My favorite Sex and Atheism blogger, Greta Christina, has started something neat on her blog. She’s doing an “atheist meme of the day,” with the idea that we, the growing and influential non-theist community, can counteract a lot of the misinformation being spread by Glenn Beck, Rush, and all the other pundits. Today’s meme is particularly relevant because it contradicts what I believe to be the most widespread myth about atheism.
Countries with high rates of atheism tend to be countries with high rates of happiness and social health. This doesn’t prove that atheism causes happiness and social health (in fact, it’s probably the other way around). But it does show that atheism doesn’t lead to misery and chaos… and that people don’t need religion to be happy and good. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.
I really like this way of countering the claims that atheists are inherently immoral and that religion helps societies become more healthy by encouraging morality. For one thing, this approach avoids two empirically treacherous claims:
1) Religious belief causes societal dysfunction.
2) Atheism causes societal health.
Before Alison jumps in and claims victory, I’m not saying I think religion doesn’t cause some societal dysfunction or that atheism doesn’t promote some societal health.* I’m saying that this meme accomplishes an important purpose while avoiding a stickier argument.
Coincidentally, I had beers last night with a close friend and we talked about several things that are relevant to this meme. (Apropos of nothing, I highly recommend Innis and Gunn, accompanied by a snifter of The Macallan 12. Alternatively sipping the scotch and beer opens up the subtle flavors of the Innis and Gunn in a way that almost makes me believe in magic.)
My friend has been on a journey from non-committal agnosticism to open atheism for several years, and he recalled that one of his first major hurdles was the gut feeling that admitting atheism reeked of pompous certainty. Even though he was an atheist at the time — he didn’t believe in any gods — he felt that atheism was a belief system, or at the least, a commitment to the dogmatic belief that the universe is godless. Between our conversations and reading the works of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al, he has since realized that atheism is not a philosophy, but rather, it is the observation of a conceptual space in which something other than god belief must fit.
This realization is crucial to understanding why Christina’s meme is so important. The belief that atheism is a belief is so widespread that many atheists even believe it! In fact, pointing out that someone is an atheist doesn’t really tell us much at all about what they do believe. I can prove it to you. I’m thinking of one of my friends who is an atheist. Now, you tell me what she believes about the nature of the universe.
(Jeopardy Music Playing)
Can you do it? Of course you can’t! All you can do is guess blindly. The answer we were looking for is magic. Magic was the correct answer. My friend believes that there are no gods, but that there is a force created by mass consciousness which we can all tap into and make miracles happen. You had no hope of knowing that. Maybe you guessed correctly, but it was a blind guess. The only thing you knew for certain was that my friend doesn’t believe there’s a god.
My magician friend is quite moral. So is my atheist nee agnostic beer buddy. In fact, if I polled all of my friends, I’d probably end up with a list of at least a dozen worldviews. Curiously enough, all of my friends are moral and basically happy — and with a couple of exceptions, they’re all atheists. This is what I believe is the essence of the meme. The world is full of worldviews. Some of them have god in them, and some don’t. Regardless of whether or not religion causes societal problems, there is ample evidence that atheism does not cause chaos or immorality. It doesn’t really cause anything.
Lots of people are afraid of what would happen to the world if god-belief suddenly disappeared. Part of our job as freethinkers and atheists is to show them that there’s nothing to fear. We’re just ordinary folks, and our emotions work the same as everybody else’s. We love our families, want the best for our friends, and do our best to live happy lives. We don’t need to believe in god for any of this. We’re just humans. That’s all.
*I know it seems like I contradicted myself by saying that atheism doesn’t cause anything and implying that maybe atheism causes some societal health. To clear that up, I believe that atheism and healthy worldviews are often intertwined. As I’ve said before, the downfall of most (if not all) theist worldviews is that they defy reality checks. When we take away an inscrutable and whimsical god, we are left with a lot fewer ways to justify defying reality checks. In other words, a worldview without god is, I believe, significantly more likely than a theist worldview to adhere to some kind of external method of falsification. It has to prove itself. This doesn’t guarantee functionality, but it does seem to make it a lot more likely. But this is a topic for another post…