PASSIVE AND ACTIVE ATHEISM
Atheism is often defined as "the absence of god-beliefs". This
definition is useful in debate, because it does not assume any burden of
proof. George H. Smith defined it this way in his influential book
ATHEISM: THE CASE AGAINST GOD, and many since have followed this
approach; insist that those claiming the existence of a god or gods make
their case, and sit back and skeptically critique whatever they say.
This kind of "passive atheism" does not by itself imply much else, if
anything. Certainly it does not imply a commitment to reason, science,
tolerance, fairness, compassion, democracy, or "secular humanism". There
can be and have been non-scientific, dogmatic, intolerant ideologies
that were also atheistic.
Defined this way, atheism is like not being from Ohio, or not having
brown eyes. We could classify all newborn babies, who have not yet been
taught any religion, as atheists in this sense.
According to surveys, something like 14% of the American population is
nontheist (as of 2001), and higher percentages of some European
countries. Most of these millions of nontheists do not CALL themselves
atheists; they do not belong to atheist organizations. Why should they,
what would be the point? They call themselves environmentalists, or
libertarians, or motorcyclists, or poets; whatever they are passionate
about. People who CALL themselves atheists do so for a reason: they
think it is important to be free of religion. They are passionate about
the message that religion is both false and harmful, and life is far
better without it.
I once made the proposal that all atheists should redefine themselves as
Freethinkers, because in my humble opinion the enemy is not religion as
such but specifically "revealed" religion, the acceptance of
"revelation" as a reliable source of knowledge. As far as I can tell,
religions that don't make any claims to "revelation" (Deists, Quakers,
Pantheists, some Pagans) are harmless and may provide some people with
Nevertheless a number of activists have chosen the banner of "atheism"
rather than "humanism" or "freethought", I think because they want to
make it clear what they are against. Who is the enemy? What is the root
of the evil we are fighting? These people are not primarily
philosophers, engaged in intellectual exploration for the fun of it.
They have seen organized religion doing harm in people's lives and want
to oppose the harm that it does. Even granting that in a free society
there will always be organized religion, it is the role of atheists to
force religion to be benign, keeping it separate from the State and on
the defensive about its other irrationalities and injustices. I think
they do not call themselves "humanists" because they perceive humanists
as being on the defensive themselves, seeking to avoid confrontation,
often "wannabee religious" who can't believe that stuff any longer but
still wish they could. It may be that it would be better for all
concerned if all these activist atheists were to redefine themselves as
humanists, but they are not going to.
There is no reason to take "absence of god-beliefs" as being THE one and
only "correct" definition of atheism. Words often have multiple
definitions, depending on the context in which they are used. The
philosopher's definition may not capture what the word means in
practical life. Some use "atheism" to mean "rejection and denial of
god-beliefs", some use it to mean "active opposition to theism".
In real life and history, theism is not just the proposition that some X
or other exists. Theism claims that (1) at least one supernatural,
superpowerful person exists, (2) this person wants obedience from
humans, and offers rewards and threats (3) local human representatives
will accurately report this god's wishes. Theism usually also makes
ethical claims; that this god is good, a loving parent and perfect
authority, that obedience to this god is right and virtuous, that doubt
of the god or the prophets is wicked, and so forth. Historically
religion teaches that the meaning and purpose of life lies in getting to
"heaven", not in living this life well on this Earth. Prophets and
clergy have taught the value of "otherworldliness". Believers not only
accept the above propositions, they embrace the values of faith and
obedience, they accept the moral superiority and authority of their god,
and their own relative inferiority to the god (but superiority to
nonbelievers.) They accept the role of obedient children, and "love
their chains." The self-appointed "prophets" and their clergy operate
this swindle precisely in order to get that obedience.
"Active Atheism" is not just the rejection of the simple existence of
any god, it is the rejection of the whole package. As a practical
matter, rejecting religion requires replacing these other aspects,
acting differently in practice. Several writers and atheist
organizations have taken this larger view; I will quote a few in what
Religion historically includes theism, faith in "revealed" dogma, and
otherworldly ethics; so the practical challenge to it would include
atheism, a freethinking and scientific approach to knowledge, and a
well-defined ethic for living well in this life, on this Earth.
Instead of accepting revelation, we shall seek truth by the methods of
science. Jacob Bronowski has written a book, SCIENCE AND HUMAN VALUES,
(1956), in which he argues that the practice of science, doing the work
of science, implies and requires a certain (admittedly limited and
incomplete) set of values and virtues. There is a philosophical doctrine
that argues that science is "value-free", that it does not presuppose or
imply or say anything about right and wrong, good or bad. Bronowski says
this view is radically mistaken. It is not the results of science that
imply or include values, it is the practice of it, the requirements of
doing the work. Aristotle wrote of the "practical syllogism": if you
want X, then you ought to do Y. Bronowski writes: "Science seeks to find
out what IS; as a practical necessity, if we want to find out what IS,
then we OUGHT to act in ways that allow what IS to be discovered and
Most obvious is "the habit of truth"; the seeking and sharing of truth,
the virtue of honesty, humility before the evidence and the possibility
of mistakes, the openness to new evidence and new ideas. Bronowski
argues that doing science requires independence in observation and in
thought; therefore it requires a tolerance for dissent. "And as
originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a
science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. No one can be a
scientist, even in private, if he does not have independence of
observation and of thought. But if in addition science is to become
effective as a public practice, it must go further; it must protect
independence.... free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance.
