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The Dignity of Atheism

Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

Defenders of Faith: Why Europe's Muslims should be grateful for Europe's atheists. (tip to Ray)

FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: "Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God." Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.

Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the infamous caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.

These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of "The Parallax View."



i don't buy the premise that atheists must necessarily be patronizing in order to be tolerant.

as far as i'm concerned, the core of atheism is humilty. that is, i'm an atheist because of the paucity of evidence supporting any explanation of how the universe was created and is controlled, including mine. and the lack of evidence to one assertion is not evidence to its opposite.

i'm tolerant of other religions because we are all in the dark.

what i do not tolerate is social pathology and violence. but if i want to kill someone, i'm going to find a reason to do it, no matter what i believe or who I pray to. to blame these things on religion is to give it too much credit. we are human first, spiritual second.

If someone invokes offense to their god as the reason to kill someone, then it is certainly their interpretation of what their religion requires that is the reason for the killing. The reasons for killing are many, but to just combine them all into some undefined category in order to avoid offending a religious group is dishonest and dangerous.

I agree that this approach lacks humility. It is the same Us vs. Them approach used by fundamentalists to assert their superiority, the same premise that allowed, for instance, the atheistic Maoists ("Religion is Poison") to overrun Tibet and impose its world view on a peaceful, if not perfect, religious people. Atheists and the religious share a common humanity, and we are better served by trying to build understanding, or at least aby tolerance built on the assumption that these ultimate questions are impossible to answer authoritatively. We are all tempted by hubris, as is abundantly evident by this web site's obsession with proving its superiority to the religious. I am an agnostic. I enjoy this site. I have loads of respect for religioous people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, William Sloane Coffin, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Albert Einstein, Fr. Richard Rohr, Muhammad Ali and many others. I do not believe that their answers to ultimate questions are, necessarily, what makes them who they are or were. But I sure as hell wouldn't bring smugness to any meeting with them. If someone wants to kill innocents because they are infidels, I think we need to see that the wannabe killers have more in common with other killers of whatever creed, or no creed, and have little in common with the great majority of people whose creed they have in common.

To compare Albert Einstein to Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama is wrong. So many people do not at all understand what Einstein meant when he said he was "religious." Here is a website where you can read what Einstein actually said about "religion." He was not at all religious in the conventional sense of what the vast majority of people believe "religion" to mean.


ALBERT EINSTEIN "The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted [italics his], in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot. But I am convinced that such behavior on the part of representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task..."

"The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.

By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life. The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. In this sense I believe that the priest must become a teacher if he wishes to do justice to his lofty educational mission."

Thanks for that piece on Einstein, Jo Ann. I had not read it before, and it provides a nice look at his theology, which appears to be as nuanced as his geometry. I commend to you Wendell Berry's essay in his book Home Economics, "Letter to Wes Jackson", where he also takes on priests and the religious establishment in the context of asking whether randomness is a verifiable condition or evidence of the limits of our cognitive abilities.

But this new information does not address my main thesis, which still stands. Also, though I put Albert, Teresa and the Dalai Lama in the same list, I wasn't so much comparing them as making them bedfellows. Nuanced or even pivotal differences in their theologies are not my point. The Dalai Lama is religious, but not a theist, if my limited exposure to Tibetan Buddhism permits me to make that simple statement. My main point is that theists and the religious of whatever school ought not to be dismissed en masse by "brights" or other non-religious people for their beliefs. Nor should the non-religious be given the benefit of the doubt. I think that people should be respected, or not, not because of their beliefs but because of the lives they lead. As that Jewish carpenter said, judge them by their fruits. Dismissing whole groups of people out of hand based merely on gross generalizations about their beliefs is not only unjust, it's unscientific, failing to respect significant exceptions to one's too broadly drawn hypotheses. As my wise professor said once in college, "All generalizations are false."

If their beliefs are not supported by evidence. If in fact there is evidence that is contrary to their beliefs it is perfectly rational to dismiss those beliefs. You dismiss non-religious beliefs all the time based on lack of evidence. Why do you give religious beliefs a free pass? No one is dismissing whole groups of people based on generalizations, they are dismissing some of their beliefs. Judge men by their fruits, isn't that what we're doing when we point out that the killing by some is in the name of their god.

"If someone invokes offense to their god as the reason to kill someone, then it is certainly their interpretation of what their religion requires that is the reason for the killing."

maybe, but one disinclined to kill will not find the justification for it anywhere. there are plenty of christians and muslims that do not accept the murder of infidels as directed by scripture. what is the difference between these and the others? upbringing? culture? certainly not the directives themselves. they do not change. they can be scrupulously followed, or ignored.

