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.


An Informal Review of The Courtier and the Heretic

As I begin to turn my thoughts to a paper on the philosophy of religion, I found myself this evening (which has now turned into this morning) gripped by a fascinating piece of intellectual history, viz., Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. I had read something like the first 5 chapters over the span of nearly a month, but tonight I just couldn't put the book down (when I tried to do so, I inevitably returned to picking it back up).

To begin with, Stewart is an excellent writer. This is a topic I already find interesting, but I think that he does an admirable job making something esoteric profoundly interesting and, above all, human. He takes to heart the Nietzschean maxim he cites that philosophies are merely expressions of the temperaments of their creators; the story he tells is more about the men and the times in which they lived than their ideas.

What little is known of Spinoza's life is something I'm already familiar with, but I knew next to nothing about Leibniz. Stewart's analysis of the two figures is perhaps a bit too neat to be accurate, but it makes for a wonderful account that is not totally implausible.

I find it difficult to determine which philosopher he sides with. More of the book is devoted to Leibniz (in part because he lived so much longer) but Leibniz characterized as a reaction to Spinoza.

In terms of the exposition of the two thinkers' philosophies, Stewart does an admirable job for a popular work. I can speak less for Leibniz, but on many of the most important points, he gets Spinoza right. He rightly recognizes Spinoza primarily as an ethical and political thinker (so too, Leibniz, for which he provides evidence ample enough to convince me at least).

He uses a few turns of phrase I don't care for: e.g., he talks about Spinoza's "parallelism" while simultaneously describing it as distinctly not that (unless a single line can be parallel to itself). Extension and thought are two aspects of the same nature, and he clearly understands this, so in what sense is this "parallel"? To me that seems a better epithet for something like Malebranche's fantastical "occasionalism" or even Leibniz's "preestablished harmony". He also follows Shirley in rendering what is better translated as "joy" and "sorrow" into the unduly austere terms "pleasure" and "pain".

The way he connects the two philosophers to two fundamentally different reactions to modernity is compelling, if a bit overstated. While throughout the work he is trying to argue for a greater than recognized influence of Spinoza (albeit a negative one) on Leibniz, his own thinking really comes to the fore in the closing chapter. I love the way that he unapologetically lumps Heidegger and the Postmodernists into the same camp as Kant and Hegel, essentially imitators of Leibniz's reactionary stance. It is by no means fair to these thinkers, but it is certainly amusing to imagine the reactions of their contemporary proponents.

He also makes a solid case for my suspicion that Locke is largely a hack who stole Spinoza's ideas without crediting him because he was too controversial. And in a few short paragraphs he demolishes the established practice of calling Spinoza and Leibniz, along with Descartes, "rationalists".

Do I regard Spinoza as a champion of modernity, as Stewart clearly maintains? I suppose it depends on what we understand by modernity, but Spinoza undoubtedly embodies many of the greatest values of the Enlightenment and was a thinker centuries ahead of his time. The world that we live in now, I think, is constituted largely by this struggle between the proponents of a secular society and a great hodgepodge of reactionary forces. On this note, Stewart's closing passages are particularly apt (the bracketed insertions are my own, obviously):

Leibniz was a man whose failings were writ as large as his outsized virtues. Yet it was his greed, his vanity, and above all, his insatiable, all too human neediness that made his work so emblematic for the species. With the promise that the cruel surface of experience conceals a most pleasing and beautiful truth, a world in which everything happens for a reason and all is for the best, the glamorous courtier of Hanover made himself into the philosopher of the common man. [What audacity! To claim a thinker so abstruse as Leibniz to be "of the common man" is obscene. I love it!] If Spinoza was the first great thinker of the modern era, then perhaps Leibniz should count as its first human being.

Spinoza, on the other hand, was marked from the start as a rara avis. [Philosophers cannot resist showing off their familiarity with dead languages even in purportedly popular works.] Given his eerie self-sufficiency, his inhuman virtue, and his contempt for the multitudes, it could not have been otherwise. [I think this is a bit overstated, and partially a product of our lack of knowledge about the circumstances of Spinoza's life.] Yet the message of his philosophy is not that we know all that there is to know; but rather that there is nothing that cannot be known. Spinoza's teaching is that there is no unfathomable mystery in the world; no other-world accessible only through revelation or epiphany; no hidden power capable of judging or affirming us; no secret truth about everything. There is instead only the slow and steady accumulation of many small truths; and the most important of these is that we need expect nothing more in order to find happiness in this world. His is a philosophy for philosophers, who are as uncommon now as they have always been. [An obvious allusion to Spinoza's final thought in the Ethics: "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare". I take this as evidence that he ultimately favors Spinoza, but I'm not always so sure.]

In contrast to the suggestion of this poetic denouement, I recommend Stewart's book to philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Finding decent popular accounts of Spinoza's philosophy is nearly impossible, and while Stewart has his flaws, the beauty of the historical narrative alone makes it worth reading. To everyone (and I know there are so many of you who read this) curious to understand what I find so remarkable about Spinoza, this is not a bad place to start.