Atheism and Liberty: Compatible and Mutually Reinforcing

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CXCI 
April 4, 2009
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A sample image Atheism, far from threatening the future survival of freedom or being irreconcilable with it, is compatible with individual liberty, free markets, and limited government. Moreover, atheism reinforces liberty by providing for the metaphysical realm what liberty provides for the political: the freedom of the individual from subjugation to the dictates of an arbitrary authority. Here, some of the principal arguments for the mutually reinforcing status of atheism and liberty shall be examined.

What is Atheism?

Atheism is not by itself a positive worldview; it is, rather, the non-belief in any god or gods – i.e., in any entity which has powers beyond those that are feasible within the parameters of the laws of nature or which controls the world, the universe, or its laws. Atheists reject the existence of both the earlier polytheistic gods  who had more limited and finite powers and the Abrahamic god, which is defined as simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. A more thorough explication of what atheism actually is can be found in my essay, “Atheism Facts and Myths.” The purpose of the present essay is more specific: to illustrate the complementarity of atheism and liberty.

What is Liberty?

Liberty is the ability of the individual to act according to his own choices and desires in living his life, provided that he respects a similar prerogative in all other innocent human beings. The philosophy of liberty is grounded in the individual having inalienable natural rights to life, property, health, and the taking of any non-coercive action needed to pursue and sustain happiness. These rights are not conditional upon the wishes of any entity and cannot be legitimately taken away or infringed for any reason; as natural rights, they exist from the moment an individual comes to be. In the political realm, the liberty of each individual only requires the lack of coercive interference with that individual’s life, beliefs, choices, and actions. The purpose of government is therefore solely to prevent harm to any individual under its jurisdiction and to resolve any disputes that arise regarding what constitutes such harm.   

Argument 1. Freedom from Arbitrary Power

Virtually all theistic religions dictate the individual’s subordination to some “higher” entity – a god or gods which, at the very least, set(s) up the laws of nature and the laws of morality and require men to obey them. This is similar in kind to the individual’s political subordination to some “higher” entity – a king, a dictator, a central planning committee, or a popularly elected president and representatives who claim some special warrant for restricting and controlling the individual’s life. That warrant could be the “divine right of kings,” or “the will of the people” – expressed as the vote of 51% of those who happen to cast a ballot or as the governing officials’ interpretation of what “the people” want. Or this warrant could simply be a case of might making right; a strongman with sufficient guns and enforcers can dictate his will upon others without requiring others to accept his legitimacy on an intellectual level.

The manner of obedience theistic religions expect of their followers is identical in kind to the special status arguments that are so often used to justify unconditional obedience to kings, dictators, and democratically elected populists. In Christian – and, more generally, in Abrahamic – circles, an argument is often invoked that an action that is God’s will is by definition good, and that no action can be good unless it is God’s will. This has numerous perverse consequences – including the status of the Old Testament God’s commands to commit genocide against entire populations and to inflict draconian punishments against non-transgressions as moral, while the actions of an atheist who does not harm a single individual and brings about nothing but increased prosperity and peace through his actions are immoral.

Statist regimes and religions are identical in justifying their contents and structures by fiat; the mere pronouncement of some entity or the mere origin of an idea or action from that entity by definition makes the pronouncement, idea, or action “good.” By contrast, the case for liberty is independent of any personal pronouncement. The best possible case for liberty posits that natural rights are inherent in the individual and are not given by any outside entity – be it natural or supernatural. Within the case for liberty, then, the justice or injustice of a political arrangement is determined by whether that political arrangement favorably relates to what the individual already is – i.e., defends that individual’s pre-existing natural rights. Both statism and theism make the error of supposing that rights and goodness respectively must “come from” an external source. The best case for liberty suggests that rights need not “come from” – and indeed, the question of the source of rights – while syntactically correct – may be as nonsensical as the question “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the chairness of green?”

But even if rights do not “come from” an external source but are inherent in the individual, we must still answer the question of why this is the case. An atheist can answer this question by simply examining the nature of morality. Just as the best case for liberty does not assume rights by fiat from some “higher authority” – be it a god or a government – neither does the atheist assume morality by fiat from some supernatural “higher authority.” Rather, an atheist who does not adhere to any validations by fiat looks for some rational justification for why certain actions are moral and others are immoral. An atheist advocate of liberty therefore believes that a rational justification is required for both morality and liberty; the fiat pronouncement of any entity, real or imagined, natural or supernatural, will not suffice.

