Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

Posted: May 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

I have heard and read nominally Christian critiques of atheism that reach conclusions that state or imply that individual atheists have no moral basis for their ethical frameworks. The implication seems to be that atheists are essentially amoral.

Such arguments are ridiculous and do nothing but expose those who make them as fools. On an individual basis in our society, atheists are certainly no less moral and ethical than the anyone else and may be more compassionate and giving. That’s absolutely true of most of the atheists I know personally and I anticipate that it’s true as a group. Outright atheism remains a system of belief (or “non-belief” as the case may be) embraced by a relatively small percentage of our population. As such, it mostly remains an individual expression of belief. And when it comes to moral and ethical beliefs and behavior, I would generally expect smaller groups immersed (and dispersed) within our society to be more or less in line with the larger culture.

That is, after all, how culture functions. It shapes the things we believe “instinctively” are right and wrong. While any of us may focus on and examine a piece of that larger culture and may even react against it or otherwise alter it for ourselves, most of it remains assumed and unexamined. Culture can, of course, be changed, but it’s not something that’s easy to do. Culture has tremendous societal inertia.

A lot of Christians miss that point. The way Christians as a group care for everyone, not just people like themselves, even remaining in plagued cities when they had the means to leave, were actions of note in their ancient context specifically because they ran counter to the dominant culture. As acts of compassion and themes of self-sacrifice became more the cultural norm, they became less exceptional across the board among all groups.

In my mind, though, it remains an open question whether or not atheism is capable of creating or sustaining a society that enculturates the very values many modern atheists would also embrace. It is clear that while atheism itself is nothing new (though the modern strands of atheism flowing from positivism and other philosophical approaches have some new elements), no society has ever been built on atheistic principles.

There have been attempts of course. The ancient Epicureans promoted a system that while not explicitly denying the existence of the gods, placed them far away from humanity, uninterested and uninvolved in our existence. The Communist revolution in Russia (and extending to the Warsaw Pact countries) was explicitly atheistic and through totalitarian oppression attempt to stamp out and subvert a thousand years of Christian culture. They destroyed churches and monasteries, outlawed much Christian teaching and activity, imprisoned, tortured, and killed many for their Christian beliefs, established competing militant atheistic societies, and a host of similar activities that continued for decades. Their efforts ultimately failed, but the brutal totalitarianism with which they attempted to replace the existing Christian culture is not a societal model most people, including most atheists, would embrace.

I do think about these things. I have read Neitzsche and I find him quite compelling. Our interactions do tend to reduce to the will to power and the strong man. We see that overtly in failed states. We imagine it in our dystopian literature. We saw it acted out in the USSR and in other totalitarian states. And I’ve seen nothing in atheism that subverts the strong man the way Christ does. Many of the things we all tend to value as Western ideals were inextricably shaped and formed through the influence of Christianity. Some of the Western societies have become broadly and implicitly atheistic in recent decades. It will be interesting to see if they are able to maintain across future generations the cultural inheritance they have received, in large part, from Christianity.

While I find Neitzsche compelling, I do not want to embrace reality as he describes it. I do not wish to live in a world dominated by the will to power and the strong man. Such cultures inevitably become oppressive and totalitarian. I’ve explored many alternatives and explicitly ignored Christianity for as long as I could, but eventually I looked at its story.

Christ faced a great and often brutal empire in Rome. Neitzsche would have had no problem finding the strong man in ancient Rome. It was a power feared by all, including its own citizens. Challenges to that power and failure in duty to it were met quickly and harshly. The Pax Romana was often real, but it was peace flowing from beneath an iron heel. Christ faced the empire and its violence on entirely different terms and eventually subverted the empire.

Of course, that’s not to say that an explicitly atheistic culture could not produce or at least maintain something similar to our modern Western societies — at least in terms of values and ethical frameworks. I just haven’t seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that’s the case. I have not seen an atheistic subversion of Neitzsche. So even if you subtracted my personal experience from the equation, I would still hesitate to embrace atheism.

 


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