Choosing Atheism Or Theism Is An Act Of Imagination

The universe appears to be lacking in purpose in some ways, but not in others. For example, the Holocaust and the panda’s “thumb” would seem to suggest that we live in a historically contingent universe indifferent and blind to both suffering and purpose.  But before leaping to atheism, there is also the thorny problem of accounting for so much apparently purposeful information in the universe (for example, the information inherent in the laws of physics and in the first cell).  These seem to favor the idea that there is at least some sort of mind (or telos) prior to blind matter in the universe.

Since the tensions between apparent contingencies and apparent purposes in the universe do not seem readily resolvable, the leaps of atheism and theism ultimately come down to faith. If you are not going to be an agnostic, and simply confess to being persistently confused about the nature of the universe, then you must choose whether to imagine yourself living in a blind chaos or a purposeful cosmos.

Did you catch my use of the phrase imagine yourself?

To be an atheist or a theist (as opposed to an agnostic) means just that: imagining yourself. It means, not just making a temperamental move towards pessimism (chaos) or optimism (cosmos), but making an imaginative move toward seeing yourself as really existing in either a chaos or a cosmos. Since you can’t prove it one way or the other, what else are you going to do? So this is what faith is: an act of narrative imagination. And it’s exactly what both atheists and theists do: tell imaginative stories to themselves and to one another, explaining all new sense data via some prescribed framing narrative to which they’ve already committed themselves.

And I’ll admit it: to be an agnostic (as I am) also entails an act of imagination—imagining myself to be living in a world where the incoming data is ambiguous. It’s the story I tell myself.

Enjoy the ride. You’re making it.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Choosing Atheism Or Theism Is An Act Of Imagination

  1. Kullervo says:

    Extremely well-said.

  2. Colin Hutton says:

    No, no, no – Santi. When I tell you I am an atheist, the only thing you know about me is that I do not believe in god (in any of the senses that have generally been ascribed to that word). If you then ask me, or other self-described atheists, why not, the answer will almost invariably be that there is no evidence for the existence of such an entity. So it is perhaps reasonable to assume that is the reason. Beyond that, you should assume nothing.

    In particular, your focus on the word ‘purpose’ obscures the argument. As Russell pointed out; “to ask what is the purpose of life, is to presume the existence of a God”. He was correct. An atheist has to internalise that and get over it. Which one does!.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      The very quote you offer of Russell is a narrative statement, one of the things an atheist tells himself (“to ask what is the purpose of life, is to presume the existence of a God”). That, in other words, is something Russell tells himself beyond his disbelief in God. It’s an atheist + (plus) statement to which you also say you subscribe and to which you also tell yourself. There’s no escaping worldview. Once you say no gods exist, a flood of new narrative statements present themselves to you of a very particular sort, and to which you must also choose. No person goes through life absent narrative any more than a person uses language absent metaphor.

      I think of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Plain Sense of Things”:

      After the leaves have fallen, we return
      To a plain sense of things. It is as if
      We had come to an end of the imagination,
      Inanimate in an inert savoir.

      It is difficult even to choose the adjective
      For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
      The great structure has become a minor house.
      No turban walks across the lessened floors.

      The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
      The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
      A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
      In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

      Yet the absence of the imagination had
      Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
      The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
      Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

      Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
      The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
      Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
      Required, as necessity requires.


      • Colin Hutton says:

        Santi – I’ve read that poem a number of times. Not being well versed (ha, ha) in the art, I don’t understand it. However , I like it, so, thank you. My take on it, for now, is to see it as an atheistic riposte to Vaughn’s “I saw eternity the other night …….”;. That, too, I like and don’t understand! I also extend the fallen leaves metaphor to scales from eyes and to clothes from the authority figure or from the sex goddess. Adds to the somewhat disturbing elements of the poem. Permissible?

        Your points about life, narrative and metaphor are well made. However, I stand by my previous objection to “purpose”. One can be an atheist and espouse libertarian or Marxist economic views, be a humanist or a fascist and so on. Such choices, free of the supposed dictates of the particular god selected by the religious, have to be made, giving us your “atheist+”. However grasping the absence of purpose is a necessary consequence of atheism. If you like; “atheist ->“!

        – Colin

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