Five Good Things about Atheism

It seems I cannot win.


When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized.

It is a terrible position to be in, I can tell you, and I have no one to blame but myself.

To make amends and win back my disillusioned readers I am devoting this blog to the good things about atheism.

As far as I can tell, there are five:

1. Atheism is probably right: there is almost certainly no God. At least not the kind of pluriform god described by the world’s religions. If there were, we would know it in the way we know other things, like potholes and rainbows, and we would know it not because of syllogisms that begin “All things that exist were created,” or through the contradictory revelations of competing sects.

We would know it because we are hardwired to know.

The weakest argument of all, of course, is existence since existence raises the question of God; it does not answer it. The difference between a god who is hidden (invisible), or does not wish to be known (elusive), or cannot be demonstrated rationally is the same thing as a God who may as well not exist. Not to assign homework but have a look at John Wisdom’s famous parable recited in Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and Falsification,” (1968).

2. Atheism is courageous. Not valorous perhaps, not deserving of medals. But it takes a certain amount of courage not to believe what a vast majority of other people believe to be true. You learned that much as a kid, when a teacher said to you, after some minor tragedy in the playground, “Just because your best friend decides to jump over a fence onto a busy road doesn’t mean you need to do it too.”

The pressure to believe in God is enormous in twenty-first century society, and all but irresistible in certain sectors of America–the fundamental international base line for irrationality. Having to be religious or needing not to seem irreligious is the greatest tragedy of American public life and a sure recipe for the nation’s future mediocrity. It dominates political campaigns and the way kids learn history in Texas.

Texas edits textbooks

Theological differences aside, what Muslims and Christians and other godfearers have in common is an illusion that they are willing to defend aggressively–in certain cases murderously.

Even when it does not reach that level of viciousness, it can make the life of the uncommitted, unfaithed and unchurched miserable. Atheists deserve credit for having to put up with this stupidity. That is bravery, defined as forbearance.

Many atheists realize that the fervour displayed by religious extremists has deep psychological roots–that history has witnessed its bloodiest moments when causes were already lost. The legalization of Christianity (312?) came within three years of the final assault against Christians by the last “pagan” emperor. The greater number of the wars of religion (1562-1592) occurred after the Council of Trent (adj. 1563) had made Catholic doctrine unassailable–written in stone–for Catholics and completely unacceptable for Protestants. The Holocaust happened largely because Rassenhasse flowed naturally from two done deals: worldwide economic collapse and Germany’s humiliation in the Great War of 1914-1918. The Klan became most violent when its utility as an instrument of southern “justice” was finished.

Most of the available signs suggest that religion will not succumb to creeping irrelevance in the next six months. Religions become violent and aggressive as they struggle for breath. The substitution of emotion and blind, often illiterate, faith in support of threadbare dogmatic assertions is part of this struggle. So is an unwillingness to accept any alternative consensus to replace the old religious one.

Atheism symbolizes not just unbelief in God but the nature of that alternative consensus. That is why atheism is especially opprobrious to belief in an a era when most questions are settled by science and investigation.

Yet even without the security of dogma, religions usually provide for the emotional needs of their adherents in ways that science does not. They have had centuries, for example, to convince people that the miseries endured in this life are simply a preparation for a better one to come. A purposeless world acquires meaning as a “testing ground” for initiation into future glory. There is no art of consolation for the atheist, just the world as it is. Granny may have lost the power of speech after her third stroke, but she knows there is a wolf behind the door: religion knows this instinctively.

Being an atheist may be a bit lonely, but better “Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” (And Socrates was courageous, too.)

3. Atheists are more imaginative than most people. Religious people obviously have imagination too, but so much of their imaginative world is provided for them in myth, art, ritual and architectural space. Atheists know that the world we live in is dominated by religion: spires, minarets, ceremonial prayers, political rhetoric and posturing, ethical discussion. I am not convinced (alas) that atheists are “brighter” than anyone else, but they have to imagine ungiven alternatives and worlds of thought that have not been handed to them by tradition and custom.

