Some Things to Think About if You are an Evangelical Atheist

Are you an atheist, and are you evangelical about it? In other words, do you want other people to become atheists too? I’m an agnostic myself, but I’m not sure whether I can really recommend it. It seems like a hard path to me. And I wonder if it’s possible to be too glib about telling others what it means to be an atheist, or even an agnostic, as in this atheist bus ad campaign:

Atheist and agnostic evangelism can be Diet Coke misleading if we pretend that atheism and agnosticism aren’t real divorces from vital sources of hope in human beings. You’re asking people to give up (or at least be very skeptical of) hope of very particular kinds. You’re asking people to accept as fact that their loved ones don’t go on; that they don’t go on; that the universe has no purpose, but came into existence of itself, and without any ultimate meaning. You’re suggesting to people that there might be no grounding for morality. None. If a person eats another person, or loves another person, or rapes another person, ultimately these might just be competing evolutionary strategies, and any of them might prove successful in a particular context.

And religion is a passion. To many people, to ask them to live without religion is akin to asking them to live without lovers. Atheism can obliterate the heart—and set people in a desert alone—and it asks people, should that be their experience of atheism, to accept it as their fate because religion is false, and to nevertheless build a life in that obliterated landscape. But this is a stout path that even heroic intellectuals like Albert Camus had difficulty trodding. I think that this Barbra Streisand video is a good analogy for the passion of religion and its potential, if lost, for psychological obliteration:

Of course, not everybody feels obliterated when they lose their religion. Many even feel liberated. Not everybody wants to look at the obliteration. Maybe the smart thing for atheists and agnostics, psychologically, is to never dwell on what is obliterated. But some doors have closed when you become an atheist. Other doors might open, but others shut very hard. It’s not all air and sunlight on the atheist and agnostic side.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr even thinks that hope of the kind that atheism blocks is well nigh crucial to the happiness and physical vigor of (at least most) human beings. Here’s Niebuhr, from the beginning of his essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” (1940):

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

In other words, Niebuhr sees optimistic belief in the universe’s meaningfulness as an important factor for human psychological energy. The universe must, in some ultimate sense, hold together as a cosmos rather than a chaos for people to be happy in it. This is the opposite of Albert Camus’s view. Camus believed that it was an unblinkered encounter with the chaotic and absurd universe (its contingency, purposelessness, and indifference) that sets the atheist to vigorous rebellion and life. Here’s Albert Camus from the “Myth of Sisyphus”:

“I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”

In other words, Camus suggests that an honest encounter with the universe’s absurdity—the suffering and death in it, and the universe’s apparent lack of purpose and indifference to us—paradoxically can lead to a vital life. It is an outraged person’s refusal of the absurd that can then affirm rebellion, freedom, and passion against it. But Camus’s atheism, while arriving at human positivity and vigor via absurdity, starts with a bleak and unblinkered encounter with meaninglessness. In other words, he does not treat atheism glibly.

Further, to arrive at Camus’s optimism we must (as Camus puts it) “imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Sisyphus happy?

To say the least, atheism is no easy road if Sisyphus is, ultimately, its patron saint. Only the stoutest individuals would seem fit for it.

Is that elitist to say so?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Some Things to Think About if You are an Evangelical Atheist

  1. SM says:

    You cover several points in your post. I’m not sure what you are looking for but I will chime in with my thoughts and see what happens!

    You say being agnostic is a hard path. I used to be one and agree with that — The mind wants answers; it seeks to fill in the gaps. Since one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, agnosticism is really the only logical conclusion given the evidence. And yet, part of us is not happy with that answer. It seems somehow incomplete, like the answer to a trick question.

    So, if you choose to be agnostic, or any type of belief system, you will have two reactions (if you listen to yourself closely) — one from your head and one from your heart. My head concluded agnosticism was reasonable but my heart implored me to reconsider. By abandoning that belief system, I felt liberated and lost at the same time, since intellect was attached to the notion but my inner being (or limbic brain for atheists) was not. Once I recognized this personal truth, I also understood how silly it would be to evangelize any belief system other than to give oneself the comfort of social validation — hardly worthy of proving the existence of something so grand as a creator!

    The Universe is a blank. It is a cosmic movie screen and we are the projectors of meaning onto it. All meaning, however universal it is assumed to be, is subjective. In this sense then, both Camus and Niebuhr were correct, as the universe reflected their subjective meaning. Indeed it does for all of us!