"Why do you give religious beliefs a free pass?"

i don't give anyone a free pass. one cannot prove that god exists. neither can one prove that he doesn't.

of course the weight of evidence is against the genesis account and for evolution (for example), so the letter of the bible - or any religious text - is debatable. right.

but the evidence for or against the existence of a creator is more difficult to come by, no?

i can deny the veracity of religious doctrine. i can not, logically, deny the existence of a creator. i must accept that religion itself is not necessarily wrong, but that it's exercise may be... and usually is.

The problem is that virtually all religions celebrate faith (belief without evidence) as a virtue. If you tell people that believing things just because they want to believe them is a good thing then you are providing cover for their actions in the name of religion good or bad.

i can deny the veracity of religious doctrine. i can not, logically, deny the existence of a creator. i must accept that religion itself is not necessarily wrong, but that it's exercise may be... and usually is.

I would like to quote Richard Dawkins.

"It is often said, mainly by the "no-contests", that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?"

But of course we know that father Xmas and the various fairies don't exist. We have the testimonies of our parents, who lied to us (just kidding, Mom) and served thsoe purposes. Of course, just because our folks pretended to be Father Xmas doesn't mean that father Xmas doesn't exist. Logically you can never prove the non-existence of a being, unless it's something like a square circle. Dawkins set up a paper tiger in the passage cited above. God is another matter, or so it seems to me.

But the existence of God is not going to be solved here. Some are convinced that God exists, and some are equally convinced that God doesn't exist. The issue here is the original passage extolling the virtues of atheists who neither patronize nor equivocate in their devotion to the truth. It's clearly a false choice being set up. Are our imaginations so limited that those are the only two options we think are possible? What about recognizing that the reach of the human mind is finite and that there are questions about which we are naturally incapable of offering an authoritative statement? Making an authoritative statement about God, whether about his/her/its (I'll use the masculine from here on out, for ease and the saake of tradition, but with the understanding that I don't think God, if God exists, has genitalia) existence or whatever his favorite color or religion is, is outside the abilities of a human mind, I think. Those who go on TV and speak to what they believe are God's motives for what they think are God's actions are simply ludicrous.

Ultimately my concern with the original post is that it seeks exclusive and universal acknowledgement of the truth of the author's position, which is what the fundamentalists of a religious sort also want. At what point does principled refusal to compromise risk becoming coercion?

"But of course we know that father Xmas and the various fairies don't exist. We have the testimonies of our parents, who lied to us (just kidding, Mom) and served thsoe purposes."

That is a non argument. How are you so sure do you have proof faries don't exist? I feel the same way about your God HE DOESN'T EXIST. I know many people that have posed as religious figures for personal gain only to give their testimonies later that they had lied and didn't believe in a God.

What you are forgetting is motivation doesn't have anything to do with the truth either their is evidence for fairies or there isn't the same applies with God. God in my my mind is a synonym for belief with out evidence.

I think you argument is weak and you letting your own personal basis about your belief color your perspective.

In reality there is NO MORE evidence for the existence of you God as their are faries. What about the Muslim God? Or the Hindu Gods? It's all mythology based on nothing but bullshit.

What you mean "[my] God", Atheist? If you read the thread, you'll see that I'm an agnostic. I don't have a horse in this race. Speaking of personal bias, I'd say anyone who feels the need to SHOUT in their posts may have a bias. Or at least is easily frustrated.

There is evidence that Father Xmas and the tooth fairy do not exist. To wit, confessions from parents who signed gifts with Father Xmas' name, and put quarters or dollars or pounds under pillows. To the best of my knowledge, no similar evidence for the non-existence of God is out there. To my parents' credit, they have never claimed to be God, though they admitted to role-playing the other two.

I'm not trying to make a case for the existence of God, tifleming. I'm just sayin' that an intellectually honest person would acknowledge that it's an open question. Some atheists' uncompromising and intolerant positions are reminiscent of a Christian proving the wrongness of another religion by using nothing but Christian presuppositions. The frustrating thing for true believers of any stripe is when their necessary presuppositions are not granted without question by their interlocutors.

I'll concur that my last post lacked a certain voice from the heavens authority. But just asserting that you think my argument is weak does not undermine it. It remains standing until someone says "Well, that was lame" and details how or why. Telling me I'm going to the atheistic equivalent of Hell just isn't daunting to me.