Imagination however is that two-way street between vision and delusion. The given myths and symbols of a culture are imposed, not arrived at or deduced, and if not imposed then “imparted” by traditions. Jung was wrong.

Collective Unconscious?

Skeptics and unbelievers from Shelley and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) to Richard Feynman, John Ellis, Ljon Tichy and Einstein in the sciences, Sir Michael Tippet, Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch in music, Bukoswki, Camus, Somerset Maugham, Joyce Carol Oates, Vonnegut in literature, have been imaginers, iconoclasts, rule-breakers, mental adventurers.

Far too often, unfortunately, atheists are the worst advocates for imagination.

They rather nervously limit their interest to the scientific imagination. They don’t see a connection between Monod and Camus. They consider their unbelief a “scientific” and “rational” position, not an imaginative one. When confronted with photographs of the Taj Mahal or recordings of Bach’s B-minor Mass, they point to shots from the Hubble telescope or (my personal favorite) soundtracks of earth auroral kilometric radiation.

Instead of owning the arts, they play the part of intellectual bullies who think poetry is for mental sissies.

Joyce Carol Oates

I have come to the conclusion that this is because they equate the imagination with the imaginary and the imaginary with the supernatural. The imagination produced religion, of course, hence the gods, but that does not mean that it is governed by religion, because if it were we never would have got round to science. The poet Charles Bukowski summed it up nicely in a 1988 interview: “For those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

4. Atheism is an ethical position. That does not make being an atheist a “moral” stance, but it does raise a question about whether it is possible to be good with God. Only an individual free from the commandments of religion and the threat of heaven and hell deserves credit (or blame) for his decisions, actions, and omissions. Atheists are required to assume that responsibility fully. Religious people are not.

This is why anyone who teaches his children that the story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament is a “moral fable” is just as bad as the fundamentalist who teaches it as history. What would you say about a brutish dog-owner who told his naturally stupid dog to piss anywhere but in the flower garden, then hied him to a shelter the minute he did what he couldn’t help doing to begin with? That is the story of Adam, without the benefit of two millennia of theology to disguise its simplest elements.

Bad Dog

Modern Christian theology has attempted to emphasize the love, mercy and compassion of this God: he is a God of second chances–redemption–after all.

But mainly the Christian message is little more than an attempt to rehabilitate God under the guise of teaching that it’s the humans who needed rehabilitating. They had to be given one more chance at the flowers in order to to show that God, after his initial temper tantrum, is really full of kindness and patience. That’s basically what the “New” Testament tries to do, after all, though in a highly problematical way.

At a basic level, an atheist is likely to detect that there is no ethical content to the stories of religion. The prototypes are Adam, the disobedient, Job, the sufferer, Noah, the obedient, and Abraham, the faithful.

But these figures are not ethical paragons. They are examples of the types of behavior religion requires. Religion evokes “good” in the “good dog” sense of the word–as a characteristic of obedience, not as an outcome of choice. That is not the kind of good any rational being would aspire to–and one of the reasons certain interpreters, like Augustine, thought that what was squandered in Eden was reason. But ethics is about reflection, discrimination, freedom, and decision. Religion, strictly and fairly speaking, does not provide for that; only unbelief does. If Augustine had understood things properly, he would have spit in God’s eye and said that Adam’s only rational choice was to do what he did, affirm who and what he was, and get on with his life without Yahweh. Instead, he creeps out of the garden, takes his punishment like a beaten spaniel, and lives in the hope that his master will throw him the occasional bone.

The expulsion from Eden

To the extent that modern liberal theologies try to say that religions have endorsed a policy of choice and reflection all along, the rebuttal is history.

