The impossibility of Atheism, by Bart Everson
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.
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.
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 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.