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The impossibility of Atheism, by Bart Everson

May 13, 2012
Contemplation b/w, by Thomas Lieser

“To reject all theisms one would have to know them all, and who has done that?”

I’ve identified myself as an atheist for many years, but now I’m reconsidering this label. It’s not that my worldview has changed. It’s a matter of intellectual honesty.

I started rethinking this after reading an essay on Religion Dispatches in 2010. A key point:

The atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are often not more than mirror images — inversions — of the theisms they negate.

That rang true.

Teenage hubris

I was raised in a doctrinally conservative Protestant Christian denomination. It’s that particular conception of the divine with which I am most familiar. It’s that particular set of beliefs and values that I rejected some quarter-century ago, when I realized my Christianity was an accident of birth. I recall a very specific moment of epiphany in the autumn of my senior year in high school, as I sat in the church balcony during an evening service. I thought to myself: If I’d been born in India, perhaps I would have followed some form of Hinduism. That led me to question, and ultimately reject, the received wisdom of the church.

I visited other churches in my hometown, but they were all Christian churches, mostly Protestant. Not a great deal of variation. There’s some irony there. I knew there was a bigger world, but I had no access to it. The idea of Hinduism was central to my apostasy, yet I knew nothing of it. But that didn’t stop me. If there was no Jehovah, there was also no Shiva, no Kali, no Sitala.

Having no real knowledge of those gods, knowing nothing of Hindu conceptions of divinity, my dismissal was an act of teenage hubris. At most, it might be said that I rejected mainstream Christian ideas about God. Anything more was overreaching.

It wasn’t until a few years later, at college, that I learned a bit more about other conceptions of divinity. I was drawn to study the philosophy of religion. Process theology, in particular, struck me as viable and intellectually coherent. Though some of these ideas seemed internally consistent, even plausible, they did not seem necessary. I could not see any compelling reason to actually accept them as true descriptions of reality.

So I considered myself an atheist, in the strong or positive sense. I’d considered theism and rejected it. I went through a long process of self-editing, as it were, eliminating the theistic basis for my morality and worldview, building a new, humanistic self.

And yet…

My thoughts on the subject now seem woefully contradictory. Consider a reflection I composed just a few years ago.

America also has many people of other religions, and if you consider the entire world and the whole history of humanity, these other religions loom even larger: Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism — to name only a few. These many diverse religions have at least one thing in common: They are all theistic. They all believe in God, or in some cases, in multiple gods.

I don’t. In my heart of hearts I do not believe that there is a God. Certainly I do not believe in a personal creator god of the sort envisioned by these religions. So I am not a theist, by definition.

I speak of “many diverse religions” and then assert that they are all centered on a “personal creator god.”

Well, are they?

I now realize that my collegiate exposure to these ideas was fairly limited and very academic. Even though I nurtured a burgeoning interest in folklore, I never looked much at folk religion. Consider this definition from Spiritual Direction in Paganism by Saraswati Rain.

Just as Christianity is the path following the teachings of Jesus, Judaism is the path following the teachings of the Torah or Talmud, and Buddhism is the path following the teachings of Buddha; Paganism is the path following the teachings of the people, the common folk, and the ways of the Earth. The word Pagan is often interpreted as “not religious” or “not believing in a Judeo-Christian God.” But the word “Pagan” harks back to the Latin “paganus,” which is literally, “peasant” referring to a rural country-dweller (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary). Neo-Paganism, specifically, is the modern version of Pagan ways, the practices of the common folk, the traditional beliefs of the ancestors, adapted and re-constructed by contemporary people, pieced together from ancient lore, from traditional practices, and from the practitioners’ creative imaginings, speculations and inclinations.

It wasn’t until I encountered the broad diversity of ideas in contemporary paganism that I found myself and my assumptions truly challenged. Here, at last, were conceptions of divinity which I could not so easily dismiss.

Beauty and truth

I attended a discussion of “Existential Paganism,” sponsored by a group called Lamplight Circle here in New Orleans. We talked about the notion of gods as metaphors or archetypes.

I can hear committed atheists objecting: Metaphors? But that’s not really belief at all is it?

No, certainly not according to the Christian paradigm in which I was raised. But there are other ways of looking at the world.

