The Virtues of Atheism

 

I often tell my students that they have to “earn the right to have an opinion.” That right is earned by being able to support one’s opinion with evidence, as well as by the willingness to engage fairly with opinions other than one’s own. There is no arena in which people fail more regularly to earn their opinions than the arena of religious belief. This is one of the reasons the first chapter in my recently released book, Freelance Christianity (check it out on the “publications” page!), is “Atheism–My Invisible Friend.” As a theist, I am required to know the arguments that atheists offer against theism (there are many of them); perhaps even more importantly, I need to be open to learning from my atheist friends and colleagues (I have quite a few!). One’s argument is never made stronger by ignoring the other side.

Atheist-theist 2

 

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either.  I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

What exactly does that mean–“a practicing atheist”? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  • A God who is able to do little things (like finding followers parking spaces) but not big things (like stopping tsunamies and earthquakes).
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues,but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”

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  • Marsue Harris

    I do like your web design. Is this your own doing or is someone front and center helping? M

  • http://freelancechristianitydotcom.wordpress.com vancemorgan

    I’m doing it myself, because WordPress makes it so easy. I just chose a template and got started. The pictures, etc., are all ones I either had or find on line. Lots of fun!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ivan.kauffman Ivan Kauffman

    The original Christians of the first three centuries were executed by the Romans for being atheists. What does that tell us?

  • Lorna MacDonald

    Interesting. Very much food for thought.

  • Andrea DePauw

    Hi, Dr. Morgan! This article reminded me of The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton. In that novel an atheist and a devout Christian find that they have much in common and much to respect in the other because of the presence and virtues they each strive after due to their extreme dedication to their beliefs. They each become purified by the other who prompts strong emotions, reflection, and thereby growth. The lukewarmness they both detest inspires great admiration between them.

  • http://freelancechristianitydotcom.wordpress.com vancemorgan

    Reblogged this on Free-lance Christianity and commented:

    A repeat from last September–enjoy!

  • Pingback: Evangelical Atheism - Freelance Christianity()

  • Pingback: Evangelical Atheism - Freelance Christianity()

  • https://weseeinamirrordarkly.com Kirk Leavens

    A “practicing atheist.” Interesting concept, something to think about. I was especially challenged by …”Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.” Very challenging, yet hopeful. Thanks.

    • Vance Morgan

      You’re welcome–thanks for reading!

  • Jim Dailey

    First of all – well written and thoughtful. I think certainly many people are transfixed on where God affects them personally, both in their individual trials and tribulations and joyful experiences, as well as in their ability to internalize and have a clear understanding of Gods plan and their place in it.
    However, it always seemed to me that this was a self- centered approach to theism, and, as such, is doomed to failure.
    Accepting that there are many things you will never understand about the universe in general and even your life in particular, and your willingness to try to serve a higher truth and purpose is liberating, and may be the point of your post?

    • Vance Morgan

      Your last paragraph does incorporate important elements of what I’m aiming at in this post. I’m confused by the sentence that begins “however.” Given that all faith is intensely personal, I’m not sure how this is a “self-centered approach to theism.”

      • Jim Dailey

        In short, love is other-oriented, not self-centered.
        Sorry for brevity.

      • jamesparson

        “Given that all faith is intensely personal”,

        So what is the difference between faith and opinion?

        • Aegis

          There’s the rub. At the end of the day, the difference is in the eye of the one who holds the faith or opinion. Functionally, and in terms of how it affects life, there isn’t a difference at all.

          • jamesparson

            You made my point better than I did

  • MarthaB

    LOVE this. Thank you.

  • Paul

    “There is no arena in which people fail more
    regularly to earn their opinions than the arena of religious belief.”

    Another area is politics.

    • Vance Morgan

      I absolutely agree–and when religion and politics get mixed together, it’s the worst.

  • ellenkim

    The bulleted descriptions of your former anthropomorphic “Gods” do seem to cover the prevailing Christian theology – or at least, of many who were formed in the 20th C. However, I am grateful to witness a general evolution among many Christians, aka “Progressives”, whose practice and theology is actually much more consistent with your descriptions of Atheism. And you’re right, sometimes we have to determine who we are not, before we can identify the essentials of who we are (instead of, and also). This cultural moment seems to be accelerating this process for a lot of formerly passive Christians. Though painful, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.

    • guerillasurgeon

      “”Progressives”, whose practice and theology is actually much more consistent with your descriptions of Atheism. ”

      That’s funny, because to me they are far more consistent with descriptions of Christianity, and the teachings of Jesus. Because non-“progressive” Christians tend to forget about the love.

