A Question I’d Ask Richard Dawkins

In The God Delusion, you said that you’d like to see believers who start your book be unbelievers when they finish it. But what about those for whom life is already, in Robert Frost’s phrase, “a diminished thing”? Is atheism really good for all the “Eleanor Rigby” individuals out there who might pick up your book? In other words, what do you say to those people for whom a conversion to atheism might well spell the end of all vital social ties to their communities and families—and for whom those ties are, realistically, the only things between them and real isolation, neurosis, and loneliness? Isn’t an invitation to atheism, for so many people who are already living alone and with tenuous ties to others—and who may be unattractive, uncreative, in ill health, and without high intelligence or good job prospects—an invitation to even greater pain, however unillusioned? Is disillusionment worth the social cost to such individuals? Do you, in short, really want Eleanor Rigby, who ‘lives in a dream,’ to lose her illusory sources of solace? To what purpose? Atheist’s afterall, have cognitive dissonances and illusory sources of solace as well—in particular, from nihilism and death. To deny our nothingness seems to be a universal human trait. But you don’t seem urgent, as Nietzsche was, to take that form of denial from atheists.

How come?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to A Question I’d Ask Richard Dawkins

  1. Robert says:

    Most of those who become non-believers describe it as a liberating feeling. You can read examples of their testimonials at ex-christian.net. Far from resulting in “greater pain,” the result seems to be greater joy.

    The bottom line is, no one can predict–certainly not Dawkins–the impact their writings will have on someone’s life. My sense is, if someone needs illusions to live life, being dispelled of some will simply result in the adoption of others.

    As an atheist, I’d like to know what you feel our “cognitive dissonaces and illusory sources of solace” are.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I’m an agnostic who strongly leans to atheism. I think that God either does not exist or, if she does exist, is depressingly opaque and isn’t talking.

    Our cognitive dissonances and illusions (as atheists) are multiple and diverse: they are as varied as things you can find to do while you are on an ocean liner slowly sinking. You can switch the deck chairs, play music, read books, get screwed up about religious stupidity, try to survive as long as possible by eating right, believe in free will, believe that morality in a world lacking external justification can really matter, help your neighbor, believe in a political cause, raise children, be promiscuous, go to war etc.

    All human beings, because we suffer and die and are at a loss to make meaning cohere (“Where am I, what am I?”), try to figure out what to do with ourselves. Thus we manage our anxiety by seeking meaning (truth, religion, philosophy, science), ethical relationships (romances, morality, politics), and/or aesthetics (some form of beauty, imaginative art, drugs, technological fixes, or cultural escape/distraction).

    All of these Apollonian moves have their Dionysian shadow (chaos, nihilism, ugliness). And so we build our walls and have our enemies.

    But the boat is still going to the bottom, and with atheists on it. Atheists are unillusioned in some ways, but not in others. By dropping one set of illusions, we compensate by picking up another set of illusions, distractions, and cognitive dissonances. Nobody gets out alive.

    I think that Nietzsche is the most important philosopher for atheists to read because he stared with a cold and unblinking eye into the dead heart of nihilism. He asked: What does the death of God really mean? Nietzsche then came up with his own set of inane prescriptions for overcoming nihilism (eternal return, masculine stoic bravado etc.). His was a good try. But in the end, nothing works, and all atheist justifications (because we live in an apparent nihil) end up in question begging. Richard Dawkins, in my view, is deriving meaning for his life from his critique of delusions. It’s a way for him to occupy himself on his way to dusty death (as is blogging).

    I’ll recommend a book that I think is very good on Nietzsche (and not a difficult read): Alistair Kee’s “Nietzsche Against the Crucified”: http://www.amazon.com/Nietzsche-Against-Crucified-Alistair-Kee/dp/0334027837/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276715243&sr=8-1


  3. Robert says:

    santitafarella, thank you for your reply, but I’m still at a loss to understand what the cognitive dissonances and illusions you refer to. If we understand the former as arising from holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, what are the two contradictory beliefs atheists hold? What illusions? Would they be things like science, imaginative art and romance?

