Atheism: More Than Cool Reason?

One of the narratives that atheists like to tell about themselves is this:

  • We are the brave facers of the truth. There is no God, and death is the end of individual existence. We have reached conclusions that are unpleasant to many, but it is a mark of our adult maturity that we have done so. Difficult though it may be, we have not pushed compelling and converging lines of evidence away from our psyches. We are the purveyors of cool reason, and so emotionalists despise us.

By contrast, religious people (at least according to atheists) willfully distort the truth of things because they desperately want God to exist (that they might live forever). As an agnostic, I’m inclined to agree with atheists about this. Religious people are highly motivated by hope and fear, and their apologetic moves often come across (at least to me) as rationalizations designed to salvage relatively weak hypotheses.

Still, I have a question for atheists: Why do you imagine that you are not motivated to be an atheist? Do you really think that you have arrived at your own views as a result of the strict compulsions of reason alone? At some important level, obviously you want atheism to be true, right?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Atheism: More Than Cool Reason?

  1. Matt says:

    Interesting question. I suspect there are as many different answers for this as there are atheists, but here’s mine …
    No, I wouldn’t say that I ever ‘wanted’ atheism to be true.
    I grew up in a very supportive, very happy household and community, which was very centred around an evangelical Christian church.
    Leaving the church meant losing friends and distancing myself from my family (the bonds of which have now happily been repaired).
    But it wasn’t something I wanted to do; rather it was something I felt I had to do if I was going to be intellectually honest.
    My history and familiarity with the Christian faith means it offers me a lot in terms of nostalgia.
    If I were to find hard evidence that the claims of the Christian church were true, then I’d be very happy. It would be very easy and comfortable for me to slip back into that lifestyle and that community.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Hmm. Intellectual honesty? I respect that answer. But I suppose that is a form of pleasure, too. (It is uncomfortable, don’t you think, to live a double life? To get into harmony with yourself is a form of pleasure.) I think that when I was, say, twenty, and if I were asked this question, I would have said the same thing. It’s what it felt like to me too—a compelling conclusion that I could not ignore. And I didn’t want to live a double life. But it is also true that atheism had other advantages. I luxuriated in the release of intellectual freedom (and other forms of freedom) that nonbelief offered. I devoured, for example, forbidden secular books (books that I would not have read as a Christian because I feared that they were worldly intellectual and sinful). I do think that after tasting the atheist spring, the pleasures were too intoxicating to want to turn back. There was a point where I wouldn’t have wanted religion to be true. I’m not sure I feel that way today. I think I’d like God to exist (so long as God is nice, and not a hellfire type of being).


  3. Patrick Oden says:

    Very interesting question. I hope that more answer-comments come. I’d like to know what people have to say about this idea.

  4. Jared Burton says:

    I just want to point to a person I have found most useful in the debate of atheism. His name is Corliss Lamont. He supported a movement known as “Humanism” and wrote some profound literature that makes up the foundation’s philosophy. It was endorsed by popular culture for a while (Gene Rodenberry for one) and he was well respected in academic circles. Humanism, as a organization, seems to have no coherence today but the original writings of Lamont are very thought provoking.

    The basic understading that I have the philosophy is: When we die, that is it — do your best to make the world a better place before then and you will be fulfilled.

    Here is a good link:
    you die and you will live a fulfilling life.

  5. 1minionsopinion says:

    “Why do you imagine that you are not motivated to be an atheist?” You ask.

    My parents never motivated me to become an atheist. Never did they guide my life with the atheist word uttered. What they did instead was say no when I asked to go with my cousin to bible camp. They never stopped me from hanging out with her, though, or going there for sleepovers, even though it meant bible stories before bed and Sunday school after breakfast.

    They never discouraged me from trying prayer or bible reading as often as I wanted, but it never was anything I could keep up with, since they never nagged me to do any of it, unlike their pestering for my clarinet practicing.

    They liked the fact that I had church-going friends primarily because they were the good kind that lived piously, rather than becoming little rebellious law breakers when their folks weren’t around. They knew I’d be in good hands if I hung out with them.

    Mom did have a habit of hiding when Jehovah’s Witness ladies came around, but that had more to do with thinking they were time wasters rather than delusional wingnuts or something. Better to hide and let them drive away than be stuck listening to their spiel for an hour.

    They were never adamantly against religion, though. They just didn’t encourage any. And, by and large, I don’t feel I missed out on anything important by not being raised in a specific faith. I had friends and family and books and music and free time to wander around with my imagination tagging along for the ride.

    And I still have all that. It’s a pretty good life, all told. I like being an atheist. I never grew up believing some god had anything to do with my existence. No matter how many stories I was told, that’s all they ever were – stories. I never felt any one of them had to be true in order to enjoy them.

    Well, that’s more than I thought I’d write, so I’ll quit now.

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