On Atheism, Religion, and Nihilism

Perhaps there's room for the atheist scarlet A among those letters?

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!

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~ by timberwraith on May 9, 2010.

17 Responses to “On Atheism, Religion, and Nihilism”

  1. I would posit that it wasn’t any form of atheism that was utilised by both Soviet Russia and China in your examples but an overwhelming state control that was gained by the exploitation of the same basic fundamental elements that religion imposes upon people, namely the supposed need for a benevolent elite and cultivating an unhealthy attitude towards not questioning power. A secular world need not be one devoid of religions or consolation, only one where they maintain there proper place besides Santa Claus and palm readers.

  2. One could also argue that many forms of religious based violence—the twin towers incident, for example—are grounded in geopolitical forces that extend beyond the influence of religious belief. Religion, as wonderful as believers tout it as being, can become intertwined with violence. Atheism, as wonderful as believers tout it as being, can become intertwined with violence. Add the right amount of political/economic tensions and religion or opposition to religion can serve as a handy justification for violence.

    By the way, I consider equating religion with “Santa Claus and palm readers” as being disrespectful and intolerant language. From here on out, I will not post comments by you that contain this kind of language. This is your first and only warning.

  3. I would also argue that atheists, being such a small portion of the world populace, have not had many opportunities to have the reigns of control over a country or culture. However, during the very few times that we have had such opportunities, such as in the case of communist opposition to religion, we’ve behaved in nasty, controlling ways. Sure, there were other contributing factors, but my point is, if atheism is so much better than religion, how did it manage to find itself tangled up in the state affairs of several repressive governments?

    When I hear atheists object to examples of atheist abuses, I am reminded of Christians who dismiss the actions of their more unsavory followers with, “But those aren’t real Christians.”

  4. In the spirit of this post, I just found a lovely quote on debauchery:

    It is the hour to be drunken! To escape being the martyred slaves of time, be ceaselessly drunk. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.

    -Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), French poet.

  5. Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality.

    [MOD NOTE: I will not post bigoted statements against people’s faith systems. Therefore, I have deleted the rest of this comment and your remaining three comments.]

  6. [MOD NOTE: Since you can’t seem to play nice with others, you are hereby banned. Have a nice day.]

  7. First of all, correlation is not causation. That’s an old adage that every first year sociology student learns. Your assumption seems to be that religion leads to unhealthy, illiterate, ignorant, sexist, violent societies with a low life expectancy. Is there perhaps some other chain of causation involved? Perhaps economic prosperity tends to foster healthy, literate, knowledgeable, equitable societies with high life expectancies and a low rate of adherence to religion? There could very well be other related variables in this chain of causation, as well.

    I won’t deny that many of the world’s faiths are interlinked with numerous forms of oppression when they are practiced in their most traditional formats. However, systems of faith, like any other aspect of culture, evolve and shift as the host culture evolves and shifts. For instance, there has been a raging debate over the role of women in Christianity and the acceptance of LGBT people. There’s enough ideological strife being generated by these matters that we might very well see the permanent fracture of some denominations into newer sects that cleave along issues of gender and sexual orientation based prejudice.

    As for gender equality in the nations you mention, Japan has a reputation for being an extremely sexist, male dominated society.

    By the way Les amis de Robespierre, if you write your comment in a polite and non-prejudicial fashion, I might consider fishing your reply out of my spam queue.

  8. That’s like a parent slapping one child as the second child walks into the house and then saying to the second child, “Don’t *you* do this or you’ll get the same treatment.”

    No, thanks.

  9. Well, like a said above, I will not allow bigoted or prejudiced speech on my blog. If you think that is somehow unfair or the equivalent of slapping a child, oh well. Tough luck, fella. There are other blogs that happily provide a venue for such forms of speech. They aren’t hard to find.

    Atheism is not the central, guiding philosophy of my life. Opposing prejudice and tribalistic thinking does hold a central position, however. This means that I’m happy to call out religious folks on their prejudices and I’m happy to call out atheists on their prejudices as well. I’ll do my best to play no favorites and I will not tolerate hatred, regardless of the quarter it hails from.