To draw the connection between atheism and liberty, we begin with the basic question of morality, the question of “What ought the individual to do?” This is the basic inquiry underlying all of ethics. We note that this question itself does not exist in a vacuum; it is grounded in certain necessary prerequisites. For instance, it requires the existence of the individual and the possibility of continued individual action. Moreover, it requires the individual to have some faculty of effectively and reliably deciding what he ought to do. The very ability to ask the basic question of morality requires 1) a living individual, 2) a physical body by which the individual can engage in actions, and 3) a sensory apparatus, a mind, and a faculty of reason (also physically grounded according to most atheists) which the individual must employ to perceive reality and make choices about what he should do. If any of these prerequisites is undermined, morality is impossible, and the basic question of morality no longer makes sense – and, indeed, can no longer even be asked in any meaningful way. Any logical system is founded on prerequisites – axioms – from which subsequent propositions within that system can be derived. But a system cannot be used to undermine or contradict its own axioms, because this would then invalidate the system. It would enable one to prove any conceivable statement and its negation within the system, and it would produce the logically impossible status of simultaneous A and non-A among any and all existents addressed by the system. 

Therefore, any system of morality must not undermine the prerequisites of morality – the continuation of the individual’s life, physical body, and sensory and rational faculties. Any system of morality which undermines these prerequisites is self-contradictory and therefore untenable. The question, “Why is the preservation of each individual’s life good and moral?” can be answered as follows: “Morality presupposes the value of preserving each individual’s life and the holding of such preservation as the most important value, because without it, morality itself cannot exist.”

Now that we have established that the preservation of each individual’s life is the most significant moral value, we can make the case that each individual has a right to take actions to preserve his own life. After all, it would make no sense for any state to be morally valuable without the individual having a legitimate ability to pursue and preserve that state. A right to life is precisely the legitimate prerogative to pursue one’s life without interference from others. Likewise, any actions and physical prerequisites which are necessary or useful for preserving the life of any individual should be within the sphere of that individual’s legitimate pursuits. From this originate the rights to liberty and property – freedom of action and freedom of owning and using legitimately obtained physical objects.

While the preservation of the life of the individual is the most significant moral value, it need not be the only moral value. For instance, certain values – such as civility, tact, and esthetic beauty – are not indispensable to life, but they do make life more enjoyable and comfortable; as a result, it is also moral to pursue them – but not at the expense of the higher value of life. Values like civility and integrity are universally preferable – in that everyone’s life would be more reliable and comfortable if everyone practiced them. These values can also generate behavior that indirectly prevents certain kinds of persecution and intolerance and thereby makes the life of every individual more secure. Other values – such as one’s choice of occupations or one’s esthetic preferences – are not necessarily universalizable, although they may objectively be the best values for an individual to pursue given his particular circumstances. The pursuit of any of these values – provided that it does not trump life – is within the sphere of every individual’s right to pursue happiness. Again, any moral value ought to be accompanied by a legitimate prerogative to actualize it – and this prerogative arises from within the individual who holds the value, rather than from an external source.

Political liberty, then, is the necessary societal precondition for the actualization of the preservation of the most important underpinning of all morality – the life of every individual who is engaged in moral pursuits. This argument is entirely atheistic and can more readily be recognized by an atheist who does not adhere to fiat theories of existence or morality.

By contrast, an atheist can recognize as claims to arbitrary power both the supposed pronouncements of deities and the pronouncements of men who claim a special right to dispose of the lives and destinies of others.

Argument 2. The Sole Status of This World

Because atheists do not believe in an afterlife or a world beyond the present one, they by definition hold this world and this existence to be the only one there is. If this existence is the only one there is, then anything important must be achieved in this existence – or it cannot be achieved at all. If liberty is important, then one cannot wait until some fictitious next life to have it; one must have it in this life. A theistic proponent of liberty might at least console himself that, if he fails in obtaining freedom here, he will have it in the hereafter. The atheist has no such consolation. Either he will have liberty here, or liberty will be lost to him. This focuses all of the atheist’s efforts on attaining liberty in this world.

This argument, of course, can be extended to every other human value – such as prosperity, beauty, longevity, productivity, integrity, family, friendships, and romantic relationships. If there is only this world, then this world is the place to pursue the optimal quantities of these values (some of which may be indefinite – as, for instance, with longevity!). For instance, now that the technologies that may enable humans to live indefinitely are within the reach of some presently living generations, it may be that religion will do many of today’s humans a great disservice by diverting their energies away from the push to arrive at and support these technologies and toward the pursuit of an afterlife that is highly improbable to say the least. It is also likely that an excessive focus on the hereafter could diminish the amount of time and efficiency of the efforts devoted to the preservation of liberty.

Argument 3. Freedom from Institutional Entanglements

Religions are not mere abstract belief systems about the supernatural. Virtually every religion entails considerable institutional entanglements with human organizations – such as churches, temples, or mosques, social networks, and even at times political movements. Many religions prescribe everything from an individual’s diet to his or her romantic relationships to his or her views on political and social issues. The requirements imposed by religious organizations as preconditions for membership are often much more onerous in restricting the individual’s ability to rationally choose his own best course in life than any of the requirements imposed by Western welfare states today.

