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Atheists and the F-Word

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Last spring, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article asking whether atheism had become a religion. Fifteen hundred (mostly) angry comments later, I realized few saw the humor. My primary goal in that post actually wasn't to convince anyone that atheism had, in fact, become an established religion, but rather to suggest that both those who believe in God and those who don't share more in common than they might suspect and therefore perhaps should enter into more productive conversation, not just about their differences but about our life together in this world we share.

In this light, it's been interesting to see the reaction to the TED Talk given by noted philosopher and atheist Alain de Botton, Atheism 2.0. In it, he argues that atheists have a lot to learn from religions, including the importance of tradition, marking time through ritual, setting up systems of education by which to teach their views, and creating sacred space, among other things. Along these lines, he is working to create a cathedral for atheists and wants to promote a version of atheism that is more respectful of religions that it nevertheless resolutely disagrees with.

While some see de Botton as an innovator and others view him as an iconoclast, I think he's only just gotten started. In fact, I hope that what comes next from de Botton and others is not just an admission but an open affirmation that atheists also have faith. Using the F-word with atheists, of course, is tricky. (What else did you think the F-word could be, by the way?) Typically, there is the assumption that "faith" can only mean belief in a particular deity, something atheists adamantly deny. But I think it's high time we take broader view of faith.

In fact, I'd argue that believing in God -- or not -- is only the first, and perhaps the easiest, element of faith. The rest deals with how one acts in the world as a result of this initial belief. That is, once you stop arguing about whether God exists or not, you've got a life to live, a life that will call for many and various decisions and actions. Those decisions and actions, in turn, spring from a worldview and system of values grounded on a lot less evidence than we might suspect.

Let's say, for instance, that you are convinced God does not exist because there is no empirical evidence for a deity and, in fact, a lot that mitigates against it. Futher, you believe that science, or at least critical reason, should be our only standard for assessing our world and evaluating claims to truth. Fair enough. But sooner or later you still have to make decisions that come from a value system that no critically rational system can fully evaluate or validate. For instance, how do you legitimate ethical decisions like distributing wealth or hoarding it, or on what basis do you promote self-advancement or discourage it? How do you assess the relative merits of honor over disgrace, courage over cowardice? How do you decide whether to disavow the brutality of a Stalin or affirm the non-violence of a Gandhi? How, ultimately, do you measure the value of a human life or determine what is worth striving and sacrificing for? Theoretical questions? Maybe, but the values that are betrayed in answering them shape most of the important decisions we make.

And that's just the point: the values that guide both our everyday and extraordinary ethical decisions are just that: values, not facts. Values aren't empirical data about what is, but rather philosophical or religious speculation about what should be. Values, that is, can be described, even evaluated with regard to the degree to which they conform to a larger philosophical or religious system. But they can't be measured or validated empirically apart from the system from which they spring. That is, there is no objective standard (the hallmark of rational critical inquiry) by which to legitimate one value system over another. So while you can certainly pose a rationally critical system by which to describe and defend values, you can never prove them by objective means.

Please don't hear me wrong. I'm not saying that atheistic systems of ethics cannot be admirable, indeed beautiful. I believe they can. Nor am I arguing that you have to believe in God to develop ethics, a position countless believers have advanced but that I don't think is sustainable. (To see a worthy attempt, though, read Glenn Tinder's 1989 Atlantic article, "Can We Be Good without God?") What I am saying is that any construction of a system of values demands at least a modicum of faith, the assertion of and belief in some grounding principles that cannot be objectively and rationally established. If this is the case, then I would implore both religious believers and Atheists alike to get over the endless bickering over whether God exists and get on with serious discussions about the important, practical, and daily life-and-death decisions about how we will live in this world together.

If we do, we wouldn't be the first. More than half a century ago, in a world still greatly overshadowed by the terror and horror of World War II manifested in the torture and execution of millions of men, women, and children, Albert Camus was invited by a group of French Dominican monks to tell them what non-Christians expect of Christians. Hesitant about telling Christians how they should act based on convictions he didn't share, Camus nevertheless suggested that even should they not be able to eradicate evil, they could at least work together not to add to it: "Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And," he continued, "if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us to do this?" (From "The Unbeliever and Christians," 1948, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.)

Here is a voice calling us, I think, to a deeper understanding of faith, one that moves well beyond arguments for or against God and focuses instead on the concrete needs of people that the religious, at their best, name the children of God. Might we do the same? In a world where women, men, and children still suffer needlessly, can we afford not to?

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