Should atheists now support humanism?

Wilson vs. Hitchens

In reading through the arguments put by Pastor Douglas Wilson to Christopher Hitchens in their conversation “Is Christianity Good for the World?*” I was struck at how atheism is discussed there. Atheism these days is far more visible than it has been before, which is a very good thing – but I wonder if simply declaring oneself an atheist is enough to combat religious argument, or should we also say we are humanists?

“New Atheism” arose largely as a response to 9/11, with books such as Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” becoming best sellers and provoking a huge influx of similar titles as well as an even larger number of books in reply from religious writers. The “New Atheism” tag was not chosen by the atheists writers but instead was given to them and many have pointed out that there really isn’t anything “new” about it – many of the (successful in my opinion) arguments they employ are centuries old at least. However today there does appear to be a drive from certain areas to redefine atheism to mean more than the simple dictionary definition of “the rejection of belief in god or gods”. I think that promoting humanism could be a better tactic.

Hitchens begins the debate with Wilson by quoting William F.Buckley, who said:

“I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world.”

I would agree it’s certainly one of them, but atheism isn’t a philosophy as such and it doesn’t commit you to any other view of the world – you can be an atheist and still be irrational, immoral and evil (for want of a better term). Perhaps that’s why now people are using the term in a different sense, using it to cover not only non-belief but things like rationality, skepticism and equality. Atheism + would appear to be the prime example of this (not that I have explored it that much).

Hitchens himself said (in a debate with another theologian, William Lane Craig) that “atheism is not a moral or political position of any kind” but then goes on to say “but there is a humanism within atheism”. I think this is almost certainly correct as most if not all atheists I know have beliefs and attitudes to the world that are very recognisably humanist (whether they know it or not or choose to use the term or not).

Wilson’s main line of argument against Hitchens is that, given atheism, there is no objective morality to call upon to make moral judgements, or as he puts it, no “overarching common standard for all atheists”, and so challenges Hitchens to account for the moral judgements he makes. Wilson is right – there is no objective morality built into atheism (in its narrowest possible sense of simple non-belief in the supernatural) or even that follows on directly from it. But so what? Hitchens admits as much himself in the quote I used earlier. Wilson is not denying that atheists can be as moral as any religious person, what he is denying is that any objective morality can exist without a supernatural authority to hand it down to us. Hitchens simple states that morality is “derived from innate human solidarity”.

I think at this point Hitchens could just as well have introduced humanism into the debate to show that there does exist a philosophy that rejects the supernatural but very much includes strong moral precepts. I think the evidence that our moral sense has evolved over time in very much the same way as other human traits is pretty clear; the fact that other species show what we would call moral behaviour just proves that it isn’t solely a human concern. Hitchens quotes Darwin, who of course puts it perfectly:

“Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well- developed, or nearly as well-developed, as in man.”

It also seems perfectly clear that there is no objective morality, as Wilson comments “evolution means nothing if not change”, and so if morality evolved it has clearly changed over time and will continue to do so. Wilson likes to frame this fact as the possibility than anything we consider deeply moral (or immoral) today may simply not be the case tomorrow. Personally I like to think of the development of morality as very much the same as the development of scientific understanding. Very rarely does a new scientific theory totally refute or replace an old one – for example, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity went beyond Newton’s theory of gravity, but Newton’s theories still work perfectly well in most everyday situations. Both are simply models of reality, Einstein’s being a better and more accurate model than Newton’s. Relativity breaks down when faced with a black hole or the very first micro-moments of the universe – the theory that one day will be touted as proving Einstein wrong will simply be a more accurate model that extends our understanding.

I think morality progresses in a similar way, as a cumulative process (perhaps not surprisingly considering it’s evolutionary nature) rather than a rule book that randomly gets re-written on a whim. It’s trivially easy to look back in history and pick things that at the time were normal but now would be considered unconscionable. I personally think that people living in a 50-100 years time will look back at the way we currently treat other species as utterly barbaric.

The authoritative aspect is a core issue for Wilson. In reply to Hitchens human solidarity comment, he says (emphasis his): “Innate is not a synonym for authoritative.” True, but again – so what? He then says: “Why does anyone have to obey any particular prompting from within?” This is where his arguments start sound a bit… well, fundamental – like someone saying if there was no God what’s to stop you killing and raping all you want? Penn Jillette’s answer is spot on:

“And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.”

It baffles me how this isn’t obvious to people like Wilson. I could, right now, if I wanted to, go and get in my car and run down the first dozen people I see. He would say that given atheism, what’s to stop me? The universe doesn’t care! The answer is why on earth would I? It doesn’t matter that the universe doesn’t care, I care. I don’t want to kill, maim or even mildly injure anyone, because I can empathise with how that would feel and I don’t want anyone doing it to me. I don’t need an authority figure to tell me not to. Wilson’s argument that Hitchens has no authority-bestowed objective standards to refer to in making moral judgements just isn’t relevant and in fact says a great deal more about how he views humanity himself I think.

So atheism, as both Wilson and Hitchens say (but for different reasons) has nothing to say on morality. But atheists are clearly as capable of contributing to the further evolution of our moral ideas as anyone else (more so than the religious authorities who tend to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world we live in) – which is why I suggest that it is important that atheists support and even stand up and be counted as humanists. The British Humanist Association has many campaigns ongoing, commonly set directly against outdated religious attitudes that still have far more traction with those in power than they have any right to. I’m sure this is true of humanist organisations all over the world. So by supporting these campaigns and spreading the word about humanism, we can both actively take part in these important issues, help reduce the influence of religion and show people who think like Douglas Wilson that not only do we have a (non-superstition based) morality but we are always looking to improve upon it.

*Also available as a book: “Is Christianity Good for the World?”, and also there is a fantastic documentary film “Collision” which follows them on a debate tour – well worth a watch to see them both debating face to face.