On Atheism

After reading an interesting article on the blessings of atheism, I’ve been thinking a lot about belief and the absence of belief. The author argues that atheism leads us to conclude that our moral actions and decisions on earth are evermore important, because this is the only life that we have, and because death is simply a perfect rest, so Heaven doesn’t need to play a role in comforting mourners. While she raises some interesting points, I’d like to outline my intellectual misgivings about atheism:

  • Atheism is not a belief, it is merely the negation of a belief. Proclaiming yourself an atheist doesn’t tell me what you accept, what you believe, how you think the world works – it simply tells me what you reject. If I ask, “What’s your favorite vegetable?” and you respond, “I don’t like carrots.” that doesn’t lead me any closer to knowing what is your favorite vegetable. You don’t like carrots? That’s completely understandable, there are plenty of valid reasons not to like carrots (I only like them when they’re cooked). But I’m still left with my initial question: What is your favorite vegetable? Similarly, telling me that you’re an atheist doesn’t tell me what you believe, it only tells me what you don’t believe. Are you a materialist or an empiricist, and you believe that the only truths that exist are that which we can perceive through our senses? Are you a nihilist? If you don’t believe in a higher power that governs the universe, then what do you believe?
  • Secular humanism is simply a term for Christianity minus God and Jesus. Secular humanists have disregarded commandments 1, 3, 4, and maybe 2, but still strictly adhere to the morality laid forth by commandments 5-10. In fact, Commandment #4 (keeping the Sabbath) is also debatable, because every single secular humanist I’ve ever met still celebrates the weekend, and they even celebrate it on Saturday and Sunday, the same days that pious Jews and Christians celebrate a day of rest. There are plenty of positive aspects of Christian morality, I don’t mean to disregard secular humanism on the grounds that it is evil or wrong because it mimics Christianity. But let’s not deny that secular humanism is merely a newer version of Christianity which pushes the spirituality and dogma one step further away, but maintains the moral doctrine laid down in the New Testament.
  • In the aforementioned op-ed, Susan Jacoby raises the topic of suffering, and says that we can comfort mourners through the explanation that death is merely perfect rest, and the dead have been freed from earthly suffering. I’m not a scholar on Christianity, but I cannot think of anything more Christian than this interpretation of death and suffering. She has merely replaced the word “Heaven” with the term “perfect rest”.
  • We live, learn, and interact in a linguistic structure that teaches us to compartmentalize everything. Culture is in a box over here, which is separate and independent from the closed box that contains philosophy over here, and a different box contains religion. Given this imagery, it’s tempting to believe that we can simply throw away the “religion” box as if it has had no affect on or interaction with the other boxes. The only problem is that this imagery of independent boxes is radically incorrect and intellectually narrow. Culture, religion, history, science, and art have been interacting since the dawn of time, to the extent that one cannot be compartmentalized or separated from the rest of the package. So no matter how hard you try or how badly you want to, you can’t just throw away the “religion” box and act as if it hasn’t had any affect on the culture, morality, philosophy, art, or even science boxes.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, an area of the United States famous for its record-low church attendance. I have more friends who are devout atheists than friends who are believers, and belief is much more stigmatized than atheism in the social structure in which I grew up. I generally don’t describe myself as a religious person, partially because I don’t want to deal with the assumptions that people make based on that identity, but also because there are many tenants of religion which I don’t understand well enough to accept, and might not accept even if I did understand them. I grapple with the conceptions of the divine that we have inherited through varying texts from varying religions from varying eras, and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “believer” without first giving you a three-hour lecture on what exactly it is that I believe. I am a Jew, which gives me the luxury of shying out of most of those awkward questions about whether or not I believe in God, because regardless of my changing beliefs (and yes, they change – constantly), I’m still equally a Jew.

Regardless of your personal convictions, I think that we need to change the questions that we ask ourselves and others. Instead of, “Do you believe in God?” we should be asking, “How do you conceptualize the divine? What imagery, metaphors, or poetry do you believe describes the motions of the universe? What makes you feel grounded, centered, or connected? How do you understand energy and life? What is your metaphysics?” And if, after considering all of those questions, you still feel like an atheist – then go read about nihilism, because that might be a better fit for you.

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2 thoughts on “On Atheism

  1. This was a fascinating post.
    As someone who tries to be constantly working on my beliefs, I particularly loved the questions in the final paragraph. I do think they are often the first things we need to be asking.

    So, off to think on those…

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