Importance of Intellectual Values:
When people in America talk about “values,” they are usually talking about moral values — and moral values concentrated around controlling people’s sexuality, to boot. Neither moral values nor sexual morality are the only sorts of values that exist, however, and they certainly aren’t the only sort which should be emphasized. There also exist very important intellectual values which are necessary for human society. If religious theists won’t promote them, then irreligious, godless atheists must.
Skepticism & Critical Thinking:
Perhaps the most important intellectual value which godless atheists should promote is that of skepticism and critical thinking. Claims should not simply be accepted at face value; instead, they should be treated to a skeptical, critical evaluation that is commensurate with the nature of the claim. People should learn how to understand and identify arguments, how to recognize and avoid logical fallacies, how to reason coherently, and how to be skeptical of their own assumptions.
Curiosity & Wonder:
Lest skepticism become cynicism, godless atheists should also promote the values of curiosity and wonder — especially about the world we live in. All children are born curious; in fact, they sometimes act so curious that they become annoying and their curiosity may be discouraged. This may be the easiest course of action, but it’s also probably the worst. Curiosity and wonder should be encouraged as much as possible because without it, we won’t bother to learn anything new.
Reason & Rationality:
Far too often, people adopt positions based upon inappropriate emotional and psychological preferences. Skeptical evaluations will reveal these problems, but it would be preferable if we didn’t adopt such positions in the first place. Thus a fundamental intellectual value which godless atheists can promote is the need to use reason and rationality
as broadly as possible in our lives. Becoming overly rational may be a concern, but being insufficiently rational is ultimately more dangerous.
Science has played a vital role in making modernity what it is, and the scientific method
is what differentiates science from other human pursuits. The scientific method is precisely that, a method, and it is applied in a manner which emphasizes the importance of using the most reliable means to arrive at valid conclusions, regardless of what those conclusions are. Too many people care more about simply justifying the conclusions they prefer, which places things backwards.
There can’t be intellectual values without intellectual honesty, which is the capacity for being consistent with one’s intellectual standards. Intellectual honesty means admitting when opponents have reasonable arguments (even if you don’t find them persuasive), it means admitting when data or logic lead in a different direction from what you had originally hoped and/or assumed, and it means not deliberately misrepresenting data or arguments in pursuit of an agenda.
Broad Study & Research:
An important intellectual value lies in not being intellectually narrow. There is no virtue
in becoming so consumed by a topic that one never look around and the rest of the world. This isn’t an argument against specialization, but it is an argument against over-specialization that comes at the expense of being able to connect one’s favored topic with the rest of the human and intellectual world. Broad study and research can help develop broader perspectives on life.
Freethought & Questioning Authority:
An intellect isn’t being used very well if it isn’t allowed the freedom to follow reason to wherever it may lead. This means not allowing tradition or authority to absolutely determine one’s beliefs on a matter, thus a basic intellectual value lies in free thinking and questioning the conclusions of authorities. We cannot grow or improve if we aren’t able to move past what others before us have believed, and it’s unreasonable to think that growth or progress are impossible.
Evidence vs. Faith:
Generally speaking, “faith” is an intellectual cop-out. There is nothing that cannot be defended by relying on faith because if that’s all one uses, it’s impossible to distinguish between true and false beliefs. Faith ends conversation and investigation because faith doesn’t allow itself to be judged. Thus arguments and claims must be based upon the best available evidence and logic for only they can be evaluated, critiqued, and judged adequate or inadequate reasons for a position.
Intellectual Values in the Modern World:
None of the intellectual values described here need be unique to the irreligious, the godless
, or atheists; indeed, there are any number of irreligious atheists who fail to appreciate them or who simply ignore them, while there are religious theists who try to emphasize them in their lives. It’s also a fact, though, that you don’t often find religious organizations or religious leaders making a point to emphasize these, whereas atheist and skeptical organizations promote them all the time. This is unfortunate because these intellectual values should be important to everyone. They are, in the end, vital foundations for our modern world.
For most, the above intellectual values will appear to be fairly obvious and cause one to wonder why anyone would feel the need to list and explain them. Surely no one argues against broad study, intellectual honesty, and skepticism do they? In fact, there is a strong anti-intellectual and anti-modern movement in the West, and especially America, which seeks to roll back just about every advance made in the wake of the Enlightenment. They oppose all of these things because they see these values as leading to questioning, doubting, and even rejecting traditional religion, traditional social values, traditional structures of power, and traditional theism.
To be fair, they have a point. Many of the changes in politics, society, and religion in the past several centuries have in large part been consequences of people adopting these intellectual values. The question is whether these changes are good or not. If critics were intellectually honest, they would be more open about what their real goals are and what they are really seeking to critique. It’s important to help identify where their arguments lead by explicitly laying out some of the intellectual values we rely upon and which their movement would undermine.