Atheism ≠ Misanthropy

I discussed a while back several reasons why I was hesitant to abandon my Christian faith, but somehow I managed to leave out one of the key issues that hindered my eventual de-conversion.  Growing up I knew many non-religious people.  No one in my immediate family is a Christian and few of my friends were more than culturally Christian.  But although many of the people I was raised around where non-religious, I can’t think of a single adamant atheist—there is a very real distinction.  Naturally, since I entered college at a conservative evangelical university, I have known few atheists.

But there is a recurring theme in some of the few atheists I have known that is rather disheartening: a severe sense of misanthropy.  It seemed to me that there was some kind of natural progression from rejecting the existence of God to rejecting the value of humanity.  This is troubling at best, and frightening at worst.  My de-conversion from Christianity brought with it an entirely new and fresh perspective on the human race.  Thoughts of the original sin of the past were replaced by a focus on the progress of the future.  Distress at a seemingly inborn nature of aggressiveness and egoism are mediated by an appreciation for displays of restraint and altruism.

Yet as a Christian, this hopeful view of humanity, reminiscent of Enlightenment thought, was not the kind of rhetoric I heard from the atheists I knew.  In contrast to my Christian conception that all human life had value I was met with a repeated defense of hating people because they did not achieve their ‘potential value.’ The road this train of thought headed was more than disconcerting to me.

My experience as an atheist, though, has not been influenced by a misanthropic principle. The realization that my life will not be followed by some form of eternal party has made me take more seriously the manner in which I spend the precious few years I have on earth.  When I realized that the poor truly will not “inherit the earth,” my compassion took on an entirely new dimension.  The attempts of literature and art to make sense of the chaos of the universe have become more vivid and lively.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, atheists are not all the same.  There is no central planning committee for the platforms and protocols of atheists; we present no united front to the world.  It is both a blessing and a curse that forming public opinion of atheists becomes more difficult. Many atheists are moral subjectivists and (believe it or not) some are objectivists.  Atheists are capitalists and socialists, conservatives and liberals, pacifists and just war theorists.

Despite the incredibly diversity among our ranks, it seems to me that there are many misconceptions among the American public about what it means to be an atheist that need remedied.  While there are perhaps many atheists who have a low view of humanity, there are many of us (and I would wager to say that we are the majority) who have a high (relatively) view of humanity. When I read the work of Carl Sagan and remember how small we are in this infinite universe, I do not despair at the human condition.  Our value does not diminish if we are not alone, and our worth does not disappear if we are small players on a great cosmic stage.

I no longer view humanity as the capstone of the universe.  Likewise, I no longer view humanity as a wicked and fallen race of hopelessly lost sinners. Because I do not believe we were created to be in relationship with some transcendent being does not necessitate that I forfeit belief we are bound for greatness. Indeed I now have a renewed sense of responsibility for caring for our communal home, earth, and my barely distinguishable neighbors that inhabit its many nations.    ≠  

3 Responses to “Atheism ≠ Misanthropy”

  1. I agree,although I also agree with Harris that I should reject being categorised as an “atheist”.The idea that i can be pigeon-holed by my brain’s rebuttal of a particular bronze age text is an absurd one.You are right to say that it is easier to be moral without the get out clause of an afterlife.If you havent already checked out the Beyond Belief lectures,Carolyn Porco is a gem:

    What a beautiful woman.I only wish I could contribute to the human project,but i only speak jazz.

  2. If I may abuse the metaphor of mathematical logic, atheism is merely belief in not-God. Indeed the only philosophically defensible position is agnosticism, because one can prove that one does not know. But to the misanthropy – I have noticed that, too, and sometimes it is combined with self-hatred and depression. I do not propose that atheism is a cause of these things, rather it may be the other way round.

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