Is Atheism Just the Denial of Gods?

Sometimes contemporary atheists try to wall-off the psychological implications of becoming an atheist by saying: “Atheism is just the denial of gods. Nothing more.” But though this may be a reasonable starting definition for what an atheist is, it is ultimately disingenuous to stop there. The implications of becoming an atheist are much, much more far ranging than this. There is nothing casual about becoming an atheist.

Take just one example: When you deny the existence of gods, for many people this opens a psychological void in them that is hard to simply ignore. How so? Because we are hierarchical primates. Unlike our bonobo primate cousins, who have a strong matrilineal cultural evolution going, we resemble more the chimps, with fear and competition among alpha-males for the role of tribal “chief daddy.”

God functions in many human psyches as the alpha-male writ-large. God plays a significant role in the governance of the human psyche. You kill the alpha male, you leave a hole. You have to. If we were non-social, non-hierarchical sharks with big brains, atheism would create less angst. But we’re social primates with strong dispositions toward alpha-male ranking. When you ask humans to toss out God from the psyche, you are asking them to become self-made fatherless primates.

Belief in gods or God may well be an escape from freedom. It may be childish. But it is also deeply human to gather around a hierarchical alpha-male father figure for guidance and gestures of obedience. As an agnostic myself, I’m not saying God-belief is necessarily right or true. I’m saying that the atheist position is tricky psychologically—and with many more implications than its simple definition entails. And I’m saying that to ask people to absent themselves of the alpha-male is like asking lovers to stop calling each other “baby” and talking “baby talk” and treating each other as mommies and daddies in certain contexts. Many of the dynamics of love are juvenile, and mimic gestures of maternal and paternal care, as are the mommy and daddy dynamics of religion. But they are that way because we are not only like our matrilineal, hippie bonobo cousins, but also like our chimp cousins (with male aggression and dominance, and a long evolutionary heritage of taking guidance and offering submission to alpha-male daddies).

Thus if you are an evangelizing atheist, you’re asking people to live without a writ-large alpha-daddy. That’s an absence. A heartbreak. A source of anxiety. A confusion about rules. People have to figure out how to put in place things that they didn’t have to think about much before. And because most people are, well, not excited to be terribly attentive to detail, they will have difficulty making better AVERAGE decisions than if they let their religion simply make them for them. In other words, a lot of people, without the alpha-daddy religious prohibitions, will go out and get VD, drink too much, and perhaps make much less disciplined lives for themselves without religious guidance. I’m speaking on average.

Religion is like a decent diet program. The average person can give themselves over to it, and lose a bit more weight than if they did it on their own. It’s the alpha-daddy guidance that hierarchical primates tend to want (to function well): “Just tell me what the fuck to do, and where, and in what directions, I should bow!” It’s an elegant shorthand that can solve many problems at once. Religion is a form of outsourcing to the alpha-daddy.

In othere words, there’s something deep in many people to want a big hairy gorilla daddy figure (like Chopper) to coach them and say, “Harden the fuck up!”:

Religion is the MSN Butterfly helping you with your golf swing; it’s Chopper with you at the gym; its the personal trainer who makes you eat right without thinking about it, and says, “Do one more lap!”

But atheism says, “Do your own fucking laps—or none at all. You’re on your own!”

That’s a void that takes a lot of work for an alpha-male oriented species to fill and get used to. Thus it is much too glib to simply fence off atheism as a simple “denial of gods.” It’s profoundly misleading.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Is Atheism Just the Denial of Gods?

  1. makarios says:

    atheism attempts to deny only Creator God. atheists sometimes throw in Thor or pink fairies or Zeus in an attempt to interject some mocking humour, but we all know, including atheists exactly who their talking about.

    • Shamelessly Atheist says:

      “atheism attempts to deny only Creator God. atheists sometimes throw in Thor or pink fairies or Zeus in an attempt to interject some mocking humour, but we all know, including atheists exactly who their talking about.” Of course we do, because Christians keep shoving their deity in our faces. But as an atheist I think the Abrahamic god is just as likely as Thor or Zeus – not at all.

  2. Logicel says:

    Excellent post. Especially because you once again refrained from referring to Freud (just reference to nice, solid anthropology). You also were light on the melodrama. Kudos for that restraint.

    I really do not know how it must feel for a theist to become an atheist. Though raised very religious which meant I had to keep my atheism to myself until I was able to be on my own at age 18, I was always a non-believer from my earliest memories, from the age of 7 (Nobody was able to tell me who made God which caused me to promptly lose interest in religion as reality and regarded it as a bunch of bollocks). And I never found lack of belief difficult; it is exhilarating! Thusly, for me, atheism is simply lack of god belief.

    And for some former theists whom I have met on the Net, atheism is now just a lack of god belief. They consider all the very wonderful aspects of being an human are still intact, requiring no alpha male sky daddy for such marvelous attributes to remain.

    In addition, the family in the West has changed drastically, even from my parent’s generation’s view. I regard the fundamentalists’ focus on family is because they have a vested interest in keeping the family patriarchal. And it isn’t that way any longer. As family mores become less and less patriarchal, there will be people born into such families which would mean that a patriarchal structure would seem unappealing, including the alpha nut in the sky, to these people.

  3. citizenkn says:

    Agnostic basically means you are afraid to make a decision. When you discover yourself, let us know.

  4. You’re not just an agnostic, you’re a Good German.

  5. santitafarella says:

    The Barefoot Bum:

    I think you’re abusing the phrase “good German.” From my vantage, the good German is one who might have tried to undermine Nazi policies to save Jews from the Holocaust. That’s a “good German.” You, however, are somehow implying (if I read your reference correctly) that I am giving aid and comfort to authoritarian religion by pointing out some of the difficulties in being an atheist, is that right? You think my critique tries to undermine secular ways of being in the world, correct?


  6. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for the compliment. Given my personality, it was hard to leave any Freud “Totem and Taboo” references out of that post! I shook like a nervous little dog (think Ren and Stimpy) but I did it!

    I think that it is interesting that you don’t feel these impulses in yourself. I certainly don’t mean to imply that alpha-male religious projection impulses are present in all humans. Evolution requires selective variation. Not everyone in a population is going to have the same things that they salivate to, otherwise how would selection pressure come into an equation?


  7. Veronica Abbass says:


    Did you write this article? If so, why?


  8. santitafarella says:


    I did, and it’s a product of my thinking about the definition of atheism that was offered to me by a couple of people on a thread at Richard Dawkins’s website. I felt it was too narrow and glib a response to what it means to call yourself an atheist.


  9. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for bringing me up to speed on the fight this week between the biologists and philosophers. I hadn’t been following it. I read Miller’s essay against Coyne, and your thread comment, and Coyne’s responses to Miller. And I just posted a quote by Miller on this blog.

    Using the “f” word is definitely Myers’ style. To me, Myers is the Rush Limbaugh of atheism—he’s usually much too obnoxious for my taste.


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