  • Timothy Weston

    Every item in the bold print is something I could relate to heading up to a little past college for me. Then I started to question it. I realized it is a very childlike Christianity that puts little to no responsibility on the believer.

  • Lark62

    Thanks. This is one of the most respectful discussions of atheism by a Christian that I’ve read.

    I’m not sure what a “practicing atheist” is, though. I simply don’t believe in any deity because I don’t see any evidence for the existence of any supernatural being, much less any of the specific deities described by various human cultures.

    One thing I did find when I stopped being a Christian is exactly what you described here – I am responsible for my corner of the world. When bad things happen, this is not part of some cosmic plan. Stuff happens. It isn’t personal.

    You said “But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie.” This sums it up well.

    I read religious and atheist blogs not because I need to “practice” atheism but because religion is an influencial reality in our society. At the milder end of the spectrum, some religious people keep trying to get their religious rules enshrined into secular law, leading school kids in prayer to their preferred deity, and plastering their religious symbols on government property. At the more serious end of the spectrum, some religious people fly planes into buildings, take healthcare away from the poor, destroy the environment and drive LGBT kids to suicide. I have to pay attention to religious people, but not so I can “practice atheism”.

    You said “Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world.” Yes. If we all had more respect and reverence for our world and the other peoplev here we’d all be better off.

    Thanks.

    • Vance Morgan

      Thanks so much for your comments and insights. I adopted “practicing atheism” simply because it’s a phrase I remember my fundamentalist aunt using to describe the new high school biology teacher who was teaching Darwin. You describe your perspective and motivations well. Thanks again!

    • tyler

      there was a blog over on the nonreligious channel a while back that was written by a guy “trying out” atheism for a year (it’s not there anymore, or at least, i wasn’t able to find it, alas). i think that might be considered a “practicing atheist.” it mostly just meant staying home on sundays, but he also made an effort to not pray, and probably other stuff too but i can’t remember

      guy came out the other end as an actual atheist, so that’s probably an outcome anyone thinking about doing the same should consider beforehand, but i imagine it’s not necessarily inevitable

    • jamesparson

      “Practicing Atheist”? Was there something I was supposed to do on a regular basis?

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    atheism – disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods
    ***

    Sorry chief, you can’t believe in God (whoever that is in your mind) and practice atheism. And aside from that I would like to see you show us from Scripture where God would tell you practice ignoring His Word about His teachings on things.

    Would you please tell me why you didn’t come to the conclusion that you would simply study Scripture to find out whether or not those things you listed above were actually a matter of,as you seem to believe, a matter of man making God in his image? I’ll tell you for a certainty many of those things are Scripturally accurate. That would mean you are simply wrong in concluding it is a matter fo man making God in our image. You clearly do not know God simply by the things you said in disaproval of those things.

    Simply based on the first point of God communicating with humans. Did you somehow forget that the Bible is here fullof God’s will and instruction to His ppl for now? So even though there are no literal new things coming to us doesn’t mean He isn’t speaking with us. It is the same message from then to un and until Jesus returns.

    Do you not understand how God can will for none to perish and yet ealy no one comes to the God who can and will save them from death? Who are the disbelievers choosing? What are they choosing when they hear the message of life and death? And yet you find fault with God?

    That’s the first 2of thows poor points you made and wrongly reasoned on with no Scripture.

    True Christians don’t try ‘atheism’ they try prayer and supplication to the God they worship in Spirit and truth. That is what they do for ‘purification’ (or holiness) of spirit (or, active force).
    ***
    Isaiah 45:18…..“I am Jehovah, and there is no one else.*(*not even ‘atheism*)*
    19 I did not speak in a concealed place, in a land of darkness;
    I did not say to the offspring of Jacob*(*Israel*)*,
    ‘Seek me simply for nothing.’*(*again not through ‘atheism*)*
    I am Jehovah*(*meaning: “He Causes to Become”*)*, who speaks what is righteous and declares what is upright -[RNWT

    • guerillasurgeon

      Which god?
      (From a practising atheist)

      • Klapaucius

        Why, Clayton Gafne Jaymes’ of course. Everyone else’s is clearly “scripturally inaccurate.”