    So choose your meaning wisely!

  2. Logicel says:

    “Is that elitist to say so?”

    No, but it is presumptuous to assume what would be difficult or not for someone to take in stride in their lives. It is also none of your business.

    Atheist evangelicals? Are they the ones that go to door to door preaching and tithing their little heads off? I, myself, have never met an atheist evangelical.

    Again, atheism is lack of god belief, not that atheists know there is no god(s). As I see no evidence of interaction of a supernatural being in this world, than there might as well not be one. There really are much more important and pressing issues than bothering with the god concept.

    I am open about my atheism not to convert anyone but to simply be honest: I have no god belief. And also show that it is not very difficult to be an happy, fulfilled person and an atheist. In actuality, people with whom I get along, it is trivial if they are an atheist or a theist. Absolutely trivial.

    So where are all these evangelical atheists hiding? Or are you confusing outspoken, happy people who focus on critical thinking that just happen to be atheists as evangelical? Sigh.

  3. makarios says:

    wow! Fine, fine post. And your response sm. Fine thoughts. Thank you.

  4. I don’t think atheism is at all a hard path. And regardless of who is asking for what, a request is not a demand: If people find their hopes more valuable than the truth, they will retain them.

    Your attitude is extremely condescending to religious people: They can’t handle the truth.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Barefoot Bum:

    I think that the religious path is extremely difficult in different ways, and that atheists have very good reasons not to want to get on it that have nothing to do with truth.

    Is that being condescending to atheists?

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Logicel:

    Most Christian Evangelicals don’t go door to door, but they are still, well, evangelical. Dawkins speaks of his atheist book in evangelical terms. He wants the believer to pick it up, read it, and on putting it down, be an unbeliever. That sounds evangelical to me. Obviously, if your attitude is that you want to influence public debate about religion, so that religion is discredited, and people become atheists, and you “imagine no religion” (ala John Lennon), then you have a notion about atheism akin to “imagine McDonalds” on every street corner. There’s a selling to the masses quality to neo-atheism that many earlier atheists would think foolish and ill-considered. From ancient Roman atheists to Voltaire, atheism and skepticism toward the gods was always thought of as something for intellectuals, not the masses. It’s also a path that requires a good deal of measured intellectuality lest it appear as a coarse version, with people in the streets destroying churches. Need one be reminded that the French Revolution, in its excesses toward religious persecution, was a phenomenon of trying to bring atheism to masses.

    I’m not saying I agree with an elitist view of atheism, only that it should be seriously thought through. It seems to be not something talked about much. It’s just assumed that, in our democratic age, that atheism, like anything else, is to be sold and is, in some sense, easy-peezy and in no way rendered problematic by mass-consumption.

    Might atheism, when not taken in measured and homeopathic doses, be a poison (as religion is when not taken in homeopathic doses)?

    —Santi

  7. santitafarella says:

    SM:

    You have more than a bit of wisdom in your post. We sometimes treat intellectuality as the arbiter of action, and ignore the heart. Kant once heard a Liebnitz-like justification for childhood suffering and replied: “My heart rejects it!”

    I assume that you are now a non-evangelical theist of some sort, having arrived at some sort of Niebuhr-like position, but without the desire to foist it upon others in an evangelical way.

    Interesting comments and way of seeing the world.

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Makarios:

    Thank you for your kind encouragement.

    —Santi

  9. Pingback: Does the Honest Application of Skepticism and Critical Thought Lead One Inevitably to Atheism? « Prometheus Unbound

  10. Sir Gnome says:

    The 40’s and post-war era were a great time for Existentialist-leaning essays on finding meaning in a meaningless world, or likewise addressing the tensions between meaning and non-meaning. In the same vein as Niebuhr, I’ve always enjoyed Viktor Frankl’s self-descriptive book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It’s not nearly as mainstream as contemporary philosophers, but no less insightful; and the narrative itself is overwhelming (and simply painful).

    In at least some regard, I think Camus’ views, if they step into the extreme, deserve their proper place as a human expression of his times. Sartre probably rates as *the* philosopher of meaningless, but I always prefer the themes of grace and fraternity that permeate Camus’ philosophy novels. In that regard, Camus portrayal of Sisyphus dovetails neatly with Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return, of things endlessly ebbing and regenerating, but with a heavy bias toward the ebb side.

