As my current project is a defence of ‘strong’ (or ‘positive’) atheism, I have been giving a lot of thought the last few weeks about what atheism means, what it entails, and how it might be defended. This means that I care about questions such as “is atheism just a lack of belief in gods?”, “what is the evidence for atheism?” and “does atheism entail anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, etc.?”
Regarding the latter question, I have been having a few amicable disagreements about this online. I take the position that, while anti-discrimination is clearly the rational and ethically-right view, it is not entailed by atheism, regardless of whether we are using ‘entailed by’ in its strictly logical sense or in order to convey a sort of approximate inevitability.
I don’t believe that I should shoulder the burden on proof when defending this position. If someone is touting a relation of entailment between two propositions then it is up to them to provide some justification for thinking that the relation holds. I certainly do not have a closed mind regarding such a view, but I have yet to see someone argue for it in a way that I find convincing.
My fellow SINner Jacques Rousseau today posted an argument in support of the view that atheism entails anti-discrimination. It is the closest I’ve come to changing my mind, and I initially intended to post a comment saying that I agreed, with one reservation (which I’ll detail soon).
I’ll do my best to summarise Jacques’ argument, and hopefully I can do it justice: Atheism doesn’t logically entail anti-discrimination, but many arguments for anti-discrimination rely on theism. If you discard theism, these arguments collapse. We are therefore left with fewer arguments to justify anti-discrimination with if we’re an atheist than if we are a theist, and so atheism is more likely to lead to anti-discrimination than pro-discrimination (or atheism is more likely to lead to anti-discrimination than theism is, which is what I would deduce from that). Therefore atheism entails (in a weak sense of ‘entails’) anti-discrimination.
My minor reservation is that ‘entails’ here is a much weaker sense of the term than I’m willing to accept. I was happy to agree with the above, but I wouldn’t say ‘entails’ is the right word. ‘More likely to lead to’, yes, but ‘entails’ conveys a sort of inevitability that is lost when we start talking about lower probabilities. This is a semantic issue, and perhaps unimportant. So long as it is specified and understood what we mean by certain terms, it doesn’t matter much whether we are using them in an unusual way.
But considering this further, I realised that this argument is selective about what is lost when theism is rejected. Yes, there are theistic justifications for pro-discrimination, yet there are also theistic justifications for anti-discrimination, and these are also lost when theism is rejected. For instance, no atheist could consistently hold that God commands that we treat our fellow humans with equal respect. Nor could they hold that men, women and all races were created equally, or that God loves us all equally and unconditionally.
Given this point, it is unclear to me how we assess what is more likely to be believed by someone when they lose their theistic beliefs. They lose theistic justifications for both pro- and anti-discrimination. One way might be to poll believers and non-believers – to see which group are the least discriminatory. This is, however a sociological point, and not the same as the conceptual question about what is or isn’t entailed by certain propositions.
So, my answer to the question of whether or not atheism ‘entails’ (in the sense used by Jacques) anti-discrimination is that I don’t know. Perhaps it does, but to my mind it isn’t at simple as noting that the theistic pro-discrimination arguments aren’t available to the atheist, as neither are the theistic anti-discrimination arguments.