The Seven Atheist Denials: God, the Self, the Soul, Immortality, Free Will, the Good, and You’re Never Really Alone

It’s often said that atheism is no more than the rejection of belief in gods, and, on a strict definition, this is true. But there are six other things that also tend to go with this rejection, and they ought to give anyone contemplating becoming an atheist pause, for they make a profession of atheism, essentially, a package deal of seven key denials. In addition to dismissing the existence of gods, here are the six things that, sooner or later, if you’re an atheist, you also tend to start finding dubious—and even delusory:

  •  The self. “Why does the universe exist?” “Because the mind of God decided that it would, and set matter into existence and action to some purpose.” This is the standard theist response to why things are, ultimately, the way they are. It’s a mind-based and teleological explanation. And, since the existence of mind is presumed to be ineffable and irreducible, explanation can (for the theist) stop there. But once you reject mind as an ontologically irreducible and stable primary and exclude mental purposes as the ultimate causes for why physical things are and what they do, you are left with nonmental—that is, strictly material—explanations for why matter is and moves. In other words, you are left, as the ultimate cause of all that happens, with physics—atoms, determinate or quantum random, winking and moving in the void. And since atoms are in constant flux and presumably lack any purpose in their shiftings about, the experience of your own self, being an epiphenomenon of these blind movements, actually has no fixed identity either. Put another way: essentialist identity, based upon matter, must be an illusion. You cannot be the same self from moment to moment because there is no self—there is only change. Atheists in the East (that is, Buddhists) bring initiates to this conclusion via vipassana, a form of meditation that focuses on observing movement from moment to moment. What one finds in vipassana meditation is that the world and your mind are, in fact, in constant motion: clouds and wind, water and trees, the sun and moon, your body and other bodies, are all in flux—as are your thoughts. There are no truly stable entities, not even in the mind. Everything is burning. Buddhists distinguish themselves from Hindus—who adhere to belief in the Unmoved Mover, the Atman, the Big Self, or God—by noticing this instability both within and without. Buddhists call this insight their anatman doctrine (the no-self doctrine). In the West, this very same insight has been arrived at, not by meditative observation, but via empirical (scientific) observation of nature. 
  • The soul. If you become an atheist, it gradually dawns on you that belief in a stable self, and consequently a self that possesses an underlying and animating soul, is akin to belief in 19th century vitalism. Just as a 21st century scientist would not attribute a cell’s movement to a “life force,” but to unconscious microscopic objects determinately linking and moving within cell walls, so the soul, like the vitalist’s illusory “life force,” is not necessary to explain why individual human beings actually live, move, act as they do, then die. The soul entering and departing a life is superfluous to explanation. As Daniel Dennett puts it, “You’ve got to leave the first person [the I ] out of your final theory [of consciousness]. . . . [The I ] has to be turned into something else. You’ve got to figure out some way to break it up and distribute its powers and opportunities into the [material] system . . .” (quoted in Naturalism, 19, by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, 2008). Here’s how Owen Flanagan puts it: “[D]esouling is the primary operation of the scientific age” (ibid, 18). 
  • Immortality. In a desouled ideology, people adhering to it are likely to abandon all hope of any life after death, as did Bertrand Russell, who said (in Why I Am Not a Christian, p. 44), “God and immortality, the central dogmas of the Christian religion, find no support in science. . . . No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked.” To God and immortality, I would add the self, the soul, free will, the good, and “You’re never really alone.” But I would also note that all of this closure on traditional religious solace comes with a price—a price that many creative writers, through the ages, have long registered in their fictional characters. As Goetz and Taliaferro observe in their excellent book, Naturalism, in Harry Potter novels (for example), “the worst death one can die is to have one’s soul sucked out of one’s body by the kiss of a being called a dementor” (7-8). But who is dementing whom? This, it seems to me, is the great question of existence: are we demented when we begin with the irreducible mind and soul premise or the ever-changing matter premise? Belief in immortality is one of the things that hangs in the balance of that question.   
