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Posted by on Jul 3, 2013 in Miscellany, Philosophy | 7 comments

Does atheism entail anti-discrimination?

I recently discovered Betteridge’s Law, which is a rather cool adage that states “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no“. And that’s the point of view many of you might have with regard to the headline I chose for this blog post. You might say, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s) – it entails no other propositions.

If we mean the strict logical sense of entail, i.e. that atheism necessarily leads to anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth, you’re right. But you’re perhaps also evading a more important point, which is that if you’re an atheist who isn’t opposed to sexism, racism and so forth, the fact that you happen to be an atheist does little or nothing to combat the possibility that the viewpoints are at least in tension with each other, or even in direct opposition.

Two ideas don’t need to form a contradiction to be in opposition. And to my mind, atheism will (and, should) typically entail anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth. And this is because prejudice of these forms is not only an manifestation of irrationality, but also more specifically a form of irrationality that is typically buttressed by moral codes that rank certain values or characteristics above others on largely arbitrary grounds.

Whether it be wearing a certain funny hat, belonging to a certain tribe, uttering certain sacred words, eating a particular food and not another – all of these are tokens that would normally be arbitrary, but are granted significance via a system of belief. They aren’t justified by evidence and reason, but rather become justified by the positive feedback loop of religious practice.

Without those forms of thinking, any idea that people with a certain level of melanin in their skin are superior or inferior to others, or that people with penises are better/worse than people without them, would struggle to get off the ground. We’d be far more inclined to say “that makes no sense – we’ve no reason to treat x worse than y”, because we’d have fewer psychological frameworks in place allowing for arbitrary discrimination.

So, while atheism might not necessarily lead to being anti-discrimination (of arbitrary sorts), I do think it’s not only compatible with anti-discrimination, but more than that – it’s more likely to lead to it than not. And for clarity, and to avoid needless argument, I am not making the claim that religion always, or necessarily, does lead to these forms of discrimination. I’m making the far more limited claim that it’s one way in which some people prop up their prejudices.

  • Eshto

    A.) Atheism is not the same as skepticism. I don’t see how not believing in a deity has anything to do with being a critical thinker.
    B.) The vast majority of my straight allies who have fought for, and helped achieve, gay equality in the states that have it have been progressive theists.
    C.) No.

    • A.) The only time skepticism is mentioned is in your comment. I don’t make the claim you refer to, so have no idea why you mention this. You don’t see how “not believing in [less plausible hypotheses or entities than competing ones] has anything to do with being a critical thinker”. That’s odd.
      B.) Same here. As I point out in the last two sentences of what you’re commenting on, I’m not claiming that religion has to make one an ally of bigotry, just that it might be one supporting leg, in some cases.

  • jjramsey

    I’m not sure that I buy this.

    Take, for example, the way women are treated as second-class citizens that are predominantly tasked with domestic labor and child rearing. That could easily have evolved from things such as the differences in physical strength between the sexes, the cumbersomeness of human pregnancy, and so on. Heck, we even see lopsided power relationships between the sexes of other animals. This is not to say that men dominating women is a rightful natural order; if it is “natural,” it is in the way xenophobia and the cyanide of peach pits is “natural.” However, it is very much an *old* way of doing things, and likely one that pre-dates religion, with religious justifications being a post hoc rationalization.

    Or take homophobia … please. That seems to start from gut-level disgust that later came to piggyback on religion. In general, a lot of our moral instincts, including the destructive ones, do such piggybacking.

    If you take away religion, things could go a couple different ways. If somebody would rather not have sexist or anti-gay beliefs but has them because he/she thinks that God said so, then, yes, those beliefs are likely to die without religious influence. On the other hand, if one has sexist or anti-gay beliefs because they’ve been reinforced by society in multiple ways to the point that they are just “the done thing”, with religious justification only one of the many means of reinforcement, then a lack of religion may not do much.

  • I was going to reply, but it became a long one and I made it into a blog post:

    tl;dr I sort of agree, but I think theistic arguments against discrimination are also important here, and this point leaves me unconvinced about whether atheism ‘is more likely to lead to’ anti-discrimination than theism. I also think this sense of ‘entails’ is weaker than I’m willing to accept (a minor quibble though).

    • Thanks, will read that carefully after some coffee. But it’s a little funny – my post was intended as a short comment to a Facebook thread where someone was using the “dictionary atheist” trope to motivate for some fairly obnoxious sexism, and ended up as a post too.

  • glennd1

    Wow, this entire dialog is growing incredibly tiresome. In fact, some people are both atheists and racists. Some are oppressive totalitarians who twist the ideas of equality to justify authoritarian state intervention into matters of personal conscience. Others are anarchists who believe that people are free to believe and behave as they see fit as long as they don’t infringe on other’s rights and property.

    It’s intellectually absurd to conflate atheism with any kind of political and/or moral worldview. Full stop. I know atheists who are democrats, republicans, apolitical, communists, socialists, anarcho communists, libertarians – and they don’t agree about many of the moral questions you seem to believe must be axiomatically answered the same way by anyone who becomes an atheist.

    It’s funny, there has always been a place for “secular humanists” in the Atheism movement. Many such groups have always advocated for their political views, alongside their atheism, such as the American Humanist Society. Here are some of their views:

    The American Humanist Association endorses elective abortion. Other contemporary views include working for equality for homosexuals, gender equality, a secular approach to divorce and remarriage, working to end poverty, promoting peace and nonviolence, and environmental protection.

    Any Progressive, and actually most Marxists, will find themselves very comfortable in the humanist movement. Or start another movement. Just don’t tell me being an atheist requires me to subscribe to any political or moral view. It’s simply false. Like Creationism is false -no matter how many times people say it isn’t so.

    • Not sure you posted this on the right place, but you might want to read my last paragraph again. Words like ‘axiomatically’ and ‘require’ are completely out of step with what I’m suggesting here. In fact, if you read my comment on Notung’s post linked above, you much even think that – leaving aside the shouting – we largely agree.