The Real Problem With Atheism

A friend sent this link to an article on HuffPo to me this week. I took me awhile to read it, then a little longer to reply to my friend. I thought that since my reply was lengthy, and I havent posted anything in awhile, I’d reproduce my response.

Read the article first, then my reply.

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Thanks for sending that. It took awhile for me to digest it, because I found it hard to understand what it was the author was trying to say. I think that came from the title, which may have been an editor’s choice, and not the author’s. I was expecting some grand explanation for the failures of not believing in God, much like I read constantly on blogs, and websites and newspapers and magazines I habitually peruse. But on first read, it seemed to be saying the opposite. The problem with atheism is its inherent optimism? And there’s a problem with that? Color me perplexed. So I took a day off, then went back to re-read it.

But on re-reading it, that seems to be exactly what the author is saying. And more to the point, he’s saying that he finds his Christian beliefs far more comforting, far less problematic, because they are based on an inherent pessimism in the human condition. If that’s a problem with the atheism, then we should all be atheists.

On my first read, I noted that the author doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of exactly what atheism is. Comparing it to the “philosophy of science” gave me my first clue, because that implies that he thought atheism, in contrast,  was also a philosophy. It may be to some, but I can’t say it really is, under any of the classifications of philosophy. It doesn’t really have any basic tenets, other than a firm contention that since there is no evidence for the supernatural, a belief in anything supernatural is not warranted. But that’s no more of a philosophy than a firm conviction that since there is no evidence for Santa Claus, a belief in the existence of Santa Claus is not warranted. You don’t hear about aSantaClausism, or aUnicornism, or aLeprechaunism.

His hypothetical day in Hyde Park, watching the bus go by with it’s Dawkins ad – “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”  – would be no different if you replaced “God” with “Santa Claus” in that ad. If it was, he would have you stop, and say “But wait! We need Santa Claus to believe in! How else will we get through the dark days of December? How will we find the strength to wish good cheer to our fellow man, unless we know we will be rewarded with presents on Christmas Day?”

Another clue to his cluelessness, if you will, is this: “As a professor of physics and former working scientist, I have told myself that I care because the New Atheists claim that science — of all things — disproves God’s existence.” Ummm, the four leading atheists he mentions do not, under any circumstances, claim that science disproves God’s existence. As a “working scientist” and physicist, he should know better, that science is not a philosophy, it’s a process, a methodology, of testing and explaining reality. It deals with the natural world only. By definition (of science) , the supernatural doesn’t exist, so science has nothing to do with proving or disproving anything supernatural. Science cannot disprove god, any more than it could not disprove Santa Claus. At best, it says that, at the moment, with all the knowledge we have, the likelihood or probability of god is close to zero; that the notion of god, or the supernatural, as an explanatory power for anything in reality is superfluous. We are fast getting to the point where we don’t need notions of the supernatural to explain anything, as we did when humanity and the state of our knowledge was in its infancy.

Here’s his money quote, the kernel of why he believes in God, and apparently rejects atheism: “I don’t buy it. And as a Christian, I’m not supposed to buy it. …it is only through the channel of pessimism — the full and unqualified acknowledgment of life’s dark underside as a clear and present reality — that Christianity is able to do its transformative work.”

So, he’s a Christian because humanity has failed to reach out to help those – the “poverty stricken”, those “desperate for a job”, the “drug addict”  – experiencing the extreme negative aspects of the human existence. Christianity supposedly offers a better existence to them, but only after they are dead, and unable to change their minds. At best it offers a hope, which they have to trust will occur, that when they die, things will be better for them. To me, that is, at best, self-delusion. Tell yourself things will be better, and you’ll feel better. But the impoverished, the jobless, the addicts, they really don’t need platitudes of self-delusion, they need money, jobs and release from addiction. What they want can be obtained here, and now, not in some promised afterlife. Christianity, in that sense, simply preys on the hopeless.

It seems to me that’s not a problem with atheism. That’s a problem with humanity. He’s really comparing his Christianity with a lack of empathy for his fellow humans, not atheism. He’s positing a false dichotomy.  If we don’t take care of people in need, it’s not because we are atheists. It’s because we haven’t reached the full potential of our humanity. We are imperfect.

The funny thing about the author’s experience, the part I sort of identified with, is where he relates his fears about possibly being an atheist: “But what really scared me was the possibility that my fascination was an index of my own unconscious unbelief. I gradually began to ask myself: Am I a closet atheist?”

I used to feel the same thing, only in reverse. Being raised a Catholic, and then leaving that religion behind me when I concurrently left home for college, I used to be afraid that I’d have that “born again’ experience, that somehow it would become clear to me in some trans-formative, sudden way (a light from a sky? getting knocked off my horse on the way to Damascus?) it would be revealed that my feelings (which is all they were at the time) that organized religions were simply institutions of self-perpetuation, would be proven wrong. That scared me. Was I a closet theist?

Fortunately I can say I had that moment when atheism clicked for me. It was after a long series of substantive readings and intense study of the subject. Having read this article, I have to identify with his conclusion that atheism is inherently optimistic. It really does shed one of all the guilt that religion foists on us about original sin, and the fall of man, sexual taboos, and all that bullshit. Humans are not inherently evil. We are inherently good. There is no “force” we can point to as evil. There are simply human failings that result in evil consequences. Evil is not truly a noun, it’s an adjective. You can’t search it out, hold it in your hand, measure it or describe it in any meaningful way. But you can describe the intentions, motivations, and results of actions of individual humans as evil, so that’s where you start to correct those imperfections. Hitler wasn’t evil. He was human. But what he did was evil.  At the individual level. And you don’t do it by layering some impersonal, systemic religious institution over them.

