After God: What Can Atheists Learn From Believers?

Several authors answer the New Statesman‘s question.  Here are some excerpts.

Alain de Botton:

For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes.

The most sophisticated response we have yet come up with is psychotherapy. It is to psychotherapists that we bring the same kind of problems as we would previously have directed at a priest: emotional confusion, loss of meaning, temptations of one kind or another and anxiety about mortality.

From a distance, psychotherapists look like they are already well settled in priestlike roles and that there is nothing further to be done or asked for. Yet there are a number of ways in which contemporary psychotherapy has failed to learn the right lessons from the priesthood and might benefit from a more direct comparison with it. For a start, therapy remains a minority activity, out of reach of most people: too expensive or simply not available. There have been laudable efforts to introduce therapy into the medical system, but progress is slow and vulnerable. The issue isn’t just economic. It is one of attitudes. Whereas Christian societies would imagine there was something wrong with you if you didn’t visit a priest, we usually assume that therapists are there solely for moments of extreme crisis – and are a sign that the visiting client might be a little unbalanced, rather than just human.

There is also, in a serious sense, an issue of branding. Therapy is hidden, unbranded, depressing in its outward appearance. The priests had far better clothes, and infinitely better architecture.

Francis Spufford:

This post-Christian puritanism, largely oblivious now of its history, is highly visible in the New Atheism of the 1990s and 2000s, and especially in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Strange indifference (except at the margins) to all religions except Christianity? Check. Sense of being locked in righteous combat with the powers of darkness? Check. Puritanism, it turns out, can float free of faith and still preserve a vehement world-view, a core of characteristic judgements. The world, it says, is afflicted by a layer of corrupting gunk, a gluey mass of lies and mistakes that purports to offer mediation between us and meaning but actually obscures it and hides the plain outlines of that truth we so urgently need. Moreover, this hiding, this obscuring, is wilful and culpable, maintained on purpose for the benefit of hierarchs, bullies, men in golden hats everywhere. It is our duty to take up the wire wool of reason and to scrub, scrub, scrub the lies away. For no mediation is necessary. We may have –we must have – a direct vision of the essential state of things. We must see the world as if through pure, clear water, or empty air.

It is reassuring, in a way, to find this ancient continuity at work in the sensibility of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne. It kind of makes up for their willed ignorance of all the emotional and intellectual structures of faith (as opposed to the will-o’-the-wisp “popery” in their heads). Dawkins may be showing indifference to every word ever written about the differences between polytheism and monotheism when he declares that Yahweh is the same as Odin, and that all he wants “is one god less” – but he is also keeping up a 400-year-old campaign against idolatry. That distant sound you hear is Oliver Cromwell applauding.

However, the project is impossible – as impossible for the New Atheists as for every previous builder of a purified New Jerusalem. Direct, unmediated apprehension of truth is not available, except in the effortful special case of science. That gunk the New Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination. People secrete it, necessarily, faster than it can be removed. Metaphors solidify into stories wherever the reformers’ backs are turned. We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.

Jim Al-Khalil:

As a scientist, I have an unshakeable rationalist conviction that our universe is comprehensible; that mysteries are mysteries only because we have yet to figure them out. There is no need for a supernatural being to occupy the gaps in our understanding, because we will eventually fill them with new knowledge based on objective scientific truths: answers that are not based on mythologies, or cultural/historical whims, or personal biases, but arrived at by examining hypotheses, testing our theories to destruction and being prepared to abandon them if they conflict with empirical data. Scientists are constantly subjecting our world-view to scrutiny. This is the opposite of blind faith.

Such a sweeping statement is a little unfair, given that not all scientists are so prepared to abandon a dogmatic stance when proved wrong, and not everyone with religious faith follows it blindly – to think that they do is naive and insulting to the many people who constantly question their faith. If you hold a strong conviction that there is some deeper significance to the universe or a spiritual meaning to your life that is important to you, who am I to try to convince you otherwise?

Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you. If you firmly believe this as an ontological truth, then it is rather pointless having a theological debate about it. But what I, and many other atheists, take issue with is the arrogant attitude that religious faith is the only means of providing us with a moral compass – that society dissolves without faith into a hedonistic, anarchic, amoral, self-gratifying decadence. This is not only nonsense, but intellectually lazy.

