Does Atheism Offer Less Beauty, Mystery, and Transcendence?

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).

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Larry Ayers

    You nailed it succinctly and gracefully, Daniel. Perhaps not ideal for TV, as viewers tend to allow ideas presented closely together to slide on by. Still, good job!

  • DuWayne

    Personally, I find the virtually innumerable mysteries of our own human history absolutely fascinating. I find the mysteries of life here on this tiny bit of real estate we inhabit, both beautiful and dizzying. And the absolutely amazing possibility of a multiverse aside, the mysteries of our own universe, as well as the known quantities are absolutely mind boggling, incredibly beautiful, and yes, transcendent.

    The idea that some superbeing “poofed” everything into existence is banal when compared to reality. Everything – every little atom, everywhere in this nearly infinite universe was all crushed together in a tiny ball of super dense matter. Every subatomic particle that makes up me, you and everyone else on this planet, was mingling with every other subatomic particle in the far flung universe. And all of the particles that make *us* traveled billions of years, over inconceivable distances, undergoing changes we can hardly imagine – and here we fucking are! The story of every single particle that makes everything we are and everything we can see (even things we can’t see) is infinitely more exciting than the idea it was all magiked into existence.

    What is transcendent about a magical being speaking a spell and everything exists? What could possibly be more transcendent than trying to conceive of what exists in the time and space of our universe, how it all came to be where and what it is, and the remarkable journey of everything on it’s way to becoming everything – except possibly the multiverse?

  • Linda

    Atheism offers the world as it is. No more, no less.

    • Mike W. Laing

      All of it. No less.

  • Keith Phillips

    I’m not convinced by the atheist options for transcending death that you mentioned. I take your point that they are at best grounds for speculation, but even if modal realism or something like perdurantism were true, I think they would only offer comfort in the face of death if we did exactly what we accuse believers of doing, namely abandoning rigor.

  • BubbaRich

    It’s definitely considered by believers to have less mystery, probably simply because believers have become dependent on the idea of “ultimate mysteries,” mysteries to which no answer can be reasonably determined. That is, of course, because they are fantasies.

    There are, of course, some questions in physics that are unanswerable in a definite way (what happened before the Big Bang, what is outside our light cone), and these might be “comforting” to people who have trained themselves to expect this sort of thing. However, many things that believers have learned to expect as very definite, such as sexual morality and power relationships among people, are frighteningly exposed as open to question and consideration.

  • rog

    Not that I disagree with your position on the matter but it seems a moot question to begin with. Harry Potter has it all over Christianity in terms of mystery, transcendence and beauty. If that were an argument in favor of an ideology, we’d all be applying to Hogwarts, not tithing at the cathedral.

  • Kodie

    Religious people appeal to mystery also when they are backed into admitting that their beliefs are contradictory and make no sense.

    They didn’t put you on the show because you didn’t answer their question.

    Another thing, with regard to DuWayne’s comment, at once, they often also claim that it requires too much faith to believe it’s even more mysterious than they believe it is. How could something come from nothing? How could life arise from non-life? Those are the biggies. Has to be a conscious mind creating it, and I think this is the creation of all the other mysteries. When you consider god made everything, of course you would wonder why he would, and what he wants, and because you can think of it, you would assume that it’s about you personally, and defer to it: why am I here, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special or important, there must be something I’m looking for, I can’t decide. It’s a wild goose chase when you think someone else has decided what you’re supposed to be doing and you don’t trust yourself to figure it out.

    Religious culture is a weird thing, because I wasn’t raised religious at all and I considered myself an atheist when young without really putting all these pieces of the puzzle together. Ordinary phrases stick out that I took aside from religious “mystery,” like thinking I still had a purpose and that things happen for a reason, and now I think I am more sensitive to those phrases when people just throw them out there as if everyone believes the same things generally (if not specifically Christianity). And they also accuse us of arrogance because we assume the role of god, as if in the world without god, everyone gets a promotion. How arrogant to think we’re that high up the ladder. How arrogant to think you have a special place to go when you die. How arrogant to assume you have a unique purpose in the universe that could not be served if you were never born. How arrogant to address atheism as a faith belief because it crushes your ego that this could mean nothing, and that it happened accidentally.

