The other day, I was thinking to myself how helpful it would be for my studies if there was an equivalent Bible, but for atheists. Maybe there is such a thing when considered conceptually, but there certainly isn’t an authoritative written source that all atheists agree to be normative.
Or is there?
Honestly it would be nice if there were. They are to be sure, books that claim this title:
The problem is that neither of these is a “Bible” in the same sense that the Christian Bible is so. The first is simply a collection of quotes, and while many Christian’s treat their Bible like that, it certainly is not simply a collection of quotes. It is quotable, but it contains historical accounts, narratives, personal letters, and poetry, all in long form, not simply pithy (or lengthy) quotes from various “Christians” throughout the ages.
The second link is probably closer to the mark; however, it still is not quite what the Bible is to Christians. It is certainly claiming to be authoritative, but in the end, it is just a collection of the writings of single individual, which is quite unlike the Bible. And being from a single individual, it is really just that writer’s opinion on the matter, so unless all atheists are willingly to submit themselves to his particular thoughts on the matter, then it can’t really function as a “Bible” in the sense that the Christian Bible is (supposed to at least).
I suppose the question I am asking can be worded as an analogy:
The Bible : Christians :: ? : Atheists
Or, in plain-speak, the Bible is to Christians as what is to atheists?
In reflecting on this question, I found this lack of a written authoritative source to be very consistent with atheism.
The link that the Bible has to Christians is that it is, historically, their authoritative written source for both life and thought. Simply put, it is the source of Christian epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. If we are then to think in terms of source for the atheist, a moment’s reflection should lead one to the answer of what their “bible” is.
It’s their own mind.
Atheists, and rightly so, reject not only God’s existence, but that the Bible is both (a) His word, and therefore (b) authoritative and true. By doing this, they are rejecting a “revelational” epistemology (and metaphysic and ethic for that matter). The alternative is a purely autonomous epistemology (and corresponding metaphysic and ethic), which is to say the source of thought and practice is now each individual’s own mind.
The result is inherently relativistic. Interestingly though, most atheists do not seem keen on moral relativism, and many like to cling to absolutes in terms of existence (abstractions like truth and what have you) and in terms of knowing (adherence to laws of logic).
What this produces is an inherent tension in atheistic thought. By making his own mind the final epistemic authority, the atheist is committing himself to rationalism. However, since no man knows everything, and even cumulatively, all men don’t know everything exhaustively, there is a great deal of mystery out there. In other words, a certain amount of irrationalism must be admitted, since there is no exhaustive interpretation of anything. In a certain sense, the universe is shrouded in irrationalism until the atheist puts his mind to it and “rationalizes.”
In the field of ethics, the atheist cannot escape the feeling that certain kinds of behavior are “clearly” wrong. One might think of rape, child abuse, mutilation and the like. Because of this, many if not most atheists are committed to the idea of ethical norms or absolutes. On the other hand though, it is central to atheism to reject the authority of God to legislate behavior, but given his autonomous commitments in epistemology, if God cannot legislate morality via his Word, then no atheist has the right to legislate morality by his word either. Because of the freedom that autonomy allots the atheist (or at least what he thinks it allots him), it would certainly be very un-atheistic to have an authoritative written source binding on all who profess atheism.
Who could decide what such a source would include? Further, who would be any more qualified than anyone else to participate in writing in this source? After all, atheism epistemologically reduces everyone’s thoughts to the same level of authority. Who arbitrates conflicting ideas?
The atheist might answer that reason does, and certainly there is some truth to this. The question though that this now brings up is, “Why submit to reason?” Is it un-ethical to submit to unreason, or just merely un-preferable? Certainly we all have some kind of a sense that we should be reasonable, but different people come to different conclusion about what is reasonable. Just as an example, one could look at the philosophies of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, each of whom sought to create philosophy from initial, clear and distinct ideas moved to their logical conclusions. The problem is that they each came to radically different conclusions, although none of them could be fault as being irrational in the broad sense (they each have their own internal difficulties, but forsaking logic is not one of them).
Who then arbitrates the impasse? A large group of atheists may be able to agree on several general conclusions, and maybe even a few particulars, but to then put them down into an authoritative body of writing (creating normative universals) would either be (a) too binding for future generations to tolerate, or (b) consist of conclusions so commonplace it would be pointless to write them down.
I’m inclined to think it’s a bit of both, and more so the latter than the former.
In the end, I suppose I know why there is no atheist Bible. The mere idea of something like the Bible is what the atheist is trying to escape, and it would do no good to forsake the shackles of the Christian Bible only to then run to another prison of his own creation. But unfortunately, that is exactly what the atheist does, he just goes to great lengths to deny it.