Of Blogging, the Virtues of Atheism, and the Epidemic Mental Illnesses That Are Destroying All Societies

I have not been posting much on this blog lately. My attention has been concentrated on getting out the first volume of the History of the Craft in America that has been growing for decades (and taking care of my family). My old friend Robert Matheisen, Professor Emeritus at Brown University, has been going over the penultimate draft with a fine-toothed comb and cries of glee, which I greatly appreciate, and I, not to lose momentum, have been getting the structures for volumes II and III closer to final. I am grateful for the development of technology that enables me to publish them myself; I no longer have to engage in futile arguments with the mendacious morons who used to have a monopoly on publishing.

I am mildly interested to see that the CEO of Patheos is advertising to attract investors, promising them a return of 7 percent. Mazel tov. It’s interesting that someone could take an enterprise that is totally concerned with matters religious and make it a viable business. However, that enterprise is succeeding only because I, for example, have been writing on here for a year and a half without receiving a penny in compensation. Mr. CEO, if you can pay investors, why can’t you pay me? This is the same pattern that is widening the gulf between the haves and havenots in this society. I am not likely to achieve the number of hits needed to “earn” the ludicrously small payments for the amount of writing I do. I do not write to entertain, not here, not in my poetry or anything I consider worthwhile. The world is full of hack writers who make a decent living and whose utterly inconsequential writings will be forgotten within a lifetime. My conscience has never allowed me to sell myself short that way. I have this strange, elitist, nondisprovable intuition that I am required to achieve something more important. At 73 I have a reasonable guess at what that may be. The true advantage of writing here is that the format causes me to produce chunks of writing in bite-sized amounts.

The great existentialist philosophers realized that human free will is free only insofar as it is active, not passive. A choice is made freely only if it is based on values one has consciously chosen, swimming upriver against the currents of convention. A choice made passively, based only on the values acquired from one’s culture, acquired largely before that age of reason, based therefore on unexamined assumptions, is not free at all, is instead dictated by the unconscious factors that control all human societies.

In practice, the first step toward freedom of will is typically made by the adolescent who realizes that the oversimplified version of his family’s faith he or she was taught in childhood is utterly inadequate or simply flat-out wrong. To decide at that stage to be an atheist or agnostic is the first step toward freedom. Persons who never take such a step will never have free will and will never know that they don’t. The next phase along that path is to search for something adequate—or to invent it. On the other hand, a person who never advances past atheism, who never learns anything new, as is the party line for most American academics, succumbs to the epidemic mental illness of unteachability, the scourge as severe as the epidemic insanity about sexuality that also cripples us.

There are many varieties of atheism, of course. Many “atheists” are actually agnostics: they know that one cannot know whether the divine exists or not, at least, not with the certainly with which we know that physical objects exist. Many “atheists” are actually saying “I do not believe that your concept of ‘God’ can possibly be correct.” Many Jewish intellectuals I have known would respond to being asked “Do you believe in God?” by saying, “NO!!!”—much as if one had asked how their spouse was in bed; it’s a strictly private matter, like with Tevya, rather like a family fight with God as the co-respondent. To be Pagan is to be much like an atheist in some ways, because for many the path begins with searching for an alternative to the inadequacies of existing churches or spiritual communities.

In my Ethics course, I often have a dialog with students who insist they are atheists and have no use for religion in any way. I can imagine the abuse they must have suffered. But once they can agree that every person’s “religion” amounts to the system of values he or she actually uses to make important life decisions, then they can agree that they care about religious values enough to want an accurate label for themselves. I also point out that persons who truly have no beliefs, who do not care about the divine or about the welfare of other human beings, but only about their own, would never call themselves atheists. Instead, such people will claim to be members of whatever is the dominant and most socially acceptable religion in their society. In America, such people obviously call themselves “Christians”—and most of them sincerely believe that is what they are—just as the Mafia consider themselves to be good Catholics.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are interesting in being the ordinary history of how they finalized and published the Torah. It’s useful to know they were doing that just when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were flourishing in Greece. And these thinkers were all in touch, via the Persian Empire. Ezra had authority to define Second-Temple Judaism because he was an official in the Persian civil service, effectively the governor of the province of Judea. It was the Men of the Great Synagogue, who succeeded Ezra and who provided the link to Hillel, who also founded free-will theology as a way to explain why we cannot have direct, ordinary knowledge of the divine. A devout atheist might object that such a theology is merely an excuse to explain away the fact that there is no concrete evidence to prove that any God exists. Quite true. Such evidence does not exist. But free-will theology does provide a rational explanation for such a lack—provided one is willing to entertain some foundational hypotheses about the nature of the divine, such as that the Divine is necessarily a Compassionate Person.

The two epidemic mental illnesses I have mentioned are the scourge of unteachability and the scourge of what I have labelled Aphrodiphobia, which Wilhelm Reich called the Emotional Plague, and which destroys most humans’ ability to enjoy what should truly be celebrated as our greatest gift. I’ve written a lot about the latter plague in previous blogs. It was Scott Peck who for me identified unteachability as the scourge it is in his The Road Less Travelled and People of the Lie, pointing out that unteachability is the major cause of most human evil—although, AFAIK, all evil is human, does not exist outside ourselves. It causes evil because, when people stop learning anything new, they defend what they already believe as being unquestionably true and will “shoot the messenger” who present s them with any facts that do not fit into their map, which they all too often believe was personally hand-drawn by God.