  10. This is a pretty great post.

    As you’ve begun to dive into, what I find is that people who make such arguments come forth with unfounded and unsupported premises. E.g., without a supernatural force behind it, we wouldn’t have a superior, universal moral framework. (Problem? We don’t have a “superior” “universal” moral framework even though most people do believe in a supernatural force.)

    I think there are some other parts that could be picked at. So often, people want to claim that their moral system is “superior” because it is “objective” or “universal,” as if these traits, if established, guarantee superiority.

    The problem is that I don’t see much reason to believe that we *have* discovered an objective or universal morality or to believe that — even if there were such — we would be able to recognize it when we saw it.

    So, ‘nihilism’? I don’t see much nihilism (unless we only apply the word in an *objective* sense…as your link had, [e.g., referring to “objective meaning, intrinsic value”]). I do see existentialism. And I think that fits with the data.

    So far, even when theists propose what they feel are objective or universal moralities, what actually seems to be the case (based on the diversity of religions and religious moral frameworks) is that they are pinning frameworks that are just as subjective as everyone else’s, but trying to argue that it must be better because it is supported by a deity. People often assume objectivity or universality when the code they raise up is surprisingly subjective.

    I think people are often too caught up denouncing the subjective (in some kind of fetish for supposed objectivity), so they fail to realize that meaning, value, and purpose was here all along…subjectively perceived and projected by each of us.

  11. First, I’d like to thank you Andrew for your words. It’s really nice to finally have a positive, thoughtful comment that focuses on the subject at hand without resorting to unkind invective. It has been a bit of a downer to find so many negative comments in my mod queue, today. Weirdly, this has been one of the most popular articles I’ve penned to date and ironically, it is the first article on my blog that has required moderating people’s responses. That’s really unexpected since I normally write about transgender issues—a topic that is extremely controversial.

    The problem is that I don’t see much reason to believe that we *have* discovered an objective or universal morality or to believe that — even if there were such — we would be able to recognize it when we saw it.

    I don’t think a universal morality is in anyway possible. The world is in a constant state of flux. The conditions of life shift from century to century. Cultures evolve and transform. Changes in technology alter the nature of day to day life. Even our understanding of what underlies our very humanity shifts as our knowledge expands. Consequently, what is deemed as anathema in one era becomes the accepted and expected norm in the next era. As the world changes, so does the shape and texture of moral edicts. When one factors in differences between the Earth’s many cultures and sociopolitical conditions, the possibility for variation is mind boggling.

    So far, even when theists propose what they feel are objective or universal moralities, what actually seems to be the case (based on the diversity of religions and religious moral frameworks) is that they are pinning frameworks that are just as subjective as everyone else’s, but trying to argue that it must be better because it is supported by a deity.

    The ironic thing is, the moral codes that are constructed by the church also shift as time passes. What is seen as moral in, say, seventeenth century Christianity is not the same as what is seen as moral in twenty-first century Christianity.

    I think that religions that are based upon unchanging religious texts—such as Christianity—will always experience a degree of friction between the moral precepts dictated by religious canon and the moral/ethical boundaries dictated by the ever shifting sociopolitical conditions of the day.

    Unfortunately, the belief that religious canon is both timeless and divinely inspired obscures the reality of doctrinal change that has occurred across time. And so, I agree that many religious people are fooled into thinking that the moral doctrines of their theology are objective, universal, and therefore, unassailable.

  12. The ironic thing is, the moral codes that are constructed by the church also shift as time passes. What is seen as moral in, say, seventeenth century Christianity is not the same as what is seen as moral in twenty-first century Christianity.

    I think that religions that are based upon unchanging religious texts—such as Christianity—will always experience a degree of friction between the moral precepts dictated by religious canon and the moral/ethical boundaries dictated by the ever shifting sociopolitical conditions of the day.

    Unfortunately, the belief that religious canon is both timeless and divinely inspired obscures the reality of doctrinal change that has occurred across time. And so, I agree that many religious people are fooled into thinking that the moral doctrines of their theology are objective, universal, and therefore, unassailable.

