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Influences of Atheists and Humanists on Post Theistic Public

Discourse Regarding Ethics and Morality (focus on

Bioethics & End of Life issues)

Religious majority groups, specifically Christians, Muslims, and Jews, have historically (and notoriously) shaped attitudes towards assisted dying and abortions, currently two very controversial topics in American society. These groups see life as a gift from God, ‘to be given and taken at the time of His choosing’, writes Rodriquez (2001)1. emphasis on His. Religious minority groups such as atheists, post-theists, and humanists adhere to forms of beliefs which wholly or partly reject the existence of God. Recently, they are contributing to public discourse regarding bioethics and end of life issues. The influence of atheism, which has been gaining traction lately as per LeDrew, (2012)2, and humanism, have long been overlooked. This paper aims to delve into how atheists and humanists have helped shape the public discussion regarding the abovementioned issues.

Non-theism is a form of religious attitudes characterized by an apathy or ignorance of God. Thus, it stems from atheism, explains Zuckerman (2009)3. On the other hand, post-theism, a variant of non-theism, considers the division between theism and atheism to be immaterial and posits the idea of a deity being purely flexible and in line with the social and human developments occurring on earth, as defined by Taira T (2012)4. Bioethics deal with the reflective appraisals of ethical issues (i.e. right to die with dignity and abortion) related to the use of medical practices to provide health care as per Michigan State University (2017)5.

Given the heterogeneousness among people who identify themselves as humanists, a clear-cut definition of a humanists has eluded religious researchers for a long time, states Fred Edwards (2017). However, it can be loosely defined as a body of secular beliefs which emphasize the importance of humans over any deity or supernatural matters, and are driven by reason, posits H.Tristram Engelhardt (2011)6. Regarding issues of euthanasia, humanism takes on a different approach. It lends more leeway to individuals regarding their right to a dignified end, as per the British Humanist Association. Some humanists seem to advocate the right of an individual to voluntarily end his or her life in circumstances of extreme pain, endless suffering and loss of dignity. It is likely that humanists would embrace Hardwig’s views on similar issues (2000)7. Hardwig dissents from views posited by mainstream religious groups, and claims that dying is a spiritual experience: doctors are ‘ancillary and peripheral agencies’ who should respect patients’ wishes. Thus, it is at the discretion of the individual when to end his life.

It is a popular belief that deviant beliefs, held by atheists, militate against forming social ties and loyalty, as evidenced by Cimino and Smith (2007)8. However, contrary to what is posited by Cimino and Smith, atheists can also be engaging and sociable. The fact that they have made great progress in the advocacy of bioethics is a testament to their role in the social fabric. In their influential book, Blackford and Schuklenk9 emphasize the importance of atheism by pointing out that religious dogma is not justified and is not justifiable; many churches embrace and extol barbarism and an ignorance of civil rights.


Regarding bioethics, Amarasingam (2010)10 entertained no doubts about how religious dogmatism hindered scientific progress, while atheism enabled scientific advances. Thus, much like humanism shaped issues of assisted dying and abortion within the public discourse, atheism also added its fair share to this discussion as well. Zuckerman (2009)11, relying on numerous studies, concludes that atheists, with lower levels of prejudice and racism (as opposed to the religious), positively influence societal changes. The fact Zuckerman also points out that secularists and non- theists tend to contribute more to society regarding controversial issues seems like an overstatement, however, it is a testament to how atheists have been instrumental in the public discourse of today’s hot issues.

These views run contrary to views espoused and advocated by mainstream religious groups-Christians, Muslims, and Jews. However, humanism has made great strides in changing or altering the public narrative surrounding controversial bioethics matters (i.e. assisted dying or abortion). Callahan (1990)12 decries the apparent ignorance of religion in medical settings and debunks bioethics views advocated by humanism as having grave consequences. Regarding the framing of these issues, Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) assert that that given humans metaphorically perceive debates as wars, thus, looking at the other side of the debate as adversaries, people of various religious beliefs fail to find a common ground in the heated issues of today. Kristen L (2003) also, while formulating the bitter debate, that the debate was predicated upon whether the embryo was fetus or a baby rather than on religious beliefs. She concludes that both sides of the issue of abortion have very differing ideas, and that they tended to reject one another as ignorant, and not necessarily on religious grounds. However, contrary to the veneer of differences between atheists and the religious (i.e. Christians), there seems to be a common ground between the two regarding moral values, as corroborated by Simpson and Rios (2016)13.

