Atheism, impersonal forces, love, goodness, Stalin and Pol Pot

I’ve written a series of five articles for the Irish Times about atheism and its relationship to reason, morality, faith and Jesus. You can read the first article here on the Irish Times website:

We atheists will change our minds if evidence shows we are wrong

A few people have taken issue with one sentence in it, which reads

“Atheists agree that there are impersonal forces in the universe, and that values such as love and goodness are part of our experiences as human beings.”

Their concern is that not all atheists believe this, and that some atheists such as Stalin and Pol Pot do not fit into this analysis. So I’d like to clarify the point I was making. I’ve used qualifiers like ‘some’ and ‘most’ elsewhere in the article, but I didn’t think such a qualifier was needed here. If you read the sentence in the context of the sentences before and after it…

“In recent centuries, at least in the western world, science has weakened the idea of gods as intervening supernatural beings, and secular democracy has weakened the idea of gods as moral guides. And so a growing number of religious people are redefining the idea of god to mean an impersonal force, or a set of universal values such as love and goodness, or even suggesting that the laws of nature are god. Atheists agree that there are impersonal forces in the universe, and that values such as love and goodness are part of our experiences as human beings. But describing such natural phenomena as “god” creates an illusion that there is a wider acceptance of the idea of a personal intervening god, because it uses the same label to describe a very different type of idea.”

…it means that religious people claim that certain things are evidence of a god, and that atheists agree that such things exist but argue that they are natural phenomena. I think that is true for such an overwhelming majority of atheists that, outside of an academic treatise, it doesn’t require qualifying. That said, it would have been technically more accurate to qualify it with something like “virtually all atheists agree”.

With regard to the Stalin and Pol Pot argument, there are broadly two possible responses.

  • Yes. Values such as love and goodness were part of the the experiences of Stalin and Pol Pot as human beings. So were values such as hate and badness. All of these values are part of the overall experience of being human and interacting with other sentient beings. For the purposes of this argument, the important point is that these experiences are natural and not supernatural. We shouldn’t just cherry-pick the positive experiences, and either attribute them to a god or say that they actually are god.
  • No. Michael is mistaken about this. Here’s why. (insert explanation.) However, that doesn’t invalidate other things that he says about atheism, which on the basis of the best currently available evidence seem to be correct, such as (insert examples). Also, if atheists are fundamentally mistaken, and there is a god, that would raise other moral questions about Stalin and Pol Pot. Did this god know they were doing bad? Was this god unable to stop them doing bad? Or was this god able but unwilling to stop them doing bad?

The remaining four articles will be published in the Irish Times on the next four Tuesdays.

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3 Comments

  1. Michael is wrong about this because an atheist doesn’t even need to know what love, goodness of what a “force” is. Similarly an atheist is free to actively believe that such things do not exist.

    Atheism only necessitates one thing: disbelief in God(s).

    It’s not just that sentence that is inaccurate – even the title the piece is.

    Atheist don’t have to change their mind if evidence shows they are wrong. There could be scientific evidence for God but it is still logically possible to not believe it.

  2. Right! So Michael is wrong, mistaken – according to “Force”.
    Is “Force” aware that Michael is writing with great patience and care to the satisfaction of members of Atheist Ireland, of which he is Chair-person. Quite an onerous and time-consuming responsibility. I’m sure, which I sincerely hope he will be able to maintain for a long time to come. Keep up the good work, Michael!
    Joe Davis (member) Atheist Ireland.

  3. Thanks for that comment, Joe. I appreciate it.

    Force, I agree about the need to qualify nouns referring to groups of people. I generally do this unless I think (sometimes mistakenly) that the assertion is uncontroversial, or that a qualifier is implied by a fair reading of the context.

    With regard to the title (“We atheists agree…”), this was a newspaper article and the title was written by an editor at the newspaper and not by me.

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