  4. santitafarella says:


    The difficulty is in making generalizations about atheists. Atheists are like cats—very hard to herd.

    What I’m suggesting is that religious cognitive dissonance and religious delusion are just two forms of human dissonance and delusion. Atheists and agnostics are derisive of these two specific forms of human anxiety reduction, but—because atheists are human beings—they are no doubt reducing their own “denial of death” and “denial of their nothingness” via other therapeutic means.

    I’ll try a specific example that you might agree with: when there is a death of Christian eschatology in the hearts and minds of atheists and agnostics, those energies often move into revolutionary and utopian politics. If there is no Second Coming, nevertheless people then seek to pour themselves into a political project. There is a reason that secular liberals wrote disillusioned essays in the mid-20th century about communism and designating it “the god that failed.” And there is a reason that some contemporary atheists speak of the “coming Singularity” with religious fervor: we can all imagine a better world, and want one. And nobody wants to die. We want the world to cohere, even if God is not there. We want beauty and truth.

    But what I’m suggesting is an atheist’s atheism: all gods fail. Nothing works or satisfies because all forms of justification are forms of tail chasing. And we live in a nihilistic universe—a universe that is emptiness: a big nothing. And that includes us. We are gobbling things into our emptiness to no ultimate avail. It is Kurtz entering the “Heart of Darkness.”

    Nietzsche called himself the first man to really, really face nihilism. I think that most of us cannot, and that’s why we engage in cognitive dissonance: we do not live with death and nihilism squarely before our eyes. We pretend—atheist or not—that what we are doing has some meaning beyond us—some legacy to future generations. And we pretend that we are not empty and the world is not empty.

    But we are, as Camus insisted, really like Sisyphus, like actors upon whom the curtain shall soon close tight. The great difficulty is to live in the face of the fact that nothing can matter in any ultimate sense within a godless universe—that all of our narratives and anxiety management strategies are doomed to fail.

    I’m sorry to be so negative, but I think that this is what is whistled past by a lot of atheists. We see the metaphorical homeless man (nihilism and death) on the street. We know he is there. We cross over to the other side and whistle and smile. We have free souls. We think he touches us not (to echo what Hamlet said to Claudius). But we’re not really looking.

    Nietzsche looked. It’s why I suggested that book for you to think about.

    One more example of cognitive dissonance in an atheist: imagine an atheist who believes that there is one world and that it runs on determinate physics and chemistry (or on perfect quantum probabilistic randomness, which amounts to the same thing). Now also imagine that he believes in free will. Free will, of course, is a religious concept. It is a concept that derives from religious dualism. Atheism is a monism—a philosophy of one world that reduces to atoms and void—and if an atheist believes that the universe “goes” on mechanistic laws then that same atheist must think of free will as ultimately an illusion. If the universe is physics and chemistry, and there is no second world, then what is going on at the human free will level is, logically, not primary or determinative of anything that really is happening in the universe. It just appears to be so. Of course, no atheist (or very, very few) face monistic determinism (or quantum statistical randomness) squarely. They expect the courts to continue to apportion blame, and they expect their wives and husbands to choose them freely over other lovers.

    Free will for an atheist functions like redemption does for a Christian: it is a comforting thought with no empirical basis. It is nice to believe, and reduces your subjective anxiety, but it is most likely not true.

    Religion is the cry of the oppressed creature (said Karl Marx). So are all of our therapeutic forms of atheism (Buddhist meditation, Roman therapeutic Stoicism, the contemporary Singularity movement, UFO cults, happy face post-9-11 science positive New Atheism. Nietzsche is the atheist Hosea standing outside the atheist’s city and saying, “Woe unto you: you are the last men worshipping the long shadow cast across the floor by the carcass of God! Your houses are on fire! Look!”


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