  • Free will. Atheists tend to dismiss contra-causal (or libertarian) free will as illusory. The reason? Free will appears to violate the determinate (or quantum random) laws of physics—and, in any case, it would seem to require a ghost or soul in the human machine, somehow influencing matter. This is the kind of dualism that atheists, being monists, cannot abide. But here I think we reach a point where atheism might just end up on the defensive (at least a little bit), for over the past century physicists have reached a startling conclusion: the mind is, in fact, central to the ghostly particle-wave paradoxes of matter. So it’s not too large a stretch to infer that our choices may in fact have material effects, and our experience of free will is not an illusory epiphenomenon of determinate or quantum random matter. But if this is so, how, for example, could our seemingly ghostly human consciousness ever really influence the position and direction of material particles? This seems to be the other side of the neuron-firing/consciousness coin: if there is an explanatory gap in how neurons evoke consciousness, there is also an explanatory gap in how the mind’s activity—choosing to give attention or not give attention to a double-slit experiment, for example—can either evoke or render “ghostly” and merely probabilistic material things. Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, both at the University of California at Santa Cruz, call the mind’s relation to matter a “quantum enigma”—indeed, the central quantum enigma—and ask rhetorically in their book of the same title, “[D]oes it not go without saying that there is a real world ’out there,’ whether or not we look at it?” (4). But quantum physics suggests that our intuitive ‘yes’ may be spectacularly wrong. Likewise, I would suggest that the intuition among atheists that human purposes must be generated by determinate matter first, and thus cannot really impact the direction of determinate particles, may also be spectacularly wrong. If mind is fundamental, freedom and the self (or soul) may also be fundamental. In which case, God’s mind may be prior to, or coexistent with, matter. Hmm.
  • The Good. Atheists reject the idea that matter has a necessarily good end to which it is moving. Physical matter, being contingent, means that human history (as an epiphenomenon of matter) is contingent. History is certainly not moving toward any God-determined good (beauty, love, etc) and the good is not a disembodied “force.” In one’s immediate and interpersonal relations with people, it’s not hard to believe that the good exists and matters. But in the area of social justice, it’s trickier. Martin Luther King used to say (and this seems to have bolstered him), “The arc of the universe is wide, but it bends toward justice.” There is, of course, no objective support for such an idea. But when one is trying to dialogue with “enemies,” or practice ahimsa (nonviolence)—especially toward people who are unlovable—or where the results of one’s love are paltry, it helps to think that love really is the highest force in the universe, with some external warrant, and that God sees you and makes an accounting of what is done. Love, in other words, is not just another Darwinian strategy for navigating a situation that may or may not “work.” Whatever the outward result is, one can be sustained in love by the idea that love really matters, and that the universe, in some sense, really is governed by love (though its reign is not yet obvious). As Gandhi put it, “In the empire of non-violence every true thought counts, every voice has its full value,” and “[love, or ahimsa ] is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts, whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.” And Jesus, of course, said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” which, as Gandhi also reminds us: “Jesus lived and died in vain if He did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.” These, of course, are statements of faith; there is no evidence that love is the supreme law of the universe at all, and really matters (except to us in our contingency as social primates). Atheists, in other words, are warranted in not believing these claims, and they tend not to. Just as it is rational to reject cellular vitalism, so it is rational to reject the implicit love vitalism and soul-talk of people like King, Gandhi, and Jesus. Instead, Nietzsche is where atheists tend to drift in their reflections about the good. They do not think of love (for example) as being anything like consciousness—a mysterious and seemingly non-material epiphenomenon or force emergent in the universe. Outside of the contingent human brain itself, they’re suspicious of the claim that love is something that the universe is up to or moving towards. And it is certainly not evidently central to anything else going on in the universe. Just look at the shark.
  • You’re never really alone. At the end of Frank Capra’s great film, It’s a Wonderful Life, I recall someone saying to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), “One is never alone who has friends.” And, of course, this is true insofar as you have a good network of people who love you. And peoples’ constant and obsessive text messaging suggests that this is really, really important to the human psyche—not being alone. But there is also a saying that goes this way: “You die alone.” And that’s also true—unless you believe in God. One thing that God belief ameliorates in those who have it is this: human isolation. Whether you are in a retirement home abandoned by your relatives, dumped by a lover, or on the surgery table, God is with you. Always. But if you’re an atheist, you are dubious of this solace, and reject it for yourself. On atheist terms, at numerous and crucial moments in your existence, you must be prepared to regard yourself as really and truly alone—completely and utterly.

So this is my list of the big seven atheist denials (God, the self, the soul, immortality, free will, the good, and “You’re never really alone”). Ultimately, they seem to boil down to this: do we live in a universe where mind has the ontological status of matter (that is, it cannot be reduced to matter), or not?

