Friday, February 10, 2012

The Problem with Atheism

I want to write about Atheism and specifically about what is wrong with Atheism. However I feel certain that I will be misunderstood. Basically I am opposed to the Atheist project but not atheism in particular. See that probably didn’t make sense to you.

Firstly I am not saying there is a God. I am not disputing the facts of Atheism. This is exactly where it feels most people are at in this conversation, trading proofs of Gods existence or non-existence. I think the conversation has to move on from this. It is fruitless and boring and unedifying. 
I understand that Atheists may find saying “No sorry, but not for me” about someone else’s God is so frustratingly difficult that moving the conversation on from whether God has to exist is premature. “I’m still trying to gain some wriggle room here,” may be their thinking.

Alternatively evangelical Atheists may not want to move the conversation on just yet because their opponents haven’t been convinced (or humiliated). Stopping now feels like halting the Crusades before they even get going, to which I reply “Yes, that would be a good idea.”
This kind of silliness has been recorded for centuries. Arguments over God’s existence make a glacial progress which is far outstripped by the pace of our forgetfulness.  Once in a thousand blue moons someone actually says something different and it’s usually a reworking of something said previously. I quite fancy the argument from Divine Hiddenness but it’s not much more than the argument from suffering rejigged.

Furthermore it is all, both arguments for God and arguments against God, arguing from plausibility while pretending you’re arguing logic. To do so, is sneaky and malicious debating.  The honest thing to do is not to say “You are all a pack of idiots because you can’t see that clearly obviously due to X and Y God exists or doesn’t,” but instead to say “I think this because of this. Sure it could work the other way but that makes less sense to me.” I believe that almost everyone involved in these debates knows this but denies it. At least I hope they are just being sneaky; I shudder to think that so many high profile Atheists and theists are so colossally stupid to be genuinely unaware that plausible and logically necessary are not the same thing.

For example the splendiferous universe is sometimes given as proof of God, whereas the Atheist instead puts forward the terrible wastefulness of the universe as proof of no-God. For the theist the finely tuned balance of the laws of gravity and the time it takes to soft boil an egg (a minute! That’s bloody convenient!) proves a cosmic designer. For the atheist the countless witless deaths of individuals, whole species, even whole solar systems, just to deliver the Quran between 610 and 632 AD is so inefficient the cosmic designer is more likely to be someone’s idiot nephew than God. But neither of these supposed arguments compel logically.  Both sides can shrug their shoulders at the others point of view and say “I see it differently,” because these arguments are only compelling personally. They are narratives which take credibility from plausibility.
 God is a conceptual squirrel. I’d wear that on a t-shirt. The whole point of (some) Gods is that they are different from us and certainly within the monotheistic traditions followers are beholden of God to tell us what they’re like. Consequently as ludicrous as God might seem to me there is no way to reason from that ludicrousness that God doesn’t exist. They may squirrel themselves into some path of reasoning we can’t perceive. Hence both the mystic and the atheist sing together that God makes no sense. Case in point is Jesus’ return. Is two thousand plus years enough to conclude he’s not coming back?  What ever you think, it should be obvious that not only one conclusion can be drawn.

