Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Emancipatory Potential of Atheism

[This is addressed to miscellaneous leftist critics of atheism.]

The crime of Thomas Paine was not that he doubted scripture; it was that he doubted it in front of a popular audience. Only recently has he been rehabilitated in American political life as a revolutionary hero; only with the aid of secularist activism - particularly that of Robert G. Ingersoll - has his principled courage been resurrected from a tomb of historical slanders.

In recent history - and, I think, the bulk of distant history - the primary attitude of controlling elites with respect to religion has been in the crudest sense utilitarian. Eisenhower exemplifies this attitude in many oft-cited quotations.

"Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what that faith is."

His underlying attitude is in fact shared by Paine - not an atheist - and other `deistic' figures of the enlightenment: the equality of man is necessarily grounded in God, or at least, belief in God. But like Eisenhower, most pursue this thread further than Paine. Atheism may be tolerated, so long as it presents itself quietly and in academic or otherwise elite contexts. It is this longstanding attitude that modern atheism has struggled against and struggles against. I repeat for emphasis: the primary enemy of modern atheists is not religion, but a `religion of religion' or `belief in belief', which is held as holy writ even amongst the secular. Atheists have had some success in this direction; young as I am and in the Southeastern US though I might be, I have seen definite changes.

I do not maintain the untenable: atheism is no guarantor of liberty and welfare, nor is it a sufficient condition for humanitarian care and action. It would be otiose to cite examples here. Nor do I maintain that religious belief precludes humanitarian action. Again, it would be pointless to rattle off cases. I also do not hold that atheists as a group frequently make the most of their advantages. I will not list specifics. I would not dare propose that only atheists be admitted in a progressive party, nor would I propose any internal, rationalist purges of the faithful.

What I do maintain is the emancipatory potential of atheism. Many religions have a similar emancipatory potential, but there are limits and risks. Rather and as always, the decisive question you must ask yourself is this: what is true? Ask yourself carefully; your religious confederates may do the same.

Is exclusive salvation true? Are people divided into the Hell-bound and Heaven-hopeful? Suppose that were the case; do you maintain it has no effect on a utilitarian calculation of action? What if you convince your religious counterparts that religion will diminish or dissolve after the revolution? What does this mean? Should I list more difficulties?

No, I do not suspect that you regard these questions as essential, and regard yourself as fair-minded and priority-focused in disregarding them. But what this masks is a profound contempt for the critical faculties of your fellows, an essential condescension for those `private beliefs', those which you judge false and irrational, and which raise fundamental inconsistencies in the ethics of their actions.

To not see religion - yes, even the watery kind - as a fundamental category is to not understand it. To not be an atheist that is also focused and philosophical, well-read and comprehending, is to cling to inconsistency. Seeing brothers and sisters suffer, a religious person, in compassion and intelligence, may seek to systematically banish as much as she may the pains of her neighbors. In all likelihood, she will be content to treat doctrinal inconsistencies and complications as `mysteries', and ignore them.

And she will raise her children to be religious because she thinks it will make them good. And one day, her or her children will see the paradox, and the internal struggle is as follows: the logic of atheism, or of revival? Revivalism will persist for the foreseeable future, even if a socialist revolution were realized.

What I hold as a minimum is that comfort in an ignorance of religion is necessarily opposed to the principled bettering of society. Today, atheists and the religious are alike content to share this ignorance, yet this is a perverse extension of viewing religious belief as private and subjective - where this is even true. It is not enough to be an atheist; first and foremost, one must be a rationalist and a lover of truth. That we as secular people, hardly a few generations distant from blasphemy laws, forget our tenuous status shocks my conscience.

If you do not wish to distribute polemics against religion as part of your propaganda, I will not be bothered. But the mantra of `privacy' is not enough. Air your opinions as individuals, and if consensus is not to be had, seek the outlines of your disagreements. You do not in being honest have to split the party on religiously sectarian lines. If by airing your opinions about religion you manage to cause a split, ask yourself what the problem really was.

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