First, let me say that I think atheism can be a reasonable position, just as I think theism can be a reasonable position to take. Basically all the term “atheism” refers to is a disbelief in God or gods. I don’t think that is an unreasonable disbelief. However, if one follows that position to what I think are it’s logical conclusions, I do believe it is a psychologically grim position to take. Not only that but I also think that in many cases an atheistic position can lead to an unreasonableness and denial of its implications. This is not to say that atheists are bad people. To the contrary, I have friends who are atheists and are fine moral people. I appreciate them very much. I write this just to point out what I think are the logical consequences for this position.
So how is it a grim position? I think there are at least three things that in dealing with those implications make atheism grim — Meaning and Purpose, Morality(Value), and Free Will.
The first thing is to set a foundation for the arguments. One of the abilities that has provide for the amazing advancement of hominids is their ability to discern cause and effect. This has a great evolutionary advantage because it allows for correlations between events. These correlations can lead to planning and avoidance of threats. It has also allowed science to flourish, as abstractions can be generated to show the relationships between events, either causes or effects. Experimentation (especially reductive explorations) relies on the consistency and reliability of causes and their effects. This is entailment, one thing necessarily follows from the next. Now if entailment never ends at some point, then we have what is called an infinite regression, which is a logical fallacy. There is no stopping point. If there is a stopping point then we call that the ultimate. There is no place to go from there.
For instance, in the United States, the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land. All other laws enacted be they federal, state, or local must comply with the Constitution or they are unlawful. Which brings us to another ultimate, the Supreme Court. It is the ultimate adjudicator of what is lawful and what is not. Their decision is final. There is no higher authority. Now they may change their opinion later but even that decision is final. The entailment stops with it. So the key word here is ultimate, an ultimate basis for everything in its domain.
Meaning and Purpose
I think most atheists would agree that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to reality. The Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, famously said once: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. So what entails from this view is that whatever meaning or purpose an atheist finds or creates for herself, their life and everything else is ultimately meaningless. Now perhaps this may not be such a big deal to many atheists, but I think for most people this would be a grim prospect. I think most people, at least psychologically, would like to think that their lives really meant something more than just a set of temporal events. However, for the atheist, their passions, strivings, work, thoughts and feelings, and relationships are just dust in the wind, temporal fluctuations in space-time that signify nothing in the end.
Theists and non-theists like Buddhists believe there is an ultimate basis for value and by extension morality. For theists, God is that basis and Buddhists have their own system of ethics which they believe is rooted in the ultimate. Atheists can claim no ultimate basis for value or morality. Now this does not mean that atheists can’t be moral. To the contrary. I have found my atheist friends and most other atheists I have known to be highly moral. However, no matter how “good” those moral positions may be to me or our culture, without an ultimate basis they are ultimately arbitrary. This leads to an important implication, I think, for atheists when arguing for a moral position. For the atheist there is no objective moral high ground. This means that when faced with another moral position (say like the ISIS tenets or Nazi fascism) they have no objective, ultimate basis for what is right or wrong to point to. It’s all subjective. Ultimately those other positions, no matter how abhorrent, are just as logically valid as any other. For the atheist all moral judgments and actions are merely local preferences of a group. The group may wish to find ways to spread that moral sentiment and even enforce it, but they have no objective argument that their way is better than any other. To me this is another grim aspect of the implications of atheism.
On the other hand, those who hold to an ultimate basis for morality, the situation is very different. I don’t think it was an accident that Thomas Jefferson invoked the Creator in his famous Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
By invoking the creator, Jefferson appeals to the ultimate basis for value (rights) that cannot be supplanted by sub-ultimate positions, particularly any human agency (like the British King in his case). For Jefferson these truths are self-evident. This speaks to some access to these ultimate values.
Now this does not mean that there are no problems with value and morality for those who believe in an ultimate basis for same. To the contrary. Much evil has been done in the name of God or some other ultimate basis. But these problems are not ontological. They are epistemological(knowing), personal, and social. The challenge for theists and believing non-theists is to some how discern what the ultimate values are and then attempt to instantiate them. Resources for this include wisdom literature, religious experience, philosophy, dialog among adherents, analysis of consequences, etc.