The freedom of thought that I experienced when it clicked for me was trans-formative. When I realized I had no one but myself to blame for my imperfections, and no one but myself to rely on to get me through life, I felt a ton of bricks released from my shoulders. It truly is a life-affirming experience. There are no hidden meanings to life. I can’t blame some proverbial Adam for my imperfections. I am what I am, as Popeye would say, and that’s all that I am. I realized that human empathy, the idea that I should not do to others what I would not have done to myself (historically mis-attributed, and appropriated by Christians to Jesus) is the basis of all human morality, and I did not need a morality imposed from above through some sanctimonious scripture.

So yes, the lack of beliefs in the supernatural is an optimistic attitude. It’s one I subscribe to.

9 thoughts on “The Real Problem With Atheism

  1. “As a professor of physics and former working scientist, I have told myself that I care because the New Atheists claim that science — of all things — disproves God’s existence.” Ummm, the four leading atheists he mentions do not, under any circumstances, claim that science disproves God’s existence.

    ~that’s exactly what I said. Hard article to understand. Would he prefer atheists just disappeared? Not reach out to our fellow atheists in public? Are we really THAT scary?

  2. Yes, optimism just does not sound like a big problem to me. But I am not an optimist, really, and I don’t think people are inherently good. We are just social animals, balancing the needs of individual human, and the needs of a larger group the individual belongs to. So acting in the interest of a larger group is considered “good”, while acting in one’s selfish interest against the group is “evil”.

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  4. Amusing take on the situation. A common believer argument is that atheists are angry and miserable because we have no hope. Belief in a god is allegedly supposed to fill you with hope and happiness. A recent post on Patheos was from some ditzy woman, sadly who is an elected official, who basically wrote she was an angry atheist who hurt others and now as a Christian she’s happy and nice to others, therefore all atheists must be angry and mean to others since she was. Um, no.

    An interesting way to look at all this and tie it together is believers have some serious personal issues that they can’t deal with, so they buy into religion to relieve the pain of those issues (mind you, I’m not saying fix them, just relieve the pain from them). Afterwards, they impose religion on others to “save” them from the shit they are dealing with, ignorantly believing that everyone must be as fucked up as them (compounded by the Jesus variant of the Golden Rule which removes human empathy and your standard narcissism which believers who impose on others have in spades). Think of the anti-gay idiots who later are exposed as being gay themselves. Think of Prohibition. Imagine the fucked up sexuality that drives those who impose laws against blow jobs and even sex toys. It all makes sense, and also fits with the idea that religion is an indulgence. What’s an indulgence? Something we engage in which at some level we know is wrong but we do anyway because it provides too much pleasure. Indulgences are negative when that drive for pleasure is an actual need, as in drug and alcohol addiction or with the obese who eat out of some emotional need. You can’t address the addiction without addressing what’s driving the need. Believers have a need, a need that atheists fortunately don’t have, and to tie in yet another of my ideas, this is why it should not be said that atheists LACK belief.

    • so they buy into religion to relieve the pain of those issues (mind you, I’m not saying fix them, just relieve the pain from them).

      The “opiate of the people” so to speak? ;)

      Yeah, I agree with you on what you write, Philly. I really don’t have a problem, either, with people using religion to relieve whatever pain, angst, or problem they are dealing with. I know for a fact that many of the religious find a lot of comfort in the beliefs they hold, or at least I take them at their word when they claim they do. And because I get no comfort from what I find to be delusional does not mean I have the right to tell them to change their beliefs, any more than they have a right to insist that I believe what they believe. Belief, that is, the idea that something is true even though there is no evidence for it, is personal to the believer. It’s when they insist on imposing those beliefs on me, that I then have a problem. Keep it personal, and I don’t complain. Try to legislate your belief system, and then I object.

      And my atheism is really not a belief system. It’s more a byproduct of my use of reason. Reason tells me that lots of beliefs I used to have, including the god one, are unsustainable. So they all go. I didn’t choose to be an atheist. It chose me when I chose critical thinking and reason and the scientific method of falsification. To NOT be an atheist, when you think and reason clearly, would be hypocritical, which is why that so called scientist in that article drives me up a wall.

  5. The vocal religious who accuse atheists of wanting to censor or outlaw their beliefs feel that way because that’s what they would do, and actively try to do in regards to atheism and religions other than their own.

    We’ve been over this countless times. Although we have opinions about the value of certain indulgences, we find no need to deny someone an indulgence provided the indulgence doesn’t hurt or otherwise impose on anyone else. Drink, but don’t drink and drive. Smoke, but not in the presence of others. Believe in Creationism, but don’t fuck with science education. If you’re not a complete narcissist and possess human empathy, this is easily understandable. If not, you vote against marriage equality, reproductive rights, and so on.

    • We’ve been over this countless times.

      {sigh} I know. It’s why, I think, I haven’t been writing all that much lately, at least on this blog….

  6. One disagreement. I believe humans are neither inherently good or evil. Those are labels we have created to categorize behaviors we approve or disapprove of either as individuals or as a society. A snake is neither, it just is. I am optimistic that as time wanders along, “Society” approves of behaviors that are consistent with a longer survival of the species, like not killing one another (I thank you Charles for summarizing this.)

    • Charles…as in Darwin? ;)

      Yes, looked at that way, you’re right. We are a tabula rasa at birth, able to be impressed with inclinations going either way. But. (Big but). I think what Charles summarized predisposes us to self preservation. In the short run, doing evil things might preserve us (think, killing your neighbor to ensure your own food supply) but in the long run it works against us. As we developed and became more civilized, we realized that we must take the long view if we are to survive as a species. So in that sense, we are, or at least should be, predisposed to do and be good.

      The problem is that too many of us take the short view.

      Good to see you here, Les.

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