September 17, 2012
It's only natural for religion to keep thinking that it has the sole responsibility for leading humanity.
Enfolded in its own self-delusions of grandeur, religion can't imagine how people could lead their own lives. After all, religion is not intelligently designed for promoting independence of thought. This leaves religious people wondering how anyone could live responsibly without submission to divine authority.
What follows from atheism? What religious people can't imagine is precisely what nonbelievers can. First and foremost, atheism means never having to silence your curiosity, and never having to confuse blind obedience with personal responsibility. Atheism is not the end of a path -- it's the start of a journey. It's an opportunity at life, just a chance at real empowerment, but at least this new beginning isn't just a mirage.
Some people suppose the question here is this: "What logically follows from atheism?" Bring up logic, and philosophy reminds us that logical entailment is a strict matter of extracting just the meanings essential to an idea. Atheism essentially is not accepting any religion. What logically follows from not accepting any religion? For any belief a religion requires, the atheist can't agree just because a religion says so. An atheist is at perfect liberty to agree with something a religion says for independent reasons, and to disagree with something a religion says for independent reasons. Precisely because a person is an atheist, nothing a religion requires can control how an atheist thinks. For example, if a religion says "All people are created equal," an atheist may agree, or disagree, on whatever sufficient reasons are available to an atheist (and we do hope atheists believe only on sufficient reasons).
Being an atheist does not mean this: "If a religion says X then I should believe the opposite." Just because a religion says something doesn't mean that an atheist must automatically believe the opposite. Being an atheist means that religions don't dictate your beliefs in any way, positively or negatively. Being an atheist doesn't even mean that you must deny the existence of God. That's why the proper definition of an atheist includes "lacking belief in any god" and not necessarily also "claiming to know no gods exist." Reasonable doubt, not epistemic certainty, is enough for an atheist.
Very little logically follows from accepting atheism. Atheists aren't automatically wiser or more virtuous, or more politically astute, than religious believers generally. Atheism is a positive opportunity, not an elaborate belief system. Atheists have opportunities for building comprehensive belief systems sufficient for worthy lives without religion, but not because they are logical calculators coldly deriving propositions from axioms. Atheists have their opportunity to live empowered lives because both their warm hearts and inquisitive minds are liberated from religion. Since there are plenty of rival ideologies equally ready to enslave us, there's no reasonable way for atheism to guarantee utopia. However, if atheists learn from the bondage of religion, their forward journey might avoid the worst of catastrophes.
After letting religion go, after embracing atheism, the naturalistic worldview takes us wherever we are capable of going, under our own power. Leaving religion means you can’t keep on expecting that divine interventions will come to anyone’s aid, and you can’t overlook or rationalize human suffering and injustice. You are empowered to do what you can in the short run, and emboldened to work together to re-structure society in the long run.
Religions arouse illusory feelings of empowerment, primarily using magic, tribalism, and orthodoxy. Religions excel at magic’s distractions, tribalism’s privileges, and orthodoxy’s solidarities for inspiring energies and consoling anxieties, yet these “social placebo effects” don’t deal with the real causes of human misery. Religion produces impressive theatrics to transport people’s imaginations into divine realms, arousing false hopes that cosmic powers can magically help them. Religion reinforces in-group morale and loyalty to intensify mutual support, alienating anyone outside the “tribe” as inferior and unworthy. Religion codifies beliefs about mysteries into rigid certainties, arresting the mind to prevent the questioning of authorities and to silence any curiosity about customary power structures.
Going beyond religion, living life after reaching atheism, our liberation opens up opportunity and empowerment. After leaving magical thinking behind, we can apply scientific technologies to relieve suffering and elevate the human condition. After walking away from tribalism’s divisiveness, we can see humans from nature’s perspective, as all equally worthy of life and humanitarian assistance. After abandoning righteous orthodoxy, we can freely use all our mind’s powers to control our destinies in a more democratic way. After religion, and after atheism, we are empowered to embrace science, humanitarianism, and democracy to seek humanity’s welfare. These three things, by themselves, are just open paths of discovery -- the discovery of nature's ways, humanity's dignity, and peoples' hopes. No novel social structure, no utopian community, and no constitutional government strictly follows from any of these opportunities.
These opportunities aren't even rejections of all religion. Plenty of religions have endorsed some science, some humanitarianism, and some democracy. The way forward, once again, is never dictated to atheists because of religion's edification, or its backwardness. But there is an independent and reasonable way forward. We still have to make, and re-make, our social orders with experimental humility. But we can boldly experiment with pride in our attempts to envision life farther than any religion ever could.
Does atheism logically guarantee civic harmony, social justice, or world peace? No, not at all. Those seeking firm guarantees might be advised to return to religion's reassuring visions or sign up with cultish ideologies. But that's just asking the wrong question, to worry over what follows from atheism. Atheism isn't about dictating our futures, or about having a following, anyways. The real question is this: What leads after atheism? We would be wise to push forward with the light of science, humanitarianism, and democracy. It's not about hastily reacting against whatever distracting and divisive things religions do, but instead about carefully redesigning our shared future together.