We Embrace Atheism
(For Many Reasons)
There are no gods (including God). Like all species, ours is a product of nature. This is not something either to celebrate or to mourn. But it can prove a transformational and mind-opening experience to put all gods, religions, and supernatural enthusiasms aside and to explore the world from the point of view of a human being who lives, dies, and is as natural as a tiger or a dove.
You may currently take comfort in gods, religions, and supernatural enthusiasms; or, having cast all that aside, you may feel cold and distraught, as if you were standing alone in the universe. If you are currently taking comfort in gods and religions, I hope that you will find more comfort by living the atheist's way and by replacing those dangerous superstitions with natural beauty. If, having cast all that aside, you are feeling cold and distraught, I hope that this book will provide you with some warmth and relief, for the atheist's way is a rich way, as rich as life itself.
The atheist's way provides you with a complete life plan. You start with the idea that evolution explains you but does not completely dictate to you. Because you are built exactly as you are built, with an instinct for ethics alongside an instinct for self-interest, with a complicated sense of self from which flow your decisions about what self-interest means and what you value (a sense of self that you can modify by applying reason), and with all the other diverse and fascinating aspects of your humanity, you can plot a course that feels righteous and worthy to you.
Living the atheist's way is more than living without gods, religions, and supernatural enthusiasms - much more. It is a way of life that integrates the secular, humanist, scientific, freethinking, skeptical, rationalist, and existential traditions into a complete worldview and that rallies that worldview under the banner of atheism, choosing that precise word as its rallying cry. It chooses atheism to make clear that our best chance of survival is for members of our species to grow into a mature view of self-interest, one in which human beings can discuss their conflicting interests without one side betraying the other by playing the god card. That will be a great day, when conflicts can be aired without that card being played.
Most likely it is in your heart to do some good, to manifest your potential, to feel a certain kind of nobility as you face life squarely, to express outrage when you witness injustice, to love another person because the two of you feel drawn to each other, to celebrate human achievements such as freedom of speech, to appreciate beauty and perhaps to create some beauty yourself the things that constitute a good life. But this good life does not require conjuring gods, joining religions, or indulging in supernatural enthusiasms. You can have this life by embracing the atheist's way.
The title of this book suggests that there is (or ought to be) one and only one atheist's way. Of course that isn't true. Each atheist's path will differ and must differ, in part because of differences in our nature, in part because of differences in our nurture. What I want the title to communicate is that there can exist a coherent, comprehensive, righteous, and beautiful way to live without gods - one that you will have to construct. The atheist's way is your way. You will take your journey, and it will not be identical to my journey.
Atheists feel obliged to think their own thoughts, and so we are quick to dispute and disagree. Therefore I expect that no one atheist will agree with the picture I'll be painting in this book. What I call a "tradition" someone else will call a "thread." What I call a "choice" someone else will call an "instinct." When I say that we are obliged to make meaning, many will rise up to call that idea misleading, unnecessary, dangerous, or, as one of my correspondents dubbed it, "effete." I understand and applaud that impulse. At the same time, I will be presenting you with some ideas that I hope you can use as your create your own way.
I am a lifelong atheist. I have never believed in gods or even come close to believing. If every day people asserted that their belief in unicorns caused them to wage war on their neighbors, to hate homosexuals, and to tithe 10 percent of their income to the unicorn church, and that unicorns accounted for the victory of their soccer team and the freshness of their sliced bread, you would feel compelled to stand up and shout, "That is such nonsense!" and, "Those ideas are so bad for humanity!" You would not be railing against unicorns; you would be railing against a certain terrible human practice. I have felt that way about god-talk my whole life: that it is a terrible human practice.
We can do so much better. We can live courageously, we can balance our desires and our immediate self-interest with our sense of duty and our long-term interests, we can decide to sun ourselves and relax or to leap up and work hard at something really difficult, we can play jazz or lend a helping hand, we can stand amazed at life and learn all about it, we can pick ourselves up when we despair, and we can do many different things in a single day, spending one hour relaxing, another hour investigating, another hour loving, another hour creating. Some days will be peaceful; other days we will have to defend ourselves. Some days will pass uneventfully; some days will be filled with drama. This is life, rich and real enough for anyone.
Not only is the atheist way more accurate and more truthful than the god-talk way, but it also confers great advantages. The first is that you feel very free. You are free to think your own thoughts and to have your own feelings. If a passing pastor accuses you of sinning, you feel free to rebuke or ignore him. You know that he has no special knowledge and that he is only betraying your common humanity by quoting gods. You know that no one has any special knowledge about the purpose or lack of purpose of the universe, that there is only scientific knowledge, with its limitations; the speculations of consciousness, with its limitations; and some amount of mystery, shared by us all and quite likely to remain unexplained until the end of time.
