About five years ago I published a collection of essays that is no longer available for purchase. The collection is titled after the essay below. It is not, as far as I know, something I’ve published elsewhere. I was thinking of it recently and decided it should be dusted off. It seems as relevant today as when I first wrote it.
That Which Atheism Becomes
Some might say that I just like to argue. The truth is that I believe that ideas have consequences and some consequences are more severe than others. Arguing, or more precisely, debating, these ideas helps everyone on all sides of a position understand a position better. In theory, if you could of got Bin Laden to sit down to have a nice debate you could of aroused for him some of the critical consequences of his beliefs and demanded that before he acted on them he had a much firmer basis. According to many Muslims, such a basis does not exist. I will leave that issue to them to sort out. But Bin Laden does have this going for him: he takes a belief to its rational conclusion. There are many dangerous beliefs out there that people consider harmless simply because they aren’t taken to their rational conclusion.
You would think after this last bloody century that such naïve notions wouldn’t surface on a regular basis. Alas, they do. This is the age of tolerance, after all, and what that means in practice is that every and all belief is to be considered of an equal value except for those beliefs that condemn other beliefs. Beliefs that condemn other beliefs are usually labeled as ‘fundamentalist’ beliefs. ‘Fundamentalism’ is said to be the root cause for most of the violence in the world, but of course by ‘fundamentalist’ one really means one that believes that their belief system (usually religious belief system) is true to the exclusion of others. The solution to the world’s problems, by this reasoning, would be to not believe that your views are exclusively correct, which begs the question of course as to whether or not the view that no views are exclusively correct is itself exclusively correct.
There are many people that preach this tolerance line as being exclusively correct while condemning other views that do not share the same belief that all beliefs are equal. And so in condemning these other beliefs, the so called ‘tolerant’ people themselves become fundamentalists in their own right. Now, this belief itself is not quite so dangerous as one might fear. At least, not at this time. The consequence of this belief is that while other dangerous beliefs are running rampant these folks can’t bring themselves to condemn the belief itself, except insofar as it is ‘intolerant’ or ‘fundamentalist.’ But before you know it, some one or some group out there that really believes their ideas begins to act on them in a way that goes well beyond intolerance, and rather begins to slay, murder, behead, or all manner things, usually on a large scale.
At such times, the ‘tolerant’ people act confused, or attempt to find some sort of root cause to blame (always fundamentalism of one sort or another). In fact if they’d confronted the belief system head on from the start they could of helped stop such atrocities from ever taking place at all. While these folks ruminate, other people who have ideas that they really believe in step in and attempt to stop the other people with ideas that they really believe in. One gets the sense that these people in the middle are really just ‘in the way.’ If only it was as simple as that. Tolerance itself was the root cause. The plant that should have been uprooted from the start was allowed to grow, produce fruit, and maybe was able to have seeded. It should have been plucked upon sight.
Fortunately, these ‘tolerant’ people, when push comes to shove, are willing to abandon their tolerance when their own self-preservation is at risk. Suddenly, they discover ideas that they do in fact consider more valuable than others.
Now, one worldview that is often maligned and regarded as ‘evil’ by ‘fundamentalists’ nearly everywhere is atheism, or in its latest guise, ‘secular humanism.’ Many of the atheists that I know fit into the category I have been describing as ‘tolerant.’ Indeed, they appear to be good chaps, and I consider some of them to be my friends. They possess a strong belief that there is no God. Many of them consider that religion itself (or at least, people that really believe in a religion, not those that simply go through the motions to console themselves) to be the source of all ‘evil’ and bloodshed on the planet throughout history. They would strenuously take issue with even the mere suggestion that atheism is inherently a dangerous belief. They would retort that it is ‘simply the lack of belief in a God.’
They can retort all they want.
Sometimes when evaluating a belief system and the rational consequences of that belief system, its not always wise to simply ask, “What will this idea or set of ideas logically end up in?” Sometimes the question is, “What won’t this idea or set of ideas logically prohibit?” Depending on the particular brand of atheism, the fact is that the belief that there is no God really prohibits nothing. Or, if we can put it another way, the atheism of the Marxists may not have lead inexorably to the fantastic purges of later communists, but it certainly didn’t stand in its way.
Or, if I can put it still another way, it’s not what atheism says about God that is the problem, it’s what it says about Man. Again, there are so many diverse atheistic viewpoints that it would be impossible to categorize all of them, but most share in common that humans obey no higher authority, that there is no absolute moral code, that each person creates their ‘own meaning.’ What is there to stop a person embracing atheistic views from deciding that the meaning that they want to create is the submission of all mankind to their rule? This would be ‘fundamentalist atheism,’ that is, an atheist really believing the ideas that they hold and breaking out of his societal constraints to create a new order, perhaps a new Ubermensch. There is nothing within the atheistic worldview to stop a person from acting out in this way, except for the forcible reaction by… well, probably theists, who recognized the danger and condemned it on sight.
Indeed, atheists typically malign religion for acting on fear, but in fact it is only fear that might keep an atheist from following through with their own beliefs, anyway. They might delude themselves into adopting notions that there are ‘social contracts,’ but this belief only serves to justify why themselves don’t rape and pillage; if a person with decided that all of society needed to be re-worked the only thing that could stop them from raping and pillaging are other people who think that is a bad idea, and who he knows will likely resist him (ie, kill him). The resistors have two ways to justify their actions: 1. The only consistent way for the atheist, self-preservation, and 2. What everyone else uses, “RAPING AND PILLAGING IS ABSOLUTELY WRONG.”
