What Atheists Get Wrong About Atheism

Wrong-Answer-on-JeopardyCNN put up an opinion blog this week entitled “What Oprah Gets Wrong About Atheism”. It had good points, but, ultimately, it’s fairly easy to show why its position is poorly thought out. Let me run through the basic points the article makes:

1. Atheists experience awe and wonder

This is true, and the writer is right to disagree with Oprah when she says that, if you experience these things, you aren’t an atheist. However, there are at least three points being missed here.

First, to a materialist-atheist (which is all but a tiny minority of atheists), an experience of awe and wonder is purely subjective. They may feel it, but in no sense do they believe that there is anything intrinsic about the universe that actually deserves our awe.

And this is an important difference. The atheist who acts on those emotions (such as, say, by protecting the environment) is acting on emotion, not reason. The theist does not need to check his reason at the social activist door. And for those who believe that our beliefs and actions should be based on reason, this is a crucial point.

Second is the glossing over what Oprah got right: God is “not a bearded guy in the sky”. Yes, God is something much more real than the vague sense of wonder Oprah was discussing. But if it is fair to point out that she’s wrong, then it’s equally fair to point out that celebrity atheists (Dawkins, Krauss, et al) are at least as wrong as she is.

And being that wrong about theism means that they are getting something horribly wrong about atheism. It is, most emphatically, not simply a lack of belief in a bearded man in the sky–as they suggest at nearly every turn.

As for the third point, I’ll get to that below.

2. Atheists’ reputation will improve as atheists come ‘out of the closet’

As before, I largely agree with this. I think many people will have a better opinion of atheists as they get to know others who are openly atheists.

However, at least part of the blame for the fact that most see atheists as (quoting the article here): “negative,” “selfish,” “nihilistic” and “closed-minded” can be laid at the feet of atheists themselves.

Not all atheists, of course, but the stridency of the New Atheist movement has done a great deal to convince people that atheists are bitter and close minded. This group tends to rant and take offense, displays a marked indifference to nihilism, and rarely shows any amount of compassion toward those who disagree with them. Much less often do they show even the slightest doubt that they are completely correct.

As unfair as it is to tar all atheists with the same brush, it really isn’t surprising that they’ve picked up this reputation. If atheists don’t want to be thought of as mean-spirited and close-minded, I suggest a sustained house-cleaning project targeting the extremely vocal mean-spirited and close-minded atheists. Personally, I think a “Will the real Richard Dawkins Please Shut Up” campaign would be great PR for atheists.

3. Atheists should emphasize more than the “no” of atheism and talk about secular humanism

Personally, I’d find that refreshing. Any time I’ve attempted to debate with an atheist, it’s only ever been the “no” that they want to talk about. They don’t want to discuss their materialist presuppositions. They don’t even want to claim that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s been emphasized, over and over, that they simply lack belief in God and make no other claims than that.

So, if the atheist wants to start talking about secular humanism, that’s great. But I do expect him/her to defend the “secular” part of that. Is it rational to be a humanist without a belief in transcendence? Is it really necessary to be secular to be a humanist? What value judgments can we realistically make without non-material information?

These are hard questions. I won’t attempt to answer them here. But it is clear, to anyone who knows the subject that the “atheists only accept things based on evidence” line of attack will have to go before secular humanism can become a major focus. (And good riddance to it, it was never true in the first place.)

4. Atheists can be spiritual, too

This is the skipped point from the first section, and the only place where I simply, flatly, disagree.

Atheists can certainly have subjective experiences of awe and wonder that leave them with the feeling that life is meaningful. But spirituality requires some version of a belief in spirit, which is precisely what the atheist denies.

To put it directly: when religious people talk of spirituality, they do not mean a personal subjective feeling. They mean a factual connection with a real, external truth of reality that is beyond the physical. The atheist is free to say that its all illusion, but its disingenuous to then say that one is also spiritual. From the atheist’s perspective, no one is spiritual, because there is no spirit.

The article rightly complains about calling things like justice “God”, but it makes no more sense to call things like awe “spirituality”.

What I think we’re seeing here is the fact that all human beings long to be spiritual–no matter what words we use to describe it, we all want to feel connected to a higher and more profound reality than the physical facts of the world around us. Each of us is free to believe that this is possible, or that, sadly, it is not.

But one cannot have the cake of denying that any higher reality exists, then eat the spiritual manna of believing that there is any ultimate meaning in life.

This dissonance, written of at least since Nietzsche, isn’t a problem that atheists can simply ignore.

15 responses to “What Atheists Get Wrong About Atheism

  • Logan Rees

    There is a certain spirituality in some aspects of the atheist movement. Sagan’s deification of the Universe is a perfect example. You’d have to be an extremely nihilistic person not to marvel at the vastness and wonder of the universe. It’s just that theists call it ‘God’s creation’ and atheists call it ‘the universe.’ Different terms, same wonderful mystery.

    • Debilis

      I can definitely see this perspective. In fact, it initially struck me as the correct one.