This kind of freedom lifts an enormous weight off your shoulders. Freedom is often characterized as a burden and a responsibility, and it is both those things, but it is also a thing of beauty. It is like taking off your heavy overcoat when you get indoors or having your shackles removed when you get off the chain gang. You are free to sit in the sun for an hour without feeling guilty. You are free to cut off contact with toxic people and to eliminate toxic beliefs from your system. You are free to create stresses and strains in service to a task that you value, whether that task is writing a novel, starting a nonprofit, politicking for a candidate, or intervening in your child's life. You are free to step out of the cultural trance, to step off a cliff and hang glide, or to step to one side and let someone else win. You are as free as you can be - that is, as free as nature allows.
The word atheist is a larger, friendlier, and more glorious word than you might imagine. It stands for a conviction about the nonexistence of gods, but it represents other things as well. It is about a solidarity with nature and with the universe: we are not afraid of the universe in which we live, we do not create dragons and devils with which to scare ourselves, we are not frightened that a vacuum is empty or that we begin dying as soon as we are born. We are exactly, precisely, and wholly natural. We are human beings, with enough fascinating attributes to make even the most incurious among us stand up and take notice. To say human being is to say plenty: and that plenty is what the word atheist connotes.
There are so many believers with good hearts! But that doesn't make their belief systems any less faulty or, ultimately, dangerous. If you are a believer who is currently content to remain faithful to your Catholic, Hindu, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim beliefs because you have a circle of friends, a social network, and a whole life built around that religion, because you reckon that you can do good work and be a good person just as well inside your religion as outside it, and because you see no particular reason to leave your religion, even though aspects of it strike you as false, I would like you to consider the possibility that you have made the wrong investment. You really might prefer living the atheist's way. It is truer to reality and it frees you up enormously. In one fell swoop you could leave a lot of humbug behind you.
I offer you this same invitation if you participate in one of the "river" religions. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not posit the existence of gods. I am calling these disparate religions river religions to distinguish them from god-based religions and to catch something of their flavor. The river religions tend to posit an indivisible reality flowing eternally. At first glance this view of life does not seem too incompatible with the atheist's way. The river religions can be very attractive to people who do not believe in bearded gods dictating to humankind. But they are no less false than the god-based religions, because ultimately they are dogmatic and create an unnecessary wall between a person and reality.
And what about an enthusiasm for Wicca, paganism, past lives, psychic powers, remote viewing, spoon bending, astrology, Tarot, the I Ching, palm reading, haunted houses, sacred sites, vampires, seances, and a thousand other variations of new age, paranormal, and supernatural belief? These too interfere with your ability to assess well, to choose well, and to live well, and therefore they ought to be discarded. Like the god religions and the river religions, our supernatural enthusiasms have their undeniable seductive side, their psychological pull, and their blandishments. But they don't serve you any better than god-talk or river-talk. Believing in them, investing time and energy in them, and imbibing in their metaphoric power diminish you. The more you consult your chart, the more personal power you relinquish; the more you identify a site as "sacred," the less real you make your life.
The god religions, the river religions, and the world of supernatural enthusiasms do not serve you. They force you to rein in your intelligence, they make claims that you do not honestly believe, they smell of illegitimate shortcut, and they hurt your chances of taking a fearless inventory of your beliefs and charting a course that will make you proud.
Even if you currently believe, l hope that you will read these chapters. If you do, you will hear from believers like you who made the journey from belief to atheism. You will hear why they made that change and how they are faring. You will learn that the atheist tradition is a very long and honorable one, thousands of years old, exactly as old as your religion -- if not older. You will learn that your belief system does not relieve you of the responsibility for making thoughtful rather than dogmatic choices - that, in this regard, you and atheists are in exactly the same boat. I think that you will learn many things of interest to you, so I invite you to come along for the ride.
At some point in our lives, most of us have speculated that the universe is pointless, purposeless, or meaningless. But what do we mean by this? We aren't saying that it doesn't have order. We are saying that the universe is a different sort of thing from a human being - that it is inhuman. It doesn't have thoughts or feelings, it can't pay attention, it can't put on its socks, and it can't mourn a loss by its hometown team (or have a hometown team). That is what is in our hearts when we conclude that the universe is meaningless. We don't doubt that it has order, but we recognize that it is not our parent, our sponsor, or our caretaker.
In short, it doesn't care, and that can bring a person down. Believers or atheists, we are quite likely to think, "Isn't it ridiculous that an ice-cold universe creates this sentient passing speck - me - and then forces me to deal with indignities like toothaches and an extra thirty pounds?" We get blue, and that blueness can become our default feeling about life, a feeling that is never very far from spilling over and turning into grief. We get a speeding ticket or fail at a task and we go to a sad place, a place that has nothing to do with that speeding ticket or that failed task and everything to do with our wonder about why we are even bothering.
