Atheist Elitism

By Jin-yeong Yi

Louis Carmontelle - Baron d'HolbachNiall Ferguson

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

—Voltaire

Is atheism good for humanity? (Depends on how you define “good,” of course.) That almost all religious people would reply in the negative is a given. However, even among atheists and other secular people there are not a few individuals that are skeptical of the notion that humankind would be better off without religion. Consider this sampling of quotations:

“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself.”

—Benjamin Franklin, letter to Thomas Paine

“Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

“Religion is still useful among the herd – that it helps their orderly conduct as nothing else could. The crude human animal is in-eradicably superstitious, and there is every biological reason why they should be.
Take away his Christian god and saints, and he will worship something else…”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“The principles of atheism are not formed for the mass of the people, who are commonly under the tutelage of their priests; they are not calculated for those frivolous capacities, not suited to those dissipated minds, who fill society with their vices, who hourly afford evidence of their own inutility; they will not gratify the ambitious; neither are they adapted to intriguers, nor fitted for those restless beings who find their immediate interest in disturbing the harmony of the social compact: much less are they made for a great number of persons, who, enlightened in other respects, have not sufficient courage to divorce themselves from the received prejudices.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“I was brought up and remain an atheist. But to be brought up an atheist is very different from lapsing from religious faith. I’ve never had any religious faith. I have however a profound belief that, as a basis for ethical conduct, the Ten Commandments are pretty good, and that actually the monotheisms, and particularly Christianity, offer a really quite good guide as to how to live well.

By ‘well’ I mean to live morally. It’s very hard for an atheist to invent, from first principals, a good ethical basis for behavior, because actually in the natural state, human beings don’t behave well. They’re quite strongly tempted to behave badly. And we’re involved in ways that actually encourage bad behavior. We’re designed to kill strangers. We’re designed, in fact, to steal. And so it’s very important that there should be an ethical framework within which we live.

And my dilemma is that I don’t really believe in any divine policeman or any afterlife payoffs. But I do believe that we should live well. We should obey some moral code that we’re not likely to invent for ourselves.”

—Niall Ferguson[1]

I myself am undecided on this question, but I have a few things to say about it: 1) I support freedom of religion and oppose state atheism, partly because I think that the former is much better for atheism than the latter, and 2) in my view, a religious or philosophical viewpoint is only as “good” as its adherent. In other words, the outcome depends on the intelligence and character of the individual in question. If this is true of, say, Christianity, how much truer it is of atheism. Adherents of the former have doctrines and moral absolutes they can follow. Adherents of the latter are on their own.

Notes

[1] See “Niall Ferguson on Belief” on Big Think.

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2 thoughts on “Atheist Elitism

  1. Al says:

    If you assume morality isn’t an ingrained evolutionary ‘instinct.’ If it is, religion is merely one manifestation of that ‘instinct.’ I submit utilitarianism as well.

  2. Jin-yeong Yi says:

    It does appear to be an ingrained “instinct.” But if the moral “programming” is buggy, as it is in sociopaths, obviously it won’t help. I have yet to research this subject to my satisfaction, but I am hoping that most people are “moral” by nature.

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