Why do I call myself an atheist?

In researching this paper on Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion, I've been coming upon some really fascinating ideas. My understanding of what faith is and what it means to be religious has changed, and I think it valuable to attempt to apply this to my own particular faith, or lack thereof.

To begin, just like religion is many different things to many different people, so too is atheism. Thus, the answer I give will be above all a personal one. Other people may choose to take it up, and that might give me some measure of satisfaction, but by and large I'm indifferent.

In practice, I think the differences that I have from many religious believers, particularly those who are reflective and philosophically-inclined, are really not so great. A lot of it amounts to differences in the use of language.

I have no problem speaking in religious terms--I talk about God all the time, particularly when teaching. However, I feel no need to understand my life in terms of such categories. If I were to use the word "God" in speaking about my Weltanschauung, I would probably either follow Spinoza's usage and treat it as equivalent to nature (i.e., all that is, was, and ever will be), or use it as another way of talking about myself. I, of course, recognize that I am finite and imperfect, but nothing requires that God be otherwise except the conventions of particular faiths.

So, in short, I am an atheist because I have no need of God. In fact, I find very admirable the figure of Lucifer in Christian mythology. Not insofar as he as anything to do with human suffering--here, I'd be much more sympathetic to Jesus--but because he refuses to submit to God.

Following Wittgenstein, I see faith as, for the most part, an act of submission to authority. (It is no coincidence that Islam, for instance, is a word meaning "submission".) I submit to no one but myself, and so I am proud, but I see this as a virtue and not a sin (so long as the pride does not become overweening).

Incidentally, this is one reason I love the series His Dark Materials. Pullman does more than undermine traditional religion with this work. I see him as actually putting forth another ideal, which we might call the Republic of Heaven.

Most of us do not deal with God on a face-to-face basis, so the act of submission is in practice to worldly authorities--priests, politicians, religious communities, and so forth. Their invocation of God as ultimate authority is meant to put an end to questioning and independent thought; again, it is a call for submission. But why submit to God? Or if this is too objectionable, why submit to those who claim to speak for him?

In my own case, there is no good reason for unthinking obedience (under ordinary circumstances, but I can imagine exceptions). But I don't think this is by any means true of everyone. Nor do I condemn them for it. From some perspectives, reasoning and questioning authority only causes problems, leading people away from God and salvation, etc. It would be cruel of me to try to force people who are otherwise happy in their beliefs (however misguided I may find them) into another mode of thinking.

This point, in particular, is something I have wavered on. I've had my periods of militant, evangelical atheism. But why should I care about what other people believe? Unlike some, I have no salvation to offer. Nor have I access to some absolute truth or knowledge of some correct way of living. Religious tolerance is, to me, the only reasonable option.

In fact, it would be hypocritical of me to try to proselytize, since it is an activity that I find objectionable when practiced by others. Certainly, I can see why people do it, but here is a place where they cross the line between living in their own worlds of constructed meanings and attempting to infringe on mine.

But one can't help but wonder, what motivates proselytizing atheologians like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens? I can't speak for them, but I know in my own case, the reason is primarily emotional. I just do not care for religion. At times, I even hate it.

Here now we must tread with caution. What exactly am I saying when I say that I hate religion? Case in point: I watched, for the first time, the movie Gandhi last night. In this instance, we have religion serving as a means of uniting people and overcoming injustice. It would be inhuman of me to want to rid the world of examples like Gandhi. Here is a case where, unambiguously (because there's no question here, unlike in so many other cases, of an individual justifying the violation of the very rules his religion provides with the excuse that the end justifies the means) where religion is a boon to humanity.

That is an atypical example. More commonly, we find individuals who perhaps do no great goods for the world, but do affect the people in their communities positively with support from a religious worldview. These more neutral cases I am tempted to dislike, but only because of association. In all honesty, I have no good reason for experiencing the irritation I sometimes do when encountering the typical, harmless believer.

If I am to be reasonable, I must distinguish between the cases where religion is harmful, and those in which it is positive or neutral. I don't really hate religion, per se, but only those cases in which people use it to justify violence or some other form of oppression, or when it is used as the basis for making decisions which would better be made on the basis of scientific evidence and critical reasoning.


I've become sidetracked. Really, there are just a few key points that I see as distinguishing me from most religious believers.

1. I grant the existence of genuine loss, of meaningless, unnecessary suffering in the world. Things do not always turn out for the best. No cosmic being has a "plan" that will make everything okay in the end. Life is tragic.

Of course, I think granting this is not simply a cause for despair. The world may not be as we like it to, but sitting around and crying about it does no good. Instead, we should do the best we can to make things better, for ourselves and everyone else.