Typically, I think it is safe to say, almost all atheists accept some version of what could be called scientific materialism or physicalism. Now materialism attributes all causes to either necessity or chance (quantum indeterminacy). This, I think, presents a strange situation for the atheist. If all events are caused by necessity or chance, then where is there any opening for libertarian free will? For the atheist, they just do what they do and couldn’t have done any differently. Their thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and the dynamics of chance and necessity. As the key term in the free will debate says “they couldn’t have done otherwise”. Sounds pretty grim to me. Now, materialistic philosophers have played semantic games to try to mitigate this problem but if examined thoroughly, there is no relief for the problem of “could have done otherwise”.
If the atheist really thinks about this, it presents a strange mental quandary. No matter what they think or do, if they think about that, even that thought couldn’t have been otherwise. And to make things worse, the “I” of the atheist is an empty concept even though it presents itself to the mind. The “I” is not a free agent but merely a conscious representation of what inevitably goes on in the mind. From the Darwinian perspective this feeling that “I” freely made decisions is a probably just a cruel trick of evolution so that I don’t go mad and instead continue to push my genes into the next generation.
And then there are moral positions. No matter how passionate an atheist is about some moral position, they really couldn’t have taken another. They just do what they do. Their passions are also just the product of necessity and chance. So, if they were honest, they would also realize that those who oppose their moral positions couldn’t have done otherwise either.
It just seems to me that in a life where there is no free will, everything breaks down. What a strange view of the self and the world. It represents life where everything is just going through the motions, mere automatons, determined by relentless forces with no real agency, no value, no will, no meaning, no nothing that we all hold dear. A grim view.
So Why Write This?
It might seem that I have a grudge against atheism or just want to be mean to atheists. Not so. I have friends who are atheists and I like and appreciate them very much. However, there are a couple of reasons I wrote this. I am a non-traditional theist. I don’t hold to any religious tradition. However, I do appreciate the good that is found in most religious people. I think their religion helps them navigate life in beneficial ways, and promotes in them the desire to help others.
But recently, ordinary religious folk have been attacked unmercifully by prominent militant atheists in books and the media. They have been labeled as stupid, ignorant, misguided, unscientific, irrational and the list goes on. Some of this is true. I myself have been critical of much in religious thought and practice. However, irrespective of the faults I see in religion and theology, in my travels I have seen a lot of people who genuinely try to follow the moral and social tenets of their religion. While they may not have thought much about what or why they believe what they do, they still feel some connection to the divine and although fragmentarily, they try to live up to what they believe the divine draws them to. They deserve to be appreciated instead of denigrated.
The irony is that these militants portray an arrogance about their rationality and scientific profundity. What I tried to show here is that for most of them this is misguided and actually false. Atheists are people just like everyone else. We all have our reasons for adopting certain positions. We all have our neuroses and defense mechanisms. In my view, there should be a healthy humility in all of us. Atheists can be just as irrational and unscientific as anyone else. Suppression and denial about the grim realities of atheism I have addressed do not allay their significance.
Now this will sound presumptuous, but the second reason I wrote to this was to suggest that there may be reasonable positions that do not rule out some ultimate and meaningful grounding for our reality. I myself have entertained atheism in my life. As life presents its challenges, it may come to mind. But for me the grim realities of that position pushed me on to see if there was a reasonable religious alternative that didn’t offend my intelligence. I think it is possible. My journey didn’t settle on anything traditional but rather drew from multiple ideas found throughout the ages. We are all unique and it’s a personal thing. Each person will have to seek out their solutions to their own particular deep questions. Now for those atheists who accept that there are grim issues with atheism but forge ahead to live noble lives, I salute them. But for those who feel uncomfortable with this situation, perhaps they can take a journey to look hard at their own sensibilities, the wisdom literature throughout the ages, and whatever else might be helpful, to see if there is some other position they could feel more comfortable with.