I confess a bit of a fear in writing this piece. I say that because I know how some Christians love to distort comments, take them out of context or entirely misinterpret them. Often that is done maliciously. Other times it is done our of an inability to grasp anything that is a slight bit complicated.
My main point is is that atheism is a void. It is an intellectual zero, a nothingness. What complicates the matter is that what this means is not likely to be what the Christian will take it to mean. They will give this a meaning that fits the believing mind and thus entirely distorts what I’m saying.
What I mean is actually not too hard to understand if they take is slowly. Atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of a belief. To know that one is an atheist only means that you know he does not hold to the claims that a deity exists. Nothing more.
This is not to say that the atheist has no beliefs, only that those beliefs are not derived from atheism. Since atheism is a lack of a belief in something (in this case a deity) you can not get positive principles out of a negative concept. Not believing in a god doesn’t tell you how to live, what to value, what sort of society to yearn for, etc. By itself it gives no directions, values or beliefs. How could it? It is the lack of a belief
The error the believer makes it to then assume that if one doesn’t believe in a deity then one can’t hold positive beliefs at all. One can hold very specific beliefs about morality, decency, ethics, virtues, etc. But they are not rooted in one’s atheism because they can’t be rooted in a void.
That one invents a deity and announces that all beliefs are rooted in that invention doesn’t mean the beliefs are true, accurate or even good. Theists themselves prove that by constantly fighting with one another over those very beliefs. And the true believers actually dismiss the idea of there being any such thing as object good and objective morality. The good and the moral, they say, is merely that which God commands. If God commanded genocide then genocide is good. It is the ultimate moral relativism. Provided one is deluded enough to think God is speaking to them one has a moral license, nay, a moral requirement, to obey that voice and do all those horrific things the God is whispering. Throughout history sincere believers have done just that and the soil was fertlized deep with the blood of their victims.
The Christian, in one sense, seems to almost grasp that atheism is merely a lack of a belief. But they still miss it entirely. They almost get it when they start to argue that an atheist by virtue of being atheist has no morality. True, the morality he holds is not derived from the atheism. But that doesn’t mean it is not derived in no other natural, non-theistic way.
Too often believers are unthinking people. They merely accept social convention as moral or what the social convention of their church tells them is moral. They attribute all of that to God. You will get some absurd claims out of this. It is not God that gives them rules to live by, they are merely looking for an authority of some sort to tell them how to live. They can’t think for themselves.
And so they seek out authorities in one form or another offering them rules. Not ideas, but rules. There is a difference between learning how to think and being told what to think. Many believers have never figured that out.
The reality is that on a huge number of issues atheists do not differ from Christians regarding what they believe about life. Atheists do value life, perhaps more so since they believe this is the only life they have. They value love and friendship and human decency. In most respects the average atheist is more moral than the average Christian. Certainly the evidence bears it out in the US. They are less likely to go to jail, less likely to commit a crime, less likely to divorce, etc. But their living this way is not rooted in being an atheist. Having no believe in a deity does not tell you anything about how to treat other people. It does not inspire you to act in any particular way.
That most atheists live moral lives is not because they are atheists. If anything it is because they think things through rationally and the moral life they live is one that makes sense to them.
You can see how the Christian almost gets it when he says the atheist has no foundation for morality. He has no foundation for morality in atheism but that does not mean he has no foundation derived from rational thought and reality.
We don’t act on a lack of a belief. We act on beliefs. A large chunk of nothing can’t serve as the foundation for something. You can add all the zeros you want together and they still add up to zero. So the moral beliefs, of those who lack a belief in a deity, do not come from that lack of a belief, but come from someplace else. And by definition it comes from a non-theistic source.
The end result is that nothing an atheist does or actually believes is rooted in his or her atheism. It can’t be.
But once that is understood it destroys one of the big bugaboos the Christians invent about atheism. They often blame atheism for the actions of any atheist. That is absurd. Since an atheist can’t act on the basis of his lack of beliefs when he does act it is founded on something else. Atheism per se never causes one to act or not act. It is merely a description of a state of not believing in one kind of thing.
The good that atheists do is not rooted in atheism per se. The bad an atheist may do is not rooted in atheism per se. There is no set of beliefs that one can define as “atheism”. There is only the void, the lack of a belief. So atheism can neither take the credit for the good, nor the blame for the evil, done by any specific atheist.
Now in history there have been some nasty people who claimed to be atheists. And they did nasty things. But could those nasty things be attributed to their atheism? NO. Again nothingness can’t be the foundation for something and that applies even when the something is bad. Christians want to have it both ways. They will deny that decent atheists are decent because of their atheism. But any unpleasant atheist is automatically unpleasant, or bad, because of atheism. In one case they see atheism properly -- it can’t serve as the foundation for any action. But in other cases they assert it is the foundation for an actionprovided it is unpleasant.
Stalin said he was an atheist. Stalin did nasty things. But if a big chunk of nothing can’t serve as the foundation for an action then what causde Stalin to act nastily? It was not his lack of a belief in a deity but his positive belief in Marxist theory. Ditto for Mao. For the most part these individuals held very strongly to other beliefs and those beliefs--positive beliefs in the sense that they asserted something not in the sense that they were good--served as the foundation for their actions.
It took a positive belief to inspire them to do what they did. And for many of them it was an unthinking faith in Marxist theory. For some it was a thoughtful belief albeit a wrong one. Something must serve as the foundation for these actions and the something in this case was Marxism or socialism in its various forms. They acted brutally not because they lacked a faith in a deity but because they had a faith in a political/economic system.
This becomes a bit clearer when we consider the lack of a belief in many different things. I don’t know anyone today who believes in Thor, the god of thunder. We basically all lack a belief in Thor. There is probably an infinite number of things for which we hold no belief whatsoever. And just as you and I lack a belief in Thor so too did Stalin lack a belief in Thor.
Would I be justified in arguing that Stalin was a monster because he didn’t believe in Thor. Which is more likely: that Stalin acted badly due to his belief in Marxism or that he acted badly due to his lack of a belief in Thor? I hold no belief in the healing powers of crystal, the presence of aliens in UFOs, Santa Clause, fairies or the Loch Ness serpent. If required I could make a very long list of things I don’t believe. And none of that will tell you what I do believe and none of it will tell you why I act as I do. All those nothings strung together do not give you a positive.
So atheists may well have morals but not rooted in their atheism. Atheist may well value life but not because they are atheist. Atheists may even do bad things but not because they are atheists. The lack of a belief never serves as the inspiration for an action. We act upon that which we do believe not that which we don’t.