Atheism, Soullessness and a Lack of Narrative

Back at Easter time, I had quite a debate on Facebook with, amongst others, a friend I used to play rugby with. He is something of a conservative, in the classical sense – a sort of old-school CofE defender of the faith and conservative values. The sort of one who knows best because, you know, he used to be a left-wing Marxist-type, but he grew out of it (Alister McGrath, anyone?). I have many debates all over the shop, and what with all the very many things I do, and writing, blogging etc., I often don’t get to finish conversations and discussions as the next one comes along and takes up my time. I have to remind people to draw me back into conversations in order to get closure.

The problem is, the amount of time that Facebook discussions can take up only for them to be lost in the annals of time, I would prefer to commit those thoughts to a blog piece. Which will still get lost in the annals of time. But hey ho.

Let me look at his (and someone else’s) prominent comments – I am not differentiating the pair commenting here, since it is the ideas that need dealing with, so they have been spliced together.

In this marketplace, what replaces the ideas that you want to see suffer the fate of the Sumerians? If the truth you fit in its place is hell, is that a better truth? If your truth means annihilation, is it better than my truth? If you truth is an empty, hollow, spiritless truth, will you find happiness there? Your truth seems, to me, to be a cold, miserable truth. I don’t want your truth. It feels like lies….

The origin of my faith springs in part from the shock at suddenly realising that I’d condemned my daughter to the pain of death through bringing her into being. That’s a heavy burden to have to carry. So I can see how wishful thinking has its part in this. Perhaps Johno has reconciled himself to that particular problem in his own way. I don’t know.

But the other things that gives me faith is the matter of existence (over nonexistence) and the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. That value exists and that we value certain things over other things, and that we have evolved to be attuned to this hierarchy of value and that the universe isn’t just grey soup. When atheists scoff about sky fairies, I wonder, is there anything more unlikely than you sitting, looking at the rain outside your window, even sky fairies?…

Indeed, and that answer has to stretch beyond the world of privilege and middle-class comfort and to encompass all possible futures that await you, war, disease, despair, death. Atheism is a decadent faith. You, Johno, are able to enjoy it, because your world, right now, seems just so. But what world awaits us, what world awaits your children?….

That’s as I say. Purpose and meaning is a fine thing to set one’s life by, but if your purpose and meaning are contingent upon enduring comfort and consumer spending, then there’s a hard rain gonna fall, thus speaketh Bob Dylan.

As you can see, this discussion was one that centred around meaning and purpose, and with this, comfort in believing. My problem with the above comments are as follows. Firstly, they are clear examples of (the fallacy of) wishful thinking. What he is arguing for is something that makes him feel better about the harshness of reality.

I don’t need to talk too much about atheistic meaning-making. Check these pieces out here:

And so on.

As I have said before, atheism is a tough sell. It is no security blanket, that is for sure. Religion does offer something in the context of terror management theory – in terms of mortality salience, we are afraid of death and like the idea that there is an afterlife to give us a way of coping with the idea of the death of ourselves and of others around us.

But let’s not fool ourselves – let’s not think that inventing something as a security blanket is epistemologically sound. Sure, believe it if it makes you feel better and has no detrimental moral impact on others, but don’t take the epistemological high ground.

As for my middle-class comfort – yes, I am comfortably middle-classed (something largely beyond my control). The great thing about this is it allows me to be further advanced up Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs – I can spend time thinking more objectively about the world and my place in it. This is arguably why the most comfortable and equitable nations of the world are the least religious. Research suggests that the more endangered one’s life is (extreme poverty, warzones etc.), the more likely one is to be religious. It is how we rationalise bad things happening to good people (i.e. us). When we are more secure, we no loinger need the pychologically functional elements of God belief.

Now for some hypiocrisy:

…your worldview is suggests emptiness and sterility. He would need an answer from you on that….7

Well, if you think about it, Christians are as prone to depression as anyone else. I don’t suffer from it myself, thank God. My mode has always been to see this world as an amazing thing and my life an absolute gift. I have always loved being here and if I ever brushed my shoes, it wouldn’t knock me out of my stride… unless I was wearing them at the same time. But that focus you speak of seems to have a secular name: mindfulness, which many people with depression have identified as a help. If Christians stumbled on it first, but saw it as a duty, it is a good thing.

For me, the world ticks along beautifully.

