Easy Atheism

Quite a few people have written about their experiences with atheism. Some reports are funny, some are angry, many are triumphant, as if becoming an atheist takes you to the next level, makes you a better person, somehow. I would like to explore if that is true.

Bridge on the Saône River at Maçon, JBC Corot 1834 [public domain]

Bridge on the Saône River at Maçon, JBC Corot 1834
[public domain]

One of my parents was a catholic, the other was a protestant. Today, it may be difficult for most people to distinguish the two, but when they met, it was a huge problem. We have a proverb that could be translated as: “Two religions on a pillow will find the devil in the middle.” They decided to get married and end the debate by not bringing their children up with any religious beliefs. Therefore I never struggled with god. I’ve read about different religions to find out what having a belief meant. Ironically, I spent lots of time among the believers; I just didn’t know it.

Do atheists know better?

What are the advantages of being an atheist, apart from having more spare time? Would losing your religion make you less superstitious?

In Nietzsche’s essay, “David Strauss the confessor and the writer”, I have blogged about it before, Nietzsche tells us that Strauss boasts of a new faith, a new religion: his view of the cosmos based on modern science. Nietzsche asks the question: “How can modern science be a religion? To call it a religion means that some of its grounding principles lie beyond the realm of modern science.” It would be a science based on faith. And that seems to be the case here: Strauss has changed his faith in God into a faith in the cosmos and he demands the same piety for his rational universe as the devout person of the old school demands for his God.

On the Pont de l'Europe, Gustave Caillebotte 1876 [public domain]

On the Pont de l’Europe, Gustave Caillebotte 1876
[public domain]

Why do so many atheists feel a need to ridicule what they used to hold dear? And at the same time, demand everyone’s respect for the ideas they have only adopted recently?

Strauss more or less admits that he doesn’t know everything, because science has not furnished him with all the answers yet:

“But one can be without a firm position and still not be lying on the ground,”

It doesn’t sound convincing.

“Someone who neither stands nor lies, must be flying, or perhaps he floats, flutters, or flaps.”

Nietzsche answers. Maybe underneath his boasting, Strauss the atheist feels like a Peewit. It flies erratically over the fields, making a lot of noise, in a feeble attempt to draw away predator’s attentions from its nest, where it feels most vulnerable.

What do atheists believe in?

In writing this, I am not trying to make myself look good. I am not claiming to be beyond atheism and I don’t have definite answers. I’m just asking if it’s possible for a person to become an atheist by exchanging one set of beliefs for another, without changing oneself at all. These are some likely candidates:

science

David Strauss looked at the cosmos as an infallible, rational machine. It was the scientific view of his day and when we read about it a hundred years later, it looks hopelessly old-fashioned. If we want to adopt science as our new faith, we have to accept that there is no stability. Our belief could be based on the ruling paradigm, on the current consensus of mainstream scientists. Or on the one dissident scientist who somehow convinced us. And that is not our only problem:

There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

A. H. Reginald Buller in Punch (Dec. 19, 1923)

Do we understand quantum mechanics? Do we feel superior to theists because we really know that everything is relative?

Severn Bridge, by Martin Edwards [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Severn Bridge, by Martin Edwards [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

In asking these questions I am not saying that scientific achievements have no value. On the contrary: I am deeply impressed when I read about the Big Bang or brain research. All I’m asking is if science is a good candidate for an atheist faith.

morals

When I was taking a break from writing this, I saw that fellow blogger Makagutu had written a very interesting reflection on the death of god. He also thought about morals in a new light:

“I realize that some of the things I thought immoral, appeared to be so since I was looking at life using a christian filter.” Makagutu

He referred to this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Metaethics.

“Many have thought the right answers to these [moral] questions are found in an appeal to God. On their view, moral principles are the expression of God’s will — they are His commands to us — and they get their authority from their source.” SEP

The article goes on to explain why this couldn’t even be a sufficient answer to religious believers, but one thing a new atheist should probably think about is a new set of morals. The easiest option would be to find an authority figure who gives us some answers that we can adopt. If we choose that option, it shows we haven’t changed. If we don’t, we’ll find that facing insecurities and admitting we don’t have the answers is not easy.