5. Atheists are socially tolerant. By this, I mean that they do not have a history of violence against beliefs and practices they may privately abhor. They do not burn down churches, black or white. No matter how ardent their unbelief, they do not bomb mosques or blow themselves up at Sunday Mass to reduce the number of Catholics in the world. They are not responsible for the Arab-Israeli border wars. They have not created tens of thousands of displaced people in resettlement camps in Lebanon or torn whole African nations apart. In general, they do not mistake adventurism for preemptive wars.

They may support separation of church and state in sometimes strident ways, but not violent ways: you will not see gangs of secularists tearing down nativity scenes at Christmas or storming historic court houses to get icons of the ten commandments removed from public view. –Even if they think these public displays of devotion are inappropriate and teach people bad habits.

All of these things are pretty obvious, even to believers whose gurus talk incessantly about the secular humanist and atheist “threat” without ever being able (successfully) to put a face on it. But they need to be recorded because religious people often assume that tolerance can only be practised within a religious or inter-religious context, Catholic to Baptist, Christian to Jew and Muslim. But atheism stands outside this circle.

Atheism, as atheism, stands as the rejection of all religious beliefs: it is befuddling to believers how such a position deserves tolerating at all. If there has to be an enemy–something a majority can identify as uniformly despicable–atheism has to be it. That is why hoi polloi in the darkest days of the communist threat, especially those who had no idea what the social and economic program of the Soviet Union was, considered the worst sin of the “Reds” in Russia, China, and Europe their disbelief in God.

As with goodness, tolerance needs to be exhibited non-coercively. Not because Jesus said “Love your enemies,” or because Muhammad preached sparing unbelievers, provided they capitulated to Islam. Not even because John Paul II apologized to Galileo in absentia. What supports the suggestion that atheists are tolerant (and need to continue to be seen as being tolerant) is that the virtue of tolerance emerges naturally from the rational premises of unbelief. What atheism says is that intellectual assent is won by argument and evidence, not by force of arms or the power of priests and mullahs.

While atheists will never experience mass conversions to their cause “like a mighty wind” after a speech by a pentecostal preacher, the individual changes of mind from belief to skepticism will depend as much on the tone as on the substance of their message. By the same token, what atheist would trust the unbelieving equivalent of a spiritual awakening? It doesn’t happen that way. It happens one by one. Slowly. Just ask an atheist about how he “became” an unbeliever, and I wager that you will hear a life story, or something about how things just didn’t add up–a process, not a sudden emotional shudder but often a painful change of heart and (especially) mind.

46 thoughts on “Five Good Things about Atheism

  1. This is a very interesting post, not least because it makes me wonder whether I would have had the courage to reject a religious belief if I had been born into it. Although American and Middle Eastern atheists are courageous for not believing, as also Socrates certainly was, not all of us can claim to be courageous for not believing when there was never any pressure or desire in the first place. Despite unanswered questions … like ‘So why are we here?’ The answer for me is usually something like ‘Don’t know, but don’t forget the picnic because I know the surf’s up today.’ And it was precisely because I knew so many other atheists, of different flavours (former believers, anti religious, or like me, interested in believers’ beliefs despite not wanting to believe) that I didn’t always admit until very recently that I probably was one too. Not courageous – just conforming! although I defend my ‘atheist butism’ maybe…

    You’re not in a terrible position though. When people disagree with you they tend to speak louder than people who agree. Although the Irish Oscar Wilde was referring to the British public, he said as long as three quarters of people disagreed with you, it was a sign of your sanity. More importantly though it’s a reflection of an independent mind not bowing obediently to convention for the sake of it. Without the reflection and insight into atheism and religion you provide, progress and learning is poorer. Ogden Nash wrote in part of ‘Seeing Eye to Eye is Believing’, “I believe that people believe what they believe they believe. When people reject a truth or an untruth it is not because it is a truth or an untruth that they reject it. No, if it isn’t in accord with their beliefs in the first place they simply say, “Nothing doing,” and refuse to inspect it.”

