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Atheism, Bigotry, and Politics

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Today’s article is by SASHA member Alex Papulis.

I’d like to consider something in response to Dave’s June 14 post, where he explains that he will stop using the word “homophobia” and instead use “bigotry”.

Atheism does not entail any given political position, or any political position at all. There is nothing requiring an atheist to support either high or low taxes, strict or forgiving immigration policies, capital punishment or its abolition, or anything at all. One cannot be an atheist and support abolition of the death penalty because God says don’t murder, but one can be an atheist and support the abolition of the death penalty. According to moral nihilism, there are no positive moral facts about the world, and as moral nihilism follows from naturalistic atheism (see brief argument at end of post if you like), there is no imperative that the atheist support or oppose any particular policy.

Additionally, though, as all positive moral propositions are false, we should note that the atheist is inconsistent in claiming any political position to be wrong, bad, harmful, etc. Any such claim, that is held intolerantly in the face of opposition, is bigotry on the part of the atheist. For what reason could an atheist hold to a belief for which there is no evidence, in the face of opposition?

So, while an atheist certainly cannot consistently claim, for example, that homosexual behavior is bad or harmful, neither can he claim that anti-homosexual behavior is bad or harmful. Laws expanding the definition of marriage are not harmful, but neither are laws that restrict the definition of marriage. And it’s clear that anyone who says that such law is harmful, and is intolerant of those disagreeing, is behaving in a bigoted manner. There is no evidence for their belief, yet they obstinately hold on to it and disapprove of those who do not share their belief.

But surely, you may be thinking, there are political positions that are worse than others. Some taxes are better than none, highways are better than no highways, and firemen, policemen, ambulances, these are all good things, and policies can certainly be harmful in this regard. Surely we all agree on this. But we have to be careful. It may be the case that most of us like these things, and we don’t like things that lessen them, but that doesn’t get us what would be needed to avoid a charge of bigotry. After all, everyone can appeal to what they like, and the anti-homosexual doesn’t get off the hook because he likes restrictive marriage laws. No, in the end, stubbornly and intolerantly moralizing is bigotry.

So what’s left? For one, there are our desires. We prefer certain states of the world over others. We like what certain policies get us and dislike what others get us, even if none is better than another. And of course, atheism doesn’t entail anything about what preferences or desires one should have. It doesn’t require one be tolerant or accepting of differences, though one may like if atheists are these things.

The pro-gay, then, is fundamentally no different than the anti-gay. The bigots are those who intolerantly assert that one of the positions is good or bad. The two sides are simply two groups with different political desires, and they both try to impose those desires on the other via legislation. There is no place for moral indignation.

Moral nihilism: There are two problems with a realist view of morality for the naturalist atheist. First, moral entities (be they properties, relations, values) don’t seem to fit into the naturalist catalog. A quick way of thinking about it is by dissecting a behavior or act into its physical constituents and then considering where the moral properties might be. We can think about all the physical elements and effects of an action, yet when we try to find the “requirement” or “obligation” or “value”, we are unable. Second, even if moral entities did exist, it is unclear how we would be able to ascertain their existence or character. As moral entities don’t seem to fit into a naturalist understanding of the world, similarly it seems that our perception of them would be impossible without some faculty of perception capable of perceiving non-natural things.

After completing an economics degree at Washington University in St Louis, Alex Papulis just finished a year at Mizzou as a non-degree-seeking, non-transfer Degree-seeking Transfer student. He enjoyed it, and looks forward to starting a philosophy MA program in Milwaukee this fall.

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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at

12 comments on “Atheism, Bigotry, and Politics

  1. DVD Bach
    June 28, 2012

    “Additionally, though, as all positive moral propositions are false, we should note that the atheist is inconsistent in claiming any political position to be wrong, bad, harmful, etc”

    Why would you believe an atheist thinks that all moral propositions are false? Something is harmful if it can be shown to cause harm to someone. Restricting the rights of gay people is a perfect example of this.

    • Alex Papulis
      June 29, 2012

      Nowhere do I say that any particular atheist, or atheists in general, think all moral propositions are false. As I say in what you quoted, the atheist is inconsistent in claiming any political position to be wrong, bad, harmful, etc.

      I provide a brief argument for moral nihilism at the end of the post. I don’t deny that different actions have different physical effects on people. It’s a different question, though, if there are requirements to promote or avoid any given effect or behavior. In a naturalistic world, there are no such requirements.

  2. rocketkirchner
    June 29, 2012

    Alex , good article .
    In regards to morals , ethics , etc. the Atheist in question must realize that philsophical inconsistencys abound all around him or her like trap doors and booby traps and land mines of nihilism , becuase he has no infinite reference point upon which to draw upon. The Atheist dillema and connundrum is to somehow try and take a stand on something he or she believes by using a null set as the entire picture of the intrinsic quality of an ethos . This is problematic . Am i not right ? which begs the question of weather a null set has a wide enough range to accomadate any such ethos . Pathos , yes. but ethos ?

