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.


#1 Chris Peterson (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 2:00pm

I wonder if a reading of the history of the Protestant reformation would actually be informative to the current atheist movement.  While there is obviously a different metaphysical view of the world behind the two, in many ways, there are intriguing similarities at the political level - resistance to a grand, totalizing worldview that dehumanizes, refusal to participate in tradition simply for tradition’s sake, and a return of the ethical question from the institutional to the common person.  In some ways, I wonder if modern-day atheism is actually a part of the logical outcome of the social forces that Luther unleashed.  It would be no small bit of irony if CFI in part owes a religious reformist for the social-political conditions that allow for its existence.  But then, this would confirm my suspicion that we ought not organize around ontological divisions in the first place, but rather around ethical commonalities that exist in spite of differences in ontology. 

I think if you look at any enlightened civilization in the history of mankind, they have tended to place the ethical above the ontological, and accordingly fall as a totalizing worldview replaces humanistic ethics.  The example of Andalucia in southern Spain during the Middle Ages comes to mind, where Jews, Muslims, Christians, perhaps even a few atheists lived quite peaceably together.  I also think the founding fathers understood this, and the conception of America as a Christian nation is a perversion of the thought the truly sought to keep religious worldview and government separate.

As far as America being overly-individualistic - strong individuals build strong communities, these are not forces in opposition.  What we think of as our individualistic culture is nothing more than an addiction to a self-destructive anti-individualism that serves at the same time to weaken our communities, the corrosion of conformity if you will.  This is precisely the paradigm that I would hope secular humanists could stir up somewhat.  While this might necessitate a return to community and conversation, it would also be a restoration of individualism at the same time.  I think you guys are on the cusp…

#2 David Newman (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 5:11pm

Atheism isn’t a party, it isn’t even a political concept. Atheists may join together to support their civil rights, and may choose to support other political objectives as a group, but that doesn’t make atheism a party. Your initial question assumes a falsehood and therefore makes no sense.

#3 Randy (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 6:08pm

I’ll just respond to one piece:

“In some ways, America has yet avoided the worst evils of excessive individualism and corporate power. Government regulations restrain capitalism to a fair degree”

I disagree.  Corporate power, even after the financial meltdown, has no meaningful checks and balances in the USA, and the US Supreme Court just increased their ability to meddle in elections.  I wonder one day if a corporate “person” will run for election.  On what basis would they be denied?

I think government regulations restrain capitalism to a slight degree in the US, like a spiderweb to a marathon runner, but that’s about it.  Especially as regards the shipment of American knowledge, education, wealth, and resources overseas, there are painfully few regulations.

#4 John Shook on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 6:13pm

David, read the first line of my blog. Or the rest of the blog. I question organized atheism, in a few ways. Titles given to blogs are often provocative or enticing. They might offer rhetorical questions or questions that should not be answered. Titles are the start of thinking and not its end. Our dear readers should not let a blog title arouse presumptions, hasty conclusions, or easy dismissals. Please try harder.

#5 Tim (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 7:09am

Now that’s just ignorant.  Ignorant.  You clearly know nothing about history, nothing about economics, have thought little about anything, and you are using CFI to promote that ignorance.  What does any of that have to do with religion or atheism?  Nothing.  You just wanted to air your ignorance and bigotry about jews…I mean, CoRpOrAtIoNs (which shall remain nameless apparently), who have diabolical plans to use their, I have no idea, to control the world.  Nevermind the obvious difference between economic “power” (which simply describes one’s ability to do as they please) and political power (which is the ability to use force and coercion), we need to fear all power.  Well, you don’t say that either.  You mindlessly go after “the individual” who is your enemy.  The man who thinks for himself is the greatest enemy of people like you.

#6 Daniel Schealler on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 1:51pm

I’m also a bit peeved about the title not matching the content - but whatever, moving on:

My main point of resistance to this article is that frequently individuals who are outliers within their communities need protection from their communities. An extreme example would be a homosexual Muslim in Saudi Arabia. A moderate example is that of Constance McMillen. I’m sure I don’t have to provide a mild example - any case study of Tall Poppy Syndrome will do, although TPS is hardly the end of it.

When you urge for supporting ‘ethical and just’ communities, I can’t help but have images of prod-noses and curtain twitches spring to mind. I’m very certain that’s not what you intended, but that’s the effect the phrase has on my reading.

I’ve learned to be extremely wary of any self-proclaimed ‘community leader’ that rests their credentials on any brand of moral authority. The second someone can make such a claim with a straight face to an audience that doesn’t crack up into derisive snorts of laughter, I get very worried.

This is exactly why I’ve always considered the rights of the individual to be paramount. I don’t consider that communities can be trusted to respect their outliers.

#7 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 9:06pm

I enjoyed this one.  My opinion on individuality is that many people take it to an extreme.  We are told in public school that we must strive to be individuals or our own people.  We become teens and continue this effort, all the while being no different than anyone else because our natural need for acceptance still outwits us. . .  Yet we still hold on to this “I’m an individual” mantra.  As we get older, some of us start to realize the truth of it all.  There is a need for compromise.  Some of us grow lonely and disconnected.  Some of us have children that give us insight to the need of a cohesive group.  Some of us just tend to be smarter than others and see the individuality illusion for what it is.  In my view, positive individuality is about learning to be an individual member of a community of individuals.  It could also be viewed as being about realizing that what is good for that community is ultimately good for me individually, too, if you are one that feels we are nothing more than selfish beings with selfish reasons for altruism. 

If we worry too much about our selfish individuality rather than balance it with a sense of community, we become antisocial radicals that risk making enemies of the “potential allies in unlikely places” before we even realize they are there.

#8 DavidMWW on Monday March 22, 2010 at 4:22am

Great title. Disappointing article.

#9 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 22, 2010 at 10:41am

Is communitarianism the party of yes?

#10 Ben Nelson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:52pm

Another vote for “I wish the title matched the content”.

That’s okay though, I got some amusement from Tim (Guest)‘s accusatorial incoherence.

#11 Brandon (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 9:54am

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#12 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 10:49pm

The trouble with the USA is that so many of the people most vocal about individual rights and diversity all worship the products of the same corporate giants. There is even a phrase “liberal dogma” that actually identifies an existing phenomenon, although it is plainly an oxymoron.

It was environmentalists who killed, in 1994, the Integral Fast Reactor project, apparently on the grounds that anything which manufactured plutonium was more evil than the coal furnaces which spew millions of tons of poison into the atmosphere every month.
We could have eliminated every coal burning plant in the USA by now, if they hadn’t.
Google it.

Oh, there is another political dogma that has been disproved*, but is still believed on both sides of Congress. It is that the Government necessarily botches things worse than any other bureaucracy.

*By Enron, Lehman, Chrysler, and General Motors, to name a few.

#13 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 10:53pm

Oops! I meant to mention also, that as a former Presbyterian, I retain Calvin’s belief that every man is his own priest (and I generalize it to every woman, even if Calvin didn’t).

The logical consequence of being my own priest is my conclusion that there is no evidence for a God of Love in charge of the Universe, or certainly not on the surface of this cosmic speck of a planet.

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