In the Name of Atheism?

I always do a face-palm whenever I hear this popular “never in the name of atheism” argument. What does that even mean? It makes no sense! And why does the fact that the English language lacks an “in the name of” expression that is commonly applied to atheism have any bearing on what the argument is trying to assert?

Some of the same atheists who use that bizarre “in the name of” argument also tell me (quite validly) that atheists don’t share any particular philosophy or worldview in common other than simply not finding any evidence for deities compelling! So how can there be such a thing as “in the name of atheism”?

Presumably, the reasoning behind the argument goes something like this:

“Religious people sometimes do terrible things in the name of their religion (i.e., based upon some teaching or stance established by their religion) but atheists never do that.”

However, it is an obvious logic fallacy based on comparing apples and oranges, among other things. It is just another false dichotomy. Atheism is NOT the antonym of the word “religion”. (The Atheism is simply lack of a belief in any god/gods/God.) Likewise, someone who does not identify with any religion simply lacks a religion. It doesn’t tell us much of anything else about their worldviews.

Also, millions of atheists, most of them in Asia, are atheists and yet are devoutly religious (e.g., some varieties of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians.) Furthermore, I’ve had faculty colleagues who were clear about their atheism but were devout participants and supporters at their local synagogue. I even read an essay long ago by an atheist who described himself as a “Christian atheist” and he regularly attended church.

Probably the most appropriate opposite for a religious person would be an areligious person. (Your spellchecker may reject that word but it has a valid English lexicon entry. I happen to prefer areligious to nonreligious but I won’t pursue the tangent of explaining why.) With that word in mind, lets revisit, reword, and expand upon the popular claim by using this more reasonable assertion:

“Religious people sometimes do terrible things in the name of their religion (i.e., based upon some teaching or stance established by their religion) but areligious people never do that—because to say that someone does something based upon some non-teaching or non-stance doesn’t make any logical sense.”

Furthermore, the illogic behind the “in the name of atheism” argument gets worse as one considers that any particular atheist may hold to all sorts of worldviews and philosophical positions which he/she considers fully in harmony with his/her atheist viewpoint. For example, in college I knew an atheist who was a very adamant anarchist and nihilist. He did evil things, even in the opinions of his closest atheist friends. [I know that because they told me so. No need to describe the details here. They aren’t “family friendly.”] Did that atheist do evil things “in the name of atheism” or did he base his actions on his philosophy of nihilism and anarchism? I had many conversations with that atheist student and he made very clear to me that his brand of atheism, nihilism, and anarchism were all “a single whole” which was his philosophy of life. (I’ve always wondered what happened to that guy. He slept on the floor of his dorm room under a huge poster of Mao Tse-Tung. I deleted from this paragraph one of the most bizarre of his convention-rebelling behaviors because some readers might find it overly nauseating. He loved to shock people.)

Often people (including many of my evangelical friends) confuse atheism and anti-theism and treat them as the same thing. Yet some atheists argue in ways that exhibit the same conflation. And that leads me to ask if anyone ever does anything “in the name of anti-theism”? I would assert that anti-theism can indeed be a foundational worldview which forms the basis of someone’s deeds. So is atheism ever associated with anti-theism and all sorts of evil? Obviously it is. And like it or not, some atheists wrote that the non-existence of deities and divine judgment justified their decision to appoint themselves as final judge and executioner. Indeed, some famous atheists have openly declared “Might makes rights.”

Some murderers have killed theists because they said they blamed theism for evil in the world and they wanted to wipe out theism. Is it really so wrong to cite various atheist leaders who committed evils based upon their anti-theist views? Did they do evil “in the name of anti-theism”? Seeing how the anti-theists of the world don’t all share an institutional affiliation or a “sacred scriptures” or a “hierarchical clergy structure”, the English language has no meaningful “in the name of” expression which describes that worldview. Yet at the philosophical level, anti-theism as a motivating worldview definitely can exist. Such an anti-theism certainly can be a worldview that serves as a motivation for evil. It doesn’t always do that—just as religious belief doesn’t always do evil things. One can find on the Internet countless anti-religion/anti-theist people trying to argue that religious people are somehow more prone to evil than non-religious people. They fail miserably. People are prone to evil. All kinds of people. Religious people routinely do good things and bad things. Non-religious people routinely do good things and bad things.

By the way, I also find it interesting how a lot of anti-theists rant about “Christianity was the cause of so many bloody wars”. Yet, when one asks them for examples, any historian will explain that the wars they name were fought for many of the same reasons as every other war in human history: conflicts over things like limited resources, expanding and consolidating power, and tribal identity. Indeed, the human tribalism which leads to war can be based on almost anything which allows a people group to form their group identity, whether that be a shared language, a shared culture, a shared heritage/ancestry, or a shared economics system (e.g., capitalists versus communists.) Yes, a shared religion can and often has been one of the key reasons for that tribal identity which causes people to take sides in wars. Yet, it is patently absurd to think—as some anti-theists have tried to argue—that “Wiping out religion would eliminate most of the world’s wars.” That kind of ignorance of history amazes me. Nobody denies that leaders often use religious arguments to justify their wars, but that doesn’t make the “in the name of religion” argument any more valid. Leaders will work with every possible aspect of group identity which has potential to unite an army and motivate aggression towards another tribe.

Religious people do evil things and areligious people do evil things. They based their evil decisions on their worldviews. Whether not the English expression “in the name” of applies to their particular worldview in common parlance is irrelevant.

Postscript:
Another example but using one’s political beliefs:

“His political beliefs inspire him to do everything in the name of his beloved Republican Party creed.”
“His political beliefs inspire him to do everything in the name of his beloved Democratic Party creed .”
“His political beliefs inspire him to do everything in the name of his beloved unaffiliated-independent political party creed.”

