Is Atheism the Party of No?

March 20, 2010

Some thoughts while pondering this myth of "organized atheism".....

I first recall humanist philosopher and social progressive John Dewey , who warned in 1930 that prioritizing individualistic liberty too much only forges new chains of slavery. The old individualism of the Revolutionary Era wanted a distant, small government that couldn't control robust local communities. The 20th century saw the decay of community, as people chased personal liberty all over the land. By 1930, the machinery of protecting innumerable rights, both civil and economic, had dramatically enlarged the government. In political jargon, all these "negative" rights, the rights to say No to interference, were adding up to a monstrous positive.

Dewey hoped for a new individualism that supported communities, because in the end, that is where we all have to live. But he predicted that communities might get completely overwhelmed and dissolved. Willing citizens would let vast corporate powers using even vaster bureaucracy divide people into atomic and replaceable units of production and consumption. The victory of the "free market" only means that we'll all be free to walk past the strangers in neighboring houses to join the unemployment line.

At the start of the Great Depression, Dewey saw deeply into the American spirit and mostly faulted the people. Dewey preferred plenty of democracy, but when responsibility ultimately rests on the People, you have to see through pleasant mythology and hold the People responsible once in a while. As another atheist, H. L. Mencken, once said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." If people would instead fight harder for the responsible bonds of local community, they could worry less about even worse masters. Yet individualism, this "me-first" attitude, has hardly abated.

Now I think about how the Great Recession staggers on. Blame the rich, blame the greedy -- but don't dare blame our system that makes them possible! What Dewey pessimistically predicted, our America has largely fulfilled. What people still haven't realized is that nothing comes for free, not even freedom itself. To secure more and more independence for themselves, Americans have demanded that government guarantee those liberties with legal protections and safety nets. Why is this a nation of innumerable laws and lawyers? Why do we have a huge government whose primary job is to convert taxes from the many into secure jobs for the few? The basic paradox was grasped by Plato long ago: more rights for you, more chains on everyone. As David Brooks has endorsed in his NYT essay "Broken Society" , we must "take a political culture that has been oriented around individual choice and replace it with one oriented around relationships and associations," in the words of British writer Phillip Blond .

In some ways, America has yet avoided the worst evils of excessive individualism and corporate power. Government regulations restrain capitalism to a fair degree, and workers are safer and better paid than most other places around the world. This friend of democracy, like Dewey, supports things like unemployment insurance, more education, and better health care for all.  But the titanic "struggle" between corporate capitalism and bureaucratic government, so fascinating since they are now symbiotically dependent on each other, has left the people fighting over the leftover crumbs.  Not even religion has had much effect, or anything anti-religious. There are stronger currents in motion.

Is our remedy just more individualism? Shall we "organize" under a banner of refusing to follow anything anymore? Call me skeptical towards just more separatism. But please ask whether just saying "NO" is the best answer. When people ask for a positively helpful answer, I urge that we support ethical and just communities. We the people have a lot in common and so much to fight for, together. Nonbelievers have positive ideas and hopeful ideals, and we have potential allies in unlikely places. We have a tradition of humanism worthy of fidelity, and now we need to make it explicit and militant.