Freedom from religious belief also gives the atheist the freedom from obeying the prescriptions of self-proclaimed religious authorities. He can be autonomous in his personal life just as he is autonomous in his political and economic life under true liberty. While he can certainly find wisdom and prudence in some of the recommendations of some religious individuals and individuals with claims to religious authority, he is not bound to accept these claims because of their source, but rather because of their merits. Moreover, he does not have to accept every authority’s pronouncements as a package. Rather, he can use his independent judgment to pick the best elements in the ideas of as many people as he wishes – and synthesize them into an unprecedentedly good and effective framework for living life. An atheist is free in his mind to accept or reject every idea individually, just as a politically free individual is able to accept or reject every non-coercive choice individually – without thereby being bound to accept a whole host of other ideas or choices which are not inextricable consequences of the idea or choice in question.

Argument 4. Freedom from Subjugation to Lesser Men

Any atheist of integrity would join any theist of integrity in decrying the abuses of authority perpetrated by both political and religious figures. Exposing and condemning abuses of authority does not require atheism or advocacy of laissez-faire. However, both the atheist and the advocate of laissez-faire stand in a superior position with regard to preventing the damage to them caused by abuses of authority as well as warning others of the possibility of such abuses. Many well-intentioned and honest Catholics, for instance, had for decades seen as the legitimate interpreters of the word of God men who had during the same time engaged in the most horrendous acts of child abuse. These same Catholics were rightly horrified upon finding out that such abuse had taken place, and thereafter most of them repudiated the abusers. However, is it not better to not submit oneself unconditionally to a potential abuser in the first place? It is possible to have a benevolent priest, and indeed, I have met such persons – but it is also possible to have a benevolent dictator or a benevolent central committee with absolute power but with the best intentions. However, the advocate of liberty rejects grants of absolute power to even the most benevolent of persons, because of the lack of certainty in such benevolence, the precedent this would set for the assumption of similar power by less benevolent men, and the impossibility of even the most benevolent rulers to competently plan the lives of others due to the calculation problem and the knowledge problem discussed by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.

When lesser men obtain political power, more than mere governmental inefficiency may result – but torture, sadism, and carnage are likely outcomes. Likewise, when lesser men obtain religious authority, we can expect to witness perversions of morality – including hypocrisy, promiscuity, adultery, sexual abuse, intellectual dishonesty, and the condemnation and punishment of innocent persons within the religious institution. However, there is no reliable mechanism for ensuring that only persons of honesty and integrity always rise to positions of either political or religious authority. The proper remedy, then, is to jettison any unconditional reliance on authority and to treat every holder of power as being perpetually on trial – always to be scrutinized in his decisions and actions and never to be acceded to by virtue of his status alone. Reason and not position ought to determine whether a person’s moral and philosophical counsels are followed, just as reason and not position ought to determine the legitimacy of the actions of a governmental officeholder.

The individual rank-and-file believer in a particular religious faith is often morally superior to the highest authorities of that faith. Atheism offers such persons the opportunity to no longer be subject to the often unreliable and perverse wishes of such lesser men and instead to take charge of their own lives and decisions – which they can do much more competently when guided by their own intellect rather than by external pronouncements. 

Argument 5. Freedom to Refine One’s Views

The institutions which make political liberty possible are not static; they must adapt to changing technological and cultural circumstances and interpret these changes in a manner that is consistent with the maximal freedom of every individual. The political theory of liberty will always continue to evolve as new areas of dispute arise and new developments in technology and society raise questions that have not been addressed by the existing theory. Certainly, fixing the theory of liberty in place at any stage of development would render it impotent to deal with new problems and challenges.

But many religions attempt precisely to fix their theoretical understanding of morality – or, even worse, of nature itself – at some point in those religions’ historical development. This endeavor inevitably fails, as no set of ideas can ever be fixed so firmly as to disallow the possibility of new and creative interpretations. However, most of the prominent world religions still adhere to millennia-old texts which, by those religions’ precepts, cannot be revised or improved upon. While the interpretation of those texts has certainly evolved over time, it was not possible for adherents to those religions to jettison parts of the texts that have since been found to be blatantly immoral – such as God’s punishment of Saul for failing to perpetrate sufficient genocide upon Amalek; after ruthlessly exterminating the men, women, and children of Amalek, Saul did not do the same to the best animals and instead offered them as a sacrifice to God. Most Christians and Jews today would agree that genocide is immoral in all cases, but they are not allowed by their religion to reject the idea of God as explicitly commanding such genocide. They are thus barred from fully developing a coherent and relevant theory of morality, just as individuals who would freeze the theory of liberty at a certain historical point are barred from fully developing coherent and relevant understandings of liberty.

An atheist is not unconditionally bound to any person, any text, or any concrete institution. As new developments shed light on previous errors and as new questions arise, the atheist is free to develop intellectual and institutional innovations to address these issues. An atheist can thereby become the best friend of liberty and the best innovator who works in developing liberty’s new applications and enabling it to overcome new challenges.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.