Monday, August 27, 2012

The Atheist Community: What Matters

I have actually been surprised in the past week to discover that there are atheists who think that atheism – and converting a person to atheism – is the one and only thing that matters and that nothing else on the whole planet should distract us from the task of changing people’s minds on this one issue.

This is an idea that is absurd on its face. Clearly, we have to count growing food, providing medical care, finding clean water, and manufacturing shelter as things to do other than converting people to atheism. This implies that, even though atheism is important, it cannot be the only thing that is important. It is, at least, permissible for certain other things to distract us from this task.

So why is it considered wrong to have a distraction in the form of promoting social justice and providing a safe and comfortable environment for women (among others)? Why is it, in this case, this distraction is to be condemned as taking resources away from the one and only activity that really matters?

If we look at the issue further, I bet that we would discover that those who condemn such a distraction are often distracted themselves by things other than food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. I bet you are going to find them going to movies and to concerts, playing video games, reading the sports page of the newspaper, and attending games – in short, wasting time on issues that at least on the surface seem less important than pursuing matters of social justice.

Consequently, I have to ask: Why is it permissible to spend an hour each week (and, for some people, much more) keeping track of who is going to end up in the World Series and who will be playing for what football team. However, it is worthy of condemnation to be distracted away from the issue of atheism by something as trivial and worthless as social violence and creating a culture where women are not subject to threats of violence at every turn?

A possible response to this would to claim that the importance of fighting religion is to sever people from religious passages that they have been using to justify behavior that is a threat to other people – the condemnation of homosexuals, the mistreatment of women, willful ignorance of science and of the real-world consequences of real-world activities. This form of behavior is a source of a great deal of suffering and injustice. The importance of reducing that suffering and injustice is captured by the importance of converting people to atheism. It explains why it is so important that other issues cannot be served up as a distraction.

Other issues . . .

Like, what other issues? Suffering and injustice, perhaps?

Either we are seeking to fight the atheist cause as an end in itself, or we are doing so as a means to some other end. (Or both, but “both” can be captured as a conjunction of these two options).

The claim that belief that one or more gods exists is intrinsically bad - that nothing else matters so long as one person remains who believes in a god - is false. This type of value does not exist. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Even the state of believing in a god – or a state of believing that the proposition that a god exists is certainly or almost certainly false – has no intrinsic value. It only has value insofar as it relates to certain desires. Though a person may have a desire that the belief ceases to exist that overrides all other concerns, he can offer no argument to show that others are wrong who care about other things – such as suffering and injustice.

The other option is that belief in a god must be challenged as a way of reducing suffering and injustice. However, if this is the motivation – the goal – behind promoting atheism and challenging injustice, then it is illogical and irrational to have issues of suffering and injustice take a back seat. Other causes of suffering and forms of injustice must also be addressed – including injustices (e.g., threats of violence against women) that come from non-religious sources.

There is simply no rational basis for this view that nothing matters but belief in god, and that anybody must be condemned who focuses some of their time and attention on other things. Its value does not even justify forcing a person to give up dancing, movies, sports, and computer games. It certainly does not require that people give up any and all concern with other forms of social injustice.

Other things DO matter.

Living in a community where one is not repeatedly subject to abuse and threats of violence is one of them. Compared to the issue of accepting or rejecting a proposition that has absolutely no moral implications - it matters a lot.

1 comment:

kipkoan said...

I think a lot of atheists that used to be fundamentalist Christians try to get people to stop believing in God so that they stop believing that the Bible is the "inerrant word of God" so that they stop drawing moral inspiration from the very bad parts of the Bible (those parts that condone harm to women & homosexuals for instance). I used to be one of those atheists. Now, however, I think a better strategy is to skip the 1st step, and not worry about God belief, but go straight to the "Bible is the inerrant word of God" belief. That is a belief that is the basis for many other beliefs that tend to cause a great deal of harm. I think it is prudent to try to disuade someone from that belief, and replace it with a belief that cherry-picking the Bible is okay. That is what many liberal/progressive Christian denominations have done, and I think that is a good thing.