Atheism must be about more than just not believing in god – really?


Today in my Twitter feed, there appeared an article from Dr. Patrick O’Connor, entitled “Atheism must be about more than just not believing in god“. In the article, Dr. O’Connor argues that atheism should turn away from humanistic values and look instead to non-humanistic philosophy like that of Sartre or Nietzsche or risk losing its relevance for the new century.

Let’s take a look at some of the things Dr. O’Connor has to say about atheism and what leads him to believe that atheism should change.

Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole. The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.

I agree that when one embraces the single tenet that atheism has, that there most likely isn’t a god and if there is, this is not relevant to our existence, this can be very disconcerting for people who used to have faith. Many religious people do indeed get their meaning of life, their sense of belonging and purpose from their religious beliefs. When their faith loses its meaning, atheism does nothing to fill that void.

Looking at the definition of atheism, we can see why this must, inevitably, be so. Atheism holds quite simply that there (most likely) isn’t any deity. Atheists don’t believe in a deity, that’s is all. Atheism isn’t a stream of philosophy, it isn’t a religion or a world view. It has no answers about life, the universe and everything nor does it pretend to have them.

Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history.

This is simply a terrible bit of reasoning here, there are no other words for it. Atheism has no set of values. People who identify as atheists look to something other than religious beliefs from which to glean a set of values. Since they can only look upon humanity for those answers, they often arrive at humanistic values. This is by no means a given, however. Atheism and humanism are not the same thing. There is even such a thing as religious humanism!

At no point does Dr. O’Connor establish how humanistic values would be “brittle” when seeking to deal with current problems. His claim that “the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative” is as unfounded as I expect it to be untrue. Someone who truly subscribes to humanistic values, can not be unsympathetic to the suffering of fellow human beings. A quote taken from the website of the British Humanist Association, which O’Connor linked to in the quote above, even states this: “Believe people can use empathy and compassion to make the world a better place for everyone”.

The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.

Moving ever further from the path of logic and reason, Dr. O’Connor is now blaming atheism that is has no answer to some of the biggest problems of the world at present. There is simply no way a disbelief in God can help you solve financial crises or economic deprivation except in this one way: it makes sure you do not sit praying idly to a deity who can not or will not help you. In that sense, atheism is probably a bigger help solving the world’s problems than faith is. An atheist will not rely on a higher power to solve things for him or her but instead rely on the one power he or she knows to be true: that of people.

The writings of atheist poster boys Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett do not offer solace to the existential and political realities of our world.

Indeed, they do not. None of these gentlemen have ever given the impression that they do. Atheism is cold reasoning so you won’t find solace there and it is mistaken or dishonest of Dr. O’Connor to give the impression that the mentioned authors should offer solace in some form or another.

This is why atheism, if it is to be relevant, must shed its humanism. The future vitality and relevance of atheism depends on its ability to broaden its focus away from on the validity of god’s existence and narrow concerns over individual freedom. Instead, it must turn to address questions about economic causality, belonging and alienation, poverty, collective action, geo-politics, the social causes of environmental problems, class and gender inequality, and human suffering.

How could atheism accomplish anything of the above? As I’ve already said, atheism is a tenet, it is part of a foundation for a world view, nothing more. Atheism can only deal with that one thing that it says anything about: the non-existence of a deity.
Let’s do a little experiment and take another position of disbelief in something. Let us embrace a-leprechaunism (disbelief in the existence of leprechauns) as one of the foundations for our world view. Now let’s apply the same logic as Dr. O’Connor does. If a-leprechaunism is to remain relevant, it must turn away from questions on the validity of the existence of leprechauns […] it must turn to address questions about economic causality, belonging and alienation, poverty, collective action, geo-politics
No one in his right mind would expect a-leprechaunism to have an answer to all of these problems. Now why would Dr. O’Connor expect the narrow tenet of atheism to have them?

The trouble with atheism in its more conventional guises is a nerdish fetishism for all things that work: what is accurate, the instrumental and the efficient. The trouble is, many aspects of our world are not working. Because of this, the atheist is in danger of being perceived as deluded and aloof from the violent mess of the real. Atheism, if it is to be vital, needs to reconnect itself with the more disturbing, darker aspects of the human condition.

Atheism in its conventional guise is a disbelief in God. Period. It does not address any other issue and doesn’t say or imply anything else. What atheism can’t do and what it is not equipped to do, is offer solace, comfort, answer existential or metaphysical questions, give meaning to your life or deal with the many issues the world is struggling with. To expect it to provide us with all of this, is simply ridiculous. The entire article is a very long, carefully worded and elaborate way to announce to the world “I don’t understand atheism”.
Atheists are not blind to the fact that many aspects of our world are not working. That doesn’t mean we should change what Dr. O’Connor thinks atheism stands for. It means we should be changing the world.

What’s even worse though is that Dr. O’Connor fails to make a case for his original premise. How would atheism be better at providing answers to life’s fundamental questions if it rejected humanist principles but instead looked to Sartre, Nietzsche or Camus? We’ve seen that atheism isn’t about providing answers at all. All that atheism does, is pull back the veil of religion allowing us to see our world as it is, without having to make compromises to make it compatible with ancient myths and delusions. Where we go from there? That’s up to each person to decide on his or her own.

Update: It appears this article by Dr. O’Connor ruffled quite a few atheist feathers, as was to be expected. Most atheists don’t react well to nonsense and half-baked opinion. So naturally there have appeared some blog articles similar in tone to the one above. A long and thorough rebuttal on “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne and Bad Girl Bex has also weighed in with her objections over on “Outspoken”. Both blogs are well worth a visit!

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