Too often, atheism is framed as an oppositional force. Atheism – and by obvious extension, the atheists who give that philosophy material shape – is a doctrine built on resistance. That, in any case, is the popular perception. To most folks, atheism denotes the status of being against religion.
This is a forgivable perspective. In fact, it is substantially justifiable. For much of the public, familiarity with atheism derives primarily from vague exposure to celebrity atheists – many of them known primarily for their strident views on matters of religious faith and ritual observance. Laudably, renowned atheists decry the nefarious influence of religion on society: falsehoods taught in public schools, children dead from faith-healing, the steadfast denial of scientific reality, and an emphasis on posthumous reward that breeds social and ecological fatalism.
Religious belief is very often bad for society. And the bad effects of religion are often extremely salient. It’s difficult to ignore efforts to force religious dogma into biology classrooms. Likewise, the stubborn insistence that humans can have no ill-effect on climate – because that is either the exclusive province of divine influence or a province of influence ceded by the divine to human dominion – is hard to suffer with a smile and a tolerant nod. In the face of these realities, the secular mind has a duty to resist.
In the midst of this resistance, let’s not forget our duty to aspire. Atheism is a philosophy born of reason. The underlying creed of the atheist is not “erase religion” but “embrace reason.” A disbelief in the myriad gods that have populated human history is a natural outworking of that embrace. It is that embrace that leads us to recoil at the unnecessary suffering religious belief has imposed on humanity.
But an embrace of reason need not stop at recognition of and resistance to the harms of superstitious belief. It can also inform our sense of what we want for ourselves and our fellow humans. Reason leads us to reject religion, but it also leads us to recognize our shared humanity. It leads to the eradication of disease and the recognition of individual human rights. Embracing reason is the groundwork for unleashing human potential and building a world increasingly amenable to the business of human thriving.
That’s not to say that the secularly minded will automatically converge on a universal conception of utopia. Utopia is a much a fiction as heaven and hell. There is no perfect society. However, there is the potential for perpetual – and perpetually accelerating – improvement. Humans who embrace reason and evidence, open debate and constructive criticism have enormous potential. One of the aims of atheist should be the manifestation of that potential.
To an extent, that will always involve standing in opposition to dogma – in every form. But it should also involve popularizing a set of aims and values that are universally human. Religious fundamentalists leave a rather hideous stain on the hide of belief. So much so that it is easy to forget that there are plenty of ambiguously spiritual or nominally religious people out there who would be happy to work hand in hand with atheists in building a world that’s not shackled to the yoke of eternal reward or punishment.
All of which is to say this: inasmuch as atheists ought to resist the harms that flow from religions, they also ought to take the time to publicly aspire for something better. In this, I think we might find surprising allies.
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