I’m going to go out on a limb here. Being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.
A 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, multi-faceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.
But 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. And 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 for reasons that are pragmatic and Machiavellian to the point of being crass.
Now, 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.
So 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 atheist world.
Hey, I warned you I was going to be crass.
So what are the noble, high-minded reasons?
If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and 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 you think this world is the only one we have, then this life suddenly matters a whole lot more.
If religious believers were right, and this mortal life really were just a trivial eyeblink 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 children around the world are born into hopeless lives of misery and despair. Hey, a few years of hunger and disease and violence and helplessness, compared to a blissful eternity in the arms of the Lord.. what’s the big deal?
But religious believers aren’t right. There is no God. There is no Heaven. This mortal life is all we have.
Now, I’m going to be very clear about this: We don’t all have to agree about how exactly social justice should be reached, or 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. One of the best things about atheism/ freethought/ etc. is that we value lively dissent, and that we don’t have any dogma we’re all expected to agree on.
So 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 or an end to the drug war, same-sex marriage or an end to racist policing practices, globally enforced child labor laws or 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.
I’m saying that we need to do something.
A clarification, since some people misunderstood my point when I linked to the piece the first time around. I am not saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice are not true atheists. I’m saying that atheists who don’t care about social justice should care about social justice. Logically, and morally.