Atheism’s Third Wave

PZ Meyers

The gods are all dead. Science killed them. When beliefs are tissues of fantasy papering over ignorance, all it takes is honest inquiry to destroy them . . . and what we’re seeing now in the centuries after the Enlightenment is an erosion of god-belief. As a scientist, it’s hard to avoid bursting out in laughter at the absurdities of sacrificial gods, gods that wobble between interfering prudes who fuss over your sex life and benign cosmic forces that helpfully hold your atoms together. Every public debate on the existence of gods that I’ve seen is a great joke, consisting of one side sensibly arguing for the obvious, that there is no evidence for divine beings, while the other cavorts entertainingly in twisty flights of convoluted rhetoric and naked appeals to hoary traditions and wishful thinking. It would be hilarious if it weren’t for the sad spectacle of so many believers taking bad logic so seriously.

Religion is ridiculous and corrupt. Beyond the concept of a god, the institutions supporting god-belief seem to be imploding in embarrassing ways. The Catholic Church has been exposed as a monstrous organ of depravity that cultivates child rapists. The Protestants have splintered into a thousand sects, most of which seem Elmer Gantryish, dedicated to fleecing the flock and reinforcing their own privileges. Islam spends its time trying to wind the clock back to medieval ignorance, trying to prove that it can be more barbarous than the West, then lashing out violently every time someone points out that it has a habit of lashing out violently. All religions seem focused on enforcing the morality of a century ago, railing against the morality of the now and insisting that they are in charge of morality.

If gods and religion are dead issues, then the activist atheist might wonder, “Well, what are we going to argue about now?” The old arguments will still be useful and important as long as there are believers. Which, I fear, means that the fight will go on forever . . . and it’s a good fight, one that steadily exposes people to the unreason of faith and the strength of reason. But there are also new battles to be fought, and I want to argue here that atheists should take these battles seriously and engage in the struggle for social justice—not just as an avocation but as part of our identity as freethinking, rational human beings.

Classical atheism is a narrowly defined style—we focus on the logic of religion and argue in a very bounded way about, for instance, biblical exegesis or internal contradictions of dogma. The “new atheism” (which isn’t actually new) invokes science heavily, not just to demonstrate that religious beliefs are wrong but also in a positive, celebratory way—who needs myths when we’ve got an awesome reality to enjoy? The new atheists also added strong public advocacy to our tactics: religious beliefs matter, they do harm to our culture, and we must oppose them.

I propose that we adopt a third wave of atheism, a socially conscious, activist atheism that combines humanism with the assertiveness of new atheism, that joyfully embraces science and reason and uses them to advance society. And by advancing society, I mean much more than the material advancement of science and technology—we need greater equality, and we need a deeper appreciation of diversity. We need everyone to participate in building a stronger, more peaceful, more progressive culture—one that recognizes that all of us should have equal opportunities.

I know from experience that such a suggestion will be opposed—“atheism is only about the denial of the existence of gods,” some will say, and they will insist that atheism should not be involved in anything beyond opposing god-belief, as if atheism has no deeper implications of any kind. Atheism is treated as a kind of abstract philosophical exercise, a form to be followed, a debating society where the reward is entirely to be found in demonstrating that you are right and the other person is wrong. (It’s curious how, right now, many atheists simultaneously want to claim that they are good without gods while also asserting that atheism is nothing but a simple answer to one question.)

Well, those kinds of atheists are wrong. Atheism is profound in its meaning. How can your life not be affected by the knowledge that this life is your one life, your only chance, and that there will be no others? How can you realize that every single person on the planet is in exactly the same position as you are and not want everyone to have the same shot at happiness you have?

Children are raised with a fear of hell and eternal punishment. Women are told their purpose is to serve their husbands as their god and to raise more children to serve as arrows in the quiver of the Lord. People are told to reject science and “Man’s reason” because it contradicts God’s word. We are right to oppose these abuses, and in part it is my atheism that informs my opposition.

But there are so many injustices in the world, and they are not all driven by religion. When poor urban children are denied a good education because their district hasn’t budgeted for new schoolbooks in ten years—while the affluent suburban district next door has the latest texts—I’m appalled at economic inequities. When I see children turned away from science careers because they are told that “girls can’t do math,” I’m appalled at gender inequity. When our government bombs poorer nations to quiet the populace, when children starve or suffer from treatable diseases and parasites, when young girls are sold in the sex trade, when boys are given guns and told to kill and be killed in civil wars, when so many live lives of desperate scrabbling for basic sustenance, I cannot be consoled by dreams of amends made in an afterlife or the karmic futility of arguing that people get what they deserve—I’m an atheist. There is no benign, paternal source to which I can appeal to take on the responsibility of caring for the unfortunate—I’m an atheist, and only we humans have the power to act.

So when I hear atheists and skeptics try to delimit our responsibilities, to claim these disciplines only deal with very narrow and specific issues, and that political and social concerns are beyond our purview, I want to rage and tell them that ideas have meaning and power beyond their simplest definitions. Because we are atheists, we have to take care of each other —we know there is no one else to do it.

I hear the same thing about science. Science is neutral on moral concerns; it only describes what is, not how it ought to be. And this is true; science is a tool that can be used equally well for curing diseases or building bombs. But scientists are not and should not be morally neutral, nor should scientific organizations or culture be excluded from defining the appropriate uses of science. Science without humanist moral standards leads to Mengele or the Hiroshima bombing or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Similarly, atheism may be value-neutral, but atheists and atheist organizations should not be. Atheism sensu stricto may be a specific assertion about a fact of the universe, but atheism as practiced is a defining idea in a mind and a powerful foundation for a human community. It has meanings and implications that we must heed and use for achieving our goals.

And what should those goals be? Because I am an atheist and share common cause with every other human being on the planet in desiring to live my one life with equal opportunity, I suggest that atheists ought to fight for equality for all, economic security for all, and universally available health and education services. Peace is the only answer; extinguishing a precious human life ought to be unthinkable in all but the most dire situations of self-defense. Ours should be a movement that welcomes all sexes, races, ages, and abilities and encourages an appreciation of human richness. Atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a philosophical and scientific position, because living in a godless universe means something to humanity.

And now we have something else to argue about.

PZ Meyers

PZ Meyers is an American biologist. He is associate-professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM).

The gods are all dead. Science killed them. When beliefs are tissues of fantasy papering over ignorance, all it takes is honest inquiry to destroy them . . . and what we’re seeing now in the centuries after the Enlightenment is an erosion of god-belief. As a scientist, it’s hard to avoid bursting out in …

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