The Problem with Atheism

And now for something entirely different.

Well, not really. I mean that in the Monty Pythonesque sense. If you are familiar with Monty Python, you know upon hearing that line that what was going to follow was more of the same absurd insanely humorous ridiculous nonsense that considers nothing sacred. Perhaps nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition but you’d be crazy to expect something entirely different from Monty Python. In much the same way, despite my claim above, you are not likely to find anything entirely different from the usual fare on my blog. Every topic that I touch upon ultimately converges upon the questions of what is development, why is India not developed, and what can be done to make India developed.

[This is a rather long post — consider yourself warned.]

To the casual visitor it would not be immediately apparent what “The Problem with Atheism” has to do with development. But it has. To the casual visitor, this entire blog would appear to be a tangled web of confusion. But it isn’t. It is a rather well thought out, patiently considered, deliberately argued, dispassionately observed set of opinions and theories that paint a comprehensive picture of development and economic growth. Well that’s what I believe, and your mileage will most certainly vary. As this is my blog, I do have the luxury of making outrageous claims for it, if I feel like it. Blogging is after all a reflection of some personal vanity, for why else would one have a blog if one were not vain enough to believe that one’s opinion matters to others.

Certainly I am rambling. That’s one of the liberties that one can take on one’s blog: to ramble on leisurely around the place. People who just want sound bites, need to move on to commercial TV. For brief content-free reading, I recommend the newspapers of the main stream media (or as someone else referred to them, the lame stream media.)

Now that I have been successful in dispatching the riff-raff who stumbled here out of idle curiosity, let us then, you and I, get down to the serious topic at hand. You know that I am a great admirer of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others who have picked up a fight with religious wingnuts. Indeed, I think Christopher Hitchens — the author of “God is Not Great: how religion poisons everything” — is great. One of the greatest contemporary polemicists, Christopher is witty, irreverent, prolific, and sharp as a tack. I like him. He’s a bit of a bastard but I like him. I mean he is arrogant, opinionated, crass, vicious, and in-your-face militant about his position. You know what he said about the “Reverend” Jerry Falwell on his death? That if you gave Falwell an enema, you could bury Falwell in a matchbox. Oh that man can be pitilessly accurate. He speaks his mind without the least embarrassment or fear. Hitchens is a machine for converting alcohol and nicotine into arguments that devastate the opponents and delight the observer.

Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion” (and other best-selling books on biology such as “The Blind Watchmaker,” “The Selfish Gene,” “The River out of Eden” etc) by contrast, is the very soul of gentlemanly politeness, forbearance, and patience. With immense scholarship to back him up, he is unfailingly generous and thoughtful. He, for example, will not say that god does not exist but go only so far as to claim that the existence of a god is highly improbable. That deliberate understatement reveals a British sensibility as much as that of a brilliant scientist and academic. Of course, he does not hesitate to call bovine feces bullshit. He’s much too intellectually honest to not do so. His books are not merely instructive and thought provoking: they are a study in how to write good English, how to convey the magic and mystery of the natural world and evoke wonder at our place in it. Like Carl Sagan did for astronomers, and Richard Feynman did for physicts, Richard Dawkins must have inspired at least a couple of generations of life-scientists.

Dawkins and Hitchens are only two of the “Unholy Trinity” — the third is my favorite: Sam Harris. Harris started off with a slim book, “The End of Faith” (2005) and then added “Letter to a Christian Nation” (2006). He’s a young fellow, doing his PhD in neuroscience at Stanford University after graduating in philosophy. He is brilliant, of course, but what I find most appealing about his writing is that it has heart. It comes from within the depths of a soul that is seeking not the superficial answers but something more fundamental, more enduring, more wholesome. Harris, like the others does use logic and facts, but he also appeals to your sense of fairness, justice, shared humanity and kindness. When I first read bits of what he had written, I thought to myself that his way was the way of the Buddha. I was therefore delighted to learn that Harris meditates in the Buddhist tradition and while he does not call himself a Buddhist, he understands and admires Buddhism and Jainism as important ways of apprehending the spiritual dimension of our existence.

