So, like, as an atheist, you believe nothing? Everybody believes in something.
I shy away from using the word “believe” to describe my values, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have values! In fact, there are a lot of cool things that I support, and as an atheist, I’m not alone in this regard!
Last month, the Atheist Alliance International held a God and Politics conference in Copenhagen. At this “World Atheist Conference,” they adopted a pretty spiffy set of principles, now called the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life. This list might not fit perfectly with every atheist’s principles, but I think it’s a pretty great guide. Let’s take a look at the principles declared and see what it is that we “aggressive, angry” atheists really “believe in” when it comes to religion’s role in society. (Please note: None of the principles below assert belief; they are statements of values.)
We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
This is important. We’re not trying to dictate thought. There’s a big difference between discouraging belief and prohibiting it. We don’t want you to subscribe to nonsense like religion, astrology, and homeopathy; that’s true. But we cherish free thought and imagination! We just want you to be able to tell the difference.
Though we may challenge your beliefs, we respect your right to hold them. If you could better keep them to yourselves, that’d be just swell.
We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
Wasn’t that a nice segue? Your beliefs might be very important to you; they may even dictate every facet of how you live your life. We can never agree on beliefs, so to use them to enforce public policy is only going to ensure we remain divided as a society. While beliefs might disagree, reality is constant. We need evidence to support the ideas we apply widely or else we create unfair distinctions between how people are treated.
We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
That’s quite a bold claim, eh? It flies right in the face of that whole “Christian America” malarkey. But it’s true. We can only ensure the freedom of thought from the first listed principle above if we do not enforce thought through religious public policy. If we’re not working toward a society that supports the lives of all people, how dare we claim a piece of it for ourselves?
We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
I’m tempted to call out the redundancy here, but I don’t fault the atheists for trying to be very careful about describing their principles. They are quite prone to being misinterpreted and discounted by others.
We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
This says a lot without saying much. It speaks to homosexuality, abortion, drug use, and a lot of other things. We might differ on a lot of those things, but I think the basic principle is good and fair. It’s a polite way of saying, “If I’m not infringing on your life, then stay out of mine.”
We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
An important qualification! Religion should not dictate laws nor who can make laws. Is that such a bad thing?
We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
If I want to make the case that your ideas are baseless and imprudent, I should have every right to do so. No text, author, or “prophet” should be immune to critique. Let’s level the playing field.
We’re more than halfway through now… is any of this really so awful?
Have your beliefs! Just don’t expect special treatment. This is a rejection of religious privilege at its simplest.
We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
If you’re a part of our society, then our society’s governance applies to you. It’s fair and square.
We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
See? You can still have your leaders. We want to let you operate within your own belief system. But if your religious institution wants to participate in the rest of society, you have to play by the rules. I’m sorry, but that’s just being fair.
We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
You want to have your own special community-building system? That’s just peachy. But don’t expect us to help you out. You tend to demonize us and reject the progress of society for the rest of us, and that’s not cool. Why should you get a financial break from us? Please, do charity work! We’ll be doing charity work too! If you want to do it with us and get a tax break, how about you just leave your pamphlets at home?
Oh, and if you want to believe in unfounded nonsense like creation? Fine. Your ideas are bogus, but you can have them. Just don’t expect us to help you spread them.
We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.
I know that some of you have worked really hard to convince yourselves of certain things. But if you’re still relying on faith, then those things aren’t really “true.” We just want to be able to distinguish between the things that are true for all of us and the things that are only true for some of us.
And that’s it. These aren’t the only principles atheists hold, but they’re some important ones. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the list is that aggressive. I don’t think it attacks anyone. It’s just saying, “We think things would be more fair this way.”
So if you’ve ever wondered what atheists “believed,” you now have a couple ideas.