Atheism is Dead?

There will always be atheists in the world—so I’m not talking about a demographic trend. I don’t know where atheism is heading with the masses. For all I know, it may be growing faster than any other idea in the world. Go team! But I’m not talking about who’s up and who’s down in the wars of religion. I’m asking about vitality. I’m asking the question: Is atheism a death cult, a premature closure on eccentricity and possibility?

And in this, as an agnostic, I must say that it is. It’s why I’m not an atheist.

I’ve asked myself more than a few times lately, Why do I call myself an agnostic and not an atheist? And I keep coming back to closure. Certainty (or near certainty) on matters approaching the ontological mystery feels ridiculous to me. Belief, any belief—including belief in atheism—appears t be the enemy of thought. And then, when watching this clip from Terence McKenna, it occurred to me: I don’t like atheism for exactly the same reason that I don’t like noncharismatic religion.

When I was a teenager, and attending Christian churches, I gravitated toward charismatic religion for the same reasons that I gravitate toward agnosticism today. I wanted an encounter with the ontological mystery, an experience. The noncharismatic churches I encountered (like the atheist “web congregations” of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers) set themselves against a direct encounter with the ontological mystery and the transcendent. They demarcated life in such a way as to drive the wild eros from it.

And that’s what the new atheists do today. Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers are secular John MacArthurs. They function as the spike-collared rotweillers to William Blake’s Urizen, the dismissers, restricters, and policers of exotic imaginative energies:

And:

A world of Dawkins-style atheism would be as narrow and dead as one circumscribed by any noncharismatic version of religion. The wild plants must have their air and sunlight—and we are those wild plants. Atheists and noncharismatic religionists prematurely tame the ontological mystery, and they leave little space for the ecstatic. Can you, for instance, imagine Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand submitting to glossolalia? Agnostics and charismatic experiencers of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but their chains!

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Atheism is Dead?

  1. 1minionsopinion says:

    Atheism isn’t a religion. Atheists are as varied as any other group. Sure, it has its zealots, its loudmouths, its passionate people. Not every atheist agrees with their viewpoints or style of atheism. Some of us are just ordinary folk who get on with living life, loving our families and do our jobs. The lack of a belief in a deity is no detriment to enjoying what the world has to offer.

  2. santitafarella says:

    1minion:

    What, exactly, does the world offer if it is dead matter, all ultimately and completely reducible to blind and determinate physics and chemistry? What do you eat? (I’m speaking metaphorically.) How do you live on sawdust?

    —Santi

  3. Glossolalia?!?!? You actually think that something that has been shown to be nothing other than uttering absurd noises is wonderful? Oh, my… What next, homeopathy? Iridology? You seem to believe anything that is anti-intellectual. It is you that is eating sawdust, and claim it’s filet mignon! There is so much in this universe that is wonderful, more than enough to fill a million lifetimes of study without bringing in such crap.

    And before making a claim such as ‘atheism is dead’, you might want to take a look at some statistics. Atheism is on the rise, not fall. Perhaps you should rethink your position that the end result is bleak. I think you should because you are clearly wrong. You’re a half-empty kind of guy.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Shameless:

    We’re all eating sawdust. The universe is a desert without the human imagination. Atheism itself is a product of the human imagination. Here’s the atheist imagination at work: “Let’s pretend the universe consists of blind determinate matter that made itself from nothing [!] or has always existed [!], and let’s pretend that it hath made all that we see around us [!], including the laws of physics [!!], the first life [!!!], and our minds [!!!!]. Oh, and let’s pretend that matter hath given us the illusion of free will [!!!!!] for no reason whatsoever.” What a far out trip! That’s as wild as glossalalia, don’t you think?

    The atheist imagination believes itself alone to be sane, and to the extent that it is convinced of this, it seeks to choke other routes for the human imagination. It is Blake’s Urizen (“your reason”). It is your local reason imagining itself normative. It chokes the “weeds” even as it becomes itself unfruitful.

    —Santi

    • gonovelgo says:

      I’ll have to strongly disagree with your characterization of ‘the atheist imagination at work’. For most atheists – for me, certainly, and for most of those I’ve ever known – none of what you described above is supposed to be certain. None of it. I’ve known atheists who have doubted our free will (based on rational argument), I’ve known atheists who have thought long and hard about the mind/body problem, and I’d say that every atheist everywhere has given a lot of thought to where exactly this universe of ours came from. And you know what? It’s fun to do so. Whatever conclusion one comes to, an atheist’s ability to consider any hypothesis is a pretty ‘far out trip’ indeed.

      But if you’d like to suggest a better and more supportable alternative to any of the problem I’ve just mentioned, be my guest. I’m content at the moment to say that I haven’t the first idea how the universe came to be, why the laws of physics are as they are, or when and how the first life arose. How could I know any of those things? How could anybody? The ‘ontological mystery’ and some fuzzy notions of ‘transcendence’ are not ever going to provide answers to these questions, and I have no desire to convolute my existing ignorance with empty mysticism.

  5. What a far out trip! That’s as wild as glossalalia, don’t you think?

    No, indeed I most certainly do not! One has the evidence in favor and we have a pretty good idea how each of these happened naturally (your incredulity aside, and is not evidence to the contrary anyway), one has evidence massed against it as being anything other than gibberish. How can you possibly equate the two?

