WHY ATHEISM DEMANDS SOCIAL JUSTICE
I am going to go out on a limb here: being an atheist demands that we work for social
lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism
means one thing and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god.
And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s
different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more
than just not believing in gods or the supernatural. It’s a
positive, multifaceted philosophy that includes specific principles
of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion
that there are no gods.
conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications.
That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods as much
as any other conclusion. When you conclude that there are no gods, I
would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for
social justice: an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment,
government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity,
misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on. For reasons that are
high-minded and noble and altruistic . . . and also for reasons that
are pragmatic and Machiavellian to the point of being crass.
start with the crass, Machiavellian reasons. (Those are always more
fun, right?) If we want to make a world that’s better for
atheists, making a world with more atheists would certainly be an
excellent step. Safety in numbers and all that. And if we want to
make a world with more atheists, an excellent first step would be to
work toward a world with greater levels of social justice. According
to Phil Zuckerman’s carefully researched Society
Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About
countries with the highest rates of atheism tend very strongly to be
countries that score highest on the “happiness index”:
they have low rates of violent crime, low rates of government
corruption, excellent educational systems, strong economies,
well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies,
and so on.
there’s no reason to think that atheism creates these high
levels of social functioning. In fact, it seems to be the other way
around. When people are happy, stable, well-educated, empowered, and
have high hopes for their children, they’re more likely to let
go of their belief in God. A high level of social functioning creates
atheism, or contributes to it, anyway.
if we want to create a world with more atheists—and thus a
world that’s safer and better for atheists—it would be
very much to our advantage to create a world that’s safer and
better for everybody. A world with greater social justice is far more
likely to be a more atheistic world. Hey, I warned you that I was
going to be crass.
what are the noble, high-minded reasons that atheists should work for
social justice? If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife,
and if you think this world is the only one we have . . . I bet you
see where I’m going with this. If you don’t believe in
God or an afterlife and if you think this world is the only one we
have, then this life suddenly matters a whole lot more.
religious believers are right and this mortal life really is just a
trivial eye blink in the eternity of our real spiritual afterlives,
then making this life happy and meaningful wouldn’t be so
important. If we really did live forever in heaven after we died, it
wouldn’t matter so much that many children around the world are
born into hopeless lives of misery and despair. A few years of
hunger, disease, violence, and helplessness compared to a blissful
eternity in the arms of the Lord—what’s the big deal?
religious believers aren’t right. There is no God. There is no
heaven. This mortal life is all
we have. And if this mortal life is all we have—and there are
millions of people whose only lives are hopeless lives full of misery
and despair for no reason other than the bad luck of how and where
and when they were born—then that is a fucking tragedy. It is
injustice on a gruesomely epic scale, and we have a powerful moral
obligation to fix it. If we have any morality at all—and the
evidence strongly suggests that we do, that human beings have some
common moral principles wired into our brains through millions of
years of evolution as a social species—then seeing terrible
harm done to others through no fault of their own should make us
cringe and demand our immediate and passionate attention.
going to be very clear about this. We don’t all have to agree
about exactly how social justice should be reached, what our
priorities and goals should be in reaching it, or even what the
concept means. We don’t have to march in political lockstep.
Two of the best things about atheism, freethought, humanism, or
whatever you want to call it are that we value lively dissent and
that we don’t have any dogma that we’re all expected to
I’m not arguing for any dogma or for any specific political
stance. Not here, anyway. I’ve certainly argued elsewhere for
specific political stances—fervently and many times over—but
I don’t think any of them are automatically demanded by not
believing in God. I’m not arguing—here, anyway—for
the repeal of corporate personhood, an end to the drug war, same-sex
marriage, an end to racist policing practices, globally enforced
child labor laws, greater equity in funding for education, restored
regulation of the financial industry, or an end to government support
of corrupt dictatorships. I’m not saying that when it comes to
social justice, atheists need to do any one particular thing.
saying that we need to do something.
Christina blogs at freethoughtblogs.com
atheism, sex, and politics.