The would be a meaningless statement. It’s like saying, “All sorts of wrong votes are blindly cast and wasted in the name of a political party by Republicans and Democrats but independent-unaffiliated voters don’t vote in the name of their political party. So they are superior.” Is that a profound observation and argument? No.

@Patrick, do you truly believe that the “in the name of” argument is anything but a sloppy cliche?

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@TedDavis, has anyone done terrible things in the name of atheism? Saying, “I’m doing X to serve atheism.”

There is communism, which is atheism plus an ideology. I’m not sure if that qualifies. Certainly there has been horrible things done motivated by anti-religious motivation.

Would this count?

For example, in the 20th century, over 25 million believers perished from the antireligious violence which occurred in many atheist states.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_violence

And to be clear, @Patrick and most atheist are ethical moral people who are not prone to violence. It does seem that we are lucky that this is the forum of atheism that has arisen here. I’m thankful for this, but it seems like a wider view than our immediate context is needed to think about this.

In my 28 years of life I have come to the conclusion that there aren’t any evil Christisns or any evil atheists. Just evil people.

How about Wikipedia?

Under the doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union, there was a “government-sponsored program of conversion to atheism” conducted by Communists. The communist regime targeted religions based on State interests, and while most organized religions were never outlawed, religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and religion was ridiculed while atheism was propagated in schools. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution. Accordingly, although personal expressions of religious faith were not explicitly banned, a strong sense of social stigma was imposed on them by the official structures and mass media and it was generally considered unacceptable for members of certain professions (teachers, state bureaucrats, soldiers) to be openly religious.

The vast majority of people in the Russian empire were, at the time of the revolution, religious believers, whereas the communists aimed to break the power of all religious institutions and eventually replace religious belief with atheism. “Science” was counterposed to “religious superstition” in the media and in academic writing. The main religions of pre-revolutionary Russia persisted throughout the entire Soviet period, but they were only tolerated within certain limits. Generally, this meant that believers were free to worship in private and in their respective religious buildings (churches, mosques, etc.), but public displays of religion outside of such designated areas were prohibited. In addition, religious institutions were not allowed to express their views in any type of mass media, and many religious buildings were demolished or used for other purposes.

So it seems it was the atheistic aspect of Soviet Bolshevism that inspired persecution. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago shows that the Gulag was full of people banged up essentially for being religious. It was them, he is clear, whose example under suffering led him to faith.

Edit: the Romanian Communists under Ceaucescu famously imprisoned and tortured people like the pastor Richard Wurmbrandt. The parents of one of my fellow elders at my last church housed him in Northern Ireland after his release, while he was writing his experience. He decribed how damaged the man was, which doesn’t come across in the book.

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It is a sloppy cliche. It is mainly used to contrast the “Hitler, Stalin, Mao claims of being atheist, so atheism is evil” Also it is often used to contrast with the “Allah Akbar” of Islamic terrorism. Christians like to say that there is evil in the world, so the only solution is God- the christian god. Among Christians it seems that there is a fixed good/evil line and if you are not on one side of the line, you are on the other side of the line. Further Christians usually put all non-believers on the other side of the line by default. Non-believers don’t really exist, they are just rebelling against Allah/God.

I use the term atheist for political value alone. The term puts good, nice law abiding Christians back on their heels as atheist are supposedly evil monsters. I see this changing among young people. Be an atheist is no longer even noticed. It is a yawner. Most young people are “nones” that don’t participate in religion but may be spiritual whatever that means. I don’t think that folks in America over the age of 40 don’t realize how much the world has changed. LGBTQ issues among young people has gotten so commonplace, so accepting among young people in that it has created the young/old cultural divide in this country like civil rights and the vietnam war did in my generation. So yes, “in the name of atheist” is a cliche. It is only valuable with older non-practicing Catholics.

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@swamidass,

IMO, the dominant form of Communism in the last century does qualify as doing certain things in the name of atheism. Marxist-Leninism embraced dialectical materialism, a form of virulent anti-religious atheism that did view religious people as deluded enemies of the state. The wiki article seems pretty good to me: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxist–Leninist_atheism

To a significant degree, this also applies to China under Mao, and also today to some extent. I visited China twice about years ago to lecture at Wuhan University and Fudan University, two of their top ten universities. It is my understanding from conversations with people there, that university professors must be member of the Communist Party. For some, certainly, this amounts to nothing more than having a union card. For others, it might mean a great deal more than this. Philosophy departments in China teach Marxist philosophy as one area of specialization (among others), and they typically have a resident political officer to ride heard on the ideas being taught by the faculty in that department.

I gave a series of talks on “the Scientific Revolution,” a title that (I was told) resonated with the Marxist authorities. However, the thrust of the series was to emphasize the interaction of science with Christian faith, mainly in constructive ways that are well outside the tradition conceptual box in which the Scientific Revolution was placed during the Cold War, when that term became very popular. On the traditional view (which I learned at Indiana University, under the great Newton expert Richard S. Westfall), the Scientific Revolution was a period of profound secularization, during which modern science arose out of the ashes of traditional Christian faith. Two generations of subsequent scholarship (mostly by secular scholars, but Christian scholars have also contributed) have all but demolished that notion, and I was simply bringing up-to-date ideas to the students and scholars at Wuhan and Fudan.

When I did the series at Fudan, during the Q&A after one of the last talks a faculty member rose from his chair and asked, why haven’t we heard any of this before? That was a very revealing question, indicative of the fact that White’s “warfare” view of science and Christianity has much traction in Marxist countries.

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