Here’s a thought. As a member of the human race, I am thrilled that I share the planet with other people like Dawkins and Harris. But what pains me is that there are others that I would rather not have to share the planet with, such as Dinesh D’Souza. I wish not just that Dinesh D’Souza had not been born in India, I wish he had been born in a galaxy far far away. It is the deepest mystery of human biology: how can the same species give birth to such divergent individuals such as D’Souza and Harris? Ponder that, if you will.

Anyway, of the three — Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris — I admire Harris the most as his world view is exactly the same as mine. Not almost the same but exactly the same. There is not one thought, not even one word, for example, in a talk entitled “The Problem with Atheism” that he gave at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. in September 2007 that I would like to change. I am going to quote extensively from that talk below. So this post is going to be unusually long.

In the first part of his talk, he makes the case that it is a mistake to answer to the label “atheist” and argues that it has consequences. He admits that “Given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion, declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response.” However —

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I’m not saying that meetings like this aren’t important. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

He knows that what he proposes does not always meet with the approval of his fellow-travelers.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

Now, it just so happens that religion has more than its fair share of bad ideas. And it remains the only system of thought, where the process of maintaining bad ideas in perpetual immunity from criticism is considered a sacred act. This is the act of faith. And I remain convinced that religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised. So we will, inevitably, continue to criticize religious thinking. But we should not define ourselves and name ourselves in opposition to such thinking.

The label “atheist” puts one in opposition to all religions and he believes that it is silly to heap all religions together into one indistinguishable mess.

The problem is that the concept of atheism imposes upon us a false burden of remaining fixated on people’s beliefs about God and remaining even-handed in our treatment of religion. But we shouldn’t be fixated, and we shouldn’t be even-handed. In fact, we should be quick to point out the differences among religions, for two reasons:

First, these differences make all religions look contingent, and therefore silly. Consider the unique features of Mormonism, which may have some relevance in the next Presidential election. Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas. For instance, the Mormons think Jesus is going to return to earth and administer his Thousand years of Peace, at least part of the time, from the state of Missouri. Why does this make Mormonism less likely to be true than Christianity? Because whatever probability you assign to Jesus’ coming back, you have to assign a lesser probability to his coming back and keeping a summer home in Jackson County, Missouri. If Mitt Romney wants to be the next President of the United States, he should be made to feel the burden of our incredulity. We can make common cause with our Christian brothers and sisters on this point. Just what does the man believe? The world should know. And it is almost guaranteed to be embarrassing even to most people who believe in the biblical God.

The second reason to be attentive to the differences among the world’s religions is that these differences are actually a matter of life and death. There are very few of us who lie awake at night worrying about the Amish. This is not an accident. While I have no doubt that the Amish are mistreating their children, by not educating them adequately, they are not likely to hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings. But consider how we, as atheists, tend to talk about Islam. Christians often complain that atheists, and the secular world generally, balance every criticism of Muslim extremism with a mention of Christian extremism. The usual approach is to say that they have their jihadists, and we have people who kill abortion doctors. Our Christian neighbors, even the craziest of them, are right to be outraged by this pretense of even-handedness, because the truth is that Islam is quite a bit scarier and more culpable for needless human misery, than Christianity has been for a very, very long time. And the world must wake up to this fact. Muslims themselves must wake up to this fact. And they can.

You might remember that Thomas Friedman recently wrote an op-ed from Iraq, reporting that some Sunni militias are now fighting jihadists alongside American troops. When Friedman asked one Sunni militant why he was doing this, he said that he had recently watched a member of al-Qaeda decapitate an 8-year-old girl. This persuaded him that the American Crusader forces were the lesser of two evils.

Okay, so even some Sunni militants can discern the boundary between ordinary crazy Islam, and the utterly crazy, once it is drawn in the spilled blood of little girls. This is a basis for hope, of sorts. But we have to be honest—unremittingly honest—about what is on the other side of that line. This is what we and the rest of the civilized, and the semi-civilized world, are up against: utter religious lunacy and barbarism in the name of Islam—with, I’m unhappy to say, some mainstream theology to back it up.