      Rather, I’d say that Carl Sagan had a sense of awe and wonder. He had spirituality only to the end that he saw more than physical objects when he looked at the cosmos.

      As a theist, I’d say that he did. I suspect that, though he denied it, he had a sense that there was more to it than the purely physical.

      But this is precisely what the atheist does deny, and it seems strange to say that awe, understood as a purely subjective electro-chemical reaction in the brain, can be called “spirituality”. One needn’t be cold about it, call it “awe”. That’s what the word is for.

      But, I’d say, “spiritual” means something more than a feeling.

      • Logan Rees

        Ah semantics, they’ll get you every time.

        I suppose what I mean by ‘spirituality’ is a concern for one’s place in the universe. It’s the difference between cosmogony and cosmology. When Sagan says things like “We are all stardust,” (at least I think that was him) a non-spiritual person who understands the science behind that statement would see no deeper meaning in it, whereas a spiritual person would account that into his or her worldview and may feel a sense of awe. I suppose spirituality is the inclination to feel awe, as, in my opinion, many many people do not have this inclination. In my view a theist can be non-spiritual as much as an atheist can be spiritual.

        • Debilis

          I agree that semantics are coming into play here. I’ll try not to make a mountain out of that molehill.

          Still, I don’t know what it could mean to be concerned about “your place in the universe” as an atheist. One can have emotional reactions (awe) to being made of stardust, of course. But one can’t say that this is anything more than an emotional reaction without denying atheism.

          So, I completely agree that there are very unspiritual theists (I’m trying to not be one of them). But I can’t see how an atheist can be spiritual in any sense that isn’t already communicated by the word “awe” without contradicting his/her atheism.

          Actually, that is one of my biggest personal reasons for being a theist. I believe that awe is more than an emotional reaction. It is the act of recognizing that there is more to reality than the physical facts.

          Atheists would disagree, of course, which is why I say that they deny that spirituality exists at all (even if, in my view, some of them actually experience it).

        • dpatrickcollins

          I like this thread. I would add that “awe” is not possible for the true atheist. But I have to be quick to define true atheist as “he (or she) who has concluded there is absolutely nothing to life but the hard cold facts of matter. Better put, atheism is the conclusion that there is nothing out there. I do like the imagery that we are all stardust but even in this: In a world where our place in the universe is literally no more that the geographical space we occupy, no better or worse than any other, and our origin and destiny are a mere re-arranging of atomic particles, even that image begins to lose its appeal.

          I suspect that many who call themselves atheists are not true atheists as I have defined it. Rather, they have abandoned traditional views of God (having found them too confining) but very much sense a great mystery to the Universe, and life itself. And awe follows that sense of mystery, for the two are inseparable.

        • Debilis

          I think this raises a very interesting question. Is someone an atheist simply because he/she makes the intellectual claim that there is nothing more than the physical, or does that claim have to be personally internalized and/or lived out existentially?

          I’m not sure how I’d answer that. I should think on it.

        • dpatrickcollins

          Yes, thanks for clarifying what I realize I was attempting to say.

        • Logan Rees

          I think you’re both falling into the same trap that Oprah did, the false association of atheism with nihilism. Yes the ‘true atheist’ or ‘materialist-atheist’ would have to accept that any sense of awe he or she felt, like their entire conscious experience and identity, is merely a byproduct of brain-function, which is itself a mere arrangement of atoms and chemical reactions. But if I am merely a product of the universe, then I am inextricably connected to that universe and everything in it. This is itself another sense of awe one could feel without allowing for the existence of anything outside of the physical universe. It’s a matter of perspective whether or not someone finds these facts ‘cold and hard.’ They can easily be seen as majestic and awe-inspiring.

        • dpatrickcollins

          Fair enough, Logan. I admit I do tend to equate the two (atheism and nihilism). But not emphatically.

        • Debilis

          I completely agree that one could see them this way. My only disagreement is with the idea that awe is the same as spirituality. I do think that there is a difference–or, at least, a difference between that and what a theist means by spirituality.

          Admittedly, since I believe that atheism entails nihilism, I believe that those atheists who are not nihilists have not properly followed the logic of atheism. But, I suppose, that is a different topic.

        • myatheistlife

          GAH! The ability to feel awe has shit to do with spirituality. I’m not spiritual but I do find myself in awe when I see hubble photos.

        • Debilis

          This may well be the first time we’ve agreed.
          That being the case, I think it’s worth being happy about.

          Best to you, in any case.

        • myatheistlife

          It is good to find common ground

  • hitchens67

    Reblogged this on hitchens67 Atheism WOW!! Campaign and commented:
    What religious people miss is that they have no leg to stand on. It’s a myth!!

    • Debilis

      That’s an entirely different issue.
      I’ve written quite a bit about that on this blog, actually. You are free to disagree, but typing the words “It’s a myth” doesn’t answer my logic.

      But, if you’d care to elaborate, I’d be happy to discuss.

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