We have to believe in something

Like I said at the very beginning of this article, I found myself among the believers wherever I went. Where I live the majority of people would admit to a belief in something. This could be any personal mixture of things like positive affirmations, reincarnation, the innate goodness of people, humanist ethics, horoscopes, Deepak Chopra or The Secret. I suspect somethingism is an answer to the threat of nihilism.

Pont d'Argenteuil, Claude Monet [Public domain]

Pont d’Argenteuil, Claude Monet [Public domain]

What if we took the discussion on morals one step further and explored the thought that there is no meaning at all?

“We’re just chemical scum on the surface of a moderately sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” Stephen Hawking

From personal experience, I can say that I’m not a stranger to somethingism. I have at times displayed an overexcited enthusiasm about the answers science might provide, I’ve had political beliefs that were not based on reason, but on a wish that things would be so. Even today, I’m probably more of a romantic than a nihilist. I don’t think I should build a pyramid and put the new atheists at its apex and the aura readers at its base. But I’ll ask the question again: “Are we better people because we’re atheists?”

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About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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46 Responses to Easy Atheism

  1. David Yerle says:

    “All I’m asking is if science is a good candidate for an atheist faith.” Well, of course not. Science asks for anything but faith.
    On your last question: “Are we better people because we’re atheists?” This question presupposes good and bad, right and wrong. There is no such thing, therefore the question is meaningless unless there is some previous faith on good and bad.
    I wouldn’t classify people into good and bad. There are just people I want to be around and people I don’t want to be around. I do find that I tend to want to be around religious people less, though that depends on the religious person. I also know plenty of atheists I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Atheism is an indicator, just like liking “Annie Hall” or “The Life of Brian” or Radiohead. Would I date someone who doesn’t like Annie Hall? Maybe, but it’s less likely, as it is an indicator of other things (intelligence, education, etc.)
    That said, my wife doesn’t like either, but it is understandable since she lacks the cultural references. She’s an atheist though.

    • Thank you for your comment, David. I agree that science is not a good candidate for an atheist faith and that science itself asks for anything but faith. Still, I think David Strauss is neither the first nor the last to muddle the two!
      It seems there’s a clear correlation between atheism and education. The higher the education, the higher the percentage of atheists. Calling people ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to their opinions is not what I had in mind when I wrote this article. I have the same problems you describe with the use of terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
      However, I’m also not sure about the indicators you mention. I’m not very consistent in my likes and dislikes (even though “Life of Brian” has been a constant ever since I first saw it) and when I become friends with a person, I usually find out about their likes and dislikes much later.
      I agree with you that ‘Are we better people?’ might be the wrong kind of question. Thank you for pointing that out.

  2. Thank you for writing this, Livelysceptic: I love it! You have captured this brilliantly and I fully share your take on this. We are children of our time, as were our parents and ancestors. The whole New Age movement had me captivated for a while but as I found out, even the New Age ages. I vaguely remember Aquarius being a big thing before that and occasionally I stumble across older belief systems in the past few centuries (I have a small collection of antique books) that are highly interesting but just as ephemeral as todays novel ideas. I see atheism as reactionism for people with devils between their pillows: the only way to get rid of false beliefs is to actively disbelieve them. Atheists appear to be very active in their non-beliefs and in earlier times, they would have made great preachers and missionaries. Are they better people? I see no universal benchmarks other than those could be carved by atheists themselves. In the meantime, I’ll hang out in social solipsistic spaces and be romantic about the whole thing 🙂 Great post, very well written!

    • Thank you for your comment and your compliments, Genetic Fractals. As usual, one sentence leaps out. In this case it’s: “the only way to get rid of false beliefs is to actively disbelieve them.” An interesting observation.
      Somebody sent me this Nietzsche quote: “When in former times one had refuted the “proofs of the existence of God” put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.”
      If atheism is reactionism, like you mentioned, then a clean sweep might still be lacking.
      Enjoy your solipsistic spaces! 🙂

  3. LEjames says:

    “Are we better people because we’re atheists?”

