Theo Hobson

If atheists do have values, what are they?

If atheists do have values, what are they?
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There’s an interesting article in the Guardian by Julian Baggini. Now that nearly half of Britons say that they have no religion, he observes, some believers are saying that atheism is also a sort of faith. Though an atheist, he is not of the Dick Dawkins school, and so does not respond with Dickish bluntness. He is not one of those ‘zealous’ atheists who sees religion ‘as an offence to human rationality.’ People like that do seem to have a sort of crusading faith, he says. Excessive trust in the power of reason can be dangerous, he adds.

He admits that the ‘meaning and value’ that atheists find in life is not strictly evidence-based, and so has a faith-resembling aspect. But it’s misleading to call this ‘faith’, he concludes. ‘The non-religious do not find meaning, purpose and value by taking a leap into the unknown and transcendental. We find it in the beauty and joy of life, and in the empathy that makes us see value in the lives of others too. These things are not facts captured by fundamental physics but nor are they religious mysteries to be taken on faith. What grounds us ethically can be found entirely on the literal ground on which we live.’

Baggini’s calm atheism is preferable to the rantings of the militants. I think he speaks for far more people than Dawkins.

So it’s important to engage with the quiet incoherence of his argument – so quiet one might miss it. Atheists have values that cannot be grounded in rationality, he says, but are in a sense ‘made up’. So what are these values? The only clue we get is the above phrase about the beauty and joy of life and empathy. Why these values? Why not the glory of racial purity for example, or unalloyed hedonism?

The reference to beauty and joy is meaningless filler – presumably cannibals and Nazis find beauty and joy in life. The reference to ‘empathy’ is what matters. He is implying that it comes naturally to find humanist meaning in life. In reality humanism, in the advanced form that we are familiar with, is a tradition that derives from Christianity.

This is the true ground of the God debate: what is humanism, where does it come from? Atheists are nervous of discussing the subject – it is not directly discussed in the God Delusion, for example, nor in Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. They prefer to imply that it’s just there. It ain’t.