Any modern person, believer or atheist, can feel this way. The believer, to take some comfort and to find some solace, allows his brain to perpetrate a trick that it is quite willing to play: to conjure a god and a more pleasant universe. So he turns to religion, even if to find that solace he must ignore his religion's monstrous contradictions, swallow his doubts, smile at ludicrous claims, and accept that he has transformed a metaphor into a pseudoreality. Before the advent of modern science and the last four hundred years of increased knowledge, believers may have believed in some seamless way, uninterrupted by doubts. Now every sensible, educated, modern believer knows in a corner of consciousness that she is buying her solace on the cheap - she knows that the pope is not infallible, that god did not give the Jews a piece of land, that there is nothing like nirvana, and so on. So she bites her tongue and tries to get as much out of her religion as she can, covering her eyes to all the rest and not really dealing with the central issue of cosmic indifference.
The contemporary believer suffers from her version of existential angst; so does the contemporary atheist. The atheist endeavors to finds warmth, solace, and purpose in human engagements such as family, love, learning, good deeds, sex, entertainment, and so on, and he often does find fine solace in these activities. He may keep himself very busy, amused, and interested as a trial lawyer, biologist, corporate executive, high-tech worker, or another professional whose days are filled with activity and whose evenings are filled with good meals and fine wine. But even in the midst of this excellent life, many an atheist is burdened by the feeling that she and her efforts do not "really" matter. The thought that she is a disposable throwaway in a meaningless universe can wreak havoc just beneath the surface, draining her of motivational energy and setting her up for a depression.
Both the disgruntled believer and the mourning atheist can move to a better place by making some new calculations and decisions and by announcing that life is an eloquent project ripe for passionate undertaking. You let go of wondering what the universe wants of you, you let go of the fear that nothing matters, and you announce that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious, and triumphant announcement, and it rights your ship --for all time, if you keep repeating the announcement.
We are on the threshold of understanding a shining idea: that each life can have meaning, even if the universe has none. This nature has granted us. I get to decide what will make me feel
righteous and happy, and you get to decide what will make you feel righteous and happy. You can turn the meaning that was waiting to be made into the meaning of your life. By announcing your intentions to yourself, by making the requisite effort, and by manifesting the courage that is part of your inheritance, you aim yourself in a brilliant direction: the direction of your own creation.
Our species needs you to do this. Consider the following mind experiment. Let's say that in each generation a majority of people define self-interest in a narrow way and back their church, club, company, and country; produce lots of offspring; grab scarce resources; pad their bank accounts; and try as best they can to keep others from sharing in the global pie. At the same time, a small minority defines self-interest another way and strives to defend some humanist principles, advance civilization, help the weak, promote sharing, and so on. What will happen?
What will happen is that there will be many important advances, owing to that small minority, but the selfish efforts of the vast majority will threaten to swamp those advances and return our fragile civilization to an ice age. Isn't that exactly the scenario we are facing? We need real warriors who define self-interest in a way that favors civilization, since so many of our fellow human beings are defining self-interest more selfishly and threatening us all. We need atheist-warriors on the side of the species who, having thought it through, decide to side with the good and fight for the future.
Let me remind you why I am framing these ideas around the term atheism and not around some less charged word such as secularism, humanism, rationalism, skepticism, naturalism, existentialism, or freethinking. First, it would be a shame to miss what may be an opportunity, since we are perhaps finally ready to face an indifferent universe with new views and to live purposefully and well without gods. Second, rallying around atheism underscores the heightened threat that religious belief poses to the survival of the species. It was one thing for human beings of another age to use god-talk to justify inquisitions. But the world has changed. Now we have nuclear weapons and a thousand other ways to kill each other. We need atheism to grow as a movement because we need to remove the god card from the hands of the selfishly self-interested. For thousands of years smart men and women have been saying the same thing: here we are; now let us make the best of it. Against these few voices billions of other voices have been marshaled in support of gods and the supernatural. The reasons for this are obvious enough. Religion is excellent cover for the unscrupulous; it is much harder to think than it is to pray; if you are born into a religion, you have to fend off your parents and your neighbors to get free of it; it is comforting; it makes you feel select and knowledgeable; admitting that you don't know requires courage; and so on.
Perhaps we are now ready for a multitude to join those previously scarce atheist voices. The atheist's way is a beautiful way, a truthful way, and it may very well prove to be the only way for our species to have a fighting chance for survival. The exact way you choose to be an atheist is for you to determine. In the following chapters, I will outline what that way might include and how you might design it. In the end, you will decide for yourself and adopt the way that is completely your own.