Part Nine: Pragmatic Atheism
Now we should assess atheism pragmatically. Theism has proven to be a fairly good pragmatic theory, but maybe not quite as attractive as it would superficially seem. Still, it survives despite its harshest criticisms and remains resilient to this day.
I want to briefly mention some views typically held about atheists and the atheistic lifestyle. They are primarily negative, and that is the way it seems most people regard atheism; as a somewhat bleak belief with poor implications. I have heard the following said of atheism: that it endorses chaos, that it promotes Hedonism and such extreme self-pleasuring; that an atheist is selfish, almost completely self-interested. More extreme criticisms range from atheists being machiavellian characters who would do whatever is in their interests, to being arrogant, close-minded, and downright evil individuals. Even the Bible calls the atheist a "fool." But this description still seems mild and not nearly exhaustive of all the opinions many people seem to have about atheists.
Are these opinions justified? I think that in some cases they really are. There have been many amoral individuals treading this planet denouncing God and living chaotic lifestyles, and that certainly hasn't helped atheism. Some atheists I know are clearly not as extreme as this, but they are still rather arrogant and intolerant toward Christians. I want to make it clear, though, that in no way does atheism necessarily create or endorse any of these characteristics. How could it endorse such things? It posits nothing about what one should or should not do. It has been the atheists themselves in these cases who, for some reason or another, have chosen to act these ways and believe in these things.
Let me be frank; I am an atheist, but I don't like what these people are doing at all. After a long history of persecution against atheists, we have finally come to a time when atheism is being allowed and accepted more than ever. After such a long period of intolerance against atheism, atheists are finally much freer to hold their views. So what do they end up doing? They show the same infernal intolerance toward their ex-persecutors, the theists. Whether it be out of spite or fury against theists, I think atheists are hurting their cause by speaking and acting so resentfully.
The truth is, theists have been unfair to atheists in many ways, and many still continue to be. A great number of theists speak boldly and intolerantly against those who reject the notion of God, and this has convinced many atheists that the best way to combat this prejudice is to speak just as boldly and just as intolerantly. "Fight fire with fire" perhaps is the strategy behind so much of this atheistic bombast and fury.
But one of the beauties of atheism is that people are allowed to use whatever strategy they choose; the choice is free. Theists, by their willing reliance upon the Holy Bible, are not necessarily as free. For example, atheists are specifically and directly condemned in the Bible, and that follows naturally into the Christian faith. Christians who choose to ignore that passage may certainly do so, but at this risk: that if this passage be disregarded in the Bible, then what else? What other passages stay and go? That is a possible dilemma for any Christian who navigates within the Bible's framework as such to call some of it symbolic, some of it literal, and some of it simply wrong.
Suffice for me to say at this stage that I personally do not lead an utterly intolerant, arrogant, and self-serving lifestyle -- at least not any more or less than within your typical religious system-- and I am positive that I am not the only one. That fact begins to indicate that many atheists do not hold those negative characteristics that I listed before, and that being an atheist in no way necessitates that lifestyle. To brand an atheist as holding those negative stereotypes is obviously unwise. I will also try to petition to those atheists that do resemble those stereotypes that such a life may be less attractive in the long run compared to a more tolerant, gentle atheistic system.
I have certainly not dismissed the negativities away from atheism by all that I have just said. There are some more solid doubts about some of the poorer implications of atheism, and I will attempt to assess them fairly. At each point, I will also try to defend why such a doubt may not be as strong or as grave as it might originally seem.
So what are some of the practical benefits atheism offers? I assert that being an atheist allows for more tolerance, moral flexibility, is more attuned to the real human state of things, and ultimately is no worse (and maybe even better) than other religions in its drive to improve the quality of the human condition and the planet we live on.
Believing in God has implications that are certainly great and "momentous." Many theists believe not only in an order in the universe, but also in a God who is benevolent and personal. In Western tradition, where does this God come to us from? Where is he described? The answer is simple: the Holy Bible. The Holy Bible goes to great length to describe the beliefs and incidents involving God and his followers. The Bible is also arguably the actual "word of God," that is, God's direct message to us as humans (not merely some testimonials of his human followers). Whichever belief this theist might hold, the fact remains that the Bible is pretty much the main source of coming to know about the God they believe in.
The Bible, of course, is not simply a description of God or one long treatise trying to argue that he exists. Much of the Bible lays out dogma about how Christians ought to conduct their lives. These not only include such things as the "golden rule" and the Ten Commandments, but a myriad of other commands and beliefs. The Bible then has many implicating beliefs that stem from the main belief in its version of God. Among these many beliefs within the Bible, some reflect intolerance toward certain groups of people. There is a general and pervasive sexism in the Bible, women clearly being told to submit to their husbands. There is also a disdain for homosexuals, and a belief that dictates that all of the animals on the Earth are here for human use alone, and that we are essentially free to kill them and use them as we please. There is also a condemnation of atheists.
These issues get very shaky and marginal, and many churches change their minds about their worth and application; but many are still sticking to what the Bible says. I believe that the atheist is in a much better position in regard to this issue. There is no bible accompanying atheism to tell you what to do or not to do, who to like and who to reject. Atheists are free to choose for themselves, and this choice potentially leads to a much greater tolerance among people.