    I didn’t become an Atheist because of science, though it helps. In fact, I never even knew what a “new” Atheist was, and I still haven’t read God Delusion or Hitchens or others. I’m slow on that end. (I have started in on the Nietzsche though!)

    I became Atheist because my frustration with the logic of religion was pushed to the limit. My credulity was stretched too far. In this manner, I don’t think I’m better than anyone, but I feel that governmental powers in the modern age need to continue to break from the influence of religion. I mean, can you believe that people vote according to the myth of creation?

    Your question is good because that’s how the rhetoric forms when people consider the atheistic principle.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, LEjames. Having read both the God Delusion and some Hitchens, I’d choose Nietzsche every time. (Surely I don’t have to tell you that I’m biased?) I’m happy to hear that you’ve started reading more.
      I agree with your point on the importance of a secular government. Religious people usually don’t have individual freedoms on their list of priorities and I happen to find those essential. Thank you for mentioning that.

  4. Mordanicus says:

    I am an atheist because of my love for the truth, and since there is no evidence for the existence of some god; more specificially the monotheistic idea of an immanent and omnipotent god, combined with the illogical assumptions of religious beliefs, I cannot honestly believe in such human made constructs.

    Actually I am more an ignosticist, i.e. the possition that the concept of god is not properly definied and therefore we cannot say in general terms that such entity exists. However, in regard to the specific idea of god as described by most monotheists, I am defintely an atheist.

    Philosophically I tend to naturalistic pantheism, although this possition is practically indinguishable from common atheism.

  5. SilverSeason says:

    Much of the discussion of atheism assumes that Christianity in some form _is_ religion, but there are many more flavors than that. I join you in being a skeptic when any specific god or gods is being proposed, but equally a skeptic when people proclaim (often angrily) that there is no god. They can’t know that either. That leaves me as an agnostic, I suppose, and we are very much out of fashion at this time.

    Maimonides said that it is a mistake to define or describe god because the power behind the universe is unknowable. You will probably get it wrong and thereby end up worshiping a false god.

    • Thank you for your comment, SilverSeason! I see your point in calling yourself an agnostic and I agree that it’s impossible to prove there is no god. If being an agnostic is out of fashion, that’s probably because subtlety is completely unfashionable, too.

      Maimonides was a great philosopher, but also a religious man. If he said it’s a mistake to define or describe god, I suspect he did not doubt there was ‘a power behind the universe’. He just did not want to define or describe it. Please feel free to comment if I my interpretation is incorrect!

      • SilverSeason says:

        Your interpretation is quite correct. I have read Maimonides in translation so I may have misunderstood (easy to do), but he absolutely accepted the authority of the Torah, interpreted, of course. He was no Fundamentalist in the modern sense. At the same time he thought the Torah could not be incompatible with human reason. Since many Biblical passages must be interpreted metaphorically — god talks, god walks, etc. — we cannot define or describe god. Yet god exists and “speaks” to us through the word handed down through Moses. Maimonides really has to dance a bit and the steps get rather tricky.

        I take the point that agnostics do not seem to be distinguished from atheists, but I do not think they are the same. This agnostic says that she does not know and does not expect to know and does not expect to have a deity proved or disproved. I can live with the uncertainly, and I don’t need to persuade anyone else of anything but the value of an open mind. I am free to figure out moral standards without reference to either human or divine authority. I do not think most people’s ethics are determined by their religious beliefs; the beliefs are brought in after the fact as justification.

      • Tongue Sandwich™ says:

        “Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?” Stephen Colbert

        • SilverSeason says:

          Colbert — is this an appeal to authority.? Sometimes the most ballsy thing you can say is “I don’t know”, especially if you accept the consequences.