2. I recognize meaning as a human construction. In itself, the universe lacks purpose or direction. All that can be said of nature outside of the human world is that it is. It is not good or bad, beautiful or ugly, comic or tragic. It simply is.

However, this does nothing to undermine all our structures of meaning. Even though I recognize any way of understanding the world as ultimately contingent, I do so within my own structures of meaning. One can never step outside of these--or if one could, one can say nothing about it, nothing meaningful (this should be self-evident).

There is no Archimedean point, no ground for neutral criticism of any worldview. If I take objection to someone's way of looking at life, if I call it unreasonable, I am presupposing a standard of reasonability (and, moreover, presupposing that reasonability is something valuable itself) that is, perhaps regrettably, not shared by everyone.

3. Lastly, as I have said before, but almost as a consequence of the previous two points, I have no need to use religious language in my own case. No cosmic being has my back, or cares in the slightest about me. The only support is that which I receive from other human beings. But this is enough for me.

In saying that, I realize that I am fortunate and that many people are not able to live this way. (Personally, I see this newly discovered strength as a consequence of the mental health treatment I've been receiving over the past several years.)

I also reject other religious conceptions without negative consequence. I deny freedom of the will, and yet I feel freer than before, insofar as I feel more self-determined (granting that I am only in this position as a result of contingencies totally beyond my control). I deny personal immortality, and yet death does not concern me, but only encourages me to make the most of the life that I have. I deny transcendent ethical categories, but feel no less committed to leading a life that is ethical by human standards.

I may be living proof that one does not need to be religious to lead a decent life (and I am not alone; many in the 17th century were perplexed by the case of Spinoza, a man who led a virtuous and happy life--he saw these two as coextensive--but who was regarded as an atheist).

I feel confident and self-sufficient, able to live without consolation. I'm perhaps happier than I've ever been, including those times when I was a believer (if for no other reason than I no longer am plagued by doubts about the truth of my worldview).

Moreover, I am not exempt from ethical concerns. Even though I recognize that no one is keeping score and that I stand to gain nothing from it directly, I still strongly desire to diminish suffering in the world. Watching the story of Gandhi really made this hit home for me. I felt more keenly the suffering of others than I have in quite some time.

Usually, I maintain a certain kind of distance, a general coping strategy that I tend to employ often (and unconsciously), to keep me from getting caught up in all the world's pain. Last night, I felt it. But even though it hurt, I ultimately felt the better for it.

I know now--and this is something I had doubts about before--that deep down I am a compassionate person. If I can care for my fellow living creatures when I stand to gain nothing from it, that can only mean that I am a good person. I hope this to be a countervailing force to many of my self-centered tendencies.

I can see firsthand how Spinoza can ground ethics in (enlightened) self-interest. Part of my self-interest is an interest in others. Regardless of the circumstances of my own life, I could not be fully satisfied in the face of rampant injustice and suffering.


If I had more time, I might organize these thoughts more coherently. I may incorporate some of them into the paper I'm writing, although they are on the personal side. I don't know that I've answered my initial question (I neglected to mention the strategic/prudential considerations, e.g., in the circles I run in, being an atheist is viewed favorably), but it is good to write out one's thoughts.


Anonymous said...

You say: "But one can't help but wonder, what motivates proselytizing atheologians like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens?"

I thought it was clear? They believe religion (faith, dogma, fundamentalism, etc) cause real world harm. They believe the world would be better if people were not opposing sex ed in schools, condoms in Africa, stem cell research, not to mention the fanaticism of religious terrorists.

Anyway ....

Mikayla Starstuff said...

I love Dawkins and Hitches (and Harris, for that matter). They say a lot that really needs to be said about fundamentalist belief and the harm that does and can do in the world. Fundamentalist belief to me is that which denys provable, scientific reality in favor of a religous dogma.

However, I think there is a lot to love in the symbolic and personally spiritual side to religion. A lot of religous myth and art is redeemable just due to its beauty and representation of human experience even if the storys are not literally true.

Is it so strange for an atheist to think like this?

specter_of_spinoza said...


I would say it's not strange at all.

If you want a classic example, just read Nietzsche. People forget all of the good things that he says about religion: the amazing creativity is has spawned, the awe-inspiring self-mastery of the ascetic priest, the way that turning inward has made human beings "interesting".

In fact, I think the tendency of a lot of atheists to assume that anything associated with religion is necessarily corrupted by it is just facile. I mean, many atheists are themselves the products of a religious upbringing! Shouldn't they be grateful to their past, really, to human history?

zussal said...

What you have to remember that the main practical use of religion is character development. There has to be some way to teach everyone how to be mature. It's not all about believing in supernatural beings.

Thankfully, now we have psychology to teach us these things but we can't forget that our ideas, like everything else, had to evolve too.