Have I missed any other things that atheists tend, by the general thrust of their position, to deny?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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28 Responses to The Seven Atheist Denials: God, the Self, the Soul, Immortality, Free Will, the Good, and You’re Never Really Alone

  1. Gato Precambriano says:

    I’m in a rush now so I’ll not comment extensively. Maybe I’ll do a post sonner or latter.
    However I would like to say how “interesting” your choice of words is. You call this “The 7 Atheist Denials“, and according to Wikippedia:

    Denial is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.

    Also according to this, ‘denial’ can be:


    2. ,refusal to believe a doctrine, theory, or the like…

    5. refusal to recognize or acknowledge; a disowning or disavowal: the traitor’s denial of his country; Peter’s denial of Christ.
    6. Law . refusal to acknowledge the validity of a claim, suit, or the like; a plea that denies allegations of fact in an adversary’s plea: Although she sued for libel, he entered a general denial.

    8. Psychology . an unconscious defense mechanism used to reduce anxiety by denying thoughts, feelings, or facts that are consciously intolerable.

    As such I think it’s fair to say that what you’re claiming is that atheists refuse to acknowledge the “reality”, or truefullness of “God, the self, the soul, immortality, free will, the good, and “You’re never really alone””, despite the “overwhelming evidence”, isn’t it? What would put us all, atheists, in the same boat lets say as AGW denialists, Holocaust denialists, and so on, right?
    So, would it be too much to ask you where the f* is that f*ing “overwhelming evidence” of “God, the self, the soul, immortality, free will, the good, and “You’re never really alone””? Would it be too much to ask that?

    Thanks

    • santitafarella says:

      Gato,

      I wasn’t thinking of the word “denial” in the Freudian sense. I was thinking of denial in the simple and straightforward sense: a rejection of something that another person affirms. There are people who affirm the existence of the self and free will and atheists tend to deny the existence of these things. You inferred a good deal of connotation in my denotation.

      As for the case for atheism, I think it is strong. That’s why I think about it and wrestle with it. I think you are right to ask for evidence, and I think that the theist position is not convincing (it’s why I continue to be an agnostic). I’m not willing to be an atheist because I think that mind may indeed be irreducible to matter, and, therefore, fundamental. If it is, it changes the game considerably. But I am trying to get out on the table what I think are clearly the things that tend to go with a profession of atheism. They are, as it were, what is in the fine print. On the flip side, I suppose you could say that the seven things above tend to be what a lot of Western religionists affirm. One group is clearly deluded here—it’s a huge divide—but I don’t think it is obvious which one is on the deluded side.

      With regard to atheism, do you think I missed any, or would you remove any of these from the list?

      —Santi

      • Santi

        1) Well. I think words mean what they mean, how they are used in a practical day to day basis, not what you would like they should. Words have weight, as so to speak, and ‘denial’ does have it’s own.
        2) Maybe you should also stop to treat atheism as = materialism/naturalism, as the latter are real consistent worldviews, and the former don’t even deserve to be called a worldview. There are atheist worldviews but atheism itself is not one.

  2. Andrew Furst says:

    I had a question of fact. Is an Atheist and a Materialist the same thing? I think you’ve blended the two. If this is a correct blending, then I think you can probably make the assertions that denying Gods existence implies denial of God, the Self, the Soul, Immortality, Free Will, the Good, and You’re Never Really Alone.

    But I’d point out that Buddhism, which is a different kind of theism (pantheism), is silent (in Wittgenstein’s sense of the term) on God. It is also rejects the existence of a Soul and a Self as defined as something that would serve as an eternal extension of our ego.

    But Buddhist philosophy it is logically inconsistent with hard determinism or the denial of free will, primarily because it parts company with the Materialist.

    While the morality of Buddhism is very different than the morality invoked by Christian theodicies, it is of a natural order. It is borne out of the unity of things and is a result of overcoming the unskillful application of concepts like the soul and self.

    While I think you’re right, that if an atheist were to reject all theologies or non-materialist points of view, then they have painted themselves into a corner, and an ugly corner at that. But if they are setting aside the teleological argument and the questionable theodicies needed to create a consistent, and still not conclusive, argument for the existence of an Ethical Monotheistic God, I think that they could be forgiven. It is only natural, and I would say that Occam’s razor requires, that they seek alternative theologies.

    • santitafarella says:

      Andrew,

      You’re thoughts above are very interesting. I would just say in response that materialism (or strict naturalism) is, in my view, a synonym for atheism (at least to the logically consistent atheist). And materialism (or strict naturalism) functions as the weight that pulls every thoughtful atheist in the direction of dubiousness about the self, the soul, free will, the good, etc.