The equation of beauty and truth is an ancient and familiar one. Consider it seriously for a moment, as a thought experiment. If beauty is truth, then how do we react to the beautiful mythologies of the ancient world? If we say they are beautiful but false, then we are making very narrow definitions indeed, and our aesthetics are crippled. If we can understand them as metaphor, then we’re not longer concerned with a binary distinction between truth and falsity. One doesn’t ask if a metaphor is true. The relevant questions shift. How does it resonate? What does it mean?

Accuracy in reporting

When it comes to accurately reporting my atheism, the only coherent statement I feel qualified to make is that I reject most mainstream monotheistic Abrahamic theologies, insofar as I understand them. As far as many of my fellow Americans are concerned, then, the atheist label is an accurate description.

(When questioned on the subject of atheism, Joseph Campbell supposedly said, “If you are, I’m not; if you’re not, I am.” I’m beginning to understand how he felt.)

However, this definition neglects substantial minority religious perspectives. It neglects the true diversity of ideas in this sphere. It privileges the center and neglects the periphery — a position I find politically obnoxious. In short, strong atheism in the broadest sense has come to seem like an impossibility. (Weak atheism is another matter.) To reject what one does not know is merely ignorant. To reject all theisms one would have to know them all, and who has done that?

In and through paganism I’ve discovered that my ideas about divinity were really too narrow. My worldview remains humanistic and naturalistic, but I have now encountered naturalistic conceptions of the divine. It’s a most unexpected development, and it’s left me scratching my head.

I’m not ready to call myself a theist, but I’m no longer quite comfortable calling myself an atheist. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m simply not theocentric. I’d describe my values as more ecocentric. Better yet, perhaps I should say I’m a work in progress. Conceptions previously held in separate mental compartments are running together and mixing.

Rather than rushing to an answer, I’m following Rilke’s advice and learning to “love the questions.”

About the author

Bart Everson

Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as non-technological subjects such as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.

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22 Comments
  1. May 13, 2012 12:24 pm

    Great article! :)

  2. May 14, 2012 4:49 am

    yes … great Bart! :)

  3. Kevin Young permalink
    May 14, 2012 11:22 am

    I’m a theist (of the LDS variety) and a biologist. Many of my friends and colleagues are atheists, but not because they have studied and systematically rejected every religion. I don’t understand your premise–from an intellectual void you are hesitant to decide upon a faith-based belief. By and large people don’t adhere to a religion because it is rational and the intellectual arguments are too strong to deny–they are religious because they have had religious experiences. So, if you are looking for an intellectually-satisfying reason to feel comfortable in atheism, I would suggest reading Richard Dawkins and studying sociobiology. I do think Richard falls into the category of being a mirror image of the theism he rejects–I call him an “evangelical atheist”–but his arguments are sound. Of course, every argument is based on assumptions, and some of these assumptions cannot be empirically tested. I have faith that Richard Dawkins is wrong, but it is through personal religious experiences that such faith is generated–I have no quantifiable data I can present to him to rebut his claims (I have data, but it is personal experience, and not something replicable in the lab–it is outside the scope of science). If I happened to be on a flight with Mr. Dawkins, and it crashed, then we would both have more definitive answers on this subject. If he is right, then that is the end–our minds, memories, personalities, etc. are wiped out as our complex network of billions of neurons falls into chaos. If I am right, then we will both realize that death is not the end. We will still have the same personalities, be the same people, but we will have additional data. At such a time I think Richard Dawkins would incorporate this new data and accept what he previously rejected, but perhaps there will be ardent atheists in the afterlife too. Personally I think the knowledge and reality of God is available to every person who sincerely wants to connect with heavenly power–I believe he is the literal Father of our spirits and that we do not need to wait until death to learn that. So, back to you–do you really want to know? And if so, what will be the basis of your investigation? I appreciate your intellectual honesty, and I will be curious to see where it leads.

    • May 15, 2012 6:04 pm

      Kevin, these are good questions you ask. They are outside the scope I tried to address in this essay, but good questions nonetheless. It was not my intention here to profess a belief, but to deliberate over the atheist label, and if it is still a good fit for me now. I was intentionally vague about my current religious perspectives.