          • Tongue Sandwich™ says:

            One of these days, when I have way too much time on my hands, I’ll gladly explain the difference between ‘having a sense of humor’ and ‘appealing to authority’ to you. I don’t know if I will ever have that much leisure, though. Hey, I just admitted that “I don’t know.” I guess that means that I am quite ballsy…

            • SilverSeason says:

              Oh, come on. Explain humor vs authority to us simple folk.

              I don’t think you detected the humor in my response. It must be that you don’t put Colbert right up there with Nietzsche and Maimonides.

          • I am Agnostic, but I understand why some claim Agnostics are closet Atheists. However, I wonder if the opposite is true — are many Agnostics are closet Theists?

            On the surface, Agnosticism seems the most reasonable position, since it doesn’t commit to a belief about the unprovable, unlike Theism and Atheism. Yet, is this so? Take these assertions:

            1. Unicorns frolic when no one is looking.
            2. God exists.

            1 and 2 are equally unprovable, and an Agnostic would be right to be agnostic about both. Yet do all Agnostics treat 1 and 2 equally? Many do not; they consider 1 silly and perhaps unbelievable, yet keep an open mind about 2.

            This means statements about God are special to them. Why the bias? Is it because they are closet Theists?

            Of those that remain, the ones that treat 1 and 2 with equal dismissal may be closet Atheists.

            I imagine the ones that would have a complete suspension of judgment about 1 and 2 are “true” Agnostics.

            • Really good point. I have been fussing over the difference between disbelief and not believing, and your comment provides a method to do that.

              I make an effort to live in a Socratic manner and only believe what I know, and I pretty well don’t know anything. I behave as if I believe things, and ducking projectiles has certainly been evolutionarily successful for me (I’ll confess to having reproduced), but believing is an intellectual thing, assenting to a proposition. I don’t see a major difference between unicorns and gods so I therefore deduce that I disbelieve, but that nonetheless doesn’t feel like believing a contrary as an athiest would do, while merely not believing is more agnostic. The fussing continues.

  6. holly says:

    Turning to atheism (gradually) DID leave me very unsettled. I had that exact question. Did it really make me better? I saw some atheist who were terrible to their children, and did not embrace critical thinking, or compassion or empathy, and i realized at that point, “being an atheist” didn’t “fix” everything. There had to be more.
    For me it WAS an improvement because of magical thinking. And letting go of that to embrace reality. ( http://loveandheretics.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/magical-thinking/ )

    But beyond that I realized that i was not just satisfied with no longer believing in gods….
    or in now believing that there was not evidence for belief in gods…(however one wants to define it 😉 )
    For me secular humanism fit the bill.

    Why I am a secular humanist: ““… the moral consequences of believing the universe not to be guided by a personal god to whom petitionary prayer can be addressed are huge. That is why it is so inadequate to call oneself solely an atheist; one needs some sort of description for what motivates one’s behavior afterwards.”— Bill Cooke

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Holly! I think many of your articles speak of how you realised that being an atheist doesn’t ‘fix’ anything by itself.
      One of the reasons I don’t like the word atheist is that it sounds like you’re defining yourself by saying what you’re not. In a way, you’re also turning yourself into an exception. If you call yourself a secular humanist, you say something about what you do believe in. And it refers to morals. I can imagine why you would describe yourself that way.

      It’s interesting how your becoming an atheist made you let go of magical thinking. Thanks for the link! 🙂

  7. dyssebeia says:

    Excellent post. I think it was one of Nietzsche’s insights that if you forgo belief in God but go on in basically just the same way (keeping the same moral and intellectual values), nothing really has changed. Denying belief in an eternal God and eternal values should fundamentally change the way we think about things—perhaps in ways that seem unpalatable from the standpoint of our (ultimately religiously inherited) values.

