On Atheism, Religion, and Nihilism
I have a dream that someday, somewhere, people will stop sniping at each other over differences in god-belief and spirituality. Because human beings are such tribalistic little buggers, I realize that this is folly, but a girl can fantasize, right?
So, I’m inspired to write about this because there’s this whole issue surrounding atheism and nihilism. Some people assume that without a belief in a god, all perspectives, good and bad, become equal. Theists often state that their belief in a god represents a superior ethical framework and they in turn assert that atheism fosters a set of conditions that results in an ethically anemic world view. They usually state that human beings are incapable of creating a coherent, universal ethical framework without the guidance of a supernatural, non-human entity.
This sometimes rides upon the assumption that human beings are chaotic and corrupt at our core and consequently, we are incapable of rising above our flawed nature without supernatural intervention. Hence, an atheist, being one who denies the existence of god, is an individual who rejects this supernatural intervention. Without supernatural guidance, the godless are unable to agree upon an ethical framework that is workable and represents the best interests of humanity because our selfish, corrupt, and chaotic natures inevitably cause this process to founder.
Of course, this begs a few questions. Has a belief in the supernatural led to an effective ethical framework that brings good into the world? Do believers in the supernatural agree upon the nature of that ethical framework?
Well, lets see. Approximately three quarters of the world populace believes in a god, life force, or spirit of some kind. Less than 10% do not believe in the existence of such things. (Taken from Gallup International statistics.) It only takes a short trip through the land of Google to figure out that there are over twenty religions forming the bulk of the world’s believers. Those religions have various subgroups that disagree over the nature and practice of their respective religions. In spite of the widespread influence of religion, we have many competing ways of organizing societies and economic systems. We have had, and we continue to have, terrible wars and lesser, daily forms of bloodshed as a consequence of conflict over these various issues: both religious and secular alike.
Given that there are so many belief systems present in the world, I would point out that the world is currently ripe for creating very different takes on a “proper” ethical framework. There is no real agreement, regardless of a widespread belief in the supernatural. Furthermore, who’s to say that people within each specific religion are not creating their own take on morality and ethics? Why do the world’s religions have so many different perspectives within the boundaries of their belief systems? Why are there so many cries of “heretic” among the faithful? Try sitting a Southern Baptist down with a member of the United Church of Christ and have them engage in a discussion of theology and it’s implications in ethics, morality, and everyday life. I can assure you that a rather interesting and intense debate will transpire. During some of the bloodier moments in European history, didn’t Protestants and Catholics kill each other over those “little” differences in morality and theology?
Furthermore, given that the majority of the world is comprised of believers in the supernatural, it would seem that believers do not have a shiny, happy track record in the moral/ethical arena. Has a widespread belief in a god, spirit or life force prevented human beings from being brutal monsters toward each other? Has it prevented terrible exploitation and bloodshed? (Before you answer that question, please recall that the bible has been used to justify all manner of ills, from slavery to misogyny, to colonial domination of non-Christian lands.)
I’m not trying to imply that atheism is the panacea for human kind’s darker proclivities. In fact, unlike some atheists, I’m not going to assert that atheism will lead to being a better human being. An asshole who chooses not to believe in a god is about the same as an asshole who chooses to believe in a god. They might express their dysfunction in different ways, but they are still assholes.
What I am trying to say is that it really angers me when I hear believers implying that their particular system of belief places them on a moral plane above the supposedly willy-nilly, nihilistic leanings of atheists. Contrary to the hopes of the supernaturally inclined, believers are not special snowflakes whose god-belief exempts them from the nastier behaviors of human kind.
We are all human beings. We all know what it is like to feel pain, anger, fear, happiness, love, etc. Consequently, we are capable of knowing what is needed to help and nurture others. We are also capable of ignoring that knowing and committing terrible deeds. None of us are exempt. Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Wiccan… all of us. We can be saints or assholes, god-belief or no.
I mean, let’s be real. Religious folks have the Thirty Years’ War, two missing buildings in New York, and the Catholic cover-up of pedophilia. Atheists have the Soviet repression of religion, China’s invasion of Tibet, and atheists’ personalized brand of Islamophobic saber rattling. No group is composed of Ghandi-esque superheroes. No group is composed of villainous Hitler fanciers, either. Like it or not, there is a little superhero and a little villain in both groups.
So, what I ask of people, both believers and non-believers alike, is this: can we dispense with the prejudiced generalizations? Being an atheist doesn’t make one a morally vacuous bohemian, driving the world into a beer-filled ditch of mayhem and debauchery. Being a theist doesn’t make one a tyrannical moralist who will use her/his holy texts as an excuse to mow down individual liberty, incarcerate the unclean, and declare holy war upon the unbelievers.
Everyone got that? Cool.
Now, your favorite iconoclast is going to haul herself downtown for some beer-filled mayhem and debauchery. Bottoms up!