Three Fewer Things to Say About Atheism

Mao and Stalin were atheists. This proves that atheists are not socially tolerant. I can probably think of a hundred names to add to the list to build a case. But it would be the wrong case because, surely, it was communism that supplied the evangelical intolerance of the social and economic movements we associate with Stalinism and Maoism. Atheism is simply a component of a larger picture. (As I mentioned to the reader who lodged the objection, this is a good example of the fallacy of division.)

Beyond this, we can’t deny that the ideologues of the communist movement understood atheism as a formative mind-set: Marx (and Engels) began as left-Hegelians, along with a half dozen theologians ranging from Strauss to the early myth-theorist Bruno Bauer. Their atheism flowed from a material view of the world and a rejection of the superstition that could be used to keep the workers of the world in their place, on the analogy of the laity in relation to church hierarchy at the time of the Reformation. The extent to which Reformation theology shaped all of the post-Hegelian social theorists, and especially Engels, has been clear to scholars for a century.

But the question of atheism as a catalyst for tolerance (my view) raises a whole range of subordinate questions about whether an intellectual rejection of God requires, and to what degree, practical rejection of religions, religious practice, and religious persons. And this is proof enough that unbelief is not mere rejectionism: it has social consequences. How do you behave when you have decided religion is plain wrong? Does it parallel the patterns we are used to in the history of religion, when one sect bloodies the other sects because only one can have the whole truth? Communism and other social movements have behaved religiously when they have had the power to punish and suppress.

The issue is, what sort of consequences do we recognize as flowing, more or less directly from atheism? I stick to my point that we can only know the answer to that from the newspapers, and atheists (as far as I know) as atheists have no record of destroying religious shrines, or waging unholy war, or doing physical violence to believers in public places. Tolerance with a small “t”, if you will, but that’s about all we can get in this old world.

Veiled threat?

The eminently sensible Ophelia Benson (Butterflies and Wheels) says that she has never found it difficult to be an atheist; thus, courage should not (necessarily) be commended as an atheist virtue.

Permit me to disagree, but in a limited way. I am perhaps as close to being an atheist as any believer can be, so close that it pains me to self-identify as a “believer.” I certainly do not believe in any gods so far discovered, poesized, prayed to or reduced to scripture. If I liked the world “possibilism” I would use it. If I liked the word “agnostic,” you’d find it here.

But the real word for my position is cowardly. Not in a playing-Pascal’s-odds kind of way, but a pure and refined cowardice. I like to think of myself as a philosophical work in progress, trying to find the right descriptors for God–ones that will appeal to my robust atheist friends, always failing miserably in a rhetorical swamp. I know my project is a waste of time because my godless comrades have already reached the right conclusion. I have always liked to refer to myself as Sartre’s grandmother: “Only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist” (Les Mots, 1964). I resist settled positions because once you have arrived at one you have to unpack your suitcase and sit down. Some are born godless, some achieve godlessness, but unlike those communists we were just discussing, no “real” atheist has godlessness thrust upon them.

I call having and holding that position against the odds courageous.

Courageous not heroic.

Ophelia also calls me out for saying that atheism and the arts don’t always mix, though they should because atheism demands imagination. Just as not all atheists are humanists (and vice versa), atheists will differ about the role of the arts, and they will usually do so by asking a “utility” question: what are the arts good for? Does painting get you to the moon? Does poetry or theater improve life-expectancy? The answer to both questions is that a basketball scholarship will get you into Purdue, but not into Phi Beta Kappa.