The above may sound like criticism of Atheism and a (as in any one) theism equally but it’s not.  The arguing for God’s existence is only a small part of any theistic religion – the part that directly engages with Atheists. Meanwhile Atheism has little else going on. Consider the following free associations with Christianity and Atheism; 
  • Free Lunches
  • Into Singing.
  • Believes Jesus is the Son of God.
  • Into marriage but not for gays.
  • Burnt witches (while ago now but witches remember).
  • Op-shops.
  • Doesn’t believe in God.
  • Has conferences and speeches about not believing in God.
  • Writes books about not believing in God.
Now as a contrast let’s look at Buddhism; 
  • Into Meditation.
  • Stories about washing rice bowls and what not.
  • Vegetarian
  • Believes in reincarnation.
  • Supposed to be calm all the time.
  • Doesn’t believe in God. 
I think the above illustrates how the inanity of arguing about God’s existence is a little more crippling for the Atheist movement than it is for Christianity. Of course I’m being facetious, these are not poll results and certainly not objective facts (not all Buddhists are vegetarian, there are defacto Christians, most atheists don’t go to atheist conferences). Certainly there is nobody however much a part of the Atheist movement who would only do the three things listed above under Atheism in their life. However regardless of the many activities an Atheist gets up to atheistically (making cheese for example) all that gets badged as Atheism is the above. Meanwhile Buddhists, while being atheists themselves (some of them that is), have a lot more going on under the name of Buddhism. The effect of this is that making a big deal out of being an Atheist (the Atheist project) functions as celebrating a myopic obsession with pointless and often malicious debate.
This isn’t entirely the Atheists fault. You see Atheist is not originally an atheists’ word. It is a theist’s word for those people outside of its fold and its function has always been to slur. Even the early Christians were called Atheists by the Romans for not believing in Roman Gods. This was in preparation for lunch time for lions. More closely linked to the modern Atheist movement, European empiricists and materialists were marginalised or silenced through the 18th and 19th centuries by the charge of Atheism. Atheists have merely reclaimed the word, effectively saying “Where’s the insult?”
Reclaimed words are a great source of power for resistance movements. They blunt your enemy’s worst verbal attack. I embrace Queer, Wog and Freak at times in my own life. However they are also dangerous. Definition is a very important power and ceding it to others even if you separate out the pergorative aspect should have its costs recognised. The definition of people who don’t believe in God as Atheist is not tautologous but says something important. It says that this issue of God’s existence is the primary basis of their identification. It gives them only the face that fronts on to theism. 
But how is an Atheist supposed to escape being an Atheist when they are surrounded by theism that seems to force just such a definition? It’s not uncommon in my experience to be engaged in conversation with someone who talks about God, not as a belief they hold but as a present and matter of fact reality. In such a situation it feels appropriate, almost necessary to mention that I don’t believe in God. The moment I do, snap, I am presenting myself in terms of unbelief in contrast to their belief.
The answer is to understand the religion game. Religions are answers to “life’s great questions” of what’s it all about and why should we bother with anything.  When a Christian says they’re a Christian they are saying that somehow Christ (and everything that concept drags in to a conversation) answers those questions. When a Buddhist gives their descriptor they mean that Buddhahood or awakening is the answer (the root of Buddha is a Sanskrit word meaning awaken).  When an Atheist says they are an Atheist it sounds like they are saying that being an atheist is the answer; that somehow realising Gods non-existence reveals what it’s all about and why we should bother with anything.
I think that’s deeply weird and I’m an atheist. Further despite the noise of Atheist trumpets selling books like hotcakes I think most Atheists feel the same way. God’s non-existence is a fact for us. Any answer to lifes’ great questions we have will therefore have to incorporate that fact but knowing God’s non-existence isn’t the answer itself. That distinction is important.
So when someone tells me about their God the appropriate response is to recognise our conversation as one in which we are sharing our answers to life’s great questions and respond with mine. If I don’t like the conversation that’s fine to say. If I have no answer then that’s fine to share too. If I don’t believe there is just one answer but that everyone has to find their own calling then that’s also fine. If I believe it’s just about comforting each other on this strange blue orb in space then that’s good enough. If my companion chooses to scoff at these and say “That’s not much of an answer,” I can point out that I didn’t criticise their answer and hopefully they’ll apologise.

But if I say “I’m an Atheist” then I’ve misunderstood the conversation. In return I’ll probably be misunderstood myself – as myopically obsessed with a fruitless debate in lieu of any engagement with the great questions of life. Because that’s what I’ve just said.


  1. Be interested what you think of Alain de Botton's latest idea...

  2. Hi Tony.

    Unfortunately, your free-association perceptions of Christians are reflective of how many people view Christians. However, these stereotypes are accurate only of evangelicals/fundamentalists and are an unfair characterization of most educated or progressive Christians. Fundamentalists/literalists don't really deserve serious attention intellectually, but they do have the bullhorn and pretend to speak for all of us.

    The bare knuckled, mean spirited (but well deserved) attacks of the Neo-Atheists only focus on the shallow conceptions of G-d and Christ: biblical inerrancy, PSA, rejection of evolution, right-wing obsessions with 'family values', etc put forth by the fundie camp, and are seemingly unaware of more in depth theologies or genuine expressions of Christianity. Basically, Dawkins and fundamentalists fight over the same "fascist in the sky" Sunday school version of God, which many have moved past long ago.

    I know you've encountered some heavy Christians because I came here from Richard Beck's site! :-)

    Best regards,


    BTW Being a contemplative Christian, I can assure you that we meditate, too!

    1. Thanks for the very fair comments Corey,
      I'd be very interested in what you make of my post about Dickens and small c Christianity. It's a kind of colloqial version which is unloved by evangelicals as far as I can tell and certainly doesn't share a reformed Christians emphasis on their doctrine of salvation above all else.
      However I wonder if it wouldn't be both too presumptuous in its universalism and too unsophisticated for many progressive Christians.
      IT does show however that it isn't just moderns who've moved on from the entirely simple Super God above. I could have talked about in this piece about the God that is found in the world by Dorothy Day as well that Atheists rarely show they know. Atleast I do manage to say, mystics have always known God doesn't "make sense."