Does atheism entail anti-discrimination?

No_discrimination_signI recently discovered Betteridge’s Law, which is a rather cool adage that states “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no“. And that’s the point of view many of you might have with regard to the headline I chose for this blog post. You might say, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s) – it entails no other propositions.

If we mean the strict logical sense of entail, i.e. that atheism necessarily leads to anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth, you’re right. But you’re perhaps also evading a more important point, which is that if you’re an atheist who isn’t opposed to sexism, racism and so forth, the fact that you happen to be an atheist does little or nothing to combat the possibility that the viewpoints are at least in tension with each other, or even in direct opposition.

Two ideas don’t need to form a contradiction to be in opposition. And to my mind, atheism will (and, should) typically entail anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth. And this is because prejudice of these forms is not only an manifestation of irrationality, but also more specifically a form of irrationality that is typically buttressed by moral codes that rank certain values or characteristics above others on largely arbitrary grounds.

Whether it be wearing a certain funny hat, belonging to a certain tribe, uttering certain sacred words, eating a particular food and not another – all of these are tokens that would normally be arbitrary, but are granted significance via a system of belief. They aren’t justified by evidence and reason, but rather become justified by the positive feedback loop of religious practice.

Without those forms of thinking, any idea that people with a certain level of melanin in their skin are superior or inferior to others, or that people with penises are better/worse than people without them, would struggle to get off the ground. We’d be far more inclined to say “that makes no sense – we’ve no reason to treat x worse than y”, because we’d have fewer psychological frameworks in place allowing for arbitrary discrimination.

So, while atheism might not necessarily lead to being anti-discrimination (of arbitrary sorts), I do think it’s not only compatible with anti-discrimination, but more than that – it’s more likely to lead to it than not. And for clarity, and to avoid needless argument, I am not making the claim that religion always, or necessarily, does lead to these forms of discrimination. I’m making the far more limited claim that it’s one way in which some people prop up their prejudices.

  • Here’s a blog post in reply that readers might find interesting, and a comment from me in reply to that blog post:

  • Wouldn’t it first be necessary to know why someone became an atheist? I essentially agree with everything you’ve said. There’s nothing about not believing a in gods itself that stops you discriminating but it does remove a lot of the reasons. However that’s assuming the person is atheist because of a lack of evidence for gods. If they became an atheist because they disagreed with some of it’s rules or just found the idea distasteful then there is no reason to think they would be more rational and so abandon things like sexism or racism.

    Atheism also doesn’t address the more secular reasons to discriminate, some of which one may perhaps even arrive at rationally. For example, it wouldn’t be irrational for one to be xenophobic to protect one’s culture as the influx of foreigners would change and/or erode it. It would be irrational to say that one’s culture is perhaps superior or more important in an objective sense but I’m not sure if it would be irrational to say that it is subjectively and act accordingly.

  • Mort Telford

    I see your point … but wasn’t atheism one of the cornerstones of Nazi ideology? Isn’t the belief that there is a supreme, eternal arbiter who you will encounter at the end of your time on earth the ultimate motivation to treat other people fairly and with kindness (no racism, sexism or any other “ism”)?

    • Even if that Naziism stuff was correct, Mort (and some might think it odd that it’s not in history books, but only spoken of by religious folk. And also, some might think it odd that the main Nazi exemplar, Hitler, said things like “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter”) then it still wouldn’t be relevant to this post. Because even if there was a better way to get to certain “good” social values than non-theism, this post deals with the extent to which atheism might. It’s not about who “wins” in some big contest.