Some atheists have not shown this tolerance, naturally, but let me try to persuade you that such tolerance is pragmatically invaluable to the human condition. It is almost too obvious to state that women are every bit as human as men, and that they have earned and shown every merit and ability that any other person has; women clearly deserve full tolerance. Homosexuals engage in a lifestyle, or at least hold a sexual preference, that many people do not have, but the quality of their character remains entirely unaffected. Their love is just as true, and their ability is just as great as that of any other person. Homosexuals, bisexuals, and anyone else of an alternative sexual preference deserve full tolerance.
We as humans have used animals and killed them for our personal use. This was once a matter of survival, but it no longer is a question of survival. We have food alternatives and much of our destruction of animals is based on luxury items. It would be almost impossible to immediately phase out animal cruelty, but it can certainly be improved --if humans ever choose to improve it. We have befriended and grown to love so many of the other species on the planet; it is time that we moved toward more tolerance and respect for animal rights. And as for atheists, they too are just as intelligent and caring about the world as any other person. They too deserve tolerance.
These are not simple point-blank opinions. These beliefs lead to serious and beneficial attitudes and policies. Imagine a world where a woman is able to make as much money as a man and has every other right men have been able to indulge in. And imagine a world where a homosexual is free to admit their sexual preferences without fear of condemnation, of losing their job, or of losing any respect among family and friends. And imagine that animals are not grossly mistreated and are given their proper rights, freedom, and respect for being ordinary living creatures. I describe these not to sound trite or maudlin. This is an attainable world, and I believe more easily attainable under a more tolerant moral framework. Theism has shown so much intolerance, and many radical churches are among the most intolerant groups in society. Luckily, this is not true for most churches and most people, but I want to make my opinion clear. The Bible, in its sometimes intolerant dogma, is showing itself to be outdated and ineffective in regards to the issue of tolerance toward certain groups.
Atheism allows for complete tolerance practically, with many flexible shades in between (wherever you as an individual want to place yourself). The change I see in many religions and churches toward this tolerance reflects that even theists see the need for a more tolerant society. This society will have greater unbiased access to employees, less stress over discrimination, and hopefully a more optimistic world-view that will lead to greater overall contentment and happiness. It would yield practical benefits the world has only dreamed of.
This leads directly to my next point about atheism, which is that atheism provides a wonderful moral flexibility for us as individuals. Moral flexibility? That sounds very questionable, but let me explain. When you are an atheist, you have chosen not to believe in God; you have chosen to lead your life as if there was no God. This is among the first fundamental moral decisions a person can make, but like I've said before, it does not even come close to fleshing out a complete moral and religious framework. There are many issues that need to be addressed, and these will lead to decisions that will then complete the individual religion one chooses to have.
We all struggle to answer and address philosophical problems. I think that though it is agonizing at times, it reflects a caring, intelligent, and responsible individual. But sometimes we come to a decision and begin to doubt it. Theism has its times of doubting, most certainly, but it also has a line of policies and beliefs that it almost invariably promotes. Many forms of theism discourage straying too far from dogma. Atheism, however, gives you this flexibility. Atheism, maybe more than any other religious belief, potentially allows you the most freedom to change your mind. We all change our minds, sometimes not just in small ways, but in gargantuan ways. People convert to other religions, and sometimes to completely different ones. What does the old religion think about these people who left them? It's hard to say, but many show disfavor to say the least.
As an atheist, the moral world is yours to explore and decide upon. If my atheist friend decides that Christianity would be better for her personally, I would wish her well. Just because I do not prefer Christianity doesn't mean my friends shouldn't either, after all. It's up to you to decide upon want you want to believe, and you are free to change your mind at any time. I would hope this endeavor would be relatively reflective and intelligent, but I can only hope.
This freedom also allows atheists to "shop around" so to speak for morals and beliefs. I still hold many of the principles from Christian ethics that I was taught and that's simply because I still believe that they are good policies. These include some of the Ten Commandments and some other beliefs the Bible describes. I don't believe them because of the Bible, of course, but because they make good sense to me; they are practical and they satisfy me emotionally. But I also endorse some of the Zen teachings I have read of, and no doubt many atheists borrow many principles from a great variety of religions as well. As an atheist, you're free to roam. Of course, everyone is free to roam, theist and atheist alike, but so many organized religions make it a discouraging practice. Therefore, I'll rephrase my point in the following manner: atheism allows you the freedom to religiously explore with the least amount of resistance, be it discouragement or censure.
The world is big and ideas pervade our lives. Enjoy them; experiment and reflect upon them. Savor what you like and what you dislike, and then try again. This will make you a more responsible thinker, and it will probably give you a good philosophical perspective. Philosophy is not really about being combative and confrontational, but about being cooperative and considerate. These qualities will enrich one's discussions and that, in turn, will lead to the practical benefits of happiness, cooperation, and general order.
Atheists don't really try to convert people like many theists do. As an atheist, I say this to you: choose what you will, believe what is best for you to believe in. Wherever that pursuit takes you, you should feel free to go. Atheism allows that freedom. Theism, on the other hand, can be much more questionable about this issue of moral flexibility.