      However, since you asked, and since I relish the questions, I feel some answer is in order. I have in fact had experiences which might be called religious, or spiritual, and in fact I continue to have them. I don’t attribute these to any supernatural agency. Other people have used god-language to describe some of these experiences, but that doesn’t always resonate with me.

      I would not describe myself as “hesitant to decide upon a faith-based belief.” I’d say that I am being careful rather than hesitant. I am taking my time and enjoying the process of exploration and growth. (At least I hope it’s growth.) What is emerging, slowly, is not something I would describe as faith-based. I’d like to call it doubt-based. Perhaps I’m just being contrary.

      With regard to the basis of my investigation, back at the autumnal equinox I dedicated myself to a year of attempting to discover my religion. It’s not a question of discovering what I believe so much as figuring how it all fits together. My primary means of inquiry is through direct experience. I meditate, I write, I bake bread, I engage in dialog with others. I study texts too. Right now I’m reading Lovelock.

      You’ll notice I’m still being rather vague. I hope that’s not frustrating to you. These ideas are continuing to ferment and ripen, and I’m not quite ready to make a more definitive statement quite yet.

    • May 16, 2012 9:42 am

      Kevin writes: “If I am right, then we will both realize that death is not the end. We will still have the same personalities, be the same people, but we will have additional data.”

      I’d be with Dawkins on this one, and not just because of the absurdity, from the scientific point of view, of the continuance of personality after death. It is also because my religious experience reveals to me that what is ultimately real in me is what I’ll call “the light,” which is to say awareness in its most basic, unshaped form.

      My personality is comprised of patterns of wants, preferences, motivations, habits, choices, etc. These patterns form an ever changing panorama that enters the light of consciousness and nearly as quickly becomes shadow and departs. (In ordinary language we would say enters “my” consciousness, but the light does not belong to me, if anything, I belong to it.) As the gold of one statue is the same as the gold of every other, so the light of one life is the same as the light of every other. It is a part of but more than the individual life.

      The light is enduring, personality is ephemeral. That the particular personality should end at death seems absolutely correct to me, both from the spiritual and the scientific perspective.

      The light cannot be thought, it can only be lived. The problem with Dawkins and his ilk is that they have no place for such an existential notion. For them, only what can be thought objectively is real.

      I’m not sure if this is what Bart was getting at in his original post, but one can certainly believe in this thing that I’m calling the light and be a non-theist. Philosophical Taoism, Buddhism and many other forms of what has been called “the Perennial Philosophy” would be examples.

      (From a naturalistic perspective, consciousness arises from electro-magnetic phenomenon — so the notion of light, while certainly a metaphor, is also, perhaps, an identity.)

      • May 16, 2012 6:11 pm

        Beautifully put, Thomas.

      • May 17, 2012 7:26 pm

        Very thought-provoking, Thomas. Forgive the personal reference, but your metaphor and existential discussion of light reminded me of this passage from the LDS book of scripture, Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 88:11-13):

        And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;
        Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—
        The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.

  4. Jonathan permalink
    May 14, 2012 12:43 pm

    All this about words! :)

    We humans love us some labels. Does it really matter if we call something “divine” or not as long as we treat it with reverence and respect? Does it matter whether or not I call myself an atheist or not as long as I don’t pray hoping that some deus ex machina will solve my problems for me? Why is it so important to us (I’m including myself) to get our labels right? Shouldn’t actions and beliefs matter more than the labels that point to them?

    • May 15, 2012 6:47 am

      It surely should Jonathan. I agree with your thoughts on labels. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a circular self-reinforcing issue. Because labels *do* matter to so many people, we often must consider them because we may be judged by them given that people will not always know what our actions have been or will be upon an encounter of us or our work.

      For example, when I hear a person refer to themselves as an atheist, it immediately makes me suspect, not only do they lack a belief in a deity like me, but the fact they chose that as their moniker means they want to make a special point of that – they will likely have a confrontational attitude about religion. This is not always true, but it often is.

      We therefore not only have to consider the definition of a word, technically, but the cultural connotation of the word. We might wish people made less assumptions, but because we do, consideration of what we call ourselves helps us communicate more efficiently with others. Individuals may have the luxury of not caring, but they should expect many misunderstandings. When it comes to groups, organizations, businesses, etc. then picking the right labels can have a real, objective, impact on success or failure.