    I have said this twice around the Patheos Atheism blogs so far and I’ll say it again too: if you are alive, then part of the universe cannot help but acknowledge you, and might even love you. I will add that you can ask it if you are doing alright, what more you can do to please it. You can ask yourself if this feels correct, you can decide to do another thing and see how that turns out. You can see the effects of your actions, you can make corrections and adjustments in your behavior as you see how it affects the universe and whether it is pleased with your existence. If that is a person’s religious priority, then why do they concentrate on an invisible friend to coordinate with, and maintain that there is an awe in the practice of not knowing how well you’re being accountable to it until after you die.

    There is also no mystery in a set of steady answers, i.e. objective morality. There is no justification that can be hidden in mystery or beauty or transcendence in blatant ignorance of how you affect others negatively and praise god for giving you the gift of authority to make others miserable.

    • Daniel Fincke

      They didn’t put you on the show because you didn’t answer their question.

      No, they loved my answers. I just didn’t know how quickly they needed them or that I needed to get them in before they would definitively confirm me for the show. I thought I was confirmed and they just needed them by the night before the show would tape. It turned out I spent too long getting them written and submitted so they went with others who submitted more quickly.

    • Kodie

      Their loaded questions led me to assume they were displeased in some way by your response. I am glad that I was wrong about that.

      I still don’t know whether the human condition needs beauty, mystery and/or transcendence, just that the perceptions of satisfaction with those qualities or effects are not exclusive to religious believers. There seem to be people who don’t need some or all of them, but are they lacking in some way? Does it make them truly miserable or ineffective, and if so, is it a human responsibility to share it with those who don’t want it or don’t think they need it? Is that the same thing as proselytizing? And for what? So they might be more fulfilled, or so they may be healthier contributors to the species? I have a lot of other thoughts but I’m having trouble spitting it out, so there you go.

    • Elemenope

      There seem to be people who don’t need some or all of them, but are they lacking in some way?

      For example, I really dig mystery and beauty, but have no use for transcendence. Being a ‘me’ in the first place is heavily rooted in my subjectivity, and I have no more desire to dissolve my subjectivity into the surrounding universe than I want to know what it is like to be a rock (if, as Whitehead provocatively mused, there is a “what it is like to be a rock” that is explicable in terms of experience in the first place). Shifts in consciousness can be fun; sliding between different modes of thought (contemplation, dreaming, induced hallucinations, ecstasy, agony, and many more) can be edifying or at least self-educational, but it is a mistake to call any of these modes greater in any qualitative way than the default habituated kind-of-conscious mode we spend 90% of our waking time in; they are all rooted in subjective experience.

  • Editor B

    I tend to agree. But isn’t the opposition a false one: religion vs. atheism? It’s in the premise/question and permeates your answers. It would seem to me that a more parallel opposition would be religion vs. irreligion or theism vs. atheism. I know you are well aware of the existence of atheistic religious perspectives.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I tend to agree. But isn’t the opposition a false one: religion vs. atheism? It’s in the premise/question and permeates your answers. It would seem to me that a more parallel opposition would be religion vs. irreligion or theism vs. atheism. I know you are well aware of the existence of atheistic religious perspectives.

      Yes, I blew that here. As I was rewriting I fixed some instances but should have written the whole thing without falling into that false religion=theism habit of mind.

  • BubbaRich

    I don’t think I’ll bother you here, any more, since you have me on “double secret probation moderation.”

    Why is that?

    • Daniel Fincke

      I don’t think I’ll bother you here, any more, since you have me on “double secret probation moderation.”

      Why is that?

      No, I don’t have you on “double secret probation moderation”. The blog has just a lot more triggers for moderation now (even some things one would think are totally benign) because after the civility pledge there are a lot of people who want to see incivility break out on the blog so they can call me a hypocrite. Therefore, I need to approve a high percentage of comments manually at this point.

      Regardless, almost every comment gets through, and does so unaltered. Only the most egregious flouting of the rules has gotten deleted outright and one comment had some (clearly marked) censorship applied to it.

