So I have FINALLY gotten back to that long-ago series about how to combat religion (and more importantly irrationality) with the atheist movement. In case you’ve forgotten, my last post in this series was about atheist increasing their Presence in America. This post is about making that Presence a force for Liberty in a way that highlights the moral depravity of religious doctrines and demonstrates the ability to separate morality from religion.
For some atheists, the first step down this path is to stop being moral relativists. Now I am aware that plenty of atheists are not moral relativists, but the claim that we are is incredibly common amongst theists. There are many theists out there who claim that without a god to declare some kind of moral rules, there is no way for atheists to have a real moral system. And whenever I see an atheist promoting this idea, I cringe to think what would happen if that atheist were as famous as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. When we step up our Presence, we must be sure that we are the kind of people the public will want to cheer for. There is already plenty of anti-atheist sentiment running around America. If we then present ourselves as a group who lacks any coherent moral system, we will only make things worse.
So for any of those who are tempted to think that there’s no good non-religious moral system, I strongly urge you to Google the phrase ‘philosophy of ethics,’ to look up a few scientific experiments involving empathy and reciprocity in chimps and even rats, and to learn at least a little bit of game theory.
For those atheists who already have a non-religious moral system, there are a few tasks we need to tackle. The first is that we need to hammer out our stance internally. And keep in mind that we don’t want a repeat of the clusterfuck that happened with Atheism+ . What we need is rational discourse about these topics. We really do need to discuss questions like sexual harassment policies. When we atheists begin to step up our presence, we are going to need to make a very strong stand in favor of human rights and reasonable policies. But in order to do this, we need to hash out what these policies are. And that requires internal dialogue that doesn’t devolve into baiting, name-calling, or close-mindedness.
After hammering out our stance, we need to make sure to promote this stance alongside the reasons for the stance. We need to be sure to let the world know that ‘gays should be allowed to marry’ is not some kind of dogma coming from a new Atheism religion, but is the conclusion of a moral system that in no way depends upon anything like a religion. Atheists don’t support gay marriage because some prophet once wrote “Thou shalt allow thy gays to marry.” We support gay marriage because it makes for a better America. And it makes for a better America because it allows gay people to be happier without hurting anybody else. And we need to be absolutely clear on the fact that this belief, this moral stance, has absolutely nothing to do with anything faith-based.
The same holds true for a wider range of policies. If we want to push for, say, copyright reform (which I’m choosing out of the blue), then we need to be clear about the why of the reform. We need to explain that there is no good evidence that allowing intellectual copyright to extend 70 years past the death of the author does anything good for society, and plenty of good evidence that it in fact causes quite a bit of harm. The 70-years-post-mortem policy stymies innovation and hinders academics in order to generate more money for descendants of the creator – people who didn’t actually do the creating and thus have no legitimate claims to, say, being robbed by reform. If we want to push for legalizing marijuana, then we need to explain that marijuana isn’t actually all that harmful in comparison to caffeine or cigarettes, that taxing marijuana sale while halting possession investigations could increase revenue, that regulating marijuana will make it even safer, and so forth
And critically, we need to make sure that our arguments for copyright reform and our arguments for legalizing marijuana are both coming from the same moral framework, meeting the same standards. If you argue that we should legalize gay marriage because it creates more good than harm, and are then faced with solid evidence that the costs of regulating marijuana sales substantially outweigh the gains and that marijuana is far more dangerous than coffee or cigarettes, you aren’t allowed to say that you still want to legalize marijuana anyway, harmful effects be damned. If harm is your metric, then make it your metric.
Third, we need to make sure to highlight the fact that it was only by not having any preset, unquestionable tenants that we were able to reason out this better moral system. We need to make it known that our morals are based in reason and science, rather than myth and fantasy, and that this is why they work. This way, we will not simply replace theistic immutable morals with an improved but still static moral system. Failure to do so will result in progress that is immediately halted once those who accept the new morals stop searching for improvements. It’s one thing to convince someone that gays should be allowed to marry. It’s another thing to teach them how they could have reached this conclusion without your help, so that they can correct other errors on their own.
And lastly, we need to live the moral system we propose. Theorycrafting is nice, but you still need to test it. Don’t tell me copyrights shouldn’t extend past the life of the author if you’re unwilling to put ‘transfer all my copyrights to public domain’ in your will. Don’t tell me you believe that marijuana is no more harmful than coffee if you are health-wise okay with your kids drinking coffee but not with your kids smoking pot. And don’t tell me you support gay marriage because the government should never inhibit mutually-consenting sexual relationships and then press statutory rape charges when you find out your teenage daughter had mutually-consenting sex with a college student. And if you do find yourself in a situation where you are unwilling to live by the standards you propose, then you need to recognize this as clear evidence that either you did the wrong thing, or you have lousy standards. Then work to improve this problem.
I also want to offer atheists one final piece of advice. It’s advice that you probably won’t hear from hardly anyone, because it’s not PC advice to give. But it’s realistic advice, so I’m going to give it to you anyway. And the advice is this: You need to be better than the others. Whether you like it or not, the reality of the situation is that your average American is predisposed towards thinking that atheist = immoral. In order to trash this unwarranted assumption, we need to be more moral than the average American. Developing better moral systems than ‘check your Bible’ isn’t very hard. But living up to them is incredibly difficult. And while it feels nice to tell minorities that they shouldn’t be judged as representatives of their group, the simple reality of the situation is that this will happen. When it comes to public opinion, atheists are starting out in the negatives. If we want to change that, then we’re going to have to catch up by being better than those around us. It’s not fair, but it’s true.