We still have a long way to go if we are to rid the world of the bigoted attitudes held and injustices carried out in the name of religion. But the tide is turning. I would argue that to be an atheist in Britain today is so mainstream that we can afford to become less strident in our criticism and more tolerant of those with a faith. I say this not because I am less committed to my secular views or because I have weaker conviction than others, but because I believe we are winning the argument. We should not have to defend our atheism any longer.

Karen Armstrong:

Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level.

As a result, “God” becomes incredible. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking in the west is often remarkably undeveloped, even primitive, and would make Maimonides and Aquinas turn in their graves. They both insisted that God was not another being and that you could not even say that He (ridiculous pronoun!) existed, because our experience of existence is too limited. God, said Aquinas, is Being itself (esse se ipsum).

The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we are meant to move on. Throughout history, however, many people have been content with a personalized deity, yet not because they “believed” in it but because they learned to behave – ritually and ethically – in a way that made it a reality. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes. The rules of a board game sound obscure and dull until you start to play, and then everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice. You may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible or to dance with unearthly beauty. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy –what the Greeks called ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the norm.

Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life. Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work. Classical yoga was not an aerobic exercise but a full-time job, in which a practitioner learned to transcend the ego that impeded the ekstasis of enlightenment. The five “pillars” or essential practices of Islam are all activities: prayer, pilgrimage, almsgiving, fasting and a continual giving of “witness” (shahada) in everything you do that God (not the “gods” of ambition and selfishness) is your chief priority.

Read more here.

53 Comments on "After God: What Can Atheists Learn From Believers?"

  1. Hadrian999 | Apr 2, 2013 at 7:08 pm |


  2. DeepCough | Apr 2, 2013 at 7:37 pm |

    All I ask of my “fellow atheists” is that you take into account that religion is nothing more than
    “civilization programming,” and that you don’t make a Bible out of The God Delusion

    • Well said!

    • The question is if “civilization programming” is evil entirely?

      If a man programs his own life and does a shitty job, becoming a junky, or an investment banker, do we hate programming itself as a tyranny over his cells? or do we hate the form of programming that has taken place?

      • landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 11:26 am |

        investment banker decides and grants your “rights” ……he is fine you are powerless…not so bad for him that you dont like…. if I kill you do you win because you were the “good guy”

        • methinks you missed/misunderstood my point

          • landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 1:57 pm |

            speaking to those with idea of programming. no program. again ego makes up fantasy of lots to choose and merit or demerit. “shitty” imply merit so I think I understand. just ego says my god my merit should…….

          • this may be a bit hypocritical as i don’t really see myself as all there all the time, but it seems you’ve lost it.

          • landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm |

            maybe just ego that believe good and bad does not understand.

          • paradoxically your ego in the denial of ego itself is so strong that you led your train of thought on wild tracks. i’m beginning to suspect that english isn’t your first language and maybe this is all just a problem of language barrier though.

            Nonetheless, being fixated on the denial of the ego, is still an ego fixation, and is just as bad as the standard form. Live with balance my friend.

          • landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 4:11 pm |

            so you give advice? are you right? do you believe right and wrong for others than yourself?…..but you give advice so you must…you very religious…now you have last word

      • DeepCough | Apr 3, 2013 at 1:46 pm |

        I understand what you’re trying to say; it’s just that these questions are better left to our
        future robot overlords.

    • kowalityjesus | Apr 4, 2013 at 6:39 am |

      religion is a matter of dealing with reality from an individual perspective, not programming by overlords. Maybe it has BECOME that for a lot of people, but that is not what it is most useful for and originally intended. Mystery, my friends, mystery.

      • Calypso_1 | Apr 4, 2013 at 10:03 am |

        …wait back up. When did you become a Luciferian?

        • Lord forgive me, I am not educated like a clergyman.

        • kowalityjesus | Apr 5, 2013 at 6:07 am |

          “Religion… is what the individual does with his own solitude….If you are never solitary, you are never religious. Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches rituals, Bibles, codes of behaviour, are the trappings of religion, its passing forms. They may be useful or harmful. The end of religion is beyond all this” -Whitehead

      • DeepCough | Apr 4, 2013 at 10:44 am |

        “Religion is…not programming by overlords.”

        I dunno, I guess I get a different impression from televangelists.

