appeals to authority, whether it comes from theology or anti-theology. Both Galileo and Luther were humanists because they appealed to the light of reason and rejected established authority. No atheist who appeals to the intelligence quotients of the people he reads is behaving like a humanist. He is behaving like a monk.

Appeals to the authority of atheist worthies also teaches the atheist faithful bad habits, as I observe when I see Richard Dawkins quoted with the same assurance of knock-down-argument rectitude, the same immunity from contradiction, as a Christian invokes when he cites the Bible. I mean “glory.”

Whether you are a mere statement atheist or a wholecloth atheist, you should not assume that atheism carries anything with it into the bargain of unbelief. How could it? I have just come from a silly pair of articles in the magazine Free Inquiry where two people (whose names I here withhold) are debating about whether atheism incorporates or “teaches” certain ethics and values. One of the contributors assures us that kindness and consideration and a bunch of other commendable attitudes (perhaps gleaned from another lexicon?) come with the territory when you’re an atheist.

Nonsense. Atheism does not confer virtue; it cannot assume virtue. In fact the biggest challenge for the atheist remains, per omnia saecula saeculorum, the defense of virtue in the absence of a ground of absolute value. These values have not been liberated for meaning anything you want them to mean just because you kill their father.

Or maybe atheists are just as good as Humpty Dumpty when they claim that the ground of value begins with the denial of God. Maybe beneficence can mean “Doing the good I want to do when I feel like it” (has a ring of truth about it, certainly) and “kindness” “a weird sort of energy that reasonable people will learn to subdue.”

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’, says Humpty.
`Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, `what that means?’
`Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased.
`I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
`That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

2 thoughts on “Is Atheism a Humanist Value?

  1. Puffikt post, succinct and so very very comforting …. I have been more than a little disturbed by atheists adopting – pinching – the noun ‘humanism’, and applying it to themselves. I could no longer call myself a humanist until the delightful list of humanist values appeared on this blog. But still, I read an announcement the other day: the ‘Secular’ humanism’s 30th anniversary conference is looming – and it’s full of flaming raving atheist speakers. I have become increasingly reluctant to identify myself with the humanist label! The world’s leading atheists will appear at this celebration (but who is James the ‘Amazing’ Randi?). Recently, a ‘leading’ atheist, Stephen Law, published his ‘definitions’ of humanism which suggest a humanist must be atheist or at least agnostic… I would love to see a little published volume of the humanist values I have read here, appear on the shelves of every household, be it a religious or secular one. After all, I believe in Tangaroa and I still want to be a humanist too.

    I love the Humpty Dumpty and Alice – funny – I think I’ve seen them somewhere before! I remember the wonderful conversation between Bertie and Anselm – perhaps you could link it?

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