    A long winded way of saying, with Groucho Marx “I can’t say I disagree with you” regarding the five good things – even six – about atheism in this post, and you’re absolutely right. And as always entertaining and beautifully written.


  2. Although not in disagreement with the comment above by Steph, there is no winning on subjects like this. I get the impression that for every view into a subject you can find as an example writer, I can find another view that you haven’t incorporated or another way to look at the motivations of this type of people or that type of people. But I also think that’s a good place to include room for comments which can go further and onto tangents.

    I totally endorse viewpoints that suggest atheism is not enough while simultaneously brandishing atheist as a priority description for people who might want to know things about me.

    And also, if religion weren’t such a big deal to the extent that there are states acting to include creationism in science class, then I’d have a lot less incentive to investigate this subject. So for people in other countries and even other communities in America like maybe Oregon, their atheists might have less to say.

  3. At some point you will no doubt explain the basis for categorising Comrade Stalin and Chairman Mao as “socially tolerant”, but you’ve obviously been having a hard time of it recently, so not now.

    We’re back to the bit about two nations divided by the same language and different cultures; it is difficult for someone like myself, educated at a school founded in 1875 by radical feminists, in which Creationism was known to be too ridiculous even to be laughed at, to envisage any teacher trying to claim that the story of Adam and Eve is a moral fable; certainly none of mine ever attempted to do so, presumably because they did not wish to be laughed out of the classroom.

    That and the fact that as far as Miss Buss and Miss Beale were concerned the Jesuits were pikers; no girl educated at a GPDST school was allowed to believe something because someone, however eminent, had said so. Even if the eminent Being doing the saying was God; it would be an affront to the memory of the suffragettes, who are ranked considerably above any saints.

    Equally, since Job was not Jewish no-one ever attempted to claim that the God he was conversing with was the one addressed as father by Jesus, in the event of there actually being a ‘historical Jesus’, that is. Improbable as it may seem, the question of whether there really was a Jesus at all was included in the curriculum; as I recall the school chaplain was a bit unhappy about it but he went on to become an admittedly rather bad bishop, so presumably the powers that be forgave him for knuckling down.

    All in all, I was educated to believe that intellectual assent is won by argument and evidence; since someone claiming to be an atheist is now considered to warrant a round of applause without that person providing any argument or evidence at all, I shall declare myself to be an atheist roughly around the time when Hell freezes over…

    • Any chance you could summarize your opinion, chenier1. It appears you’re saying that you wouldn’t identify as atheist because of Stalin, Mao and two founders of the women’s college at Oxford. I admit I was extra confused when Job entered the conversation. The blog post’s treatment there struck me as rather benign.

      I think it’s really swell that you found some evil fellows who identified as atheist. I’d like to know about nutjob atheists analogous to the abortion doctor snipers and the kidnappers of O’hare because dictators say a lot of things in order to control their masses and are rarely the epitome of the faiths or lack of faiths that they profess. At least, that’s my take on that. And yes, it is possible that people identifying as atheist can actually commit crimes. But I’m pretty sure I can dredge up statistics substantiating that people who identify as atheist are jailed proportionally less than their believer counterparts which would provide more support for the blog post claims ( under “Atheist Prison Population”).

      • The believers vs non-believers in jail is a fallacious argument, there is substantially more believers than non-believers so surely there will be in the prisons as well. If I survey a Starbucks and find more theists than atheists 3:1 does that mean that theists in general love coffee more than atheists? No 🙂

      • It would be a fallacious argument if the amount of believers in jail were proportional to the amount of believers at large. I haven’t put any recent effort into this topic (that comment you replied to is two years old) but I’m holding the stance that the amount of believers in jail is disproportionately larger and the amount of atheists disproportionately smaller than those populations are outside of jail. So more criminals claim faith.

        It could be a conspiracy where all the atheists and associated non-believers get together and promise that when they go to jail, they check “Christian” or “Muslim” but I doubt that.

