Thursday, February 02, 2023

Asking About Atheism

I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with atheists.

You might wonder why. You might say, “People have to be open to the voice of God, or they hear nothing at all. ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear,’ said the Lord. A man whose ears are already shut gets nothing — and, if we follow the Lord’s example — should get nothing, for he does not unite his hearing with any measure of faith. And without faith, it is impossible to please God.”

Even secular common sense accepts this. “A man convinced against his will remains an unbeliever still,” goes the axiom.

So why bother to talk to people whose minds are already made up? A fair question.

I have had my own reasons. Mostly I wanted to understand what draws a person to atheism, and how do they think about life and themselves so that they are drawn to it. What does it offer them by way of resources for life? How does it help them locate meaning and morals, for example.

And I genuinely wanted to know all that. I wanted to understand their attraction to their beliefs from the inside. I wanted to gain a sensitivity for how it feels to embrace the idea of a world without God — not when one is distracted and in the throes of contending against Christianity or some other theism, but how one feels in one’s own private moments, when one contemplates one’s own atheism in its own right, and seeks to integrate it with one’s own life plans.

The Difficulty of Diving

But that’s not easy to do.

It’s not exactly that atheists won’t help you with that, it’s that in most cases it seems they can’t. The problem is that they don’t use atheism in the way that other people apply their beliefs — they don’t use it to structure their lives or to create coherent patterns of meaning and purpose for themselves. They primarily use it to fend off those who tell them their lives should have such structure, purpose and meaning, to neutralize the very search for meaning itself in favor of a sort of unrestricted and undefined “freedom” to do whatever it is they really happen to want to do.

For them, atheism is not a way of structuring life or ordering thought: it’s a way of repelling the need to structure life at all, and resisting all necessity of ordering subsequent thought. Its real purpose is to reduce all ideologies to a level nothing, following which complete anything can be taken afterward. “Once God is gone,” it says, “I get to live the way I want.”

Of course, that’s not the way it’s presented. Atheism self-presents as simply a vigorous effort to reject God. Behind it may be an urge for this sort of undefined freedom, but it’s rarely a well-thought-out urge. It’s more of a gut-level impulse.

The Deep Logic of Atheism

This makes it very hard to examine — not just for people like me but even for the atheists themselves. To get rid of God is atheism’s first goal: but its second (and generally undeclared) goal is to free the atheist from any feeling he has anything more to examine at all. It’s pure negativity at the front, and rear-loaded with avoidance of self-awareness.

However, that’s certainly not to suggest that second goal is even possible. Atheism has a whole bunch of very serious further moral, ontological and social implications. As Dostoevsky famously said, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Everything. So whether atheism thinks deeply about its own implications or doesn’t, those implications are going to loom in the background anyway. As Richard Weaver famously said, “Ideas have consequences.” You can have an ideology without understanding the consequences, but you can’t have it without the danger of the consequences.

When the ideology is practiced, the consequences will follow. The only way to avoid that is not actually to practice your ideology at all — just profess it, but live inconsistently with it. Still, the only way safely to do that is to know the consequences. It’s the only way to avoid them.

Be that as it may, I’ve found that atheists are usually uninterested in chasing such consequences down, and totally averse to living consistently with them. It seems they tend to stop at the point of perceiving their freedom to be granted, never asking, “But what am I now being freed to be or to do?” The answer comes back, “Anything you want.” And for most, that seems to be all they want of their atheism. Further entailments are just not welcome.

Flashes of Rage

So I’ve found that very many of them get very angry when you push them to follow through on the logic of rejecting God. They say, “There are no further implications: I just don’t believe,” as if such a rejoinder leaves them any help at all in sorting their lives, making sense of morals or locating purpose. After doubt, all of that is simply to be left random, it seems.

But what if we don’t leave it random? What if we do press atheism further than its mere visceral rejection of belief, and ask what its implications are for the lives of those espousing it?

The atheists I talk to staunchly refuse to do this. They become adamant that it is simply not possible to ask more of atheism than that it refuse belief in God; at the same time, they all assert that atheism is the only rational, healthy, realistic or reliable foundational belief for a thinking person, and they all tell me I would be wrong not to convert to their view. But what is wrong about believing something incorrect in a world in which “everything is permitted”? What kind of foundation belief permits no further building at all? And why should a person seek such a thing, if afterwards he only finds himself stripped of all resources but his own animal impulses as a basis of forming his life? There is something embarrassingly inadequate about their stock rejoinders, and I think the creeping realization of this is what accounts for their flashes of anger.


A final thought about the implications of atheism. Even though it rationalizes no specific belief at all in things like meaning and morality, this does not suggest that an atheist cannot choose to act like a conventionally good person. A great many do. Some of my interlocutors are rather nice people, actually. Some not so much, of course.

But that’s the point. When atheism voids the field of any markers for meaning or morality, it leaves the atheist without any objective reason to choose one over the other. An atheist might arbitrarily choose to be a very moral person. Or she might arbitrarily choose to be an immoral wreck. The problem is that within an atheistic worldview there are no resources to point to the former as any better than the latter. An atheist is equally “good” as a humanitarian or as an ax-murderer: atheism itself has no opinion on that, even if some individual atheists choose to have one.

Conclusion So Far

I want to stop here, because this post is already getting too long, yet I’ve got considerably more I have to say about my experiences talking with atheists. Really, what I was asking them to do was to take themselves seriously — so seriously, as a matter of fact, that they would actually be able to trace out the rational implications of their own rejection of God.

You might think they’d want to think deeply about their worldview, they’d want to embrace it more consistently, and that they’d be grateful for the conversation, and for any help they could get in taking atheism to the next step. But, of course, they generally weren’t. In next week’s post, I want to share with you two very simple lines of questioning I followed on my investigation. I’ll tell you what the results were too.


  1. From my observation of (friend or not so friend) aetheists I have concluded some additional items. Some of them simply reject religion because they found it, or observed it for others, to be a useless tool that did not produce the needed results when truly needed. E.g., healing, personal or observed abuse cessation, perceived social injustice without remidiation, observed lack of significant differentiation between believers and unbelievers, and so on. And if this is combined with not having had a religious upbringing and the perceived inconvenience of religious obligations, thought processes, and no directly seen intervention to punish the evil doers then this most likely can produce or confirm an atheist. In other words, the atheist in general would need a very direct and observable linkage of divine intervention in the world, not something they feel they have to second guess at.

    1. I'm certain you're right to say that some initial personal tragedy, failure, anger, or sense of betrayal or loss most often precipitates one into atheism in the first place, much more often than an intellectual conviction. A comparison of famous atheists suggests hatred of fathers has a high correspondence too (Vitz, 2013). There are various motives one can have for adopting atheism. What I wanted to discern was how one lived with one's decision AFTER becoming an atheist — what would hold one there, and how one sorted out an integrated, rational view of life based on that preliminary decision, so as to go on. How does one live based on atheism: that was my question. As you can see, that’s something beyond the mere initial incentive. Perhaps I need to make that clearer.


    2. I understand but think that what you are looking for is already implicitly contained in what I mentioned as far as that type of person is concerned. If that person is atheistic for the reasons given then that is a permanent condition and not really open to debate for them. The reason, as I mentioned, is simply that there has been no apparent divinely inspired midcourse correction or remidiation. There is therefore no reason to rethink atheism as a permanent world view ever. There may be a more casual category of atheist that may be amenable to rethinking but I have not come across one.