What is rather ironic (or hypocritical) about the commenter’s statements is that he lives a very comfortable middle-class life in the idyllic Welsh countryside in a professional (state sector) job that fits right in with his old school British conservatism. I wonder if he would talk about how enriched his life is against atheistic soullessness if his family had been killed, wiped out by Ebola, and if he had been made homeless as a result; would he still be espousing this wonderful narrative of soul-enhancing religiosity?

Does the world tick along beautifully with cancer, Ebola and volcanoes?

Of course, with little expoerience of life on the edge, or the terrible struggles of, say, war-torn Syria, he can think it does tick along beautifully. For him.

And that’s conservatism for you: I’m alright Jack. The psychology of conservatism is about the in-group – the family. The rest of the world plays a distant second fiddle.

Would Jesus give meaning to his life? Well, arguably more so in a psychological manner in dealing with the tragedy. We saw this with the development of the ideas of heaven in the inter-testamental period when the Hellenistic Jews of the Seleucid Empire were persecuting the “orthodox” Jews to the point that they questioned why good things were happening to bad people. Thus they felt the need to steal the ideas of heaven and hell off the Greeks. Just World Theory prevailed. The whole God concept is merely an exercise in psychological needs.

Tragedy is difficult for anyone to deal with. For some, they can fool themselves still with the idea of an all-loving God. For others, this provides further mental turmoil, questioning why they are being targetted and not some other person or people, and beating themselves up for somehow necessarily deserving it, or similar.

The claim that atheism is a decadent faith needs some justifying. It is a bald assertion. If you look at the Global Peace Index and at other research, you will find that the countries, as mentioned, with the smallest wealth inequality (and thus, arguably the least decadence) are the least religious. In other words, I dispute this claim. Decadence has little to do with worldviews, I would posit. It is a human quality that has more to do with status and hoarding, both with evolutionary foundations. Of course, the claim about decadence would need expounding and more careful defining. These blasé comments that are devoid of any evidence or justifying reasoning really are easy to make. The mere exposure effect or repeating things so often can appear, to the uncritical, to make claims that reflect reality. But they are essentially empty claims.

Further comments included:

I think atheism’s biggest weakness is it’s lack of imaginative narrative. Interpretive narrative–it’s all left brain soullessness. It doesn’t have to be (as Johno understands) but you can’t impose a sudden cultural narrative that gives the feeling of rootedness out of nowhere. Something needs to grow out of our European soil that doesn’t revert us to worshipping the sun and stones. We need to worship values that we can aspire to (top end of values hierarchy) that’s also rooted in our story below. Christianity is the best option we have out of these and my suggestion is we don’t discard it but evolve it.

To the claim of imaginative fiction, some might call that a strength [as C Peterson states in the comments]. It allows us to examine truth in an objective, evidence-based manner without some very serious biases getting in the way. And the narrative of natural truths provided by science, as well as the narrative of moral truths provided by humanistic philosophy, are arguably far more engaging and stimulating and beautiful than any religion-based narrative.

I wonder why more of these people aren’t bothered by the fact that the narrative you follow is so strongly determined by the random factor of where you are born. This is superbly set out in John Loftus’ The Outsider Test for Faith. The vast majority of Christians born in culturally Christian nations will live and die as Christians. Likewise for Muslims. Likewise for Hindus. Yet these traditions provide radically different narratives. It’s a strange sort of god that would create such a world if it actually believed the specific narrative is important.

Of course, this also rather prompts the question as to what soulfulness actually is. I do understand the issues here, and it’s why AC Grayling, for example, created The Good Book as a secular replacement to the Bible. Alan de Botton talked of Atheism 2.0 (and there was later Atheism+ that was met with some pushback). All of these ideas can be found in a robust secular humanism – religion for the godless, if you will.

There are a lot of artistic adornments to culture that have evolved out of the default of Christianity. As a result, people (through the correlation fallacy) think that religion breeds rich culture. I would say that humans breed rich culture and, if humanism had been the default, we still would have created beautiful architecture, just not in the name of worshipping deities. It’s yet another assertion to say that only religion can provide these things.

There is this idea, also, of Christian Atheism (the conservative Douglas Murray would fit into this category):

Christian atheism is a form of cultural Christianity and a system of ethics which draws its beliefs and practices from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament and other sources while rejecting the supernatural claims of Christianity at large. Christian atheism takes many forms: some Christian atheists take a theological position in which the belief in the transcendent or interventionist God is rejected or absent in favor of finding God totally in the world (Thomas J. J. Altizer) while others follow Jesus in a godless world (William Hamilton). Hamilton’s Christian atheism is similar to Jesuism.