These values are familiar to us.... but they are self-evident, that is,
they are logical needs, only where men are committed to explore the
truth: in a scientific society. These freedoms of tolerance have never
been notable in a dogmatic society, even when the dogma was Christian.
They have been granted only when scientific thought flourished once
before, in the youth of Greece.... Tolerance among scientists cannot be
based on indifference, it must be based on respect. Respect as a
personal value implies, in any society, the public acknowledgements of
justice and due honor.... Science confronts the work of one man with
that of another, and grafts each on each; and it cannot survive without
justice and honor and respect between man and man... If these values did
not exist, then the society of scientists would have to invent them to
make the practice of science possible." There is much else in his book;
the above is drastically summarized.
In the same way, rejecting the other aspects of theism involves acting
differently in practice. Instead of being obedient children, we will be
responsible self-governing adults. Instead of praying for benefits from
our Cosmic Parent, we will be self-reliant- as Marie Castle, past
president of the Atheist Alliance and founder of Atheists For Human
Rights, writes: "look to ourselves and to each other for the
satisfaction of human needs.... through the thoughtful exercise of
initiative, responsibility and mutual cooperation and assistance."
Practical atheists must replace the supernatural theory of ethics with a
natural theory. If we do not understand ethics as obedience to our
(cosmic) parent, how can we understand it? In THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL
PHILOSOPHY, (an introductory textbook), James Rachels writes (p. 129):
"The key idea [of the social contract approach to ethics] is that
morally binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living.
It is obvious... that we could not live together very well if we did not
accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking
promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that
they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit." Marie
Castle also follows this approach. She writes: "Atheism accepts the
evidence of the biological and social sciences that humans are social
animals, evolved to cooperate in social groups as a requirement for
survival. It follows that rules are necessary to achieve and maintain
social harmony.... Over time, rules that are basic to group cohesion and
survival (e.g., don't commit murder, theft or perjury) may come to be
viewed as ethical or moral standards."
In politics, religion has historically supported authoritarian rule,
either theocracy or "divinely anointed" monarchy. If you take "divine
revelation" seriously, then the local representatives of "God" would
logically carry absolute authority. The historical exception of the
United States actually proves the rule; the "Founding Fathers" were
influenced by Deism, which rejected the authority of alleged
"revelation". Authoritarian religion has not gone away; theocracy is a
present and growing threat to democracy.
Instead of divinely ordained heirarchy, we will insist on equality
before democratically-written human law. Marie Castle has written (begin
"Atheism is more than a simple lack of god beliefs. It is a rejection of
the slave mentality inherent in deity worship; therefore, it is the
definitive condition of freedom and equality.
By freeing the mind from subjection to mythical all-powerful,
all-controlling gods, atheism requires us to control our own lives- to
look to ourselves and to each other for the satisfaction of human needs.
This can be accomplished only through the thoughtful exercise of
initiative, responsibility and mutual cooperation and assistance.
The logic of atheism is that, if one person is free to control her or
his own life, all must be free. To deny this would be to validate
enslavement at the same time one rejects it. This would be irrational.
Atheism, being incompatible with a slave mentality, rejects all forms of
tyranny, whether religious, political, economic or cultural. Atheism is
compatible only with democratic institutions. A nation of people that
frees itself of the slave mentality will never endure oppression in any
form for any significant length of time. Free minds ensure free nations."
(end of extended quote.)
The same broad vision is displayed in the statement of purpose of
American Atheists, Inc., printed inside the front cover of American
Atheist magazine. It states: "Atheism is the weltanschauung
(comprehensive conception of the world) of persons who are free from
religion.... Atheism involves the mental attitude which unreservedly
accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a life-style
and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and the scientific method,
independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds....
Materialism restores dignity and intellectual integrity to humanity. It
teaches that we must prize life on Earth and strive always to improve
it. It holds that humans are capable of creating a social system based
on reason and justice." It declares one of the purposes of that
organization is "to encourage the development and public acceptance of a
humane ethical system stressing the mutual sympathy, understanding, and
interdependence of all people and the corresponding responsibility of
each individual in relation to society."
Summing up: Active atheism must, as a practical necessity, include much
more than the absence of god-beliefs. It also includes a critique of
religion as both false and harmful, and must offer alternatives to
religious ways of knowing and living. As Karl Marx said, "The
philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point
is to change it."