Sunday, April 8, 2018

Do various groups of atheists and agnostics have statements of values that they follow?

Given below is a mail conversation I had recently with a USA based correspondent who is an atheist/agnostic, and who is referred to as USAC1 below. USAC1 was OK with public sharing of his responses (slightly edited). Readers, especially atheist/agnostic readers, are welcome to contribute to this conversation (anonymously via email/FB private message to me or in their own name).

Ravi S. Iyer wrote to USAC1 (slightly edited):

Do various groups of atheists and agnostics have statements of values that they follow, and which children of such atheist and agnostic groups, as well as other adults who are not exposed to these groups, can refer to, to learn and/or understand the values held dear by those atheist and agnostic groups?

For theist groups, there is usually some mother organization that lays out the key beliefs and values. So it is easy to know the ideals they have, even if many of their adherents fail to practice those ideals well.

I would very much like to write a few public posts about any such well known atheist and agnostic groups which follow ethically high-quality set of values. For me, Sathya (truth) and Dharma (ethical code of conduct that may have some mostly superficial level variance from community to community, culture to culture) are the big values taught by my beloved spiritual master, Sathya Sai Baba, which also are part of Hindu culture. Sathya Sai reinforced those ancient values of Hindu culture.

Any atheist or agnostic group that aims to follow similar set of values is worthy of admiration, from my point of view. I would like to do my little bit, as a writer on spirituality & religion (whose posts do get some international views even if the views are not that big a number), to promote appreciation of such atheist and agnostic groups, by theists from groups like my group of Sathya Sai devotees.
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USAC1 wrote (slightly edited):

I'm sure some atheist groups have charters and I suspect that atheists are about as varied in their beliefs as theists. I suspect that the key difference is that a theist [note the vital space between the words, a and theist] has to believe in something specific, the tenets of his/her religion, whereas an atheist can simply dispense with the (in my opinion redundant) assumption of a deity.

Religious people seem to come together in organized groups with specific required beliefs. That's far less common for Atheists.

There are atheist organizations, such as https://www.richarddawkins.net/ and https://americanhumanist.org/ but I don't know much about them beyond occasionally reading articles on their sites (recommended: they are often quite good and rarely offensive). There is also an odd "church" with no rigid creed and many atheists https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unitarian_Universalism. I suppose it serves a social role in the lives of its members.

Basically, I suspect you are asking the wrong person. Religion, or lack thereof, simply isn't a big part of my life. I get my social life in other contexts.

If I want to read about philosophical issues, I tend to study classical western philosophy. Anthony Gottlieb offers a good modern overview https://www.amazon.com/Anthony-Gottlieb/e/B00N60KZCO/ . I'm looking forward to his third volume.
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Ravi S. Iyer wrote (slightly edited):

Very useful and informative response from you, sir. Thanks a lot.

While I had read about the terms 'humanism' and 'humanist' before, I was not aware (or it had not registered in my mind) that humanism has a long history, and that in contemporary Western world at least, it emphasizes both ethical behaviour and rationalist approach to life. Had a quick look at the various definitions of humanism provided in the American Humanist organization web page here: https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/definition-of-humanism/, and found them to be very interesting! The wiki page of Humanism, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism, gives its long history over the ages, and a lot of information about 19th and 20th century humanist organizations/movements (some of which are active now in the early 21st century).

I also very much liked what I saw in my quick look at the 'Seven Principles' in the wiki of Unitarian Universalism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unitarian_Universalism#Belief,_covenant,_and_scripture.

Plan to look up Anthony Gottleib link later.

The Richard Dawkins site About Us link and tabs: https://www.richarddawkins.net/aboutus/, tell us that they focus on scientific endeavour, critical thinking and secularism. Dawkins' letter there states, "The logical counter to religious extremism is people who rely on evidence to make decisions. Yet the voice of secular people is maligned in this country." So the word secular as used by Dawkins here, seems to mean people who make decisions based on evidence (and reject revealed sources of wisdom like religious scripture). Importantly from the perspective of this mail conversation, the link and tabs do not speak much on ethics.

I don't want to lose momentum on this topic and so I plan to put up a public post on the matter.  However, I will do the activity at a low priority (so that higher priority tasks do not suffer much).
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An Indian correspondent who is an atheist/agnostic, wrote over email (and is OK with public sharing):

I would be surprised to find many atheists or agnostics following any specific code or set of practices. In my case, it was precisely to avoid codified and prescribed thought that I have kept free of any religion. Of course there are practices I follow, some of which may well correspond to those followed by one religion or another. But I would like to believe that I judge each case rationally on its merits and not look for solutions dictated by a religion.

Apart from any religion, it is often those who govern it that I find hard to accept -- the uniformed marshals who insist that the matters I worry about were decided long ago in their religion and I should just accept and follow what is written or said. This exhibits a level of smugness, of unwillingness to take things back to their roots and argue from basic principles.

We did not bring our children up to follow any religion, believing that it is their right to choose how they want to live and what they want to believe in. We tried to show them the need to love other humans and the animals on this earth.

I don't want to go on at length about what I have done so let me stop here. I think everyone needs to find their salvation in their own way.
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Given below are some comments from my Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/ravi.s.iyer.7/posts/2125837340966165, associated with this blog post:

Ravi S. Iyer wrote: Rajendra S Chittar, Any views of yours on the above post are very welcome.
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Rajendra S Chittar wrote (and was OK with sharing on this blog): I am an atheist but will refrain from commenting as this is a touchy topic which mostly generates heat and fumes rather than any meaningful conversations :-)
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Rajendra S Chittar wrote: By the way, for value systems, I have been deeply and profoundly influenced by Jacob Bronowski's short and masterful book - Science and Human Values.
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