It seems I cannot win.
When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized.
It is a terrible position to be in, I can tell you, and I have no one to blame but myself.
To make amends and win back my disillusioned readers I am devoting this blog to the good things about atheism.
As far as I can tell, there are five:
1. Atheism is probably right: there is almost certainly no God. At least not the kind of pluriform god described by the world’s religions. If there were, we would know it in the way we know other things, like potholes and rainbows, and we would know it not because of syllogisms that begin “All things that exist were created,” or through the contradictory revelations of competing sects.
We would know it because we are hardwired to know.
The weakest argument of all, of course, is existence since existence raises the question of God; it does not answer it. The difference between a god who is hidden (invisible), or does not wish to be known (elusive), or cannot be demonstrated rationally is the same thing as a God who may as well not exist. Not to assign homework but have a look at John Wisdom’s famous parable recited in Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and Falsification,” (1968).
2. Atheism is courageous. Not valorous perhaps, not deserving of medals. But it takes a certain amount of courage not to believe what a vast majority of other people believe to be true. You learned that much as a kid, when a teacher said to you, after some minor tragedy in the playground, “Just because your best friend decides to jump over a fence onto a busy road doesn’t mean you need to do it too.”
The pressure to believe in God is enormous in twenty-first century society, and all but irresistible in certain sectors of America–the fundamental international base line for irrationality. Having to be religious or needing not to seem irreligious is the greatest tragedy of American public life and a sure recipe for the nation’s future mediocrity. It dominates political campaigns and the way kids learn history in Texas.
Theological differences aside, what Muslims and Christians and other godfearers have in common is an illusion that they are willing to defend aggressively–in certain cases murderously.
Even when it does not reach that level of viciousness, it can make the life of the uncommitted, unfaithed and unchurched miserable. Atheists deserve credit for having to put up with this stupidity. That is bravery, defined as forbearance.
Many atheists realize that the fervour displayed by religious extremists has deep psychological roots–that history has witnessed its bloodiest moments when causes were already lost. The legalization of Christianity (312?) came within three years of the final assault against Christians by the last “pagan” emperor. The greater number of the wars of religion (1562-1592) occurred after the Council of Trent (adj. 1563) had made Catholic doctrine unassailable–written in stone–for Catholics and completely unacceptable for Protestants. The Holocaust happened largely because Rassenhasse flowed naturally from two done deals: worldwide economic collapse and Germany’s humiliation in the Great War of 1914-1918. The Klan became most violent when its utility as an instrument of southern “justice” was finished.
Most of the available signs suggest that religion will not succumb to creeping irrelevance in the next six months. Religions become violent and aggressive as they struggle for breath. The substitution of emotion and blind, often illiterate, faith in support of threadbare dogmatic assertions is part of this struggle. So is an unwillingness to accept any alternative consensus to replace the old religious one.
Atheism symbolizes not just unbelief in God but the nature of that alternative consensus. That is why atheism is especially opprobrious to belief in an a era when most questions are settled by science and investigation.
Yet even without the security of dogma, religions usually provide for the emotional needs of their adherents in ways that science does not. They have had centuries, for example, to convince people that the miseries endured in this life are simply a preparation for a better one to come. A purposeless world acquires meaning as a “testing ground” for initiation into future glory. There is no art of consolation for the atheist, just the world as it is. Granny may have lost the power of speech after her third stroke, but she knows there is a wolf behind the door: religion knows this instinctively.
Being an atheist may be a bit lonely, but better “Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” (And Socrates was courageous, too.)
3. Atheists are more imaginative than most people. Religious people obviously have imagination too, but so much of their imaginative world is provided for them in myth, art, ritual and architectural space. Atheists know that the world we live in is dominated by religion: spires, minarets, ceremonial prayers, political rhetoric and posturing, ethical discussion. I am not convinced (alas) that atheists are “brighter” than anyone else, but they have to imagine ungiven alternatives and worlds of thought that have not been handed to them by tradition and custom.
Imagination however is that two-way street between vision and delusion. The given myths and symbols of a culture are imposed, not arrived at or deduced, and if not imposed then “imparted” by traditions. Jung was wrong.
Skeptics and unbelievers from Shelley and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) to Richard Feynman, John Ellis, Ljon Tichy and Einstein in the sciences, Sir Michael Tippet, Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch in music, Bukoswki, Camus, Somerset Maugham, Joyce Carol Oates, Vonnegut in literature, have been imaginers, iconoclasts, rule-breakers, mental adventurers.
Far too often, unfortunately, atheists are the worst advocates for imagination.
They rather nervously limit their interest to the scientific imagination. They don’t see a connection between Monod and Camus. They consider their unbelief a “scientific” and “rational” position, not an imaginative one. When confronted with photographs of the Taj Mahal or recordings of Bach’s B-minor Mass, they point to shots from the Hubble telescope or (my personal favorite) soundtracks of earth auroral kilometric radiation.
Instead of owning the arts, they play the part of intellectual bullies who think poetry is for mental sissies.