      Within twelve hours I should typically be able to get any comment through moderation. And often I can do it faster. Sometimes I just don’t have the internet access because of work and travel.

  • Bugmaster

    My personal favorite example is the night sky.

    If you go out into the countryside on a cloudless, moonless night, you will see that the sky is covered by thousands of points of light. Some are brighter, some are darker, and some are subtly colored. We call them “stars”, but what are they, really ?

    Various religions would tell you that the stars are holes in the crystalline dome that encircles our Earth; or the spirits of our ancestors; or the body of a goddess; or many individual gods, or mystical animals, or something of that sort.

    Science, on the other hand, tells us that some of the stars are suns just like our Sol; gigantic balls of matter so hot that it exists in an entirely new state, called “plasma”. There are many kinds of suns; some brighter than our own, some bigger, some smaller, and some altogether strange. As we now know, some have worlds orbiting them, just as Earth orbits Sol.

    But that’s only a small part of the story. Many of these points of light we call “stars” are, in fact, entire galaxies and globular clusters — enormous collections of stars much like our own Milky Way, so unimaginably (but not incalculably) far from us that their very light takes thousands of years (and often much longer) to get to Earth. Our Universe is so vast that we will never visit these distant galaxies, but we can still study and understand them. We can also study things that can’t be seen with the naked eye, such as black holes or gravitational lensing effects. And we don’t need any kind of s special faith to do it, either; with our instruments, we can actually see all these things with our own eyes.

    So, science tells us about a universe billions of light years across (technically more, but the speed of light is a factor), containing an unimaginable number of stars and other, stranger things. Religion tells us that the universe consists of a tiny disk of rock covered by a crystalline dome with holes in it. Which one is more wondrous, I wonder ?

  • Urbane_Gorilla (@Urbane_Gorilla)

    How anyone can think that restricting what you are supposed to see, listen to and understand adds to your appreciation of the wonder around us is beyond me. Atheism allows you that freedom. Religion locks you in a closet. Nuff said.

    • Elemenope

      I tend to think this is a personal choice on behalf of the person, both theist and atheist. I’ve definitely had the pleasure of talking with religious folk who did not seem in any significant sense restrained by their beliefs from intellectual exploration, and had the misfortune of being talked at by atheists who were as narrow in their expressed thoughts as the neck of an hourglass. Religions, just due to their sheer bulk of speculative material, can be characterized as giant intellectual and ecstatic playgrounds, and it is a real shame that many people who choose to inhabit those playgrounds treat them instead as prison cells to be locked in.

  • Todd

    On the one hand we wonder why religion is so pervasive, and sometimes we subscribe to the idea that religious ideas have some sort of unique power to hook into our intuitions and memory and so manage to gain an unfair advantage over people’s minds compared to rational evaluation of available evidence.

    On the other hand we also would like to argue that we don’t actually need deities and transmigratory souls and eternal mysteries of faith in order to stimulate our sense of beauty and wonder and lend meaning to human life or to be fully capable of morality and wisdom. That is, we don’t need religion to be fully human.

    I think the two ideas are compatible but a bit challenging to reconcile. We perhaps need to back off on the first a little in order to make room for the second. If religion truly has evolved in places as a virus of the mind in some sense, then for the second point I think we find ourselves arguing that what we want to do is memetically engineer our own competing form of religion without the superstitions.

    I’m not sure that is really what we want to say. I think a better way to think of it is that our reasoning is bounded and depends on the cultural environment to do its job. We can populate that environment with better or worse artifacts and stimulants for thinking and teach ourselves more or less well how to navigate them in order to think more clearly.

    • Urbane_Gorilla

      Even apes cooperate, morn their ill and care for each other to a degree…It’s a normal ‘animal in groups’ thing…..unless of course we accept that apes follow the guidance of some invisible all-knowing Great Ape in the upper canopy.

      These types of discussions make me scratch my head. It’s almost like enabling a discussing how aquiline a nose he has for a Napoleon Bonaparte and when would be the best time to attack Russia.