    What’s particularly interesting is the fact that some religious backgrounds — whether nomimally or effectively — allow for the possibility of an open canon, but may still have varying opinions on whether morality is unchanging or not.

    For example, most of my experience is with Mormonism (and in fact, how I originally happened upon this article is because one of mine is listed in the wordpress suggested “possibly related posts”), and one of the big distinguishing factors about Mormonism is the belief in continuing revelation.

    Of course, one of the big problems is that, despite the belief in continuing revelation and in a prophet who could theoretically receive inspiration “beyond” the current spirit of the times, many times the church has been stuck either with the sociopolitical conditions of the day or behind. E.g., racism in the early church (which led to policies that weren’t fully removed until 1978), sexism throughout, homophobia, etc,.

    Nevertheless, there are still many members who will insist that morality is universal, objective, and that we simply haven’t “been revealed it all.” This doesn’t stop some people from insisting with great fervor that some things just “are” and “always will be.”

  13. That’s really interesting, Andrew. I wasn’t aware that Mormonism had a open canon. Hmmmmm. Looks like a few more variables must be considered than whether or not an open canon is present.

    I’d love to stumble across a comparative study between religions/denominations and their ability to adjust to modernity and its shifting cultural winds. It would be interesting to see what variables are correlated with this kind of flexibility.

  14. It’s certain not as open as the term “open canon” could be construed, but definitely, the *idea* of prophecy and continuing revelation is major.

    I actually wouldn’t say that continuing revelation is a guarantee for allowing the LDS church to adjust to modernity and shifting cultural winds. After all, another quite trusted value is being “peculiar” people. Since “society” and “the world” are seen as evil, sinful, and wicked, the church is seen as a beacon of righteousness that stands strong against the winds of culture.

    • Oh, I kind of figured that you wouldn’t say an “open canon”—or some approximation thereof—was the key. 😉

      I’ve been watching Gandhi in between answering your comments. It’s kind of funny to be carrying on a conversation about religion on the internet while watching a historical movie in which various religions form a prominent social presence.

  15. As a Christian myself, I would agree that the argument “Atheists can’t be ethical” is flawed. However, I think there is a strong argument to be made that, though Atheists are moral-beings, their view of things does not comport with that curious fact. Often this argument is mistaken for the one you make. But it is different, in that it simply notes the inconsistency. Starting with no God, human ethics can be nothing more than arbitrary on one hand, or biologically determined on the the other. Either of these options undermines what most people mean when they describe moral right and wrong.

    I think your points about religious “wrongs”, and about moral differences between world cultures are worthy of discussion. My initial response would be that religious hypocrisy, inadvertently underscores the reality of sin (a basic tenet of Christianity), and that those who rightly object to these things, can do so only if they take a non-arbitrary view of right and wrong. It is this non-arbitrary view, that doesn’t sit well with atheism. And about the moral diversity you speak of: Who says an absolute morality never admits diversity? The ability to breathe and move doesn’t mean that a structure doesn’t have rigid foundations. Secondly, there is the possibility of real moral error within culutres. An obvious one is the Third Reich of Germany. Good principles (Nobility, Devotion to country, discipline, desire for excellence), combined with bad science, taken oh so wrongly. C.S. Lewis in his book “The Abolition of Man” pointed out that the moral codes of all the major civilizations of the past held much more likeness than difference. In fact, he argued, the only reason that the real differences are so obvious and jarring to us, is because of the huge swarth of common ground.

    • Guitar, this article is pretty old and quite frankly, I don’t feel like devoting time and energy to answering comments on older material.

      What I will say is this: different people have different ways of forming their sense of ethics. Obviously, you think a deity is necessary and you think that a deity’s guidance is required. I think that love, compassion, and sensitivity to others are necessary and required. I imagine that you’d agree that these latter elements are required, too. Therein—I hope—is our common ground.

      Honestly, I’m extremely tired of the ethical pissing match that occurs between theists and atheists. I’d prefer to focus upon the common ground that we all share. In that spirit, let’s just assume that we are both decent, caring people and leave it at that, OK?

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