In a 1973 article for Humanism Today, Paul Kurtz posed the question as whether the arts convey knowledge. He answered by saying yes and no–depending on the kind of art and on understanding that, say, a dramatist might convey very important information that can also be conveyed in “unaesthetic” and (implicitly) more precise ways. The arts and the imagination are important, Kurtz argued, because they provide an additum to human life, but are not at the core of the reasoning process:

Thus humanism needs to untap the poetic metaphors of the creative human imagination and to use these to dramatize humanist ideals in eloquent form. Art is not a subjective substitute of intuition for knowledge claims justified by reason and experiment; it is not a replacement for objective methods of inquiry. It simply adds an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths and humanist values in aesthetic form. And as such it can help to inspire intensity of conviction and devotion to commitment. It is thus able to make humanism both intellectually true and aesthetically satisfying. As such, art has a powerful role to play in life. It is thus intrinsic to the fullest expression of humanist eupraxophy

Paul Kurtz

I don’t think the idea that the arts “simply add an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths …and values in aesthetic forms” adequately comprehends the centrality of experience to both religious and non-religious people. The question of God–though not often understood in this way, thanks to the quibbles of theology and philosophy over centuries–is fundamentally a question about the imagination. And if this is so, then aesthetic questions–characterization, quality, representation (description) and effect–have to be taken into account in our answer.

Imagination is not peripheral or “modal” to the atheist experience anymore than it is to the religious experience. This has to be true because (as atheological writers like Feuerbach reminded us a long time back) that’s where gods are born. The statues and images and choral preludes come later. Classical atheism understood this–Democritus and Lucretius especially, and Xenophanes:

But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.

Most of us use informal aesthetics all the time without knowing it: every believer’s suggestion that the New Testament God is “nicer” than the Old Testament God, or that Allah condones terrorism, is an aesthetic judgement. Every unbeliever’s conclusion that God does not exist springs from some assessment of a literary God, rarely from Hobbes and Hume, except as philosophical dressing.

Not imagining God is not the simple denial of the other man’s beliefs but a different and contrary evaluation of the world he sees. Once this aesthetic judgment is reduced to premises–mere information–all is lost.

The night sky over Australia is one of the most beautiful sights on earth. It makes me grateful for my eyes, but grateful to nothing. What makes one man want to pray to an unseen infinitely great being located up or out there–this contemplation of immensity–makes another rejoice in his nearly infinite smallness. It is true, this is not knowledge, but there is no knowledge without the experience and its effects.

Atheism is all about imagination; it needs to be more about aesthetics.


25 thoughts on “Three Fewer Things to Say About Atheism

    • A bright suggestion for your “philosophical work in progress”. AAFCPS science is for Brights. Hence, any fool will look to scientists for the right description of just about anything, even of no-thing.

      The 8th and 9th comments to Quodlibet: Atheist Attitude contains the right descriptions of God – descriptions which will best appeal to your robust athiest friends, but even better, descriptions which will quarantee that your project is not a waste of time.

      These are the right descriptions for the reason AAFCPS they are excerpts from “Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists” – the hardest of sciences.

      • You should have your CTRL-V capability revoked. Not once in those comments did you even suggest a definition. You just hinted that some great minds suggested science wasn’t the right tool for answering metaphysical questions and you did so in a round about, wordy, and multi-post way.

        As any fool can plainly see, you could put some effort into speaking clearly and maintaining the dialog that you initiated especially since you posted all over and haven’t bothered to respond to our comments on your earlier comments.

  1. “Atheism is all about imagination; it needs to be more about aesthetics.”

    And John Dewey’s “Art as Experience” and Santayana’s “The Life of Reason” (itself being a work of art) and “The Sense of Beauty” are three great works we need to rediscover for this project to begin in earnest. Ah, to recover the days of real humanism.

  2. J.Q., I think there is a premise we must accept in order to compare groups. The premise is that we can only include people within a label they adopt. I know it seems scientific to use a definition but there’s something tricky that goes on when we apply a label to someone who didn’t use the label themselves.

    I’m an atheist. And yes, I totally can’t win in a debate because half of my friends thing “agnostic” is the only defensible position because it admit faults. I argue that not having information about a god puts me in the position of acting as if there is no god. Therefore, I act as an atheist and I may as well describe myself as one.

