Does atheism lead to social justice?
Michael De Dora
Posted on May 22, 2012
Atheist blogger Greta Christina says yes:
If religious believers were right, and this mortal life really were just a trivial eyeblink in the eternity of our real spiritual afterlives, then making this life happy and meaningful wouldn’t be so important. If we really did live forever in Heaven after we died, it wouldn’t matter so much that children around the world are born into hopeless lives of misery and despair. Hey, a few years of hunger and disease and violence and helplessness, compared to a blissful eternity in the arms of the Lord.. what’s the big deal?
But religious believers aren’t right. There is no God. There is no Heaven. This mortal life is all we have.
And if this mortal life is all we have — and there are millions of people whose only lives are hopeless lives of misery and despair, for no reason other than the bad luck of how and where and when they were born — then that is a fucking tragedy. It is injustice on a gruesomely epic scale. And we have a powerful moral obligation to fix it. If we have any morality at all — and the evidence strongly suggests that we do, that human beings have some common moral principles wired into our brains through millions of years of evolution as a social species — then seeing terrible harm done to others through no fault of their own should make us cringe, and should demand our immediate and passionate attention.
But humanist blogger James Croft disagrees:
I certainly agree that the recognition that we have but one life to live supercharges my sense of moral responsibility. But it does just that – supercharges it, not creates it. Any heightened sense of moral duty I have toward my fellows due to being an atheist piggybacks on the moral commitments I already have. It’s only if I have a moral sense that human life – particularly the lives of others – is valuable at all that my atheism will make that seem more important. It’s only if I care that other people live in misery and despair that the fact that it’s their only life and they are living in misery and despair makes any difference.
Other moral positions – ones which don’t care a fig for social justice – are fully consistent with atheism: I have a good friend who is a thoroughgoing nihilist, for instance, and we all know many Randian atheists who clearly do not agree that their atheism demands any commitment to social justice as Greta understands it.
In short, atheism doesn’t demand a stance in favor of social justice. To someone already committed to social justice, embracing atheism might further commit an individual to those beliefs. Becoming an atheist might also lead to a reevaluation of your moral system, as certain changes in certain views (like the likelihood of an afterlife) alter your moral calculations. But atheism entails no particular moral view – not even a broad one, such as a commitment, in general, to social justice.
What do you think?