Does atheism entail anti-discrimination?

No_discrimination_signI recently discovered Betteridge’s Law, which is a rather cool adage that states “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no“. And that’s the point of view many of you might have with regard to the headline I chose for this blog post. You might say, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s) – it entails no other propositions.

If we mean the strict logical sense of entail, i.e. that atheism necessarily leads to anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth, you’re right. But you’re perhaps also evading a more important point, which is that if you’re an atheist who isn’t opposed to sexism, racism and so forth, the fact that you happen to be an atheist does little or nothing to combat the possibility that the viewpoints are at least in tension with each other, or even in direct opposition.

Two ideas don’t need to form a contradiction to be in opposition. And to my mind, atheism will (and, should) typically entail anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth. And this is because prejudice of these forms is not only an manifestation of irrationality, but also more specifically a form of irrationality that is typically buttressed by moral codes that rank certain values or characteristics above others on largely arbitrary grounds.

Whether it be wearing a certain funny hat, belonging to a certain tribe, uttering certain sacred words, eating a particular food and not another – all of these are tokens that would normally be arbitrary, but are granted significance via a system of belief. They aren’t justified by evidence and reason, but rather become justified by the positive feedback loop of religious practice.

Without those forms of thinking, any idea that people with a certain level of melanin in their skin are superior or inferior to others, or that people with penises are better/worse than people without them, would struggle to get off the ground. We’d be far more inclined to say “that makes no sense – we’ve no reason to treat x worse than y”, because we’d have fewer psychological frameworks in place allowing for arbitrary discrimination.

So, while atheism might not necessarily lead to being anti-discrimination (of arbitrary sorts), I do think it’s not only compatible with anti-discrimination, but more than that – it’s more likely to lead to it than not. And for clarity, and to avoid needless argument, I am not making the claim that religion always, or necessarily, does lead to these forms of discrimination. I’m making the far more limited claim that it’s one way in which some people prop up their prejudices.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.