    But there are lots of kinds of non-believers. An agnostic is a lot like an atheist and they know that. But an irreligious person should not be called an atheist without some evidence of their support of atheist groups, atheist people, or something. And then we can discuss the differences of what atheism meant to them versus what it means to me but that’s a much more sensible conversation to have I think.

    So, look into that black metal band. If they called themselves atheists, I want to know. I could use the data. In return, I won’t go calling crazies religious unless they self define that way. I think that’s a good start to ensuring we’re talking about the same things and not just trying to come up with “You have label x. This guy acts as label x and is a nut. Therefore, you’re a nut” patterns.

    RJH, this blog post is confirmation that you were right when you said you can’t win. I agree there needs to be more on the aesthetics, that’s a good way to frame the missing link as well, in my opinion.

  3. That’s just made me incredibly homesick. Your last paragraph threw me into a shock of reality. Atheism, whatever that means, and of an antipodean flavour, is all about aesthetics. Swimming in the sea under the full moon, the brilliantly lit starry night skies, the dense dripping wet textured multi layered and varied green bush, the songful soulful birds, the emotional sea. It’s not about not-believing. It’s all about believing in the absolute pure beauty around us – at what we see, hear, smell, feel and can even taste. I believe in so much – perhaps that’s why I’m not always comfortable with ‘atheist’ (which is only about gods) particularly in a culture which isn’t pervasively (or at all persuasively) religious. And when you’re alone without another human soul for miles, in the middle of the wild native bush beside the pristine waters of Waikaremoana, touching them, there is such an experience of trembling and awe that I cannot (always) call myself an atheist. Whatever that means.


    • Steph,
      Without explanation your comment urgently compels this request: Go to Quodlibet: Atheist Attitudes – Comments 6, 7, & 8, begin with comment 7 then go to 8. Engage!

      • Please refrain from your rudeness and insistence I ‘engage’ with you when I read to ‘engage’ with Joe. For a couple of days I have been going through my art history books and rediscovered Pablo Picasso, bless his soul, who said of the moon landing, “It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don’t care.” I have no wish to ‘engage’ with your lengthy lists of quotations and as Rabbit said, “I don’t see much sense in that,” said Rabbit. “No,” said Pooh humbly, “there isn’t…”

    • Steph,
      I repeat a reply I miss-posted at a time when I momentarily lost your comment among all the essays.
      Apologies for seeming rude. I take refuge in the fact that I comment as a believer conscious of being in an athiest enviornment, seemingly ruled by the advice “Ignore the believer”, over against the attempt to introduce the absolute contradiction (even against athiests tendency to look to science as the source of data) the indisputable phenomena that the world’s greatest physicists in droves go beyond physics to embrace mystiscisim as the way to Reality, a way which admittidly physics proved unable to give. This is no trivial detail!
      By pure
      I have a peculiar iterest in RJH’s essays which may be explained by the first 13 comments to the essay The Importance of the Historical Jesus. It’s point: orthodox Christianity in less than true religion.

  4. ‘This proves’

    Well, no; it doesn’t.

    Again, speaking from a different culture, and legal structure, proof requires a very high level of supporting evidence, and asking a question about the relevant evidence is not an assertion that there is no evidence, nor an assertion that the relevant evidence is insufficient to support the assertion. It’s merely a question.

    In English law a criminal offence has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt; a civil case is decided on the balance of probabilities.

    My expertise lies in the balance of probabilities in a very narrow field; usury ceased to be of general interest a few centuries ago. Nowadays the law of interest is relevant only to financial institutions; the rest of the world only notices when it dawns on people that financial institutions can destroy their lives, even if they have nothing to do with the financial institutions in question.