    Brief reply to a point in David’s comment: It’s a bit of a non sequitur to say that science is a bad candidate for faith because it calls for anything but. Religious faith may involve specific beliefs about how the world works, but it also goes well beyond this: it fundamentally alters the way you live your life. (In theory, perhaps not in practice. It was Kierkegaard’s insight that most people who call themselves Christian are so in name only, and that defending religion may involve being disgusted with the majority of actually existing religion.) For this aspect of faithful belief, it is of no importance that the methodology of science is different from that of religion, because what matters is the role those beliefs play in your life. If you think what you should value, how you should live, etc. is the sort of thing that you can get from science, then you are letting science play the same role in your life that religion plays in the lives of religious people, and the fact that the methodology of science prefers experiment to revelation is of no importance.

    Brief reply to SilverSeason: Because of this aspect of faith, I tend to think of agnosticism as an inherently unstable position. Even if you call yourself agnostic, you still have to live somehow. Most agnostics, then, live as atheists. As I understand agnosticism, the only way it carves out a meaningfully distinct position from atheism is if you really don’t know how you are going to live. For that reason, it’s an unstable position—it’s hard to imagine living your entire life not knowing how to live, stuck on the razor’s edge between two distinct ways of living, pulled toward both but not committed to either. To be clear, I’m not challenging your self-identification as agnostic, since it conforms to the most common sense of the term. I’m mostly just using what you wrote as an excuse to reflect on what an agnosticism would be that captured the truly religious aspect of faith, since on that dimension I think agnosticism is largely indistinguishable from atheism. (Except, perhaps, that agnostics in the common sense might be less inclined toward atheistic/areligious evangelism.)

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia. I agree with what you said about Nietzsche. Reading him has made me think about many different things and I find I can’t write an article that has nothing to do with Nietzsche at the moment. Strange but true.

      I’ll leave the rest of your comment for the people you’re actually replying to. 😉

    • SilverSeason says:

      I have commented on the meaning of agnosticism to me somewhere above, but did not say much about standards for living (morality). I don’t believe most people’s moral standards depend on their religious beliefs, but come from else where: what they learned from their parents, their culture including laws and customs, their own experiences, their emotional disposition. These all blend together to form a person’s moral code or position. “Authority”, whether religious or otherwise, plays a role but is not the whole story. It is certainly not simple, so atheists and agnostics may derive their morality from many sources. The usual mistake is to assume that religious people must derive their morality exclusively from their religious beliefs. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

      I may be “stuck on the razor’s edge between two distinct ways of living” but it doesn’t feel that way. I simply get on with it. This is not the same position as atheism because they they _know_ there is no god, whereas I embrace the uncertainty. I am free to participate in religious rituals when they are consistent with my understanding of the human condition. They may address a personal, omnipotent god; I address the mystery: that which I cannot know.

      • dyssebeia says:

        Thanks for sharing that. It’s very interesting to see how your agnosticism (as distinct from atheism) changes the way you approach religious rituals. I feel like many agnostics are isolated from any sort of religious rituals, and in that way I think their profession to not knowing (rather than knowing not) is very much an “in-group” distinction, but this seems not to apply in your case. So thank you for expanding my horizons on the matter.

  8. Tongue Sandwich™ says:

    Well played, my friend, well played!

    I agree, we all need to believe some things. How about sticking to Ockham’s sensible advice, i.e. keep things simple: Believe what is believable and don’t believe what is unbelievable.

    To the cognitively challenged mavericks who keep claiming that science or atheism are also beliefs: Sure, just like not collecting stamps is a hobby, health is a disease and bald is a hair color.

  9. makagutu says:

    Hey livelyskeptic, hope you have been well this many days. Thanks for the mention.

    I will start by attempting to answer the question you pose at the end whether we are any better? As David says in his response, I try to reconcile myself to the idea that people just are. Nobody chooses to act this way or that, at least that is how i see it.

    I think the decision your parents made to keep you free from religious indoctrination was a commendable one. Having said, having read some of the stories of how people got to where they are, we can at least understand why they are angry.

    To leave only the idea of god behind but still hold onto the religious language or narrative is as Nietzsche says of Strauss no change.

