The Necessity of Atheism
This is the first installment in what will become a regular feature on the web site of Atheist Freethinkers: a periodic blog dealing with subjects of importance to atheists and secularists. This first article deals with our central topic: atheism and the importance of promoting it, or, to put it more accurately, defending it against the onslaught of distortions, misconceptions and downright lies of which atheism and atheists are all too frequently the target. For without this flood of misinformation, there would be little need to promote an idea whose truth is self-evident.
This year 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of a classic of atheism, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “The Necessity of Atheism,” a courageous gesture which led to the gifted poet’s expulsion from Oxford University Yes, with humanity awash in bizarre and dangerous supernatural beliefs, atheism was in his day and remains today very necessary. But I think Shelley meant “necessity” in the strict logical sense of that word, as in: unavoidable, inevitable, certain. “Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.” However, that does not mean that we remain in a state of doubt, undecided between theism and atheism, for, as Shelley points out, “God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist.”
Atheism requires no active belief; rather, it is founded on disbelief, i.e. the simple rejection of that which is unsubstantiated. Shelley again: “it is evident that, having no proofs from either of the three sources of conviction [the senses, reason, and the testimony of others], the mind cannot believe the existence of a creative God…” God is a name invented “to conceal our ignorance of causes and essences.” The progress of science sounds the death-knell of god-belief. “If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction.”
Indeed, atheism is a certainty, but not an absolute, faith-based certainty. Rather, it is a scientific, reality-based certainty, beyond all reasonable doubt. The non-existence of the god(s) of Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or Zoroastrianism, etc.) is as certain as the falsehood of geocentricity. Both are based on observation (lack of confirming evidence, presence of conflicting evidence). In addition, the falsehood of the god-hypothesis is strongly implied by the self-contradictory nature of any clear definition of god (clarity being something which god-believers tend to be very bad at).
All supernatural religion is at best false, and often pernicious. When I speak of atheism, I generally mean philosophical materialism and the rejection of supernaturalism. I recognize that this use of the word is not 100% accurate, for an individual can simultaneously disbelief in god while maintaining belief in some other supernatural phenomenon (for example, reincarnation). However, such non-materialistic atheism in untenable, for it is inconsistent to reject only an arbitrary subset of supernaturalism. An intellectually coherent atheist must necessarily be monist, not dualist.
Secularism — a system of governance in which public institutions are completely free from the influence of religious organizations — is necessary for human welfare. Secularism implies and promotes both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and is thus in the best interests of everyone — except, of course, the leadership of powerful mainstream religious institutions, whose interests lie in maintaining the privileges which they enjoy under existing non-secular systems.
What is the greatest impediment to achieving the necessary goal of secularism? Is it religious fundamentalism and extremism? What about the discourse of so-called “moderates” who insist that respect for their right to practice their religion is insufficient, that we must go further by respecting religious beliefs themselves? Do they not thus facilitate the fundamentalists, by alleging that criticism of religion is a form of “intolerance”? However, we are, I think, mistaken to direct all our criticism at the religious: a major impediment to secularism is the intellectual and political confusion which the majority of people — including most non-believers — manifest when faced with the challenge which religions represent.
Religious believers, specifically theists, have always maintained, and continue to maintain, that atheists must be immoral or amoral because the only basis for morals and ethics, so they say, is belief in a father-cop in the heavens which they call “God.” We know of course that this assertion is both false and dishonest, because it is contradicted by both theoretical considerations and empirical evidence. Yet, regrettably, even some secularists and humanists implicitly (and sometime even explicitly!) promote the myth that atheist activism threatens freedom of conscience, thus echoing religious anti-atheist propaganda. The obvious and necessary way to confront this dirty old prejudice in all its forms is for atheists to come out as atheists.
It is remarkable just how many excuses and evasions have been devised in order to avoid the necessary task of confronting this religious propaganda. In principle there is nothing wrong with humanism, except of course that it is a somewhat vague concept, used sometimes even by the religious. However, when non-believers start calling themselves humanists, some of them foolishly assume that this mere change of label somehow makes them morally superior to atheists (a conceit they share with the religious). Calling oneself “agnostic” is a particularly bad choice because it is generally interpreted symmetrically and thus sends the erroneous message that theism is 50% valid, when in fact it is 100% vacuous. Deism is even worse, because it maintains the belief in a divine creator and originator of morality, which is precisely the problem with the theism which deism purports to replace. Belief in some vague “energy” which infuses the universe is just another empty-headed excuse to avoid facing one’s own atheism. And the list goes on.
Thus atheism — explicit, unapologetic atheism, forthrightly critical of theism — is required to keep non-believers honest and to prevent believers from remaining arrogant. The myriad euphemisms which non-believers have invented must be set aside, or, if used at all, take second place to the necessary stance of atheist or, more accurately, philosophical materialist.
Yes, atheism is necessary: both necessarily true and necessary for the progress and freedom of humanity.
- The Necessity of Atheism, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Books, 1990.
ISBN – 10:0879757744
ISBN – 13:9780879757748