      The philosopher in me doesn’t really care about labels. We could swap out all the words for anything else and it’s the meanings and content that matter. But the marketing director in me knows all too well the real impact of label selection in any social environment.

    • May 15, 2012 8:56 am

      It’s not only that humans love words, but the human self is pretty much created out of words. Words shape our beliefs and guide our actions.

      • May 15, 2012 9:45 am

        And, therein lies the source of much of our delusion – for Nature is not confined by, or entirely describable by, language :)

    • May 16, 2012 8:39 am

      You’re right, Jonathan, this really is about words and labels. I think I understand your frustration. I think it’s a matter of personal style. Back when I was playing in a band and more immersed in the music scene, I noticed that some people really didn’t like labeling or categorizing the music they played. They found the very concept of genre confining. For my part, though, I enjoy playing with these words and labels and considering their meaning. I like fiddling with the concept of genre and different categorical schemes. To me it’s just one more way of thinking about the world. The danger, of course, is that the labels can become more powerful in our minds than the things and ideas which they are supposed to represent. That’s a serious possibility. Ironically, perhaps my inclination is a result of not taking it too seriously. Perhaps those other musicians felt the weight of labels as oppressively heavy. I’m not sure what this reveals about our respective character — if anything!

  5. May 14, 2012 1:11 pm

    Good article, Bart, and an important distinction.

    In logic, either A or not A, covers all cases. The distinction “theism or a-theism” seems to have this same logical form, but it does not. It does not cover all cases — the many forms of Pantheism, for instance, are neither a form of theism or atheism.

    The Campbell quote rather nicely sums up what it feels like to stand between these more dogmatic positions.

  6. Rev Wes permalink
    May 15, 2012 1:00 pm

    Love that definition by Saraswati Rain. It really describes what draws me to paganism–even though, very often, I find myself feeling quite the atheist. This article is a great reminder of just how much we don’t know about other worldviews and how much we can remain trapped in worldviews we thought we had set aside. Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. deb permalink
    May 24, 2012 1:00 am

    Amid all this babble, consider the positive aspects of having an imaginary friend [that's all a diety is really], or of having an imagination period – it helps us deal with real world problems – read “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettelhem published by Vintage. It’s the controlling us or you, by controlling these imaginary friends or story heros that makes religion a dominant ruler/dictator. Learn to control your own imaginations, use it to help yourself, not others, and religion will fall into focus.

  8. Rick Darwin permalink
    April 2, 2013 6:42 pm

    I’m not sure this is right:

    “When it comes to accurately reporting my atheism, the only coherent statement I feel qualified to make is that I reject most mainstream monotheistic Abrahamic theologies, insofar as I understand them. As far as many of my fellow Americans are concerned, then, the atheist label is an accurate description.

    —snip—

    However, this definition neglects substantial minority religious perspectives. It neglects the true diversity of ideas in this sphere. It privileges the center and neglects the periphery — a position I find politically obnoxious. In short, strong atheism in the broadest sense has come to seem like an impossibility. (Weak atheism is another matter.) To reject what one does not know is merely ignorant. To reject all theisms one would have to know them all, and who has done that?”

    Once you realize that division by zero is undefined, or that perpetual motion machines are impossible, you don’t have to take any ‘proof’ offered for them seriously. It’s the same for deities.

    • April 2, 2013 7:33 pm

      But is it indeed “the same”? That’s the question.

      You cite some truth-claims which many reasonable people would agree can be rejected categorically. But is the concept of deity in the same category as mathematical truth or the laws of thermodynamics?

      I contend that it’s not. The concept of deity is much slipperier, much more elusive.

      I’ll try to give an example which illustrates the complexity of this issue.

      Let’s say I worship the idea of Anubis. I don’t assert the literal truth of his existence — in fact, I deny it — but I worship the idea of him, that which he represents.

      Am I properly to be labeled an atheist or a theist?

      Be honest now: Have you considered a case such as I’ve just outlined before?

      The point I’m trying to make, however clumsily, is that there are conceptions of deity which confound my previous assumptions. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I suspect they may confound you as well.

      Thanks for your comment, Rick. I’m gratified that this article elicited a response from you.

Trackbacks

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