Mao and Stalin were atheists. This proves that atheists are not socially tolerant. I can probably think of a hundred names to add to the list to build a case. But it would be the wrong case because, surely, it was communism that supplied the evangelical intolerance of the social and economic movements we associate with Stalinism and Maoism. Atheism is simply a component of a larger picture. (As I mentioned to the reader who lodged the objection, this is a good example of the fallacy of division.)
Beyond this, we can’t deny that the ideologues of the communist movement understood atheism as a formative mind-set: Marx (and Engels) began as left-Hegelians, along with a half dozen theologians ranging from Strauss to the early myth-theorist Bruno Bauer. Their atheism flowed from a material view of the world and a rejection of the superstition that could be used to keep the workers of the world in their place, on the analogy of the laity in relation to church hierarchy at the time of the Reformation. The extent to which Reformation theology shaped all of the post-Hegelian social theorists, and especially Engels, has been clear to scholars for a century.
But the question of atheism as a catalyst for tolerance (my view) raises a whole range of subordinate questions about whether an intellectual rejection of God requires, and to what degree, practical rejection of religions, religious practice, and religious persons. And this is proof enough that unbelief is not mere rejectionism: it has social consequences. How do you behave when you have decided religion is plain wrong? Does it parallel the patterns we are used to in the history of religion, when one sect bloodies the other sects because only one can have the whole truth? Communism and other social movements have behaved religiously when they have had the power to punish and suppress.
The issue is, what sort of consequences do we recognize as flowing, more or less directly from atheism? I stick to my point that we can only know the answer to that from the newspapers, and atheists (as far as I know) as atheists have no record of destroying religious shrines, or waging unholy war, or doing physical violence to believers in public places. Tolerance with a small “t”, if you will, but that’s about all we can get in this old world.
The eminently sensible Ophelia Benson (Butterflies and Wheels) says that she has never found it difficult to be an atheist; thus, courage should not (necessarily) be commended as an atheist virtue.
Permit me to disagree, but in a limited way. I am perhaps as close to being an atheist as any believer can be, so close that it pains me to self-identify as a “believer.” I certainly do not believe in any gods so far discovered, poesized, prayed to or reduced to scripture. If I liked the world “possibilism” I would use it. If I liked the word “agnostic,” you’d find it here.
But the real word for my position is cowardly. Not in a playing-Pascal’s-odds kind of way, but a pure and refined cowardice. I like to think of myself as a philosophical work in progress, trying to find the right descriptors for God–ones that will appeal to my robust atheist friends, always failing miserably in a rhetorical swamp. I know my project is a waste of time because my godless comrades have already reached the right conclusion. I have always liked to refer to myself as Sartre’s grandmother: “Only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist” (Les Mots, 1964). I resist settled positions because once you have arrived at one you have to unpack your suitcase and sit down. Some are born godless, some achieve godlessness, but unlike those communists we were just discussing, no “real” atheist has godlessness thrust upon them.
I call having and holding that position against the odds courageous.
Ophelia also calls me out for saying that atheism and the arts don’t always mix, though they should because atheism demands imagination. Just as not all atheists are humanists (and vice versa), atheists will differ about the role of the arts, and they will usually do so by asking a “utility” question: what are the arts good for? Does painting get you to the moon? Does poetry or theater improve life-expectancy? The answer to both questions is that a basketball scholarship will get you into Purdue, but not into Phi Beta Kappa.
In a 1973 article for Humanism Today, Paul Kurtz posed the question as whether the arts convey knowledge. He answered by saying yes and no–depending on the kind of art and on understanding that, say, a dramatist might convey very important information that can also be conveyed in “unaesthetic” and (implicitly) more precise ways. The arts and the imagination are important, Kurtz argued, because they provide an additum to human life, but are not at the core of the reasoning process:
Thus humanism needs to untap the poetic metaphors of the creative human imagination and to use these to dramatize humanist ideals in eloquent form. Art is not a subjective substitute of intuition for knowledge claims justified by reason and experiment; it is not a replacement for objective methods of inquiry. It simply adds an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths and humanist values in aesthetic form. And as such it can help to inspire intensity of conviction and devotion to commitment. It is thus able to make humanism both intellectually true and aesthetically satisfying. As such, art has a powerful role to play in life. It is thus intrinsic to the fullest expression of humanist eupraxophy
I don’t think the idea that the arts “simply add an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths …and values in aesthetic forms” adequately comprehends the centrality of experience to both religious and non-religious people. The question of God–though not often understood in this way, thanks to the quibbles of theology and philosophy over centuries–is fundamentally a question about the imagination. And if this is so, then aesthetic questions–characterization, quality, representation (description) and effect–have to be taken into account in our answer.
Imagination is not peripheral or “modal” to the atheist experience anymore than it is to the religious experience. This has to be true because (as atheological writers like Feuerbach reminded us a long time back) that’s where gods are born. The statues and images and choral preludes come later. Classical atheism understood this–Democritus and Lucretius especially, and Xenophanes:
But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.
Most of us use informal aesthetics all the time without knowing it: every believer’s suggestion that the New Testament God is “nicer” than the Old Testament God, or that Allah condones terrorism, is an aesthetic judgement. Every unbeliever’s conclusion that God does not exist springs from some assessment of a literary God, rarely from Hobbes and Hume, except as philosophical dressing.
Not imagining God is not the simple denial of the other man’s beliefs but a different and contrary evaluation of the world he sees. Once this aesthetic judgment is reduced to premises–mere information–all is lost.
The night sky over Australia is one of the most beautiful sights on earth. It makes me grateful for my eyes, but grateful to nothing. What makes one man want to pray to an unseen infinitely great being located up or out there–this contemplation of immensity–makes another rejoice in his nearly infinite smallness. It is true, this is not knowledge, but there is no knowledge without the experience and its effects.
Atheism is all about imagination; it needs to be more about aesthetics.