        However, you might be saying that you know that the amount of believers in jail is proportional to the population outside of jail. Is that what you are saying?

  4. I might want to distinguish the categories. Stalin and Mao were communists whose atheism was prescribed by the party, just as a thousand Christian rotters and not a few popes were Christian by default, not choice. That’s to say that they did not arrive at atheism as their fundamental intellectual position, but their “default” atheism gave the position in general a bad name–precisely because they symbolized pars pro toto what religious people in the west thought atheism is/was. I think we call this the fallacy of division.

  5. I disavow any claim to courage. It takes no courage whatseover for me to be an atheist, and it never has. It does take courage for some people, but only some. As for me, I’m a coward.

    Imagination…really? Atheists shy away from art and imagination? Not the ones I know.

    • Didn’t you get the memo? All gnu atheists are emotionless Commander Datas–able to understand human art, literature, music, etc. intellectually but incapable of truly appreciating any of it.

      (And every article about gnu atheism will include at least one off-the-wall generalization that only really applies to the small subset of atheists the author has actually interacted with.)

    • Yes, that stood out for me. Reading poetry is one of my favourite pastimes, and seldom a day goes by when I do not read some of my favourite poets: Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Herbert, Larkin, Auden, Lawrence, Owen, Stevens, Hopkins, …

      While I think this post makes up to a certain extent for the earlier one lambasting the new atheists, it seems to me important to remember that the forces of religion are exceedingly powerful. Criticism is vital, but indiscriminate condemnation is not helpful.

  6. Now, now–I said too many do. You are being modest as well: I think anyone who calls for common sense in this society is brave. It takes nothing to be Christine O’Donnell except a good dentist.

  7. I know, you did. I suppose I was just thinking about the atheists I know – who are more in the vein of Salman Rushdie (in a YouTube clip he posted on Facebook a couple of days ago) saying “they’re great stories, but they’re not true.” He’s a fan of great stories. Heh heh.

    • steph,
      Apologies for seeming rude. I take refuge in that I comment as a believer over against blatently offensive labeling, “Religion is for Dims” – “Religion (saith RD with essay approval) is the default position for the scientifically challenged of the world” – further without comment response, the advise “Ignore the believer” seems to rule. All the while attempting to introduce the contradiction (the absolute, radical, irredeemable difference), the stark phenemon: why these the pioneering physicists, the world’s greatest, in droves, go beyond physics, the hardest of the sciences, to embrace the mea-physical, mysticism, the tenderest of religions!
      By pure happenstance, I have a peculiar interest in RJH essays which may be explained by the first 13 comments to the essay “The Importance of the Historical Jesus” which may suggest that orthodox Christianity does not represent true reilgion.

  8. Pingback: Arrested moral development. | Open Parachute

  9. Stalin also claimed that he ran a democratic party-hence the elections with 99.9 percent majorities. Should we be nervous of Democracy?

    • Of course you should! As a citizen, you should always feel uneasy about the balance of your remaining liberties versus the concessions you make to the government.

      It seems that you are pointing out that what someone labels themselves as isn’t necessarily what they are. Is there more to your point?

  10. Re: courage

    Surely being an atheist is not connected to courage. Coming out as one might be something else. A society that criminalises or stigmatises atheism is surely likely to have less open atheists than one that doesn’t, isn’t it?

    Hope you saw my late addition to the B&W thread; it was posted before I had read this.

    • We have much more evidence about societies that have persecuted Jews, heretics, and even Catholic or protestant disseneters than any that have actually persecuted atheists in the way, e.g., religion was discouraged under communist regimes. But your point is aggreable: there would be fewer atheists in a society that actually persecuted them.

    • Being an atheist isn’t the only courageous thing but it can be. Most of my non believer friends are first generation atheists. We had to disappoint our parents before we could earn their respect. And some of us speak up louder because we have the privilege that our friends do not. I thing courageous is an adjective you can apply to atheism.

