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?