    In reading Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto, the idea that even among atheists, especially those who were formerly religious, their language and ways of looking at the world is still religious in many ways. The laws in many places have this very christian or religious tint to it. And I think the only way to deal with it is to employ a high skepticism to our beliefs or non belief.

    Do we become less superstitious? I can’t talk for everyone but I answer to the affirmative. In my life so far as I can tell, the room I have left for superstition, if there is any, is negligible.

    To the question of whether we have to believe in something, depends on what you want to believe in. Am a no for supernatural entities that can make no impression on the senses. Maybe I can believe in the idea of a superman, the one Nietzsche writes about in Thus Spake Zarathustra.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mak! As I said before, I thought your reflection was very interesting.
      I can imagine some people being angry because of their experiences. And as you say, we can understand that. I just don’t think that staying angry will solve anything. So many of the discussions between ‘believers’ and ‘atheists’ (for want of better words) seem to end in both sides being angry or in a useless exchange of endless quotes from either the bible or atheist writers.

      I think you make an important point when you mention the religious influence on language, views of the world and laws. It might be worth it to check out where certain ideas come from and to change them if necessary. And when it comes to language, certain words can even be reclaimed. Being sceptical with regards to these areas sounds good. 🙂

  10. Do people need something to believe in, and what does it mean to believe in something? Is it the need to hold something higher? Is it the need to latch on to something greater than us, that survives us?

    • Thank you for your comment, BR. I’m afraid there are no short, easy answers to that one. Based on Tongue Sandwich’s earlier advice, I think I might want to keep Ockham’s razor handy when it comes to something to believe in. 🙂

      • My questions aren’t so much about what to believe in or if people should believe in anything, but rather what does it mean to believe in X. Is religion all about this X?

        That is, is religion a set of beliefs, broadly characterized by certain criteria (supernatural events, judgment, etc…), or is it simply something that serves as the object in the believing-in relation?

        If it is, then what is the nature of that relation?

        Let’s look at it from another angle. Some people claim that religion is what people dedicate their lives to. By this definition, most people’s religion is money (and this includes most Christians, Muslims, Atheists, etc…).

        However, does one dedicate one’s life to what one believes in (or vice versa)? I know I argued about belief as a disposition to act, but is believing-in the same as belief? Does spending time trying to make money equate to believing in money?

        Just wondering. I don’t have anything resembling an answer to the above.

  11. Eli says:

    Great discussion Livelysceptic, and thanks to Silverseason for her words of wisdom.

  12. I don’t remember who said this but it was on the question of the existence of God, or possibly a higher power:

    “Saying there is no God is like stating that a tornado went through a junk yard and formed a 747.”

    Because of working with the human body, I am familiar with all the parts and their interlocking functions, and see the miracle of the design all the time. Do I believe in God? I don’t know, nor do I have a need to know. But I don’t believe that our existence in the universe is totally random. And every day I am grateful to something larger than little ol’ me. That practice alleviates a lot of suffering from the needs of the personality and lends a bigger perspective to being an individual in a world of millions on a fragile and compromised planet.

    • Thank you for your comment, Stephanie! I’m familiar with the statement about the 747 but I look at evolution in a different way. If you see the human body, it can easily be described as a miracle, but I wouldn’t call it a miracle of design. I think it’s a miracle based on the interaction between us and the environment. We can’t really imagine the timescale of evolution and that makes it so hard to believe that a human being ‘happened’ somehow, but instead it’s a long, long process and it’s still going on although we don’t live long enough to see it. Well, that’s just my idea on this.

      I like your saying “I don’t know, nor do I have a need to know.” As soon as people think they know, this leads to all kinds of problems, because they start to feel they know better! To have a bigger perspective is great, I agree. It doesn’t matter if you look at a metaphysical meaning to our existence or at nature as something huge and complicated that we’re all a part of. Just as long as you see some kind of bigger perspective than your own wants and needs, I guess!

  13. As an atheist, I don’t think we are. We just have different excuses for being good or bad or whatever it is we decide to be.

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