If Religion Means So Much, How Could Atheism Mean Nothing?

December 10, 2010

Most of you have heard the secular moralist argument that atheism is meaningless. It goes something like this:

"By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes ‘God definitely doesn’t exist’ or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough. … It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way."

If you don’t recognize those words, they are mine, from a post on this blog back in March (remember the ensuing storm? Fun times!). I've had a good deal of time to reflect on my position the past nine months. In doing so, I have recognized at least one problem. I think it's worth addressing it. 

I argued that atheism is meaningless because it is merely the absence or rejection of theism and God. Yet I also believe that religious belief is generally both false and harmful; and that it plays an incredibly influential role in people’s lives, shaping all domains of social and political life. How could the absense or rejection of that not matter? How can I square these views? 

With the benefit of hindsight, allow me to try to clear this up. My position is not that atheism is without any meaning, but that atheism is not entirely meaningful . Atheism really is only the absence of belief in theism or God -- a negative answer to a very specific question, as John Shook calls it. I think we should focus on broader constructs. However, I undersold atheism in two ways. First, absence or rejection of religious faith, and the act of firmly making the case for that stance, is very important in and of itself considering the hyper-religiousity of America. Sometimes merely stating that you are an atheist in public can go a long way (believe me, I know). Second, while atheism does not provide a comprehensive secular moral framework with which to look at the world, atheism is an important first step toward that positive worldview --- that is, so long as one actually keeps moving forward. 

I hope this helps. Your thoughts?