THE REAL PROBLEM WITH ATHEISM
by Bob Wheeler
In a recent blog post an atheist blogger (Tildeb) complained about “how poorly understood is atheism by those hell-bent on criticizing it.” (http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/) Tildeb went on to say that critics of atheism too often claim “that non-belief inherently possesses immorality while blathering about its association with all kinds of pejorative descriptions and character assassinations for those who do not believe in some meddlesome supernatural deity or deities . . .” To clarify the misconception Tildeb bids us to listen to what atheists have to say about themselves.
There is no small measure of justice in Tildeb’s complaint. The Ninth Commandment forbids us from misrepresenting someone else’s character or actions. We have no right to put words in other people’s mouths which they themselves would never care to speak. An atheist is as entitled to his fair day in court as anyone else.
So, according to atheists, what really is atheism? Does it really have all those negative associations? If there is anyone entitle to speak on the matter it is Dan Barker, the former evangelical preacher turned atheist who, along with his wife Annie Laurie Gaylor, is currently cop-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Mr. Barker tells us that atheism is “merely the lack of theism. It is not a philosophy of life and it offers no values. It predicts nothing of morality or motives” (godless, p. 97). He distinguishes between “soft” atheism (not believing that there is a god) and “hard” atheism (believing that there is no god). Strictly speaking, the former is not a belief; it is simply the absence of belief. “In general, atheists claim that god is unproved, not disproved” (p. 104).
Does atheism necessitate a rejection of moral values? Mr. Barker denies it. He tells us that “most atheists seem to be deeply concerned with human values” (p. 99). “Whatever the moral motivation may be it likely originates in a mind that is deeply concerned with fairness and compassion, love for real human beings and concern for this world . . . ” (p. 100).
Mr. Barker pointed out that atheism “is not a philosophy of life and it offers no values. It predicts nothing of morality or motives.” In this he is absolutely right, and herein lies the whole problem. While it may be undeniable that many atheists are “deeply concerned with human values,” are they being logically consistent? It is undoubtedly true that many atheists, on a personal level, are kind, humane, and good to others. And it is also true that many atheist thinkers have attempted to find a non-theistic basis for morality. But they have not succeeded. Those that have tried have come up with multiple and varied answers. Perhaps few atheists would dare to tread where Nietzsche boldly forged ahead – to the brink of nihilism. Some, such as Engels and Dewey, frankly confessed that morality is basically sociological in nature. Many prefer to see themselves as “humanists,” and many resort to some form of Utilitarianism – the philosophical doctrine of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. All of these approaches, however, have serious problems.
In the end the problem with atheism is precisely the fact that “it is not a philosophy of life and it offers no values.” It offers no answers for the deepest questions of human existence – the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of morality, justice and human rights, and all the higher aspirations of human endeavor. It is simply a negation, and it leaves us with nothing but the brute facts of physical existence. Everything else is, well, a matter of faith.
It is hard to see how any human being could be satisfied with that.