By the way, I think you give short shrift to mythology, which I find wonderfully compelling and interesting. Orpheus, Odysseus, Diana, Aphrodite, Sisyphus, Icarus - it ain't science, but it's great stuff!

"There is evidence that Father Xmas and the tooth fairy do not exist. To wit, confessions from parents who signed gifts with Father Xmas' name, and put quarters or dollars or pounds under pillows."

There is ample of evidence of this type that God does not exist. People who claim to have seen or to have spoken to god who later admit they have lied. You could also point to the many miracles people have claimed supported the view that God exists only later to find that they were faked.
There is no fundamental difference in the two cases.

Will you accept the testimony of those who do not recant, or only those who do?

Do you really need the point explained? I suspect your question is disingenuous. It fails to address the point I was making. Let's put it this way if your mom never told you there wasn't a Santa Claus would you still believe it. Testimonials without additional evidence are always suspect.

Nope. Not disingenuous. Just hurried.

Would I still believe in Santa? No. Because Mom was not the only witness; and even if she was, by now observation would have told me the truth about what evidence I thought there was in childhood.

"Testimonials without additional evidence are always suspect." I have no argument with this assertion. As I say, I'm not arguing for the existence of God. I'm arguing against the over-reaching of atheists who claim that, absence of evidence is conclusive evidence of absence (apologies to our glorious Sec of Defense). Is there reason to suspect that God does not exist? Certainly. Is it sufficient to declare that God does not exist and to excoriate those with an opposing opinion? I would say certainly not. I would further contend that those who so declare do so based on inconclusive evidence and our species' insufficent mental capacity to answer that question definitively. My position is exactly what you said: Testimonials without additional evidence are always suspect. But I believe that cuts both ways with the God question. Consequently I believe that those with different beliefs - whether they believe in God's existence or believe in God's non-existence - should be approached with humility and respect rather than disdain. They may not return the courtesy, but that doesn't matter.

So you want people to be like Uriah Heep? ;)

You are asking people to pretend that they respect something for which they have no respect for? You want for them to be hypocritically humble? hmmm...

I have a friend who is a Mormon and I am straight forward with her about how I feel about her beliefs and she would expect nothing less from me. I could not pretend to be "humble" about what she believes and she does not expect me to. I understand that you are wanting to be kind and diplomatic, but what you are asking is just not possible.

Hi Jo Ann. No, not looking to have everyone feigning humility, as I think there's lots of reasons for it to be genuine.

Neither am I suggesting that we feign a sort of bland agreement with or disinterest in others' beliefs if we happen to disagree. I'm not even suggesting that we set aside disagreement. Just that, if we feel the need to voice our disagreement, we do so respectfully. My guess is that your Mormon friend is still a friend because you don't disrespect while disagreeing. My best friend is a Republican and Christian, and we have some great debates, but there is always the sense that we can fight our way to some kind of common ground - even if that ground is to agree to leave the subject for a moment and play cards.

There are times to sever friendships over differences, as principled men like Bonhoeffer and Wojtyla did when they opposed the Nazis. But for most of us in our time, we can still afford to be gracious and respectful as we honestly disagree. And I think it's possible, though often difficult. Just ask your Mormon friend and my Republican friend.


So it is not respect for religion that you are asking for, but rather being sensitive to others feelings? There is quite a difference between the two.

True, Norm. What I'm suggesting is that we treat others with respect, whatever their views about the deity, because they and we believe different things, and neither of us can prove our case to the other. They believe, and we believe. Differently.

Is there anyone in your life whose feelings you don't want to be sensitive to? It's easy to begin shouting matches with people we haven’t taken the time to know. Western culture (not to exclude other cultures; I just am not as familiar with them) has a long legacy of conflict and violence which is served by objectifying our neighbors or opponents, which is only possible if we don't take the time to listen to them and get to know them.

So yes, we should be sensitive to others' feelings, but we should also not patronize them (back to the false dichotomy set up by the original post). We should be able, once we've established a relationship, to have "frank and open discussions" about each other's beliefs. Like Jo Ann has with her Mormon friend.

Such a conversation will take a godawful long time, because most people's belief systems can't be explained in 25 words or less. In the process, we will discover how they were raised, what they value, what they abhor, and what their hopes are. They will discover the same about us.

Now before everyone puts on a recording of Kumbaya as background music to this post, let me say that I know this won't always work. Some people are jerks. Some are evil. The root of our respect is that humans don’t, and cannot, know the answer to the God question. So we are not approaching them with the (fundamentalist) attitude of “How can you be so frigging stupid”, but with the (scientific) attitude of “Oh, so that’s how you’ve made sense of these conundrums. Interesting. Why? Here’s what I think, and why.”