Think about all the beautiful films that have been made. Now name all of those that were overtly religious. In fact, the recent move to create religious films (e.g. God’s Not Dead) has produced some God-awful pieces of “art” that have been pretty vindictive and shallow. So many, if not all, of the very best, most artistic movies ever made have been secular. They might not be overtly atheistic, but they are not religious in nature. People don’t realise that modern culture is ostensibly secular, and there are a great many things to celebrate in modern culture. We spend our days surrounding ourselves with the music, movies and art of modern times, without forgetting the great examples of these through time as well. It is not either/or but both/and. Humans produce meaningful and wonderful art, and only a small subsection of this revolves around God. Goodness, I am a fan of French impressionism and I can’t think of a single example that was religious in orientation or context.

I imagine what many people do is go straight to Soviet communism to get their conclusive idea of what atheism is. Atheism is merely the lack of belief in God, or the belief in a single proposition (God does not exist). To get to Soviet communism, you have to do an awful lot more philosophy and politics. For every claim about Soviet communism = atheism = gulags, I can give genocides of Rwanda, Amelakites, Aztecs, Armenians, Bangladesh and Serbia, for example. Humans can be pretty terrible, whether Christian, Muslim or atheist.

Worshipping the values and not the god that fixes those values seems impossible, though. You could imagine someone attaching humanist values to the Jedi or the Harry Potter narrative, but it doesn’t have the legs to carry it. These things remain popular culture and seem unable to transcend that for entirely understandable reasons. The Bible is a different book to Gilgamesh. It spans a longer period that reaches almost to modernity and you can see the shifts in thinking and in language. Could any artefact be emerge as slowly, or come into being as quickly and be so wide-ranging? I doubt it. Could 66 secular texts be brought together into one and we’ll have people say, “This is our book!”? Again, it seems unlikely.

All the great books and all the great art could be a cultural rallying point. I think that’s what Nietzsche suggested. But we’re not there, are we, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get there.

I would simply disagree with the claim about the Bible. It is a book of its time that is woefully inadequate in modern times. The UN Charter or Geneva Convention or any other modern moral code is vastly superior. The tale of the Good Samaritan is broadly the Golden Rule as applied to a biblical context of in-group / out-group psychology. This is Confucianism. No, this is moral philosophy. Hang it on what you want. I prefer to hang such philosophy on reason. The Good Samaritan is just as teachable to secular children as its own story, or you can change it to a local context. The context is not the important aspect.

By this criteria the Vedas, the Upanishads, Agamas, Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana and Yajnavalkya Smriti are even more authoritative since they span an even longer time, reach into modernity, and are massively larger than the mere 66 book Bible. The Upanishads alone are over 200 books and the four Vedas are each longer than the Bible. The knowledge in the Vedas is believed in Hinduism to be eternal, uncreated, neither authored by human nor by divine source, but seen, heard and transmitted by inspired sages.

The Qu’ran was dictated to Mohammad by the Archangel Gabriel and it contains the pure thought of Allah.

In short, “holy books” are all considered unique by the followers of the appropriate religions. The Bible has no greater claims to truth than the Vedas, the Qu’ran, the Analects of Confucius or the Mahāsāṃghika and the Mūlasarvāstivāda. [H/T Michael Neville below.]

Good philosophy needs to be creative as well as critical. Given we’re all probably agreed on wanting stable societies with as much freedom for all as possible how might we take the best of religious metaphysics (narrative embedded good values) and secular concerns against oppressive tyrannical systems (religious or secular) and meld them into a strong alloy? Is it possible?

The assertion or implication here is that secular humanism cannot produce creativity. This bald assertion is resurfacing again and is the recurring theme in these comments.

Whether you like it or not, in the modern Western world, religion is dying back. The demand for a creative, secular moral narrative is here, and necessity is the mother of invention. If you really can’t do morality without some artistic vehicle to hang it on, then perhaps there is a strange shallowness to yourself, but, really, humans have produced, over time, great moral stories. Cultures all around the world, secular people and religious people, have produced countless culturally vibrant things to hang morality or other philosophy onto. Perhaps AC Grayling’s The Good Book is worth a perusal.


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