To be even-handed when talking about the problem of Islam is to misconstrue the problem. The refrain, “all religions have their extremists,” is bullshit—and it is putting the West to sleep. All religions don’t have these extremists. Some religions have never had these extremists. And in the Muslim world, support for extremism is not extreme in the sense of being rare. A recent poll showed that about a third of young British Muslims want to live under sharia law and believe that apostates should be killed for leaving the faith. These are British Muslims. Sixty-eight percent of British Muslims feel that their neighbors who insult Islam should be arrested and prosecuted, and seventy-eight percent think that the Danish cartoonists should be brought to justice. These people don’t have a clue about what constitutes a civil society. Reports of this kind coming out of the Muslim communities living in the West should worry us, before anything else about religion worries us.

Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment—with peaks and valleys and local attractors—and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.

I’m not at all suggesting that we leave people’s core religious beliefs, or faith itself, unscathed—I’m still the kind of person who writes articles with rather sweeping titles like “Science must destroy religion”—but it seems to me that we should never lose sight of useful and important distinctions.

Dawkins is not totally persuaded by Harris’ position that the atheist label should be jettisoned. But he says that he is pondering the matter.

Moving on, the last part of his talk revolves around the meditative and contemplative traditions of some religions. Here’s the extended quote.

The last problem with atheism I’d like to talk about relates to the some of the experiences that lie at the core of many religious traditions, though perhaps not all, and which are testified to, with greater or lesser clarity in the world’s “spiritual” and “mystical” literature.

Those of you who have read The End of Faith, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan [Dennett], Richard, and Christopher in my treatment of these things. So I think I should take a little time to discuss this. While I always use terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, and take some pains to denude them of metaphysics, the email I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic.

First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to. Here’s what happens, in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult. He observes that even in the best of times—no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so—even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this. We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes. We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance. We become connoisseurs of art and music and film—but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us “So, what are you going to do next? Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?” Steve Jobs releases the IPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “when are you going to make this thing smaller?” Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals. Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”

Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment. If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists. Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains. Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favorite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it—and many of us are living as though the answer is “no.” No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; there is nothing more profound that seeking satisfaction, both sensory and intellectual. Many of us seem think that all we can do is just keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road.

But certain people, for whatever reason, are led to suspect that there is more to human experience than this. In fact, many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of people like the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated religious figures. And such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention—often called “meditation” or “contemplation”—as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found.

Such a person might even hole himself up in a cave, or in a monastery, for months or years at a time to facilitate this process. Why would somebody do this? Well, it amounts to a very simple experiment. Here’s the logic of it: if there is a form of psychological well-being that isn’t contingent upon merely repeating one’s pleasures, then this happiness should be available even when all the obvious sources of pleasure and satisfaction have been removed. If it exists at all, this happiness should be available to a person who has renounced all her material possessions, and declined to marry her high school sweetheart, and gone off to a cave or to some other spot that would seem profoundly uncongenial to the satisfaction of ordinary desires and aspirations.

One clue as to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement—which is essentially what we are talking about—is considered a punishment even inside a prison. Even when cooped up with homicidal maniacs and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a box.

And yet, for thousands of years, contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation. It seems to me that, as rational people, whether we call ourselves “atheists” or not, we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise. Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of religious delusion, deliberate fraud, and psychopathology, or people have been having interesting and even normative experiences under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.

Now let me just assert, on the basis of my own study and experience, that there is no question in my mind that people have improved their emotional lives, and their self-understanding, and their ethical intuitions, and have even had important insights about the nature of subjectivity itself through a variety of traditional practices like meditation.

Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.

Of course, I am by no means denying the importance of thinking. There is no question that linguistic thought is indispensable for us. It is, in large part, what makes us human. It is the fabric of almost all culture and every social relationship. Needless to say, it is the basis of all science. And it is surely responsible for much rudimentary cognition—for integrating beliefs, planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other mental capacities. Even talking to oneself out loud may occasionally serve a useful function.

From the point of view of our contemplative traditions, however—to boil them all down to a cartoon version, that ignores the rather esoteric disputes among them—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.

But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.

To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.

One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.

As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness.

So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations—and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.