      You can, of course, be an atheist and go around with a conventional belief in the self, the soul, free will, and some Hegelian movement toward something good in history. Lots of atheists have. But sooner or later, for those who start really thinking about it, the monism implicit in atheism (there is only one world, not two, and it consists of shifting atoms in a void) comes to the fore and drives the consistent atheist to the conclusion that the self, free will, etc. are illusions. Richard Dawkins, for example, appears to be drifting to the “free will is an illusion” position (though I don’t think he started there). And Christopher Hitchens is representative of atheist incoherence on the topic. Asked if he believed in free will, he said, “I have no choice.” He has no choice, of course, because he feels it in himself and the whole coherence and passion of his politics rests on notions of freedom, so he must ignore the fact that his materialist monism denies that freedom can ever really exist. What, for example, can possibly hinder the determinate atoms in your elbow from crooking or not crooking your arm, but something that is, in some sense, outside the material system?

      As for Buddhism, I think its anatman doctrine is an illustration of what happens when you start seeing the world in terms of flux with no ontologically stable entities anywhere. You arrive, of course, at no self in the mind, either. And this is exactly what Western science, being the study of material systems in flux, has concluded about the brain: there’s no self in there. The brain is a distributed determinate material systems in flux; it interacts with itself and its material environment, not with anything outside of this.

      —Santi

  3. Andrew Furst says:

    Santi, I think that you’ve nailed it on the head by drilling to the Anatman doctrine. The Vajryana schools of Buddhism have offered the clearest portrayal of anatman. It is consistent with the need for an ontological stable entity and the karmic and causal order of the universe. This path is one of recognizing the union of the practitioner and the deity.

    It’s something of a “cross to bear” for Buddhist to make the distinction that it is not a nihilistic faith. The Buddha’s declaration regarding his enlightenment to the first person he came upon, was that “I am awake”. The abiding, this awareness, or preconscious being is the “true self”, the eternal, etc.

    Where it differs from monotheist theology and nihilism is that there is an inclusive understanding that this living, changing, individual being is perhaps a subset of the whole. It shares in its perfection, but in the context of this being is like a drop of water in the ocean. One drop of water is no less the ocean than any other. The drop, exists, the ocean exists. No nihilism there. But the nature of the relationship between the whole (God if you’d like) and the individual is not dualistic (i.e. transcendent in the sense that there is nothing in common).

    Monotheism, depending on its flavor, will argue for some type of transcendent, or wholly other nature of God in the absence of evidence for argument. Nihilism, claims that there is no ontological evidence for any knowledge.

    As a Buddhist, I would encourage the seeker to avoid the strict atheist and nihilistic claims, simply because these are also not proven. I would instead encourage the seeker to acknowledge an agnostic status. I would further warn them that this status is not a reason for complacency on the path. More it is a message that there are valid assumptions on both sides, especially the theists.

    – nice chatting with you.
    Andrew

  4. Christ's Angel says:

    God’s Only-Begotten Son was raised from the dead as the first fruit of the Resurrection. Though I only be the second fruit, such was Martin Luther King referring to when he spoke of the arc of the universe tending toward justice. The fact that God took His Only-Begotten Son back to heaven to live and reign puts a ding into all philosophical discourses against Him. And though you may not see it, you did cross the line to atheism by stating that this fact has no objectivity – “There is, of course, no objective support for such an idea.”

    • Got proof? Didn’t think so.

      • Christ's Angel says:

        Yes, I have proof. There was a period of time when the Church did not read, sing, nor write triplets in rhythm for fear that in doing so they would be treading wrongly against the Holy Trinity. This dynamic fervor has not abated in the faithful, yet through such treatment with reverence, God has shown us the intracasies of Tertian Harmony as never known before.

  5. Andrew Furst says:

    Christ’s Angel,

    While from a religious perspective you are right, but from a philosophical perspective your statements are circular, and would be deemed unproved. I would look at the whole issue from an evangelical point of view.

    Say you were tasked to save, at the hand of Christ, the next child born to this world. In all likelihood that child would be born in China or India, the most populist countries of the world. Presumably you would not have the opportunity to reach the child until they were in their early teens. They would have been raised by their parents in whatever belief system that they had. I’m ruling out kidnapping at birth because it seems so absolutely irreligious.

    In China, your child may be an atheist, a Taoist, or a Buddhist. If your child were Indian, then perhaps they would be Hindu or Muslim.

