Atheism Plus, Part Two: How Atheism Leads to Social Justice Activism

Posted on September 20, 2012


A rather elaborate metaphor for the stagnant, immobilized atheists that are objecting to atheism plus.

This is the second in a series of three posts about the development of a new wave of atheism, called Atheism Plus. In this post, I will defend the premise of atheism plus by showing a philosophically demonstrable link between atheism and social justice activism. The first post, which examines the foundations of atheist ethics, can be found here.  If you haven’t heard of Atheism Plus, you should look it up at Blag Hag. This post, including the comments, is a good place to start.

I’m going to start with a parable. It’s a bit long-winded, but bear with me.

Imagine there is a car club in your town. It is made up of a large number of car enthusiasts who they have meetings where they talk about their cars and argue over which cars have the nicest appearance or most impressive performance. They help each other with maintenance, and the car club forms the primary social circle of many members. There is something strange about this club, however: they don’t drive their cars. Sure, the members will go out for drives individually and in small groups-that’s the only way to get the cars to the meetups, after all, but there are no organized drives. When the club is together on official business, the cars remain parked idly in parking lots or fields.

Some of the club members don’t enjoy this situation. They think that cars were meant for driving, and that group joyrides around town would be an ideal way to take advantage of the car club to have some fun. They want to organize road trips, parades through town, and the like. Every time they bring such ideas up at the club meeting, however, they are loudly shouted down with epithets like “There’s nothing about owning a car that requires me to drive it”, “I didn’t buy a car to waste all my time driving”, and “Drive on your own time! This is a club for car owners. That’s it!”.

The advocates of driving are understandably flustered by this, and after several failed attempts to organize a simple picnic in a town down the road, they give up on trying to convince the recalcitrant majority. Instead, they form a new club, calling it a car and driving club. This creates a separate space where driving is an explicit part of the club’s purpose. To the driving enthusiasts’ confusion, however, this only invites louder opposition from the anti-driving cohort. They are called divisive, accused of forming dogma about the need to drive a car, and even louder screams about the definition of “car owner” are heard. Some of the new driving group are harassed so intensely that they are left with no choice but to sell their cars.

In this context, the objections of the car club to some of their members going for drives seem incredibly silly. I’m going to argue that most of the opposition to atheism plus is just as silly. Like the stationary car enthusiasts, they have failed to understand that a small group does not have the power to modify the definition of a larger group under whose umbrella it falls, and they have insisted on forcing everybody to adhere to their definition of the thing that the group has in common. Some will inevitably claim driving is far more closely connected to car ownership than social justice and inclusion are with atheism. I am going to argue that this is not the case, and that atheism naturally leads to social justice activism if it is combined with just one very simple and nearly universally held philosophical proposition. I will show that, given belief in the truth of this proposition, social justice activism follows from atheism just as naturally as driving follows from car ownership.

Strictly speaking, those who are opposed to atheism plus are correct to point out that atheism does not contain any intrinsic drive towards social justice. Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and it is possible to disbelieve in god while simultaneously being a liberal, conservative, existentialist, nihilist, spiritualist, utilitarian, virtue ethicist, capitalist, communist, or cultural pastafarian. In my previous post on this topic I argued that the existence of god is a fundamentally descriptive fact that does not by itself provide religious believers with any moral grounding, and that the denial of god’s existence is a similar factual statement with no moral content. If we want a basis for any sort of consistent morality, we have to provide an arbitrary foundational “ought” statement, from which all others will follow.

The exact nature of this ought statement will vary, particularly among the non-religious, but most people’s moral foundations can be grouped into a few common themes. For the sake of argument, I’m going to choose one that I think just about everybody will agree with:

People should be accountable for their actions.

You would be right to quibble with the meanings of words like “people”, “accountable”, and “actions”, but I imagine that nearly all reasonable people will agree with some variation of this statement. I would imagine that most atheists, even those who rail against atheism plus, would agree that some form of moral accountability is desirable.

