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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Atheist Alignments: Lawful Atheism

Lawful Atheism (Tentative Definition): Atheism that either behaves with ethical or rational defense in mind as opposed to existential considerations or seeks to maintain a sense of law with an overarching system of some sort (Secular Humanism, Freethought, etc)

The start of my three part Atheist Alignment series confronts both the first of at least two dual branched systems and a second problem added on to the first problem relevant to this particular form of “atheos”. The initial difficulty I brought up previously was that atheism tends towards more innovation and invention rather than tradition and transmission. There’s very little to organize atheism under besides the basic idea of not believing in theism, though this brings up the obvious semantic difficulty of what you mean by “God” or by “theism”. This can make or break whether people consider deists and pantheists under the canon of theistic positions or whether they’re considered less than even the polytheistic pagans, who admit of some kind of personal interaction between the human and divine. It all seems to hinge on one’s orthodoxy of what proper theism consists of.

But to go into the second difficulty this two pronged sphere of atheism brings up, people might claim this only solidifies their allegation that atheism is a religion and belief system in and of itself the more one tends towards this manifestation. But to infer from the existence of certain groupings of formulated systems of atheism; such as the Fellowship of Reason and Secular Humanism; that atheism as a whole is religious is no more reasonable than saying that theism has to imply a religious organization around it, though one cannot deny that it has that tendency. There is a general idea of theism as much as there is for atheism; theism believes in the divine, usually personified in some way (not always) and atheism does not believe in the divine. While this simplification might seem unfair at first glance considering that I’m investigating the diversity of atheism, it’s only a way to demonstrate that broad generalizations of an entire group, such as theists or atheists, is not only intellectually dishonest and demonstrates a lack of critical thinking, but also makes you appear to want things to be simple for the sake of simplicity, just another excuse not to think. And I don’t think either theists or atheists as they exist among most people would advocate that we stop inquiring and thinking about these kinds of categorical and descriptive problems. I should also mention that there will be overlap between these three spheres of atheism; they’re not radically separate from each other all the time.

The first prong or subset of Lawful Atheism is less organized under specific rules or beliefs related incidentally to the general disbelief in God to one degree or another. At its core, this type of Lawful Atheism stresses rules for defending atheism and a general discipline to it that doesn’t exist so much with Chaotic or Neutral Atheism at their cores. Take Antony Flew, a former atheist technically, but well known as one of the key defenders of atheism as a philosophical position in the early 20th century. His advocacy of following the evidence where it leads, and the argument by association, is admittedly an individual choice, but it’s something he might be said to share in common with committed theistic philosophers. That is, the principle of believing based on the evidence and arguments for and against your position. He took arguments in response to his positions seriously and only in his later life did he find any evidence that he found convincing enough to motivate his belief in at least a kind of theistic god, though many might say he was still an atheist at heart with his emphasis upon a philosophical defense of his position, whatever it was, atheist or deist. His persisting suspicion towards, among other things: the Christian claims of Jesus rising from the dead, the afterlife, the free will defense against the problem of evil or other claims regarding the god he had a nominal belief in; still reflect what I would consider a Lawful Atheist position in the subset of a sort of positive rational atheism. This type emphasizes the role of logical and reasonable dialogue and arguments for the position of atheism over more individual or existential motivations that I will focus on in Chaotic Atheism next week. You might call it atheist apologetics in some way, though the term is more commonly associated with theism, so it might just create more difficulties than it solves. If Antony Flew is the shining example, then Lawful Atheism presupposes that atheism is the default position for all people and theism only comes after one finds evidence to the contrary.

The second subset of Lawful Atheism is equally broad, but also admits of more division within its wide horizon. Systems such as Secular Humanism or Freethought, among others, including the Fellowship of Reason, fall under this classification, as well as what scholars of religion have termed “secular religions”, which include Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In this way, the second branch of Lawful Atheism is actually easier to explain, but harder to defend in the sense of representing all atheists in any general sense. The particular beliefs that are held by the majority of each group can conflict with each other, especially the ones that admit a religious character to them shared by many theistic permutations. Even Secular Humanism is accepted in some schools of thought to be a religion in and of itself, or at the very least a very detailed philosophy that creates dividing lines between itself and, say, the atheism of Antony Flew (who ironically signed Humanist Manifesto 3), more open to the possibility of God existing in some manner, even if it would only be a gradation from atheism in the method, but a drastic change from disbelief to belief based on the similar practice of reasonable arguments. When you have not only a community, but a detailed system of beliefs around that community, it begins to resemble religion more and more. In a broader sense, this type of Lawful Atheism seeks a community of one sort or another. With this in mind, the Secular Student Alliance I mentioned last week is also a permutation of this second type of Lawful Atheism in that its goal is unifying atheists in some sense, even if it isn’t under anything so constrained as any elaborate or enumerated system of beliefs, such as Secular Humanism has, along with secular religions in the sense of making a unified ethics the cornerstone of the community’s design. That is, the communal aspect is the emphasis on “law” here, whereas the “law” of reason dominates more with the former subset. Though Freethought seems to cross both these borders in that it has the group identifier aspect of the second type, yet the emphasis on reason of the first type is there in its guiding principle that nothing should be believed on insufficient evidence. But this is bound to happen with at least one system in each of these three articles, so I won’t let it get me down.

Overall, this form of atheism is probably one that people are less familiar with in the media. With a persistent flavor of more individualistic or polemic (as opposed to apologetic) kinds of atheism and less willingness to find atheists that are at least respectful on some level to theists, however much they disagree with them, it’s no wonder atheists continue to be seen as “another religion” or “anti-religious bigots” and other such tired appellations. The Secular Student Alliance’s attempt to create a community that seeks education on atheism and engages with the general population of theists is the best method so far for those not necessarily willing to take the strong philosophical method, but nonetheless want to have dialogue for understanding between believers and nonbelievers alike. And in that way, there is a common ground between theists and atheists alike here in appreciating a basic need for civility in debates and collaborations for similar ethical goals (ontological issues aside concerning the cause of ethics for atheists according to many theistic critics). So, until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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