I’m going to go out on a limb here: being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.
A lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism means one thing and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god. And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more than just not believing in gods or the supernatural. It’s a positive, multifaceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.
But conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications. That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods as much as any other conclusion. When you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice: an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on. For reasons that are high-minded and noble and altruistic . . . and also for reasons that are pragmatic and Machiavellian to the point of being crass.
Let’s start with the crass, Machiavellian reasons. (Those are always more fun, right?) If we want to make a world that’s better for atheists, making a world with more atheists would certainly be an excellent step. Safety in numbers and all that. And if we want to make a world with more atheists, an excellent first step would be to work toward a world with greater levels of social justice. According to Phil Zuckerman’s carefully researched Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, countries with the highest rates of atheism tend very strongly to be countries that score highest on the “happiness index”: they have low rates of violent crime, low rates of government corruption, excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, and so on.
Now, there’s no reason to think that atheism creates these high levels of social functioning. In fact, it seems to be the other way around. When people are happy, stable, well-educated, empowered, and have high hopes for their children, they’re more likely to let go of their belief in God. A high level of social functioning creates atheism, or contributes to it, anyway.
So if we want to create a world with more atheists—and thus a world that’s safer and better for atheists—it would be very much to our advantage to create a world that’s safer and better for everybody. A world with greater social justice is far more likely to be a more atheistic world. Hey, I warned you that I was going to be crass.
So what are the noble, high-minded reasons that atheists should work for social justice? If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and if you think this world is the only one we have . . . I bet you see where I’m going with this. If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife and if you think this world is the only one we have, then this life suddenly matters a whole lot more.
If religious believers are right and this mortal life really is just a trivial eyeblink in the eternity of our real spiritual afterlives, then making this life happy and meaningful wouldn’t be so important. If we really did live forever in heaven after we died, it wouldn’t matter so much that many children around the world are born into hopeless lives of misery and despair. A few years of hunger, disease, violence, and helplessness compared to a blissful eternity in the arms of the Lord—what’s the big deal?
But religious believers aren’t right. There is no God. There is no heaven. This mortal life is all we have. And if this mortal life is all we have—and there are millions of people whose only lives are hopeless lives full of misery and despair for no reason other than the bad luck of how and where and when they were born—then that is a fucking tragedy. It is injustice on a gruesomely epic scale, and we have a powerful moral obligation to fix it. If we have any morality at all—and the evidence strongly suggests that we do, that human beings have some common moral principles wired into our brains through millions of years of evolution as a social species—then seeing terrible harm done to others through no fault of their own should make us cringe and demand our immediate and passionate attention.
I’m going to be very clear about this. We don’t all have to agree about exactly how social justice should be reached, what our priorities and goals should be in reaching it, or even what the concept means. We don’t have to march in political lockstep. Two of the best things about atheism, freethought, humanism, or whatever you want to call it are that we value lively dissent and that we don’t have any dogma that we’re all expected to agree upon.
So I’m not arguing for any dogma or for any specific political stance. Not here, anyway. I’ve certainly argued elsewhere for specific political stances—fervently and many times over—but I don’t think any of them are automatically demanded by not believing in God. I’m not arguing—here, anyway—for the repeal of corporate personhood, an end to the drug war, same-sex marriage, an end to racist policing practices, globally enforced child labor laws, greater equity in funding for education, restored regulation of the financial industry, or an end to government support of corrupt dictatorships. I’m not saying that when it comes to social justice, atheists need to do any one particular thing.
I’m saying that we need to do something.