    How would you approach this task? Would you not apply critical analytical analysis to assess the differences between their faith tradition and Christianity? Wouldn’t it also be necessary to persuade, by means of offering evidence (or money, candy, or toys) that those who’ve gone before have indeed been saved.

    Would arguing to the child for the existence of God in the context of your faith tradition be relevant?

    In my experience talking with converted Christians, the evidence for the existence of god is not the means by which they were converted to Christianity. It is the acts of Christ. It is the engaging in Christ-like behavior that is compelling in drawing people to God. As a matter of fact converting to any religion, or in the case of atheists, anti-religion, is typically a function of their experience with in their faith tradition before and after conversion.

    I would worry less about philosophers and their constructing and deconstructing of religious thinking, and worry more about engaging in a life that emulates the savior of your choice. The effects are practical and positive for everyone. Reaching out to condemn or warn against blasphemy is typically a big turn off and could drive someone away from a better life.

  6. Christ's Angel says:

    They would only be deemed unproved by an antichrist.

    • Andrew Furst says:

      Christ’s angel, on what authority to you make your proclamations? They don’t appear to be in a dialect of reason that I’m familiar with? Is applying the principles of reason a characteristic of the antichrist? If so, was Thomas Aquinas an anti christ? In what sense did Jesus provide parables, if not to allow us to engage our reason to perform justly as a moral agent in this world? I really have trouble reading your conclusions without any premises.

      • Christ's Angel says:

        The antichrist’s thinking is circular and centers on the self. It is a vicious round of pride, self glorification and arrogance. There is no room in the antichrist’s seeming atomic phenomenom for vertical thinking as the spirit of the antichrist is a result of God’s wrath given to one who has chosen to enjoy doing only wrong.

      • Christ's Angel says:

        Thomas Aquinas was not an antichrist.

  7. Andrew Furst says:

    Christ’s Angel, at the risk of sounding disrespectful, all of your arguments and proclamations have been circular. You pack God’s Wrath into your premises and triumphantly damn others with the authority derived from your argument. The doling out God’s wrath is an option available to God alone.

    The opinion that God’s wrath is doled out based on your analysis seems to be, to me at least, pure blasphemy and terribly self centered. Be humbled in the presence is my advice (yours to leave or take).

    • Christ's Angel says:

      That is your lying judgment of me while I have damned no one. While I was dead and buried Christ said He would send the Comforter in His Name. And so He did. The proceeding, to me, is, at least, vertical. This I conclude by reason. “I have set up a boundary not to be passed.” is God telling us of a condition. If your going to toe the line between good and evil, fine, more power to you. But don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Describing the Anti-Son-of-Man may not be your favorite topic, but I’m not the first to have written about antichrist.

  8. Andrew Furst says:

    Then to you and you alone your arguments offer solace. Peace be with you.

  9. Anonymous says:

    In response to your closing question – one additional thing atheists deny is that you can know something without evidence. For example, the soul is a great symbolic represenation of personhood. But, what is it? Where is it? How could such a thing be? Nothing in what we know of what is gives a clue. So, to believe in an invisible, intangible “something” seems quite a leap.

    • santitafarella says:

      Anon:

      You make a very good point. I may generate a separate post thinking about this, but for now I would just say that I would soften it a tad. Atheists generally live their lives expecting all beliefs (including their own) to have reasonable warrant. In other words, if you believe something, atheists, as a matter of principle, think that you should have good reasons for doing so. This would mean not making leaps of faith or indulging in sustained hope by acts of will in the teeth of substantial counter-evidence (as characterized by, say, the fideism of Kierkegaard).

      —Santi

  10. Pingback: O que é ser ateu? « O Gato Précambriano

  11. John Smith says:

    This entire article is full of ridiculous arguments.

  12. OldLimpy says:

    How does an atheist deny something they don’t believe in the first place. Lacking a belief in a god is not a denial of god. You clearly take the position that atheists really do believe in god but just won’t admit it to themselves. You are denying them their rational choice and accusing them of denying gods existence by putting words in the mouths of honest men.

    • santitafarella says:

      Your tidy ad hominem dispatch of what I wrote suggests that you’re making use of righteous outrage to distract yourself from a direct grappling with the issues at hand.

      Like it or not, ideas have consequences, and adopting the idea of atheism (that there are no gods) has consequences.

      Is it possible that you don’t wish to look directly at those consequences (because they are so obviously unappealing)?

      —Santi

  13. Pingback: “Multiverse of the Gaps” vs. “God of the Gaps” | Prometheus Unbound

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