Sometimes people stop learning in high school, sometimes  in their early twenties, sometimes at various later times. I’ve known Pagans and Christians, scientists and writers, and many working people who have succumbed to this syndrome. It is obviously prevalent among religious fundamentalists, but not confined to them. It explains why, for example, devout blue-collar Republicans continue to vote for the very people who help exploit them—because they cannot bring themselves to change their beliefs about the Republican party. They can no longer evaluate any facts or evidence that would enable them to change their beliefs. They become steadily less in touch with the changes in reality—and that is a good practical definition of mental illness.

Because the majority of people suffer from these two epidemics, they believe their mental state is normal and unchangeable. The first step toward eliminating these scourges is to identify and name them, as I have done. I propose that two questions we need to answer are, “How can we teach the unteachable?” and “How can we live a life that celebrates sexuality as our holiest gift?’ (Maybe the latter still needs some refining.) Answering the first would enable progress toward social justice and income equality. Answering the second would begin a move to eliminate much of the human misery in the world. Tell me, are you working on anything more important than trying to begin answering such questions? At least, begin, in your own life, a little, one day at a time. Do what you can. And do not be silent. Do not tacitly consent to lies. And remember to question your own assumptions.


Prologue to a Story of Jesus and Mary
Trekking Toward Nineveh, Mile One
War Against Women: Empower the Victims
America, We Have Eaten Dolphin Flesh
  • Christopher R Weiss

    Another nihilistic definition of atheism. It is a tiresome form of repetition…..

    • Brian Westley

      Yep — it’s not like the author couldn’t check out the atheist section of patheos and see what real, live atheists say and do.

  • Guest

    This article compares atheism with the mafia in a completely false way. When atheists want to help others (and they almost all do), they do it because they want to. They are not worrying about the opinion of some supernatural being or trying to score points. Please do not make them out to be uncaring assholes.

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    “persons who are truly atheists, who do not care about the divine or the
    welfare of other human beings”

    This is not only factually incorrect but deeply insulting and bigoted. Not caring about the divine does not equal not caring about other human beings. Please, before you make yourself look like a hateful fundamentalist, use Google. Look for ‘humanism’ or any one of the atheist groups who are working to help people in poverty, further LGBT rights and protect the environment. ‘Foundation beyond belief’ or the ‘Secular Student Alliance’ are both good examples of this.

    Or, since you are already on Patheos, why not pop over to the Atheist channel and read some blogs to see what real atheists are all about?

    The TL;DR version: Atheism is not nihilism. Please understand that.

    Oh, and while you’re at it, please reconsider your use of the phrase ‘mental illness’ in the context of stubbornness or sexual puritanism. People with actual mental illnesses are stigmatized enough in society. Thanks.

  • Mikal

    Stuff like this is the reason I’ve almost completely stopped coming on to the patheos site…….between your seriously biased attempt to paint a whole group of people with the same brush a very small few deserve and your apparently willful misuse of what classifies a mental illness, you’ve espoused the same attitudes that continue to drive us in the “other” categories further apart. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go hang out in my angry dome for a bit.

  • Amanda

    Using the term “mental illness” in such a flippant way is deeply insulting to those who are true sufferers of genuine mental illnesses.

  • aidanakelly

    Okay, I have rewritten the confusing passage. I am taking the position that atheism is a genuine religion, given the broader definition of religion that I use. I am also pointing out the existence of two endemic, epidemic mental illnesses that are at least as severe as schizophrenia or bipolar syndrome. Please try reading all of it again.

    • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

      Thanks for the re-write, but you still claim that atheists must have ‘suffered abuse’, and you still mis-use the term ‘mental illness’ to simply mean someone who disagrees with your philosophy.

      Oh well, it’s a step in the right direction, and I applaud you taking the time to listen to your readers and make those changes.

      • aidanakelly

        Thank you, treeshrew. Looking at what I wrote, I did not say that all atheists have suffered from abuse. I said that some of the specific students I was talking with had suffered abuse and were justifiably angry at the church who had done that.
        On the larger scale, if “mental illness” is defined as a dysfunctional deviation from what is “normal,” but what is considered “normal” is itself actually dysfunctional, then the entire subject needs to be rethought. The inability to learn anything new is an equal-opportunity dysfunction.

        • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

          Fair enough, obviously I can’t speak to the specific experiences of your students.

          And I agree, much of society is dysfunctional (the way we’re destroying our planet for instance) but I’d be wary of using the term ‘mental illness’ as a lot of people with mental illnesses get a lot of misunderstandings and stigmatisation.

          Glad to see the mis-communication cleared up, though! Thanks!

  • KateGladstone

    ” … who do not care about the divine or about the welfare of other human beings, but only about their own, would never call themselves atheists. Instead, such people will claim to be members of whatever is the dominant and most socially acceptable religion in their society.”
    Yet I have met some people who care only about their own welfare who _do_ call themselves atheists. I would not envy the task of demonstrating to such people that they could never exist.