Value-free atheism

Earlier today, Massimo Pigliucci, writing for his blog Rationally Speaking, noted that atheism is “not a philosophy” and “we should stop pretending that it is.” Further elaborating, he wrote,

When atheists are concerned that their position is perceived as being only negative, without any positive message, they shouldn’t really be worried, but should rather bite the bullet: a-theism simply means that one lacks a belief in god(s), and for excellent reasons. It is akin to a-unicornism, the lack of a belief in unicorns. That lack of belief doesn’t come with any positive position because none is logically connected to it.

The definition of the word ‘atheist’ — a person who lacks belief in any gods — is often misunderstood by many religious people who, at least from my experience, say, for instance, “It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a believer” or “Atheism is just another religion.”

Confusion concerning the word ‘atheist’ isn’t only limited to religious persons. Some atheists across the blogosphere seem to couple certain ideological positions with atheism — arguing that atheism leads to particular positions or that atheists should hold particular positions — although atheism does not lead to, as Pigliucci described, any sort of positive position. It even seems that, in some cases, persons are attempting to ‘hijack’ the term ‘atheism’ by affixing their particular ideological positions. 

While many atheists may happen to endorse certain political positions or positions on social issues, this does not mean that atheism leads to those positions and, as described above, it simply cannot. Atheists will obviously not hold beliefs which require a belief in God to be coherent, but they will hold a wide array of beliefs on other issues regardless of the strength of the arguments.

Propositions we hold to be true are not a result of a lack of a belief we may have concerning a particular issue, but rather are a result — at least for beliefs which are held as a result of careful deliberation — of value judgments and positive beliefs.

Matters about how we ought to act in response to problems in our societies such as drug abuse, crime rates, economic woes, poverty, environmental concerns, etc. have absolutely nothing to do with lack of belief in God. Many atheists simply decide not to address these issues whether they feel unequipped to respond or otherwise are concerned with other problems.

Many atheists who claim that they hold a position because they are atheists even seem to be mistaken. Consider someone who asserts the following: “I value this life because I am an atheist and want to make the most of this life for myself and others.” Counter-examples of atheists who consider suicide to be a rational option in response to daily toils or atheists who want to maximize their personal pleasure rather than benefiting others show that atheism doesn’t lead to a particular position. The proposition ‘life is valuable’ does not arise because one lacks belief in any gods, but rather exists for positive reasons.

Attempts to argue that atheism should lead to particular positive beliefs or that atheists should hold particular positions are doomed to failure. Atheism, I argue, is a ‘value-free enterprise’ in which positions persons may hold, no matter how popular they may be within the atheist community, arise because of positive propositions and value judgments.