  11. But are we not speaking about times in which being an atheist was far less acceptable than belonging to a faith that happened not to be dominant?

    • You use the word “stigmatize,” and I’ll accept that. Actual persecutions of atheists have been pitifully infrequent and rare throughout history–no major purges or anything of the sort. i do notice a trend in some atheists circles to create such an era, but except for very minor incidents, like Shelley and Bradlaugh and the social “ostracism” often applied to atheist ideas, I can’t think of any real theatrical moments. Please tell me what you have in mind. Part of the issue is that atheism as we use the term today is a modern word without much pre-18th century history. it meant something very different in the ancient world, where even Jews and christians could be and were called atheists. I am now being told that some new atheists are receiving death threats; I have no reason to doubt this but I think the claim deserves investigation.

  12. To clarify, when you talk about religious minorities (persecuted or other), you are talking about communities of some kind, I assume. Which historical periods have seen atheists in sufficient numbers or concentration to qualify as a community? Is this not an outgrowth of how unacceptable it was? Are there not examples of philosophers in centuries past now assumed to have been atheists in all but name (because they were too attached to their lives and liberty to say so outright)?

    • Well, I don’t think Socrates was our kind of atheist–too wordy–but certainly not some people’s idea of a religious Athenian. But the charge certainly included not believing in the myths.

      • By “atheist” I did mean it in our more contemporary sense of simply not believing in the existence of god/s. Certainly I did not have believing Jews and Christians in mind. If Christians of one sect or another were persecuted, I suppose it was usually as heretics, whereas Jews might have been “Christ-killers.” Did you intend, in your reply, to claim that if there was less persecution of atheists as a group, it was because atheism was looked upon more favourably than any brand of religious belief?

      • Bit more complicated: the modern position we call atheism coincides with a period where many countries were moving away from medieval persecutionist tactics, which were fundamentally inter-religious, as you also say. When we talk about modern atheism as a “movement”–yes, there isn’t much of it in an organized way until the 19th century when places like Conway Hall move quickly from Unitarianism to essentially an atheist stance, and by then laws protecting even the most radical groups are in place. The evolution of atheism in the modern period therefore correlates with toleration and actually benefits from it–which is why pseudo atheists, if they were, like Paine and even deists like Jefferson could get by with saying as much as they did critical of religion. I’d even argue that from that standpoint, elected officials and intellectuals are probably worse off today than they were in the 16th and 17th century. I think atheism is unpopular enough without trying to create a history of persecution that just doesn’t exist–but not because there haven’ always been skeptics and atheists. The closest I think we might come is the persecution of Socinians, who were in Italy and had to fee to Poland: they denied the trinity in the 16th and 17th century, and found a home in Poland for a while. The history of atheism in an organized way is closely tid to the development of rational religious movements in the pre- and early enlightenment, especially unitarianism, which is the first step on the slope towards rejecting revelation.

  13. On imagination I disagree – I write poetry (Not very good poetry, but it counts) and go in for photography basically because I can never quite draw what I see in my head fast enough.

    We also have champions like Tim Minchin and the like. Atheists often make for great comedians, and comedy is to my mind the very highest form of creativity. It combines the best of poetry’s expression, with philosophy’s introspection.

    I think it is one of those things that as a community we should highlight more – that we are not, as Steve Martin once claimed, lacking songs. That not only do we have art, but it is often great art.

    • Hi Bruce: Are you disagreeing with this or some point made after it?

      3. Atheists are more imaginative than most people. Religious people obviously have imagination too, but so much of their imaginative world is provided for them in myth, art, ritual and architectural space.

  14. Rebellions take courage. Christians who think they are oppressed can probably qualify for that label as well. I would define courage as the willingness to step outside your comfort zone and risk social penalties for stating your opinion. Being an atheist is easy, potentially. Saying that’s what you’re doing is not always so. In my house it’s not courageous. But out here on the internet where it can affect job prospects, in laws, and other folks opinion of me? It’s courage.