        • kowalityjesus | Apr 4, 2013 at 5:12 pm |

          Televangelists are widely accepted to be poor examples of Christians as well as human beings in general.

      • can’t it be both?, alternatively can’t it be either (one religion being personal and another being structural)

        • kowalityjesus | Apr 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm |

          yes, and in practice it will always be (one, the other, both).

          I guess everyone has their own reasons for beliefs, no matter how crazy, tangential or flimsy they might seem to others.

  3. Dingbert | Apr 2, 2013 at 7:54 pm |

    It sounds like they need to learn to drop their false assumptions about religion, God, and Christianity. But first, it sounds like Western Christians need to do the same. Atheists, by definition, are not the ones preaching bad theology.

    • landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 11:21 am |

      they, athiest, most certainly are. They too refuse to accept the world as it is and formulate fantasies with no possibility of coming into existence as to how things should and could be…mostly should. still refusing to accept what is and having a faith that ideals, fairness, truth, rights..all that imaginary stuff is real. no difference at all. athiest are highly religious. they don’t like “the big dog eats and might makes right” so while they don’t believe in god they believe something equally nonexistent and silly and with no more evidence. ..peas in a pod

    • mannyfurious | Apr 3, 2013 at 4:31 pm |

      Eh… it’s debatable. I love Hawking and personally believe that he’s the greatest mind since Einstein. With that said, when he goes around saying shit like the question of what was before the big bang cannot be answered because, “the question is not defined” or writing books about the death of philosophy, he comes across as something of a “true-believer” in the religion of science.

  4. I wish they’d both learn to piss off.

  5. This is an issue that no train of thought will bridge.

  6. Atheism and Religion are both mostly window dressing for our deepest impulses (I dress mine in light Atheism, not that it makes much different). One of the great ironies is that science has determined that we decide our feelings and then we cover it with our reasons. It’s been my experience that a good religious person is still a good when they lose their faith or a d-bag’s a d-bag when they’re a born-again d-bag…

    • kowalityjesus | Apr 4, 2013 at 6:42 am |

      we stand naked and alone before God at the end of every day, with only our good deeds to clothe us.

      • You know, originally I was going to reply with something flippant like “Honey, I look Good naked..” but it really is a very poetic image. Yours or is it from somewhere?

        • kowalityjesus | Apr 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm |

          Its a template for sure, not Catholic in origination, but with my own paraphrase. couldn’t give you a source, but I can tell you where I was living when I read it. Thanks, though.

      • Didn’t God design our bodies?

  7. Monkey See Monkey Do | Apr 3, 2013 at 9:36 am |

    Atheists have to learn to believe in non-belief. Believers have to learn non-believing in belief.

  8. landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 11:07 am |

    atheism is simply the religion of humanism…which is itself every single bit as fictional and fantasy as any god. The truth is real and simple and it is validated in everything……in form the big dog eats and this spins perpetually true without fail in THE compost pile (or the nature of “the reincarnating monad” as those unable to live might kalit) there is nothing to seek friends…put away your dolls

    • bobbiethejean | Apr 3, 2013 at 5:38 pm |

      Atheism is not a religion, period, the end. It is simply a lack of belief or the belief that there is/are no god/s. That’s not a religion. Atheism is also not in anyway the same thing as humanism. The two can coincide and often do, but they are not the same thing. Furthermore, you can’t say atheism is false. That’s a positive assertion. For that, you need evidence.

      • landydavis | Apr 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm |

        please direct to the atheist org that does not profess humanistic ethics. you assume all christians are theist because of convention please allow me to assume that conventional atheism is representative and the convention is humanism which is imaginary as any god…

        • bobbiethejean | Apr 4, 2013 at 8:40 am |

          Christians are theists by definition. Belief in humanism, no matter how often it may coincide with atheism, is not required for one to be an atheist. Furthermore, Humanism is not part of the definition of atheism. One may also be a theist and a humanist at the same time, believe it or not.

          Quod erat demonstrandum: Atheism is not is not mutually inclusive with humanism and is not inherently a religion. Now, people can religionize things, yes. Anyone can turn anything into a religion. We do it with sports, we do it with politics, we do it with TV shows, celebrities, and even atheists can do it to their lack of belief, I suppose. But none of these things are inherently religion.