  • Wiliam David Troughton

    It seems an important issue in the discussion lies in our understanding of what religion is. A narrow definition is very unsatisfactory, it is a ‘misfit’ and does not do justice to the breadth of religious life that is all around us. There are, for instance, ‘religious’ artists who have a very open view to exploring reality. Check on “Image”, it is just one of the groups which fosters that expansive vision – which is encouraged in many Christian writings I am aware of. We all give a metaphysical interpretation to what we discover through scientific experimentation and through life experience – awe-inspiring, mysterious and beautiful as they may be to all of us – and that interpretation should be an evolving one as we mature. Yet there are experiences of the ‘thin place ‘ kind which have deepened in me a belief that there is a God who cares for us individually. In an era when GPS is so responsive to the individual and specific questions of millions simultaneously, it has been become much easier to believe and trust in the divine love for each of us – and to recognise the responsibilities entrusted to us to care for each other and our world.

  • kthillam

    hack writer. sorry.

    • Sven

      Anything else, or just a drive-by insult?

  • Hanan

    >The best art is free to reflect all the beautifully complex range of human experience

    I question what is meant by “best”

    I also once saw a painting of an “artists” that paints his testicles, squats on a canvas and then stands up to reveal his ‘art”

    “Best” is subjective, but in my opinion, as art has progressed it has also entered the realm of ridiculous to point of just wanting to shock people rather then adding any sense of actual beauty to the world. There is no complexity to these artists. They think they are complex, but that is more a function of their narcissism. Again, in my opinion good art, like anything else requires discipline. I don’t see much in todays art.

  • duane

    There is a way that seems right to a person but in the end there is eternal separation from God.

  • Cheryl

    Thank you for your insights, Daniel. And to all who commented. For an atheist to recognize and appreciate the reality of mystery, transcendence, and beauty and still not desire to be part of a community of believers, a religion, is understandable. I respect this deeply. However, I think that regardless of our beliefs, the reality of mystery, transcendence and beauty points us precisely to the existence God who is Mystery. Transcendence is merely a characteristic of God. God is beyond us, our world, the universe. And beauty is something that God creates, in fact, everything that God creates is beautiful. That includes you and me. Religion and the existence of God are not one and the same. Religion is man-made, an attempt to organize ourselves in our worship of God. And in this process, we falter. For centuries until today, we falter. But as the sun shines on all of humanity, God’s love is poured out to all just the same. And all we can say in response is “Thank You”. If in your heart you feel that gratitude, that appreciation of Mystery, transcendence, and beauty, then you’ve entered into faith, or rather, faith has entered your heart and soul. Keep seeking and you’ll find the ONE each of us are longing for… even in the midst of a community of sinners, even in the midst of religion. Peace!

    • Mike W. Laing

      “And beauty is something that God creates, in fact, everything that God creates is beautiful.”
      In all fairness, I/we know that you think God created everything, and that it is beautiful. That is not the issue. You have no idea how I see things, and how it affects me, the thoughts I have, the depths of my understanding and appreciation.
      I find the unknown beautiful in part because there is a reason for things being the way they are, BUT, it is an insult to me to think that then I would just say it is beautiful because I do not know. That is but the tiniest part of my awe, Cheryl.
      You do not have the final authority on what has meaning, or the depths of understanding possible. This creates an ache in me, a desperate and bittersweet longing, because I will never know, but the knowledge is attainable. The intricacies of reality that fit together, and at times shine a brightness on a fundamental and ‘effervescence’ that suddenly brings forth a new light from within everything THAT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY BUT IT FITS PERFECTLY is reduced to a fraud when I think it was made – is artificial.
      That is sin, to desecrate our existence by making it a whim.

    • DSimon

      I definitely appreciate the friendly sentiment of your comment, Cheryl, but I have to strongly disagree with you: Being amazed by the universe, appreciating its beauty, and wanting to understand it; these things do not have to have anything to do with faith. If anything, faith messes these important things up more than it helps them, since it can lead people to stop trying to notice when they can understand the universe even better.

  • Ivar Husa

    I liked your piece immensely, Daniel. Very well written (perhaps added to offset the troll’s comment, but genuine).