It’s a bonus that the scientific spirit of inquiry can serve us so well in social relations, since asking questions tends to help us learn more and makes us more friends than making declarations and judgments.

Oh, and if you think fundamentalists are impervious to dialogue and change, think again. I was a born-again, tongue-speaking, infidel-judging fundamentalist in high school and college. I was slowly weaned away from there by other, non-fundamentalist, believers as well as agnostic and atheistic friends and acquaintances. One of the dangers I now recognize is the self-isolation from those who believe differently than we do. Fundamentalists need us – and we them, perhaps – if we’re to pull off the E Pluribus Unum thing.

It is not the belief in god per se that is the problem. It is the idea of faith that is the problem. It is the idea that believing without any evidence is a virtue. The danger of idea is obvious. If pointing that out is offensive, well too bad.

Sounds like you're spoiling for a fight, Norm. Pointing something like that out need not be offensive, though some people take offense at lesser things. We all take things on faith, with scant evidence, or based on what someone we trust, some authority, has said. You may be under-estimating the mental capacity or integrity of people of faith, or assuming that they are all the way they are because they drank the Kool Aid. The idea that we can only act on what we know - or that we DO act only on what we know - is equally dangerous.

"We all take things on faith" This is simply not true. Explain how we all supposedly take things on faith. If you are using the tired argument of you have faith that the chair won't break every time you sit in it then you argument is flawed. That's not faith, that's experience. I've sat in numerous chairs previously so I can be reasonably sure that the chair will hold my weight based on past experience. You cannot compare normal everyday items/experiences with religious faith. The two are not the same.

im not sure where this starts. does the moral outrage start when folks start blowing others up or does the moral outrage start when folks express an ideal called faith?

anyway .. thats my issue to struggle with ..

im going to pass the time otherwise by taking pot-shots at this article from a fundamentalist christian point of view. whatever the hell that might be ...

FIRST (sorry .. shouting): "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation"

Bollocks. fundamentalist christians believe the word of god says that nothing can ever earn them salvation.

SECOND: either we treat the other in a patronising way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

what an awful state to propose. either we live patronisingly or we forego all possible chance of discovering truth. thats where tolerance gets us is it?

i for one will not tolerate any stance i consider wrong. id prefer to call it wrong and see where the cookies crumble...

THIRD: What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

ha ha .. try that with christians whose own god said he was here to turn families against each other, that his followers had to eat and drink him and get themselves crucified every day and who joined hundreds of other insane people who claimed to be the son of god.

respect, rationality and responsibility (no matter how ruthless) will get you .. quick calculation ... yep .. nowhere with people who hold to this sort of fundamental.

there remains two choices. you either accept god and use the faculties of faith, reason and love that he gave you .. or you reject him and rely on your own understanding.

thats the only dichotomy.

"When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror."

According to the quote above, he does what he thinks is good, because to do otherwise would make him feel bad, unable to look at himself. But other people (say muslims, for instance) are doing what they feel is 'right'. Perhaps someone feels that he could not look at himself in the mirror, unless he died in glorious Jihad (9/11, car bombs, etc). Are you going to be intolerant of this? after all, he is doing what he thinks is right.

So you have to define Right from Wrong. How are you supposed to do this? Majority vote? The law of God? Flip a coin, like two face of batman legend? People like to believe in a "Natural Law" and the "Noble Savage", where man is born with a natural understanding of right from wrong. but this doesn't help, because what if the other guy is born with a different law than you?

"Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do."

Alright, but what are good deeds? What is the right thing to do? You have to define this somehow, and when you do, your almost certain to be stepping on somebodys toes. How are you going to avoid "Intollerance"??

How do you solve this problem?

Well I agree with Voltaire that it only takes religion to make good people do bad things.

And I disagree that religion is the sole provider of morality. Philosophies do a better job at it actually and Buddhism and Taosim actually started off as humanists philosophies.

As a humanist, atheist is too Euro for me, I believe that the lot of my fellow man, as well as myself, is important. And I am willing to find out more how other people think, feel and act.

This allows me to open up to the world in a way that religious people can't do as easily as their religion may come with an exclusivist view of the world and humanity.

Simply put, it's all about loosening up without losing one's morals.

I know. I drive my religious friends crazy, especially those who repeatedly say that I will burn in hell for my lack of belief. I'll only be hurt if I take that seriously but I still appreciate their sweet but woefully misguided concern for me.

At the very least, they still pay for my drinks : >


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