Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Effective and Compassionate Atheism

This is an excerpt from an essay by Marcus Mann.

“To put it another way, atheists care very much about being correct and that when dealing with the most daunting problems in our collective life, it is of paramount importance that we are correct about the nature of the challenges we face. Atheists exhibit this value by revering the processes (rituals?) and institutions devoted solely to this value: the scientific method, education, and debate. It’s why atheists, including myself, are obsessed with “evidence.” I care deeply about this kind of empirical correctness and accord it a lofty position among the many other values I hold dear.

“But… I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind. A helpful exercise then is to ask what intellectual role, on the level of belief and theology, does salvation play for the fundamentalist Christian screaming insults at a gay couple? What intellectual role does submission play for a fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber? The answer, I propose, is that they are central ones. So too, atheists need to be wary of valuing correctness over the much more important values of kindness, sobriety, and pluralism.”

This essay was published on the blog “The Friendly Atheist” (which I don’t always find friendly). I was happy to read it, both because it highlights the work of my friend Chris Stedman and because I admire the compassionate view of the author. Yet I also find it terrible. No special soul searching should be needed to admit that kindness is as important as being right. Nor should it be radical to suggest respecting people despite their differences.

Yet interreligious respect is still in its infancy for atheism as a movement, and essays like this—or Chris’ book—are controversial among atheists.

When a movement does not support religious tolerance, I construe it as fundamentally against human rights. And that brings me great pain, because I likely have more beliefs in common with atheists than I do with most religious folks.

I hope you will read the rest and share your thoughts.

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6 thoughts on “Effective and Compassionate Atheism

  1. Pingback: Two Sides of a Coin | Dancing in the Enchantment

  2. I have to agree about the fundamental human right to commune with the devine through religion. My husband is an atheist and he has absolutely no problem believing in my spoken desires in prayer especially when he has seen the miracles created in those moments. That is evidence enough for him. He was compassionate before he was labeled an atheist. I welcome the day when atheists will be treated as good people and not put on the defensive. Maybe then they can have a seat at the community table.

    • I think it works both ways. Both Marcus Mann’s article here, and Chris Stedman’s book which he references, refer to an arc of first violently hating religion and only later learning to treat the religious with respect. I think that when interreligious respect is a priority within atheism as a whole, atheists will find it far easier to themselves be respected. I agree with you that they certainly deserve it.

  3. Arden says:

    I’m glad to see atheists thinking seriously about themselves as a specific culture, rather than the de facto group that the intelligent and non-brainwashed join. This will lead to them interacting with other cultures with greater success.

    I have a fair bit common with atheists too, but their values and mores are deeply alienating to me. I don’t hold that against them– I just wish they wouldn’t take “look, I don’t relate to how you want to live your life” as “I’m clearly delusional and wrong.”

    • I think that many atheists – like any minority group – hate being treated as a monolithic entity (which is fair), and thus there’s not a lot of “We the atheists…” kind of talk. I’ve had some atheists flatly tell me there is no such thing as an atheist “movement,” although the reasons they gave would also apply to saying there was no civil rights “movement.” There are lots of small groups and individuals with different goals or ideas, but there is certainly a shared identity coalescing too, in my opinion.

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