    So , what does the Atheist do ? the Atheist seeks to pass off a position of relativism as an absolute. But it is not an absolute , but merely an opinion . If , hypothetically one were to say ” this is only my opinion ”…. ( fill in the blank ) then i think that the Atheist can discuss variuos moral convinctions they have and not fall into pressumption . But the minute they seek to hide their personal opinion behind an absolute they lose some credibility for substantive dialogue . your thoughts on my comments please.

  3. DVD Bach
    June 29, 2012

    Atheists don’t rely on a “null set” for making moral decisions. Living together in society requires rules. We agree on those rules, and moral decisions flow from them. In addition, religious people don’t rely on an “infinite reference point.” The “big three” monotheistic religions all rely on an ancient book that condones slavery genocide, child abuse and the treatment of women as property. A set of rules agreed upon by rational people in a secular context is far preferable to such nonsense.

    • Alex Papulis
      June 29, 2012

      DVD Bach,
      If we are to have a society in which many people’s desires are satisfied, there must be certain behaviors which are prevented. There’s no dispute that different behaviors have different effects and are conducive to different kinds of society or lack thereof. The question isn’t whether certain behaviors can achieve certain outcomes, but rather whether we should or shouldn’t behave in a certain way or desire certain outcomes/types of societies.

    • rocketkirchner
      July 1, 2012

      DVD Bach , thank you for your reply , but i must take exception as a Christian practioner that Jesus of Nazareth condoned genocide , child abuse , and slavery . In fact he taught the opposite to which many seclular humanists would agree . He even went further and said that his disciples should love their enemies . This trumps anything anyone else has come up with on the relgiuos stage or the secular one . Judaism and Islam teach the former , but not Jesus . The Gospels are clear about that as a text even if one does not believe in them .

      As to the ”Null set” . The Atheist position historically has always been one of being limited to a finite reference point , as Bonhoffer’s critique of Heidegger shows ( God in exile : Modern Atheism –by Cornelius Fabro ). This has always been a quandry for the Atheist to work within a finite reference point in order to find an ethos to build upon . Hence the limitation of the null set that cannot possibly encompass perceptially the totality of reality . It is only one set , not the big picture. Sarte in ”Being and Nothingness ” states that ”Without an infinte reference point , all finite reference points are without bering ”. The French existentialists Atheism of the 40’s to the 70’s really got this .

  4. Alex Papulis
    June 29, 2012

    I don’t know about the no infinite reference point part and your first paragraph. Moral value and things like this just won’t fit in naturalism, they’re metaphysically incompatible.

    I don’t think all atheists are dishonest, trying to “pass off” one position for another. I think part of the problem is that people haven’t stopped to think about what a moral requirement is (or would be). A causal requirement is one thing, a moral requirement is another. Additionally, it’s one thing to say, such and such behavior promotes survival or whatever, it’s another to say, you should engage in such and such behavior. Description vs prescription.

    Moral relativism (you may have meant something else by “relativism”) wouldn’t work for the same reason that non-relativism doesn’t work. It too is incompatible with naturalism. Adding a “for me” or “for so-and-so” doesn’t make moral values metaphysically compatible.

    • rocketkirchner
      July 1, 2012

      Alex , i dont think that most Atheists are dishonest. I just think that when challenged by some kind of concept of an absolute they sort of panic and reach for an absolute that is nothing more than a relativist paradigm . In fact , i think that that is an uncounsciuos act. it is reflexive . As in regardsto this ”infinte reference point”, as you read Keirkegaard’s influence on German and French Atheism you will see the great divide between the concept of the infinite verses the finite , and how reality lies as a synergy between the two.
      The old Atheism get this , but the New Atheism does not , beucase it is focused too much on the hard sciences and not enough on philosophy, and so it is hard to put on the table these concepts without being dismissed as unworthy of discussion .

      You and i have discussed naturalism and nihilism in person as it relates to Atheism and i agree with you . No debate here pal .

  5. DVD Bach
    June 29, 2012

    Is there a reason you removed my comments? I’m used to being silenced by religious people, but I would have thought better of a website like this one.

  6. DVD Bach
    June 29, 2012

    Oh sorry, they just haven’t been approved. Why not?

    • MU SASHA Administrator
      June 29, 2012

      Sorry about that, hadn’t been on the blog today, and our power is out!

      • rocketkirchner
        July 1, 2012

        Gentleman , might i add that i very pleased that there is a dialogue going on on this blog . I was telling Dave and Tony that i thought that this blog had great articles but not enough responses . let us hope that that is a good forum .

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This entry was posted on June 27, 2012 by in Author: Alex Papulis and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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