My concern is that atheism can easily become the position of not being interested in certain possibilities in principle. I don’t know if our universe is, as JBS Haldane said, “not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.” But I am sure that it is stranger than we, as “atheists,” tend to represent while advocating atheism. As “atheists” we give others, and even ourselves, the sense that we are well on our way toward purging the universe of mystery. As advocates of reason, we know that mystery is going to be with us for a very long time. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that mystery is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely upon to explain everything else. This may be a problem for epistemology but it is not a problem for human life and for human solidarity. It does not rob our lives of meaning. And it is not a barrier to human happiness.

We are faced, however, with the challenge of communicating this view to others. We are faced with the monumental task of persuading a myth-infatuated world that love and curiosity are sufficient, and that we need not console or frighten ourselves or our children with Iron Age fairy tales. I don’t think there is a more important intellectual struggle to win; it has to be fought from a hundred sides, all at once, and continuously; but it seems to me that there is no reason for us to fight in well-ordered ranks, like the red coats of Atheism.

I think the entire transcript is worth reading. You can find other videos and articles by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et al at The Official Richard Dawkins Website.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

7 thoughts on “The Problem with Atheism”

  1. Until modern biology can give us something more in terms of natural law, atheism will never truly have something positive to put forward. The artificial void that fills with religion in people’s minds requires a certain positive belief in something that just will not be filled otherwise.

    Let’s just rank religions, and hope people flock to least worst, rather than the worst.

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  2. As much as I agree with his perspectives on the importance of mystery and meditation, I have always had a problem with these self-described atheists, especially Dawkins and Hitchens. What is his issue with metaphysics?

    The fact is, these guys don’t know jack about theology. If you want a good atheist writer, I would recommend Freidrich Nietzche or David Hume. These were men who studied in a religious tradition and were trained in theological thought and from there arrived at conclusions about the nature of the world that denied the existence of God. Openly so in the case on Nietzche, and covertly in the case of Hume.

    Dawkins and Hitchens, however, take their cues on theology not from highly accomplished thinkers like St. Augustine, Aquinas, and Plato. They’re basing their understandings of religious belief on idiots like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the Wahabbists.
    Any intelligent religious scholar would trounce them in debate which, I suppose, the reason they often find themselves debating people like Dinesh DeSouza rather than actual theologians. People who don’t end up on TV because their opinions are far too rational, moderate, forgiving, and well-thought out to grab attention in a world where you have to “bleed to lead.”

    Harris, having a background in philosophy, likely has had some study of Plato and Augustine under his belt, but what is his beef with metaphysics? He seems to betray some sense of theistic belief as simply being a silly superstition. For most people, it is, but for many people it is something arrived at not simply as an article of faith, but based on intense and rigorous rational reflection.

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  3. Good post Atanu. Vidoe of Sam Harris’s speech is available on Google video (link)

    I pretty much agree with what Sam says. I especially don’t like the “Brights” label that some have come up with and which Dan Dennett etc. are supporting. Out of necessity however you have to offer a label sometimes. In such situations I like the label “free thinker”. People generally are startled when they hear that and want to know more which gives me a chance to explain what it means.

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  4. Hi Atanu, thanks for sharing Sam Harris’ speech. Its exciting to know that someone who has a solid academic training in philosophy (and neurology you say ?), finally converges on meditation as being something worthwhile exploring.

    As Sam so well articulates, i have always felt meditation is no less “science” that what we popularly refer to as “science” today. It’s just that todays science needs all the paraphernalia .. telescopes, microscopes etc. But, meditation needs a different kind of instrumentation — ones mind, body and heart.

    These two — the regular “science” and meditation are just two different ways of knowing. One involves thought. The other involves cessation of thought.

    I’ve tried to clearly differentiate between these two ways in this blog article:
    http://chaitanya1.wordpress.com/ways-of-knowing/

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  5. Most of the scriptures,say that mind is not the right instrument to know the truth. The absolute is beyond the mind.

    Salt, like the pure consciousness, dissolved in water(creation), can only be known after tasting the water. An uneducated person, can be the Knower of the Absolute.

    Clearly there is more to it than logical analysis More than words and thoughts…

    Enjoyed reading the excerpts of the talk by Harris.

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