Overall, while euthanasia and other controversial matters relating to bioethics are deemed to be of dubious moral standards by mainstream religious groups, post- theism, atheism, and humans have dissented and shaped the narrative surrounding, and their influence is corroborated by the related studies above.


1 Rodriquez, Eduardo (2001) “The Arguments for Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide: Ethical Reflections,” The Linacre Quarterly: Vol. 68: No. 3, Article 7. Available at: http://epublications.marquette.edu/lnq/vol68/iss3/7

2 LeDrew, Stephen. “The evolution of atheism: Scientific and humanistic approaches.” History of the Human Sciences 25.3 (2012): 70-87.

3 Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” Sociology Compass 3.6 (2009): 949-971


5 University, M. (2017). Michigan State University. Est. 1855. East Lansing, Michigan, USA.. [online] Msu.edu. Available at: https://msu.edu/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2017].

6 Tristram Engelhardt, Bioethics and Secular Humanism: The Search for a Common Morality, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011

7 Hardwig, John. “Perspective: Spiritual Issues at the End of Life: A Call for Discussion.” The Hastings Center Report, vol. 30, no. 2, 2000, pp. 28–30.

8 Richard Cimino, Christopher Smith; Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism. 2007; 68 (4): 407-424.

9 Blackford R and Schuklenk U, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, Wiley- Blackwell, 2000

10 Amarasingam, A. (Ed.). (2010). Religion and the new atheism: A critical appraisal.

11Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” Sociology Compass 3.6 (2009): 949-971 12 Callahan, D. 1990. Religion and the secularization of bioethics. The Hastings

Center Report 20(4): 2–4.

13 Ain Simpson, Kimberly Rios, How Do U.S. Christians and Atheists Stereotype One

Another’s Moral Values? The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion,

2016, 26, 4, 320

14 Richard Cimino, Christopher Smith; Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism. 2007; 68 (4): 407-424.

Please review highlighted sections. Below you will find my Professor’s Feedback & Comments

above, listed in Ascending order (from top to bottom

“This research proposal looks good – it has a good focus, and I’ll look forward to seeing what you explore further. I think that a bit of sociological theory of “framing” might help – I’ve given two sources in the comments”

humanists have helped shape the public discussion regarding the abovementioned issues. Professor Comment RG1 Great paper topic!

exact definition of humanism has eluded religious researchers Professor Comment RG2 Although that might be because there are many social groups that have chosen to use this term to define themselves, and they use the identity and believe different things – some are even theists! (not that they should concern you too much)

Humanists espouse Professor Comment RG3 Do all humanists (who write as humanists) take this view?

Deviant beliefs, held by atheists, militate against forming social ties and loyalty, as evidenced by Cimino and Smith (2007)


Nevertheless, they have made great progress Professor Comment RG4

Although not all atheists are anti-social, are they? I would suggest you read through this essay again
He also furthers his thesis by pointing out that secularists and non-theists tend to contribute more to society regarding controversial issues overall. Professor Comment RG5 Are these arguments to be taken at face value (or taken more at face value than “religious” claims or critiques of the atheist)?
Not sure how you are contextualizing these arguments or their rhetoric.
there seems to be a common ground Professor Comment RG6 Interesting!
corroborated by the related studies above. Professor Comment RG7: This is a good paragraph. As a lead in to what we might expect the body of the paper to be, you are articulating that you are looking at Narratives deployed by various people and positions to make claims for ethics that are non-theist.
Particularly regarding end of life or euthanasia. Do you have any sociological theory or methods at

your fingertips regarding “framing” of social issues? I would strongly suggest

  • Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Luker, Kristen, (on abortion rights – it’s an old book – you want to look at how she is thinking about framing the two sides of the debate more than reading her for content)

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