Monday, July 02, 2012

"Atheism is not a philosophy"

Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.

– Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

I do not see how atheism can be a worldview. I have compared atheism to a-unicornism: disbelief in the existence of unicorns. How is a-unicornism a “worldview”? It’s not. Atheism and a-unicornism are each a single belief about one thing. Neither of these positions tell you anything else about the person who holds them: their morals values, their political views, their driving purpose, their explanations for life or the universe, their beliefs about magic or ghosts or elves, their rationality or their intelligence.

First, atheism is by itself just the absence of belief in gods; it's not even a single belief, much less a body of beliefs. Second, atheism by itself offers no guidance on moral, social, or political matters.

A person's philosophy is their "system of principles for guidance in practical affairs." Like ideology, a philosophy comprises of two key elements: it must be a group of beliefs and it must provide guidance. Atheism is not a philosophy for the same reason that it is not an ideology: it's not even a single belief, much less a system of interconnected beliefs, and by itself atheism does not guide anyone anywhere. The same would be true if we defined atheism narrowly as denial of the existence of gods: that single belief is not a system of principles.

That’s the official version. Let’s compare that to a recent controversy. I haven’t tried to follow this in detail, but here’s my impression of what went down. Thunderf00t, a contributor Freethought blogs, made a parenthetical comment which was perceived to be “homophobic.”

That instantly ignited a firestorm of controversy. The moment he made the offending statement, his doom was sealed. No apology or recantation, however, obsequious or groveling, would remove the indelible stain. You could see his fellow atheists distance themselves, as if he was radioactive.

Yet if atheism is not a philosophy, ideology, or worldview, if atheism is merely the absence of belief in God or gods, then why the reaction? Why is “homophobia” taboo within the ranks of atheism? Why is that a line you dare not cross on pain of banishment and execration? How does nonbelief in gods entail support for homosexual rights?

Consider what was not considered in response to thunderf00t:

i) Whether “homophobia” is permissible wasn’t even up for debate. That’s unquestioned dogma.

ii) One might take the position that what he said was wrong, but he had the right to say it.

ii) Whether thunderf00t is actually “homophobic” was not the issue. The issue was the appearance rather than reality. His statement was perceived to be “homophobic.”

Once he uttered the offending statement, whatever his intentions, he crossed a line of no return.

But if atheism is not a philosophy, ideology, or worldview, then how does atheism select for any particular position on homosexuality? Why is "homophobia" an excommunicable offense?

Perhaps an atheist would counter thusly: although atheism per se is neutral on “homophobia,” atheism can be part of a philosophy, ideology, or worldview that supports equal rights for homosexuals.

But even if we accept that caveat, it’s hard to see where we go from there. For instance, many atheists are moral relativists or moral nihilists. So they can’t very well condemn “homophobia” from that standpoint.

Likewise, most atheists subscribe to naturalistic evolution. But how does evolutionary ethics bolster homosexual rights? Homosexuality doesn’t confer a survival advantage on the human species. Indeed, it seems maladaptive from an evolutionary standpoint.

For that matter, when did homosexual rights become a fixture of atheism? I don’t recall that being a litmus test for old-guard atheists like Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Andrew White, Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, J. I. Mackie, Antony Flew, &c.

1 comment:

  1. Just the typical double standard of atheism. They want a moral standard to forbid murdering their grandchildren, but not one to forbid sodomy. They can't have their cake and eat it too.