    So, I was asking a question…

  5. “Every unbeliever’s conclusion that God does not exist springs from some assessment of a literary God”

    Yes…I frequently find myself pointing out that “God” really refers to a familiar literary character, another Hamlet or Lizzie Bennett, not the philosophical abstraction or possibility that tends to get substituted by educated theists defending their theism. It seems to me ridiculous to use the same nickname for the myriad of different deities that people try to defend, from the first cause to Terry Eagleton’s Tillichian “ground of all being,” which he pulls out with a flourish as if it were both “sophisticated” and self-evident.

    Another aesthetic response is Kingsley Amis’s reply to Yevtushenko’s question “You atheist?”

    “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”

  6. Pingback: Thought for the day - Butterflies and Wheels

  7. “atheists will differ about the role of the arts, and they will usually do so by asking a “utility” question: what are the arts good for? Does painting get you to the moon? Does poetry or theater improve life-expectancy? The answer to both questions is that a basketball scholarship will get you into Purdue, but not into Phi Beta Kappa.”

    Ah yes. Build a straw man. Burn him. Case proved. Except that it isn’t and you know it full well. This argument sir, is pure unadulterated crap and I’m surprised you would even try it on. For shame! Call yourself intellectual? it is to laugh

  8. A couple of points: First, I don’t think we will all agree that atheism has to be about anything other than not having a religion. That is, it isn’t and I would say should not be about itself plus humanism, though most of us are a kind of humanist, nor is it about an aesthetic point of view, though I for one love music and literature in a way that is very much like that of theists.

    I don’t think atheism must contain within itself everything that is supposed to come in a package deal with religious belief. I don’t think it does, or can, or needs to, because we have all of these things anyway. Or, at least, those of us who respond to life in these ways have them without a label that unites them.

    Second, agnostics are atheists. It’s a quibble, I know, but agnosticism is not a way station between belief and unbelief. If I don’t know if there is a god I’m not half way between, it means I don’t think there is one. In principle an agnostic could be in equipoise between the two positions, but in practice you will not see this very often. All the agnostics I know about are unbelievers.

    • A Methodist Minister friend of mine, said to me recently, that he is a Christian by faith and an agnostic by definition. In fact, all the way through history, some of the greatest religious thinkers have expressed doubt in many shapes and forms or had crises due to agnostic inclinations. I know alot of religious people who are agnostic in many aspects of their belief and some even who wish to believe in God but are agnostic about that too. They still wish to identify themselves as “Christians” or whatever. It’s just part of an honest self awareness.

      I also know people like my father when he was alive, who have a very humanistic approach to life but may not even identify themselves in that way, and I know alot of people who call themselves humanist and behave in a totally contrary way. The British Humanist Association has hijacked the label but focuses on Atheist Bus Campaigns and religion bashing, and is basically an association of anti religious atheists rather like those who have taken over the CFI with their celebrations of blasphemy.

      While I am not particularly agnostic about my supposed atheism, I think I am more of a believer (today I have decided) than an atheist. I don’t believe in gods but I believe in a helluvalota things. I don’t however believe in “hate” and mockery of religions and the religious. “I don’t see much sense in that” (said Rabbit).

      • Some people consider belief and knowing separately so that you can be an atheist at one extreme and a believer of a faith at the other. Separately, you can express full confidence, or declare yourself agnostic. It’s a mouthful to be an agnostic atheist but it would parallel the intellectual humility of your Methodist friend.

      • Tony, my friend is just the tip of an iceberg. I only mentioned him because he’s a minister of a village parish here. Many Christians (in the Antipodean islands and here in the UK) I know are fairly agnostic. And I don’t consider agnostic atheism to be a ‘mouthful’ at all. It’s just qualifying a hardline position, and being flexible. It’s difficult (for me) to be entirely consistent and rigid about what I think when I’ll never stop learning and exploring and hopefully growing in some way.

  9. Atheism is all about….ready for this?

    A lack of belief in gods.

    That’s about it.

    There are both tolerant and intolerant atheists, just like there are both tolerant and intolerant theists. There is even tolerant intolerance and intolerant tolerance.

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