A couple weeks ago I almost got to appear on a widely viewed television show. Below is a question that one of the producers of the show asked and my (relatively) brief, quickly sketched out answer, with only minor revisions.
Like a religion, atheism can offer community and common cause to its adherents. But it lacks mystery, transcendence and beauty. Does the human condition need mystery, transcendence and beauty?
Atheists experience as much mystery, transcendence, and beauty as any one else. Religions do not foster appreciation of these things in any unique way and are quite often obstacles to them.
First, with respect to beauty, the more religious a people the more restricted and narrow its art may become. Today the most earnestly and self-consciously religious art is often the most banal schlock, filled with dogma approved “messages”, preaching, and a suffocating, retrograde moralism. The best art is free to reflect all the beautifully complex range of human experience and emotion that religions want to box in. While of course many talented artists make use of religious resources, it’s quite often their creative, undoctrinaire latitude they take with that raw material, rather than any religious reverence towards it or deference to it, that makes the art effective.
There is also very much that is ugly in religious beliefs and practices. The doctrine of hell, the notion of blood sacrifice for sins, the genocidal fantasies of the Bible and the suicide bombings of modern terrorists, the closeting of gay people, the mutilation of girls’ genitals, the hostility to freedom of thought, etc. are all very ugly.
Atheists can experience mysteries—genuine and profound mysteries where religious believers try to deny real mysteries and replace them with pseudo-mysteries. Why anything exists rather than nothing is a profound and exhilarating mystery. Yet, religious people want to remove all mystery with an unimaginative and wildly implausible anthropomorphism—a super being who thinks like we do must have created everything. Atheists are comfortable embracing and wondering with uncertainty about the mystery of why something exists rather than nothing.
Also through rigorous science and philosophy one stumbles on real mysteries that are profoundly fascinating to speculate about. The more we learn about the world, the more we not only demystify it to one extent and thereby become more at home in it, but we also further remystify it to ourselves in brand new ways as new paradoxes and puzzles emerge. These are genuine mysteries when they are rooted in things we know must be true but not how they are true. They allow the fun of rational speculation driven by an awareness that there really is a right answer and it’s just difficult to figure out.
By contrast, religious mysteries are mere fantasies, not genuine puzzles. Asking how Jesus can be both fully God and fully man is not an interesting mystery because there is no reason to think he was God at all or to presume that there is an answer to how someone could be both fully God and fully man. It sounds unproblematically impossible. It’s a made up problem.
Religious people appeal to mystery also when they are backed into admitting that their beliefs are contradictory and make no sense (as when the Problem of Evil exposes the falsehood of the belief in a perfectly good God). In these cases religious people citing “mystery” are not being profound, but rather intellectually dishonest and evasive instead of boldly following their beliefs to uncomfortable contradictions and conclusions that force changes of mind.
Finally, religious complacency with ancient, superstitious, superficial answers from pre-scientific times means that they would be willing to stop investigating interesting questions because they are satisfied with a simplistic “because God makes it happen” answer. The impetus to discovery is precisely in dissatisfaction with such pat answers. It is the curiosity which does not settle for thousands of years old answers that are bequeathed to people by the powers only of identity and tradition. Religions are the world’s most notorious and reliable enemy of this open-ended curiosity.
Finally, “transcendent” experiences are based in the brain and can be stimulated through practices of meditation that help blur people’s abilities to distinguish themselves from the world around them with the result that they feel a profound unity with it all. There are identifiable brain regions and mechanisms that make this explicable. No particular god needs to be petitioned so that he or she might grant mystical experiences. No supernatural beliefs are required either to have or to explain such experiences.
There are also rational speculations that may allow for some forms of relative “transcendence” for human beings. It is possible we live in a multiverse in which all possible worlds are actualized. Atheists can speculate that this is at least possible and perhaps we ourselves exist in incredibly many more worlds than just this one. And/or perhaps our universe is eternally occurring and time, being just a dimension of the world like height or width or depth, does not actually “pass” but all events are all happening “simultaneously” and forever—even as we only experience them sequentially and as going away moment by moment. So we might just exist eternally, living the lives we live now forever, and so never go out of existence. In this way, we may be conceived of as “transcending” death to live forever in a plausible, non-supernatural, philosophically and scientifically possible way that atheists can at least speculate about (even though we should not affirm it dogmatically while there is insufficient reason to be highly certain).