If people should be accountable for their actions, then the next obvious question is to whom they should be accountable. Religious ethics has a convenient all-knowing, all-powerful god to place in this position, but atheists and agnostics must look elsewhere. A suitable candidate to hold people accountable for their actions must be capable of understanding the intentions behind those actions and the consequences that follow them, and we know of only one entity with a mind complex enough to manage this. In the absence of god, the only beings to whom we can be morally accountable are other humans. Since the vast majority of human beings approve of conduct that is conducive to the welfare of themselves and those close to them, and disapprove of conduct that they find harmful, it follows that human welfare, rather than any abstract set of a priori “goods” must be the ultimate goal of moral discussion.

The important point coming from atheism is that all human beings become equally qualified to hold others accountable, and therefore equally deserving of moral consideration. The important quality that makes us capable of understanding moral acts is mind qua mind-something that all living humans have-rather than any particular physical or mental attribute.  It follows, therefore, that every human being has an equal stake not only in having their welfare considered, but also in determining what human welfare actually means. In the absence of a transcendant moral code which privileges one group over another, no discrimination of any kind can ever be ethically justified. The ideal of atheist morality, then, must be a world in which all people, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or religion, have an equal right to make justified demands regarding how they and the people around them are treated, and in which these demands will be honoured as much as is possible.

Of course, this world does not exist. Even a mildly sceptical view of the world as it is reveals it to be rife with sexism, homophobia, classism, racism, war, political repression, and all other sorts of violence that are aimed at particular people or groups of people. Women are deprived of agency over their own bodies due to the prejudices of mostly old white men. Police officers treat people differently based on their economic class or skin colour. Vast numbers of people in the southern hemisphere are left to deal with the crippling environmental effects of the industrial excesses richer countries in the northern hemisphere. If we accept the normative proposition that ethical atheists should prefer a world where all people are given equal ethical consideration, and we accept the factual proposition that we do not currently live in that world, then the obvious conclusion is that an ethical atheist should work to make the real world more like the ideal world by eliminating these forms of discrimination. In other words, atheism logically entails feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, and a whole host of social justice causes.

You might suggest that this is just humanism in shiny new clothes, and you would be right. Sort of. Humanism is necessary but not sufficient for the worldview I have just described. Humanists believe that humans are the measure of all ethical choices, yes, but this does not rule out religious belief. Quakers, in fact, employ an explicitly humanist theology. Organized atheism, however, tends to include the position that certain religious beliefs are not conducive to human welfare should be explicitly questioned and criticized for that reason. Humanists, including religious humanists, could be important allies of those who profess the ethical atheism I have described, but a new movement is needed to encompass social justice advocacy that is informed by an atheism which also encourages criticism of religious truth-claims. This movement is called atheism plus.

I should clarify, lest I sound too sure of myself, that atheism plus as a movement remains very unsure of itself. There is a lot of room for debate within the moral framework I have just laid out. Questions about whether animals qualify for moral consideration, or what qualifies as human welfare, or whether neo-liberal economics is compatible with humanism, remain unanswered. I have opinions on these matters, of course, but these opinions do not represent atheism plus as a whole. It is also important to note that atheism plus does not hold a monopoly on effective social justice activism. Other humanist groups, religious communities, and spiritually agnostic social movements also have important roles to play. The point of this post, however, is to show that the foundations of atheism plus-social justice and atheist activism supplementing one another-follows directly from non-belief in god so long as one has a basic commitment to the idea that there is such a thing as ethical conduct.

It is, of course, possible to insist that even the most basic moral premises are not a part of atheism, and neither they nor their philosophical consequences should be considered in any movement that associates itself with communities of nonbelievers. To return to the parable at the beginning of this post, it remains the case that there is nothing about owning a car that logically demands you drive it. Like the stationary car enthusiasts of the parable, those who don’t think atheism should integrate even the most basic of ethical premises are welcome to cling to their dictionary definitions and remain in one narrowly defined philosophical and political location. I think I speak for a large portion of those who support atheism plus when I say I’m happy to leave them behind. We don’t need them. We’re going places.

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