Now, I know that this is going to raise hackles everywhere, because most atheists really have no desire to carry out the consequences of their beliefs in this way. They may have crafted their worldview so that it imposes self-limits, and all in all, through debate, may have been able to convince themselves that they ought not to behave that way. This works so long as one refuses to be swayed by argumentation.
Which is why the history of this last century really underscores why its important to have a clear notion of right and wrong from the very beginning, and furthermore, to be prepared with a set of responses to prevent abuses from springing up. If this means that the atheist needs to adopt a position outside his worldview, than that is what they should do. In other words, pretend as though there really is an absolute moral code and then lets discuss together how best to implement it.
Ayn Rand is an atheist that supports my views precisely. Having grown up in Russia while it was slowly becoming a totalitarian state, she managed to escape and warn the world about the dangers of communism. Her book ‘Anthem,’ written in 1937, but published in 1946 includes this statement in the foreword:
Some might think-though I don’t- that nine years ago there was some excuse for men not to see the direction in which the world was going. Today, the evidence is so blatant that no excuse can be claimed by anyone any longer. Those who refuse to see it no are neither blind nor innocent.
The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default; the people who seek protection from the necessity of taking a stand, by refusing to admit to themselves the nature of that which they are accepting; the people who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated by keeping one’s eyes shut. They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: “But I didn’t mean this!”
Rand is speaking of collectivism, or communism, and stands as a bitter reproach for humanists that clamor that communism was ‘only an economic system.’ She knows better, as one who lived through it.
Through her experiences she maintained her atheism, but there is nothing in atheism to prevent such atrocities from occurring. In order to positively condemn communism, she had to import into her belief system something that is fully unjustifiable from within that same system. Namely, that each individual has value and worth; each person’s talents, dreams, aspirations, and personality, makes each person beautiful. As far as I know, no where does she attempt to justify such notions from within her worldview, but in truth I don’t care. As I said, it is not what atheism says about God that makes it dangerous, it is what it says about Man. Rand arbitrarily embraced something she new innately (as if she merely recognized the nature of her own created essence, key word, ‘created’) rather than follow the logic of her belief system.
I had the pleasure of watching a debate between famed atheist Dan Barker and lawyer Francis Manion, in which Mr. Barker made the unfortunate comment that he considered religion to be dangerous, and listed several examples. I say unfortunate, because this allowed Mr. Manion to reply that he would be more than happy to stack up for comparison the amount of dead at the hands of secular humanists with those at the hands of religious people. How do those numbers compare, really? In this last century, hundreds of millions were killed or died directly because of Communistic policies under Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others. ‘Only’ two million were killed over three hundred years on both sides of the Crusades.
And it is true that Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’ has resulted in the deaths of 10-20 million in this last century, but this is still just a fraction of what was committed by regimes that firmly embraced atheism against their own populations.
It is not merely religion, or merely fundamentalism, or merely acting on one’s beliefs that lead to such terrible realities.
My atheist friends will rise to protest that such conduct does not logically come from the atheistic worldview. But the point, however, is how does atheism prevent such manifestations? If we consider most theistic worldviews, whether one embraces theistic evolution or rejects evolution outright, it is implicit that humans do have worth because in acknowledging the existence of a God the fact that created beings have value and worth is smuggled in right along with it.
Christianity, though by no means innocent through out history, became less bloody as more people could read their Scriptures for themselves. There are some obvious checks to such bloody conduct in the Christian Scriptures, that once people were able to bypass clergy in order to decide matters for themselves, they could not be coerced anymore into waging wars in the name of Christ. Even so, human worth could be derived from the mere proposition that “God exists.”
To what will the atheist point? The Humanist Manifesto? After all, the first Humanist Manifesto was written in 1933. A lot of good that optimistic document did, to instill notions of human worth and value, eh? Most of the slaughter, though not all, occurred after 1933. From the mere proposition, “God does not exist,” how will the atheist derive human worth? Clearly merely asserting it in a manifesto isn’t going to cut it.
What brought down Communism? Was it tolerance? Or active resistance? It was tolerance that let it grow. It was active resistance, which presumes that one has principled reasons for resisting it, that brought it down.
So what is this all boiling down to? Another century is looming before us. Another Humanist Manifesto has been written, tolerance is all the rage, fundamentalism maligned in every corner. There are other ideologies threatening to wreak havoc on the earth. Its time to ‘examine the content of ideas’ and judge them!
A final point is worth mentioning. The fact is that in all belief systems if you have people with endless power, they will be able to twist the belief system to suit their fancies. I actually agree with this, and in fact this could be an area of agreement between the theist and the atheist both about the Crusades and about the Communist purges of not more than a mere fifty years ago. The bad that people do does not always reflect or represent the belief system that those people claim as their own.
But just what position does such an area of agreement support? But then, my worldview already recognizes that people are ‘bad.’ They have value and worth, yes, but they the human race is a fallen race. In their worldview, what is ‘bad’ except a culturally bound social construct with no existence outside a conditioned mass of individuals? If we are to prevent the next century from becoming like the last, we will need to have much debate culminating in shared agreement about what ‘bad’ ideas and behaviors are, and then following through with no tolerance whatsover against people that act on those ideas. Lets use fear in a positive way to make it clear to folks where the lines are, so that even if their belief system does inexorably lead to raping and pillaging, they don’t dare because they know that the population stands ready to smite them.
I am willing to allow people to think whatever they want. But it will only be the rest of us making it quite clear where the limits are that will keep these folks from establishing the conditions for another vicious century. Once the conditions are laid, it may be too late.
For all our sake, we must adopt a certain measure of ‘intolerance’ so that such things do not happen. Be intolerant; Save the world.