In a recent comment, Vincent writes that
However, I would argue that if we believe in human freedom, then that freedom has to include the freedom to bind oneself to a particular vision of humans’ ultimate good – whether it be one that includes God as its core or one which excludes God as a hindrance to unfettered liberty.
I’m very interested in theories of freedom and this idea of atheism as somehow involving “unfettered liberty.”
For the most part, when we talk about theism and naturalism, we focus on the epistemological side of the question: what counts as evidence for or against a position, the best explanation of the available data, and so on. Clearly such discussions have their place.
But I also think that the exclusive focus on epistemology is problematic, since it inclines us to neglect the “passional” (William James’s term) side of our natures. Why do we want theism or naturalism to be true, what motivates us to affirm or deny. If you will, “man cannot live by reason alone.”
It’s reasonably clear that the affective aversion to naturalism amongst theists arises from an anxiety that naturalism causes (not entails!) nihilism. So we must believe in God to avoid the threat of meaninglessness. (Some theists are less than clear whether the relation between naturalism and nihilism is causal or logical, but we can get into that in the discussion.)
Here I want to pick up on the suggestion that atheists want atheism to be true because they desire “unfettered liberty.” One sees this claim made quite often (it’s a reliable trope at Uncommon Descent, for example) and it needs to be examined closely.
To do this, I want to look at theories of freedom: what does it means to be free?
In the classical liberal tradition that runs (roughly) from John Locke to Bob Nozick, freedom is non-intervention: one is free to the extent that others cannot prevent you from doing what you want, or might want to do if given the option.
There is another conception of freedom, freedom as non-domination, that some theorists (including myself) find more compelling. On this approach, known as republicanism, one is free to the extent that one is not subject to the arbitrary or uncontrolled power of a master, regardless of how benign his intentions.
Consider this analogy. Suppose my boss is prone to micromanage her office. Some employees end up being interfered with because they don’t do things her way. I, on the other hand, turn out to be very good at anticipating how she wants things done. I adjust my behavior to meet her expectations. As a consequence, I’m interfered with less than my co-workers are. Does this mean that I am more free than they are?
On the freedom as non-interference conception, we would have to say “yes”. But this is counter-intuitive: we’re all equally under the dominating authority of our employer, and I’m just better at accommodating myself to her. I might be better off — say, more content, less disgruntled — than my co-workers who are constantly being micromanaged. But surely I’m not more free than they are!
We can now distinguish between liberal atheism and republican atheism. A liberal atheist doesn’t want there to be a God because she doesn’t want there be anything like the God of theism to get in the way of satisfying her desires. By contrast, a republican atheist doesn’t want there to be a God because she doesn’t want there be anything like the God of theism to have power over her.
In short, it’s not necessarily that the atheist wants “unfettered liberty”, in the sense of being able to do satisfy her desires, whatever those desires happen to be. If she is a republican atheist, what she wants is to not be under the power of any one else, not even God, and certainly not those who appeal to religious language to legitimize their domination. (There is a nice question here as to how religions become ideologies.)
One final thought: in further development of the republican tradition beginning with Hegel, the only stable alternative to domination is mutual recognition. There is a theological tradition on which the existence of God — or the belief in God — is necessary for mutual recognition between human beings. Martin Buber, in his short and extraordinary I and Thou, articulates this approach quite well. I mention this because there’s indeed a crucial question here as to whether religion is necessarily dominating, or if religion can be part of the struggle for recognition in resistance to domination. Within American religious/political thought, Martin Luther King is perhaps most clear about the capacity of religious discourse to articulate the struggle for mutual recognition in resistance to domination; see his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (PDF).