Your Atheism is (Somewhat) Irrelevant

If you pay attention to what goes on in the world of atheism/humanism/secularism, you’ve probably seen scuttlebutt about a number of accusations of sexual misconduct by Big Names in that corner of the world. There has also been some significant worry about what these accusations and the response to it mean for the future of these movements. Questions like, “Why is it that the population of conferences on secularism are overwhelmingly male?,” and whether some Big Names who aren’t accused of misconduct are making matters worse by minimizing the problem and engaging in casual sexism and victim-blaming.

There is also the on-again, off-again furor Sam Harris creates every time he talks about Islam. Harris seems to me to have taken up the mantle left behind by Christopher Hitchens as a kind of gadfly, poking at the ability of any form of religion involving any kind of belief in any kind of divinity to be “good.” (For the record: I loved how Hitch wrote, but often hated what he had to say.)

I’m not going to talk directly about any of this–not because I don’t think these questions matter, but because they are symptoms of another problem: secularism has taken on a reactionary color that sometimes makes secularists a mirror image of those whom they cast as their enemies. The reactionary problem drags along with it gender and sexual issues, and issues about talking about religion, and it is biting the secularist movement in the ass.

The biggest reactionary piece of this centers on what it means to be atheist. Does it carry normative baggage with it? If so, what?

And here’s the odd thing: in a way, the atheist rejection of Dostoevsky’s supposed critique–“If there is no god, everything is permitted”–is correct. Why? Because if you whittle down to the core of what atheism claims, it’s that there is no god of any type: not one that rewards or punishes, or keeps the universe in working order, or started the universe and then stepped aside. And there are no obvious normative consequences that come from that conclusion.

This means, in an interesting way, that your atheism (if you’re atheist) is somewhat irrelevant: it makes no positive ethical claims. It makes many negative ones, of course; but it leaves you more or less to yourself to figure out “what’s next.” Yet it is the negative-reaction aspect of atheism that puts the kick into the most vocal and recognizable activists.

This is not a good thing for the secular movement. Why? Because you can’t come to the table, bitch about the food, offer no alternatives, and expect to make headway. And unfortunately, that is precisely the public profile that is too often presented. And, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it is a kind of intentional thumb in the eye to people who hold religious views but who would otherwise be allies of secularists in many respects.

What’s the remedy? Like someone who lives in Alabama, the question you need to ask is, “Who ya’ for?” (Everyone in Alabama knows the answer to this question. In theory, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. The answer is either “Bama” or “Auburn.” I’m not sure you have a greater than 0% chance of answering this correctly if you’re not from Alabama.)

You must–as Rabbi Sherwin Wine said–be for something. If you’re not for something, you’re indulging in a kind of nihilism: “‘Non-believers’ have nothing positive to offer anybody who follows them. But the reality is that humanists and Humanistic Jews are loaded with beliefs–beliefs about the universe, people, and survival.” (A Life of Courage, Nook Edition, p. 271.)

It’s fun to cast the occasional rhetorical barb. But I’m not sure Harris, Dawkins, and other Big Names actually have a good enough response to “Who ya’ for?” in the secularist world–and if they do, they sure as heck aren’t communicating it well. And until that’s fixed–until the relative irrelevance of atheism itself is acknowledged and a positive path is the primary message–the reaction of non-belief is going to continue to cause problems within the secularist movement.


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