    The atheist imagination believes itself alone to be sane, and to the extent that it is convinced of this, it seeks to choke other routes for the human imagination. It is Blake’s Urizen (”your reason”).

    NO!!! It serves to free us from wasting time on things that can be shown to be junk (and are often harmful, as I think religion can be shown to be) so we can spend our time on things that are truly wonderful. We don’t need to make up crap to see the wonder and beauty in the universe. What has religious belief given us that can compare? Nothing! Only banal bleatings of nonsense. I find nature far more wonderful than the obviously made-up junk of the religious. And far less dangerous.

    Seriously, you are a half-empty type of dude.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Atheism is not a religion.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Shameless:

    As an atheist, you’ve imaginatively constructed a world for yourself that YOU TREAT AS TRUE. At least be honest enough with yourself to not lend your beliefs more epistemic warrant than they do, in fact, have. You don’t know that atheism is true, but you treat it as true. Atheism is one of the great products of the human imagination. I want atheists in the mix of the world’s intellectual flowers. Like Islam or Christianity or Judaism, it is something that some people TREAT AS TRUE without being able to demonstrate to sympathetic outsiders that it is true. To outsiders not seduced by the imaginative system (whether it be atheism or Hinduism or Shamanism) it is far from convincing, but to the believers it seems as obvious as the back of their hands.

    Can you, by the way, tell me what’s so truly wonderful about the universe? If there is no mind behind it answering to my mind, don’t I have to provide the mind and interest from my side? If I don’t, isn’t it like reading a book that has no author? Let’s say I encounter a book, however improbable, written entirely by the chance drops of hail upon an electric typewriter. Lets say I know that every sentence in the book is made by chance, and now I read this sentence from it: “He halted in the wind, and—what was that / Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?” Is there anything to wonder about it? It was made by accident. Unless I can derive some material utility from it in the form of food or technology, why would I stand in awe of it? Wonder at it? It means nothing, right? It has no intelligence behind it. It’s pretty, but it’s only pretty because the human imagination makes it pretty. It means nothing apart from the human imagination, isn’t that so? And isn’t that also true of nature and the universe, if atheism is correct? It is a book without an author. Where it is wonderous or beautiful, it is by accident so. Correct?

    Now if I discover that Robert Frost wrote the lines, and not the hail, suddenly my interest returns. I wonder at each word. I want to know what he means. But words absent an author are akin to a material universe absent mind. What can be drawn from it but utility? An ontological mystery becomes a machine, a function, and nothing more.

    It becomes something dead.

    Agnosticism (for me) inhabits a middle position. I don’t know if the universe has an author. But the very possibility makes for interest. It would be like encountering a book where I don’t know if hail or Frost (pun intended) wrote the book. But so long as there is the possibility of Frost, there is something to explore. But once you KNOW the book is written by hail, then it loses it’s wonder (unless you bring the wonder from your own imagination). You can’t wonder at one damn thing after another.

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Gonovelgo:

    Just to be clear. You exclude mind as a possible source behind the material universe, is that right? You believe that matter is either eternal or came into existence from nothing, right? You don’t know the details, but that much you take to be true?

    I agree with you that there are lots of wonderful scientific details to puzzle about, but your wonder is confined to those details, not to whether there might be some telos behind the universe. Is that your position?

    —Santi

    • gonovelgo says:

      That depends what you mean by ‘exclude’. If you mean that I don’t currently believe that there is a mind behind the physical universe then yes, I exclude that possibility. If you mean that I flat-out reject it and consider it impossible and am certain that I will never change my mind then no, I don’t exclude it. It certainly could be the case, but it’s not what I’d bet on right now.

      I also don’t take it to be true that matter is either eternal or came into existence from nothing. They are two possibilities, nothing more. As I’ve already said, I don’t know where matter came from because, as far as I can see, nobody could possibly know. Any answer I give with anything approaching certainty would amount to a guess.

  9. santitafarella says:

    Gonovelgo:

    You offered a good response, but what would constitute, for you, sufficient evidence for bringing you over to agnosticism (as opposed to atheism)?

    Do you give any credence, for example, to the eyewitness testimony of near death experiencers, or do you think I’m a bit silly for posting such videos at my site?

    If you, personally, had a near death experience akin to some of those I’ve posted lately, and it was particularly vivid, would you take your own experience for an illusion, given that you believe the background information you already have about the universe favors atheism and materialism?

    I guess I’m asking the “qualia” question. Science is nowhere near explaining why we would experience red as red, and since material explanation falls so far short on a reasonable account of mental experience, maybe we should be reluctant to reduce mind to matter, yes? In other words, isn’t the sane position agnosticism?

    And if you believe that you really experience red, then if you have a near death experience maybe you should accept that too. Imagine a blind person told by a sighted person that they see these amazing qualia, such as the color red. The blind person could say: That’s total bullshit. Science cannot offer any plausible material explanation for such a dimension of experience. Wouldn’t you say, I see nonetheless—or would you say, I guess I’m tripping, then?

    —Santi

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