CNN 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.