I have come to the conclusion that this is because they equate the imagination with the imaginary and the imaginary with the supernatural. The imagination produced religion, of course, hence the gods, but that does not mean that it is governed by religion, because if it were we never would have got round to science. The poet Charles Bukowski summed it up nicely in a 1988 interview: “For those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
4. Atheism is an ethical position. That does not make being an atheist a “moral” stance, but it does raise a question about whether it is possible to be good with God. Only an individual free from the commandments of religion and the threat of heaven and hell deserves credit (or blame) for his decisions, actions, and omissions. Atheists are required to assume that responsibility fully. Religious people are not.
This is why anyone who teaches his children that the story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament is a “moral fable” is just as bad as the fundamentalist who teaches it as history. What would you say about a brutish dog-owner who told his naturally stupid dog to piss anywhere but in the flower garden, then hied him to a shelter the minute he did what he couldn’t help doing to begin with? That is the story of Adam, without the benefit of two millennia of theology to disguise its simplest elements.
Modern Christian theology has attempted to emphasize the love, mercy and compassion of this God: he is a God of second chances–redemption–after all.
But mainly the Christian message is little more than an attempt to rehabilitate God under the guise of teaching that it’s the humans who needed rehabilitating. They had to be given one more chance at the flowers in order to to show that God, after his initial temper tantrum, is really full of kindness and patience. That’s basically what the “New” Testament tries to do, after all, though in a highly problematical way.
At a basic level, an atheist is likely to detect that there is no ethical content to the stories of religion. The prototypes are Adam, the disobedient, Job, the sufferer, Noah, the obedient, and Abraham, the faithful.
But these figures are not ethical paragons. They are examples of the types of behavior religion requires. Religion evokes “good” in the “good dog” sense of the word–as a characteristic of obedience, not as an outcome of choice. That is not the kind of good any rational being would aspire to–and one of the reasons certain interpreters, like Augustine, thought that what was squandered in Eden was reason. But ethics is about reflection, discrimination, freedom, and decision. Religion, strictly and fairly speaking, does not provide for that; only unbelief does. If Augustine had understood things properly, he would have spit in God’s eye and said that Adam’s only rational choice was to do what he did, affirm who and what he was, and get on with his life without Yahweh. Instead, he creeps out of the garden, takes his punishment like a beaten spaniel, and lives in the hope that his master will throw him the occasional bone.
To the extent that modern liberal theologies try to say that religions have endorsed a policy of choice and reflection all along, the rebuttal is history.
5. Atheists are socially tolerant. By this, I mean that they do not have a history of violence against beliefs and practices they may privately abhor. They do not burn down churches, black or white. No matter how ardent their unbelief, they do not bomb mosques or blow themselves up at Sunday Mass to reduce the number of Catholics in the world. They are not responsible for the Arab-Israeli border wars. They have not created tens of thousands of displaced people in resettlement camps in Lebanon or torn whole African nations apart. In general, they do not mistake adventurism for preemptive wars.
They may support separation of church and state in sometimes strident ways, but not violent ways: you will not see gangs of secularists tearing down nativity scenes at Christmas or storming historic court houses to get icons of the ten commandments removed from public view. –Even if they think these public displays of devotion are inappropriate and teach people bad habits.
All of these things are pretty obvious, even to believers whose gurus talk incessantly about the secular humanist and atheist “threat” without ever being able (successfully) to put a face on it. But they need to be recorded because religious people often assume that tolerance can only be practised within a religious or inter-religious context, Catholic to Baptist, Christian to Jew and Muslim. But atheism stands outside this circle.
Atheism, as atheism, stands as the rejection of all religious beliefs: it is befuddling to believers how such a position deserves tolerating at all. If there has to be an enemy–something a majority can identify as uniformly despicable–atheism has to be it. That is why hoi polloi in the darkest days of the communist threat, especially those who had no idea what the social and economic program of the Soviet Union was, considered the worst sin of the “Reds” in Russia, China, and Europe their disbelief in God.
As with goodness, tolerance needs to be exhibited non-coercively. Not because Jesus said “Love your enemies,” or because Muhammad preached sparing unbelievers, provided they capitulated to Islam. Not even because John Paul II apologized to Galileo in absentia. What supports the suggestion that atheists are tolerant (and need to continue to be seen as being tolerant) is that the virtue of tolerance emerges naturally from the rational premises of unbelief. What atheism says is that intellectual assent is won by argument and evidence, not by force of arms or the power of priests and mullahs.
While atheists will never experience mass conversions to their cause “like a mighty wind” after a speech by a pentecostal preacher, the individual changes of mind from belief to skepticism will depend as much on the tone as on the substance of their message. By the same token, what atheist would trust the unbelieving equivalent of a spiritual awakening? It doesn’t happen that way. It happens one by one. Slowly. Just ask an atheist about how he “became” an unbeliever, and I wager that you will hear a life story, or something about how things just didn’t add up–a process, not a sudden emotional shudder but often a painful change of heart and (especially) mind.