        • Lark62

          Clayton Gafne James said “Would you please tell me why you didn’t come to the conclusion that you would simply study Scripture to find out whether or not those things you listed above were actually a matter of,as you seem to believe, a matter of man making God in his image? ”

          Of course, the Bible is perfectly clear. CGJ’s version of christianity exists because he studied scripture and read it properly. The other 42,999 versions of christianity exist because people do not study scripture or read it properly. Isn’t that obvious?

          /snark.

    • Vance Morgan

      Sorry my discussion didn’t fit with your very strict version of Bibliolatry. You’re still in the world of Bible-worship and narrow judgment of those who do not agree with you that I was raised in. You really could use a season of atheism. Or at least, a season of wondering about the possibility that you might be wrong. Certainty is vastly overrated.

      • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

        Hello to you Vance and thank you for getting back to me.

        I always find it interesting wo watch ppl insist on being believers in God andthen watch them reject Him at the same time.

        I am a ‘worshipper of the Bible’? Does this mean that between me and you I am the one who believes the Book God gave us and you are making ‘God in mans’ image’ not me?? So where are you going to ‘know God’ if you aren’t looking into His Word in Scripture?

        2Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is [a]inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for [b]training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work -[NASB

        Repent Vance

        • Vance Morgan

          I should think it would be clear that quoting the Bible is hardly going to be effective with a person who does not share your conviction that the Bible is divinely inspired in the sense that it is a conversation stopper. I am saddened by the implication in your final question–do you really believe that the only way one can know God is by reading the Bible? I love the Bible, was steeped in it as I grew up, memorized large portions of it, and it has served as a wonderful tool in the classroom for the past thirty years. I do not, however, believe “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
          Let me be as clear as possible. I do not believe in the God that you are presenting as the only possible understanding of the divine. I am, however, strongly a person of faith. If you find it necessary to assume that anyone who does not share your notion of who or what God is must not believe in God at all, then this conversation will go nowhere.

          • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

            Hello to you again Vance and again I thank you for takig time to reply.

            What does it mean to you when you say “I(you) love the Bible’? Honestly, I don’t know how that is true in that you disregard what it says adn call a person like be a ‘bible worshipper’ simply for using the SWcriptures God gave us. Even the ppl God used to spread His Word through the world used His Scriptures to reason on things of God. Would you say that is wrong or a lie?

            Acts 17:2 And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 [a]explaining and [b]giving evidence that the [c]Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the [d]Christ.” -[NASB

            Luke 24:27 Then beginning [a]with Moses and [b]with all the prophets*(*all the Scriptures*)*, He*(*Jesus*)* explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures -[NASB

            Acts 18:28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the [c]Christ -[NASB
            ***

            Vance either ppl of God believethings God says in His Scripture or they don’t. God did not give us the right to believe and not believe. Whether you wish to hear it or not, you are ultimately caling theSovereign of theunivers a ‘liar’ by saying things you say and telling ppl to practice things you can’t even back up from the Scripture. Asa matter of fact you contradict it. How can you think that puts anyone in any position other than a bad one before the only True God, Jehovah?

            You going wrong is one thing Vance. That is bad enough. Unfortunately others will follow you. And that is even worse.

            Have you read those chapters in Revelation where Jesus was telling some of his congregations to ‘repent’? Part of it was because they were allowing false things into th congregation along with the truth.

            The fact that you are calling the citing of Scripture a ‘conversation stopper’ should be a serious warning flag to you abtou the turth of your spirit.

            I say with all due respect to ou to Repent Vance. You truly are not in a good place. I do not need to tell you to pray to God do I?

          • Vance Morgan

            Step back sometime and listen to yourself. You are convinced that only your very narrow interpretation of God and how God might communicate with human beings could possibly be right, and anyone who doesn’t agree couldn’t possibly believe in God at all. God is much bigger than your little box. Read J.B. Philllips’ “Your God is Too Small” sometime. Maybe you’ll learn something.

            It took me decades of experience, education, and prayer to grow out of the stifling straitjacket you are trying to fit me (and everyone else) for. Save your energies–my God is much greater and more interesting than can be contained within the covers of your book.

            BTW, I love the Bible because it is a great work of literature, the springboard for some of the greatest literature and art humans have created, and a profound record of how humans have understood God and their interactions with the divine. But as noted in an earlier comment, I do not worship it.

            I seek for my life to a prayer. The problem is, I stopped praying to your God a long time ago.

            P.S. Please stop quoting Scripture to me as if I haven’t ever read it. I am a Baptist preacher’s kid; my guess is that I know the Bible better than you.

          • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

            Well, whatever you were raised as doesn’t mean that is you. maybe you do know Scripture better than I do. Honestly though, you shure don’t sound like you know the truth of Scripture.

            Do you even profess Jesus as the only Savior that God sent, the only true God? How do you know this if you don’t believe the Bible?

            What do these passages say compared to what you are saying you believe adn practice? Jesus himself is saying 3 of these 4 passages.

            (Matthew 7:13, 14) “Go in through the narrow gate, because broad is the gate and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are going in through it; 14 whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are finding it.

            John 7:14-18) When the festival was half over, Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. 15 And the Jews were astonished, saying: “How does this man have such a knowledge of the Scriptures when he has not studied at the schools?” 16 Jesus, in turn, answered them and said: “What I teach is not mine, but belongs to him who sent me. 17 If anyone desires to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or I speak of my own originality. 18 Whoever speaks of his own originality is seeking his own glory; but whoever seeks the glory of the one who sent him, this one is true and there is no unrighteousness in him.

            John 14:6) Jesus said to him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

            Isaiah 42:8) I am Jehovah. That is my name; I give my glory to no one else, Nor my praise to graven images.
            -[RNWT
            ***
            The God I know doesn’t dwell in a ‘small box’. That defies the very meaning of His person name He gave to Himself. That name ‘Jehovah’ meaning: “He Causes to Become”. Not me, not you, not another human, not a billion other different ‘gods’, Just Jehovah Himself.

            Now, given the fact and truth that Jehovah is the only true and Sovereign God, what other place is there to look for Him?

            He is a literal God that does exist and id d literally give us the Scriptures that make up the Bible.

            Unfortunately, Vance, you seem to be desirous to make a ‘God’ in your own image who looks the way you want it to look/feel/act etc. I know you aren’t going to want to hear this but yo are pleasing Satan greatly in what you are doing.

            You must repent Vance.

          • Vance Morgan

            Feel better now? BTW, the only time God provides the divine name in Exodus, the most accurate translation is that God’s name is “I will become what I will become.”

            Hope you’re aware that your Biblical literalism is a product of the 19th and early 20th century. None of the early Christians or the church fathers and mothers considered Scripture to be literally true without exception as you seem to believe.

            I’m sure you will need to have the last word. I won’t be responding again. Ask yourself why, given your commitments, you find it necessary to spend your time trolling a site called “Freelance Christianity” on the Progressive Christian Patheos Channel. Is it part of your Christian mission to imply that those who believe differently than you are in league with Satan?

          • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

            Hello to you today Vance. Sorry about the delay. I pretty much am only here to show you that the Jehovah’s Witness translation agrees with the use of a meaning Jehovah used to describe Himself as you pointed to.

            Exodus 3:14 So God said to Moses: “I Will Become What I Choose to Become.” And he added: “This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘I Will Become has sent me to you.’” 15 Then God said once more to Moses: “This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘Jehovah the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is how I am to be remembered from generation to generation. -[RNWT
            ***

            Did you notice where God said ‘this is my name’? What did God say His name was after the ‘I will Become…’ part in verse 14?

            And is the meaning ‘He Causes to Become’ not in line with what Jehovah said in verse 14?

            ‘Jehovah’ is the personal name of God. At least that is how it is translated in English. We also use the translation ‘Yahweh’ in certain places around the world. Though the meaning of the name is the same, is it not?

  • Jim Jones

    Why Did God Create Atheists?

    There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.

    One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”

    The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”

    “This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

    ETA source: Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. 2: The Later Masters [Martin Buber, Olga Marx]

    • Vance Morgan

      Thank you for this great story!

  • MNb

    “maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul”
    I doubt it. Most atheists – like me – think humans don’t have souls.
    What ‘practising atheism’ means to me (I’ve been an unbeliever for 40 years now) is that I’ve to figure out everything on my own. What’s my worldview? How do my political views fit? How about ethics? If I have a conflict with a loved one, how do I decide (given that I’m at least as fallible as said loved one) who’s right and who’s wrong? These questions still bugger me.
    So someone like you, apparently so serious about such topics, shouldn’t make the mistake that ‘practising atheism’ is any easier than ‘practicing theism’.

    • Vance Morgan

      I don’t recall that I ever implied that atheism is easy. Actually, I’m sure it is very challenging. Thanks for your comments.

      • MNb

        You didn’t make it clear to me.
        You’re welcome.

  • Adam King

    I’ve been practicing atheism for many years, and I’ve gotten so good at it that I could mount the stage in Carnegie Hall and not believe in God.