          To sum up:

          1.) Atheism is not inherently a religion. Atheism is simply a definition meaning: Lack of belief in gods or the positive assertion that there are no gods. Anything added to atheism (dogmas, rituals, traditions etc) are brought to it by individual atheists but are not required to be an atheist and are not shared by all atheists.

          2.) Atheism is not mutually inclusive with humanism as one can be an atheist without being a humanist and can be a humanist without being an atheist.

          • landydavis | Apr 4, 2013 at 8:49 am |

            semantics… “god” need not mean the manfaced anthropomorphic activists gods of many stories…but by convention. .. see you know Christianity can be taken as metaphor without belief in nonmaterial. You know,, because you did not point to group like atheists. org that professed atheists mostly do have faith in fantasy like “rights”…you know this is true. one thing though..really I should say egoism over humanism since we play semantics

          • landydavis | Apr 4, 2013 at 9:02 am |

            egotism not ism…funny since talking meaning of words…btw you know religion not mean theist right? Atheists mostly really religous…..of course rare exception…but mostly silly believing in concept that not real…we agree rights not like gravity…right? so something like justice require faith because its not like gravity…you do agree?

          • bobbiethejean | Apr 4, 2013 at 2:20 pm |

            My argument was not semantical, it was straightforward and definitional. Again, atheism is not inherently a religion and is not mutually inclusive with humanism. Secondly, I didn’t point out any non-humanist atheist groups because that is an absurd request in and of itself. I really shouldn’t have to explain why but if you want me to, I will be more than happy to.

            Also, I’m sorry to inform you but your second paragraph down there made absolutely no sense at all. Are you not a native English speaker?

          • landydavis | Apr 4, 2013 at 9:35 pm |

            please do. I asked you twice. you know darn well that most atheist profess to believe in other imaginary things like “rights”. you ars feining confusion because youbare embarrassed by the obvious fact that atheist reject some immaterial fantasy like an activist god but buy fully into a similarly ridiculous idea such as “justice” or “fairness” because it suits their fancy and they want it because they want the world on their terms just like religous zealots. peas in a pod. you know that. you know rigjts are not real like gravity and you know that the vast overwhelmong majority of self identified atheists constantly invoke nust such imaginary concepts to try to have life on their terms….exactly like superstitious religous childlike folks they laim to be different than…not surprising that you play a word game to avoid confronting the reality that atheists have silly faithful magical beliefs.

          • bobbiethejean | Apr 5, 2013 at 11:13 am |

            After due consideration, I have concluded that you are simply too unintelligent and illogical to be having this conversation with. I am sorry to have bothered you, have a lovely day.

          • landydavis | Apr 5, 2013 at 11:38 am |

            it is very clear to all that your real problem is that you can’t provide an example of a non humanistic atheists org because as I have been saying none exist. they don’t exist because atheists are superstitious religious people that believe in unreal moralistic ideals and never stop crying about “rights” which are just as fictional as god. silly hypocrites

          • landydavis | Apr 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm |

            cmon..put up or shut up..give us the example you promised….typical pseudo intellectual troll. you can’t. you are exposed phony

  9. kowalityjesus | Apr 4, 2013 at 6:34 am |

    the idea that “religion” can be rationalized and mystery be quantified is absurd. Perhaps one day science will be able to explain religion…after death.

  10. bonaparte3 | Apr 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm |

    I particularly liked the comments from Francis Spufford. What I have defined (in my own terms) as militant atheism he calls Puritan atheism. A splendid term to define the insecure atheist.

    • landydavis | Apr 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm |

      this is just what I have been trying to say. atheists refuse to acknowledge their own.magical biefs and.baseless dogma. maybe like.they say what you.dislike.and.see.I. the.other is true of hou..certainly the case with atheists and their identical theist counterpart…both very superstitious.and hate world as it is in reality.

  11. Anthony Neilsen | Apr 5, 2013 at 3:07 am |

    Atheists can’t learn much of anything at all. Their minds are closed, their hearts are blackened and blind. Nothing short of a miracle of God’s intervention can save them.

  12. jasonpaulhayes | Apr 6, 2013 at 5:28 pm |

    The Catalog Of Correctable Omnipresent Human Flaws

    composed by Edward Smith

    “When the benefits of large-scale teamwork are unknown of, it is better to serve the inefficient whims of a clan patriarch (the instinctive basis of nationalism and the belief in a god) then to live autonomously.”

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