    In retrospect, it is probably an accurate assessment to say that Existentialism (although a much looser term than implied) marks the final project of a fully Atheistic metaphysics; a project whose consequence was not the “total” liberation of the individual, but quite the opposite. And thus, postmodernism came and spoiled the party.

  11. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    I liked your reflection, but might it also be possible that Postmodernism, as a kind of by-product of nihilism, is atheism’s real metaphysical destination—and dead-end? In other words, isn’t existentialism a route that struggles not to lapse into nihilism and postmodern relativity? And what about Nietzsche? Isn’t the ground gone when we look closely?

    I am thinking of developing a thought that I’ve had. I see on thread discussions a lot of people whom I would call “Don Quixote atheists” (atheists who do not look at their epistemic and metaphysical premises with their eyes wide open). Their atheism seems to float along on a very superficial plain (they don’t like religion; they’re vaguely self-satisfied with capitalism and middle class life; they think ultimate questions silly and a subject for derision). Kind of Nietzsche’s “last men” as atheists.

    —Santi

  12. Sir Gnome says:

    “In other words, isn’t existentialism a route that struggles not to lapse into nihilism and postmodern relativity?”

    Maybe, but that’s where the term “Existentialism” fractures into various, hyphenated strains. I definitely think Camus is in the camp you describe, with Existentialists (Frankl, Jaspers, Kierkegaard, et al) who tried their best to avert lapsing into nihilism by emphasizing the creative powers of human beings and our ability to create transcendent meanings and modes of signification. But Camus’ “absurd” contrasts greatly with Sartre’s full-on embrace of the void in his notions of “total” (ie, non-dialectical/non-phenomenological) freedom. As many hyphenations of Existentialism are possible, there is certainly a primary distinction between Sartre’s Existential-nihilism and an affirmative Existentialism embracing our meaning-capacity. Existential-theism may fit in the latter category, but I think it’s more appropriate to think of it as just a subset of theism—depends on the kind of theism at-hand.

    Sartre, Camus, and the other Existentialists fascinated me as an undergrad, and Existentialism–to me–is my hold out for hope of a possible Atheistic worldview that seeks a morality instead of trying to pre-emptively deny its possibility. My concern is the hubris with which so many Atheists aren’t familiar with the crises involved in trying to reconcile morality and the ontological possibility of Atheism, and to the extent that they really don’t even care. To them its just bumperstickers and trivial religious mockery. They can traverse thousands of years of human tragedy, atrocity, longing, pain—and reduce it all to lackadaisical and specious arguments from biology. Isn’t it a “posterior” truth that I am a interwoven product of that history, and thus its magnitude may be of some minor importance to me, even if I disagree with past presuppositions? Aren’t past presuppositions exactly why the past is “the past”? It’s a truly bourgeois attitude, and in the instance of those whose Atheism relies on religion as its object of scorn, it causes me to believe that this whole “new” Atheism thing equates to an anti-Existential expression. And worse yet, it is much more than that. To say the least, it is contradictorily at odds with Sartre’s notions of freedom to attach one’s freedom to some object of ressentiment, and somehow that’s not a problem. But oh yeah, he was like, an Atheist or something wasn’t he?

    Thanks Santi, impressive work as usual.

  13. Sir Gnome says:

    FWIW, I forgot to mention how Dadaist ideas of “play” predate Camus’ absurd. They make for an interesting comparison, not the least in terms of the commentary embedded in twenties and thirties comedy. There is much to be said for the fact that Dada’s “play” doesn’t have the same masculine-dominated touches of absurdism and/or nihilism which are, unfortunately enough, exemplified by Sisyphus imagery.

  14. sykik says:

    It seems to me that affirming something without knowledge is the same as denying it without knowledge. When the fact remains unproven, to agree or not, is then simply a matter of belief. Forcing beliefs, then, is fanaticism – be it theistic or other.

  15. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    You said: “My concern is the hubris with which so many Atheists aren’t familiar with the crises involved in trying to reconcile morality and the ontological possibility of Atheism, and to the extent that they really don’t even care. To them its just bumperstickers and trivial religious mockery. They can traverse thousands of years of human tragedy, atrocity, longing, pain—and reduce it all to lackadaisical and specious arguments from biology.”

    I think you make an extremely important point here, and said it eloquently.

    —Santi

  16. Pingback: PZ Myers and Albert Camus: Two Very Different Kinds of Atheists Inhabiting Two Very Different Kinds of Atheism? « Prometheus Unbound

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