  15. “The evolution of atheism in the modern period therefore correlates with toleration…”

    I take that as confirmation of what I was fishing for; while minority faiths could get by even if persecuted, atheists didn’t even dare stick their heads above the parapets till certain rights had been anchored in society.

    • This is close to right, except we need to be careful about assuming a coherent “atheist” position before the coherent position, which is evolutionary, had developed. There are scholars like John Hick for example who have suggested that something like what we are calling atheism was “psychologically impossible” before the modern era, meaning that we are not talking about repression but about rational development. I would completely reject any suggestion that there was an enormous “atheist underground” in the 12th century for example–it just wasn’t possible. But what there WAS is just as important. Have a look at Gordon Stein was the expert on the subject of the evolutionary identity of atheism. He died tragically after he had edited the Enc of Unbelief. But you can get the basic outline there.

      • Thanks for the link. Will give it my attention shortly. I also was not expecting a 12th century atheist underground, but “psychologically impossible” does sound far-fetched. There must have been people centuries before us who decided that what was being preached just didn’t add up, even if they were smart enough to keep it to themselves. “Socially almost impossible” I could buy.

      • I agree, far fetched. I think there must have been atheists in neolithic times. Just trying to avoid the disparity between what they would not have believed and what we do not believe, which is culturally determined and this highly uncertain. Our atheism has been greatly shaped by science and theirs could not have been.

  16. The science point is well taken. Unless one is prepared to swallow a 100% rate of self-delusion among prehistoric shamans, yes, there must have been neolithic atheists.

    • What would really be useful, and very difficult to produce, is a history of atheism that respected the way in which belief has been related to particular objects over time. Modern atheism has been the story of the rejection of a particular set of beliefs, defined primarily in biblical terms, since the early Enlightenment. –I just don’t want to see atheism becoming superstitious about its past; the Christians created a totally, or largely false story of their own martyrdom and persecution–let’s not do that with unbelief.

  17. I am forced to restate the above March 5th challenge. Joe, you said March 28th:: “Our atheism has been greatly shaped by science – -” as a positive statement. I am forced to take it indisputably to be the exact opposite – a negative statment; based on the thought of those identified as the world’s greatest physicists of the 20th century. They all embraced mysticism. A conclusion not of emotion, not of itituition, not of faith, but of a sustained use of the critical intellect. This followed after concluding that the great differenc betweeen the old and the new physics, given that they both were dealing with shadows and illusions, not reality, the new physics was forced to be aware of the fact. “We (the old) thought we were dealing with the world itself”. (Sir James Jeans)
    Litte as they were in the position of simply living and thinking within the radition of one of the old religious traditions (e.g. Christianity), so equally little were they prepared to go over to a naive, rationalistically grounded atheism.

    • Our modern atheism is in fact greatly shaped by science. Our horseman are pretty unanimous about that. And I would say the evolution versus creationism stand off is a purely science versus a popular religion even more than it is an argument against faith. And yet, some of us atheists, consider it to be analogous to the kind of half hatched nonsense that leads the uneducated to think Scientology is nice because it’s got science in the name. Real science is a good cure for a lot of those crazy thoughts which ail many people.

  18. Pingback: Five Good Things about Atheism (via The New Oxonian) | The New Oxonian

  19. I appreciate this article.

    I think this has compelled me to write a similar list of positive reasons in support of atheism.

    However, just a small nitpick, but I would change your preface to your list of good things about atheism which states:

    “As far as I can tell, there are five:”


    “As far as I can tell, there are at least five:”

    Because, as we all know, there could be more we haven’t thought of yet. 😉 Now I am off to think more on the subject.

  20. “Religion evokes “good” in the “good dog” sense of the word–as a characteristic of obedience, not as an outcome of choice.” Well said.

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