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Austin Cline

G.M. Jackson: Is Atheism Not a Cause?

By July 8, 2011

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Is atheism a "cause"? Of course not; there's nothing about mere disbelief in gods that amounts to anything like a "cause." Atheists can have causes, of course, and some of those causes might even be connected in some way to their atheism. None of those causes, however, are identical to atheism -- no more than a theistic religion or movement is identical to theism itself. This is a fairly obvious and should be uncontroversial; nevertheless, even some atheists have trouble understanding it.

G.M. Jackson writes:

Well, being male could be a cause if a man decides to make it one. He could fight for the rights of men, for instance. Having long hair could be a belief system if a group decides to worship long hair.

Um, how does any of this make sense? Fighting for the rights of men would certainly be a cause, but who would apply the label "male" to that instead of something sensible, like "male-ism"? By such reasoning, a woman who fights for the rights of men would by a "male". No one can imagine that that makes the least bit of sense.

Worshipping long hair would be a belief system, but who would apply the label "having long hair" to it instead of something like "hair-ism"? By such reasoning a bald person who prays for hair as part of his worship practices would be described as "having long hair." No one can imagine that that makes the least bit of sense, either.

So G.M. Jackson's first and most fundamental error is confusing a quality for a system. Clearly, a person can have the quality without the system or adopt the system without also possessing the quality. It's such an obvious distinction, too.

The Supreme Court said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being (see Torcaso v. Watkins [1961]). Roy Torcaso, an atheist, filed a suit that established atheism as a religion. Clearly atheism is "practiced" in a "proactive, law changing manner."

Unlike G.M. Jackson, it seems, I've actually read the Torcaso v. Watkins decision and nowhere in it does it "establish" or even merely describe atheism as a religion. Some Christians believe that this case "established" secular humanism as a religion, ignorant of the fact that this claim is based on a dicta, so maybe this is the origin of Jackson's even more mistaken belief.

Roy Torcaso didn't file suit on the grounds that he "practiced" atheism, he filed suit on the grounds that having to declare belief in God in order to hold office violated the constitutional ban on religious tests for public office.

Atheism is not a cause? OK, then, what was the purpose of Cline's article entitled Myth: Atheism is a Cause? Surely his intent was to defend atheism from those spreading myths about it.

Surely not, and G.M. Jackson would have learned that had he bothered to ask instead of making assumptions. My purpose in dispelling myths like this is threefold: first to correct misunderstandings about atheism, second to defend atheists against popular forms of bigotry, and third to provide atheists with tools needed to do the first two themselves when the need arises.

None of this amounts to any more of a "defense" of atheism than correcting misconceptions about bald people is a "defense" of baldness. Correcting an error about some subject does not entail defending that subject. I can correct erroneous ideas which a person has about the KKK without also "defending" the KKK. I've corrected atheists' erroneous ideas about religions, but that didn't amount to "defending" religion. That should be pretty obvious.

To further demonstrate the absurdity of Cline's position, let's imagine him being abused and discriminated against because he is an atheist. To be logically consistent, he would have to forgo defending himself. If atheism is not a cause, then why defend it?

Note the dramatic shift in terminology here: first Jackson references "defending himself," then he references "defending it [atheism]". Now I suppose I could be generous and think that Jackson does not recognize any distinction between himself and atheism as a general concept. That would be incredibly bizarre, but it would justify shifting from one to the other as if they were the same.

Otherwise, there is no justification and his scenario doesn't work. I can defend myself as a human being against assault and discrimination without ever having to "defend" atheism itself. Granted, I could theoretically employ a defense of atheism as part of a defense of myself, but it's not necessary.

On the other hand, if atheism has value, then why not fight for it, especially when it is under attack?

Because atheism, by itself, has no value. As to why that's so, George H. Smith said it best and I can't really improve upon it:

Atheism is a consequence, not a cause of reasonableness. There is nothing praiseworthy in atheism as such. Any fool can disbelieve; any idiot can proclaim to the world that God is an illusion. There is nothing inspiring in this, nothing to command respect. That one disbelieves in a god is unimportant, but why one disbelieves is supremely important.


[A]theism is important only when viewed in this larger context which I will call the "habit of reasonableness." Atheism is significant only if and when it results from this habit of reasonableness. The American child who grows up to be a Baptist simply because his parents were Baptist and he never thought critically about those beliefs is not necessarily any more irrational than the Soviet child who grows up to be an atheist simply because his parents were atheist and because the state tells him to be an atheist. The fact that the Soviet child in this particular case may have the correct position is irrelevant.

So it's no so much what one believes, or the content, as it is why one believes as one does. So the issue of reasonableness pertains to the concern for truth, concern for the correct methodology of reasoning. And just because a person espouses atheism is no guarantee -- believe me -- that person is necessarily reasonable.

This is basically why I never crusade for atheism per se outside of a wider framework. Atheism is significant, to be sure. But it's significance derives entirely from the fact that it represents the application of reason to a particular field, specifically the area of religious belief. Atheism, unless it is ingrained within this greater philosophical defense of reason, is practically useless. When, however, it is the consequence of the habit of reasonableness, then atheism stands in opposition to the wave of supernaturalism and mysticism we are currently experiencing. In other words, irrationalism in any form it may occur.

This is such a simple and obvious principle that it always surprises me that it comes as such a surprise to other atheists. Then again, the mere fact that so many atheists never quite comprehend this is itself a demonstration of how true the principle is. If every atheist already understood it, then on some level it wouldn't be entirely correct.

Why not make it a religion, so atheists can have all the rights and tax benefits the religious enjoy?

Uh, because that would only reinforce the false and silly notion that you need to be religious and have a religion in order to have those rights and benefits? This question is a bit like saying "why not call all women "male" so they can have all the rights and privileges that men enjoy"? Then again, perhaps that's part of the plan with calling them "male" simply for fighting for the rights of men?

one does not have to believe in gods to be deluded.


July 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm
(1) Borsia says:

Of course all of these attempts to define atheism as a cause are to further define it as a religion, so that they can challenge it as such rather than be stuck trying to attack something that is in effect nothing.
They want to say that atheism teaches blah, blah, blah. So that they have a target to allow them to go on the offensive of saying that atheists have to prove there is no god. Just as a lawyer tries to open channels of questioning that aren’t related to a case.
It tears them apart that atheism isn’t a belief or a religion. Even more that it is only 3 words.
They have all of their “holy books of superstition” poised to strike but when there isn’t anything to strike they are left poised in the wake.
I’m often asked what atheists believe in? When I say “No gods exist.” they realize that all of their tactful arguments won’t have any place. They ask “What are the core elements of atheism?” and get the same answer.
“But how do you determine right from wrong?”
“Atheism doesn’t address that.” leaves them with the wind gone from their sails.
“But what about the Commandments and the Bible to steer your morality, how does atheism guide you?”
“There is only one useful commandment. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ But it is not a part of, and has nothing to do with, atheism.”
It’s similar to telling theists that evolution doesn’t try to explain the origin of life.
Both subjects leave them doing their impression of a motorboat “but, but, but, but….”

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