Being an atheist just ain’t what it used to be

Being an atheist just ain’t what it used to be November 4, 2013

Recently, my 14 year-old son announced that he is an atheist.  The reactions of friends and family to his announcement have been at least as interesting as the announcement itself.  To put this in context, my son has been his whole life devoutly Mormon.  Even at a young age, he was precociously religious.  So this came as a bit of a shock.  I shared my daughter’s dismay when she said that she was having trouble thinking of my son as anything but Mormon.

But my son is also a science lover.  He recently finished reading Steven Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, and it was all he could talk about for weeks.  He took it to school and even would have taken it to a friend’s party if we had not intervened.  I had previously predicted that his Mormonism and his scientific inclinations would come into conflict, but he had assured me that, in his mind, religion and science were separate domains, like Steven Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”, and there was no conflict.  Ironically, I don’t think it was Stephen Hawking specifically, or even science generally, which precipitated my son’s announcement.  It was rather his enrollment in the Mormon “seminary” program, a kind of daily Bible study for Mormons.  Heightened participation in a religion can force a person to go one way or the other, in or out, where they previously had been comfortable on the ambiguous periphery, and I think that is what happened in this case.

Anyway, my wife, who is Mormon, was upset by my son’s announcement (though, of course, proud of my son himself) .  It’s natural for parents to want to see their children follow in their footsteps.  I too found myself troubled by my son’s declared atheism, which is odd, because I have sometimes referred to myself as an atheist, especially when contrasting myself with a certain type of theist.  It’s not that I was hoping my son would identify as Pagan, although that would be cool.  Rather, I was concerned that his atheism would translate into a kind of “flat earth” reductive materialism that bleeds the world of beauty and meaning and everything that makes life an interesting adventure.  (Of course, there is quite a diverse spectrum of atheists, and the worldview of some theists can be just as reductive and anemic.)  But I was relieved to find out that that he and I could still talk about “God”, so long as it was qualified by “whatever you conceive God to be.”  And that was enough for me, so long as he was making room for the mystery.

This did make me wonder what exactly being an “atheist” meant to him, though.  The same question came up recently, when an acquaintance told me that her teenage daughter had also announced she is an atheist … because she is “angry at God”.  It makes me wonder whether the confusion (if there is any) is about the word “atheism” or the word “God”.  It’s not just teenagers who are using the words “atheism” and “God” expansively.  Earlier this month, Oprah drew (more than the usual) attention when she interviewed Diana Nyad, who recently completed a historic swim from Cuba to Florida.  The exchange, if you haven’t heard it already, went like this:

Oprah:You told our producers that you’re not a God person, but you’re deeply in awe?”

Nyad:  “Yeah, I’m not a God person. Yeah, I am not a God person. Do I argue against my friends who are religious–Buddhists, Jews, Christians? No–”

Oprah: “Do you consider yourself atheist?”

Nyad: “I am an atheist.”

Oprah: “But you’re in awe?”

Nyad: “I don’t understand why anyone would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist and still weep at the beauty of this universe, and be moved by all of humanity. So to me, my definition of God is humanity, and is the love of humanity.”

Oprah: “Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky.”

Nyad went on to explain that she rejects the associations of a personal creator or overseer with the word “God”.  (You can see the exchange on YouTube here.)

With the last statement, Oprah managed to piss off both atheists and theistic Christians — the former feeling like she was trivializing the “a” in atheism, and the latter upset because that’s not what God is to them.  (Of course, neither group was ever particularly fond of Oprah to begin with.)  In Oprah’s defense, Nyad had said that her “definition of God is humanity” just before Oprah declared that she did not consider Nyad an atheist.  I can understand Oprah’s confusion when a self-declared atheist is using God-language.

However you feel about this exchange, the fact is that it’s not an unusual one.  Nyad is not the only person confused about the term “God” and Oprah is not the only person confused about the term “atheist”.  According to a Pew Research study, of the growing number of American atheists, a statistically significant number of them, 14%, say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 5% say they are “absolutely certain” about the existence of a God or a universal spirit.  Now you can say that 14% of atheists just need to buy a dictionary, but I don’t find any explanation satisfactory which simply dismisses other people as stupid.  Something significant is going here.  Part of the answer lies in the responses to another part of the survey which revealed that 82% of self-described atheists said they either often (52%) or sometimes (30%) feel a deep connection with nature and the earth.  (Similar percentages were found among the population as a whole.)  This suggests that, like Oprah, people may be defining God non-theistically (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) or pantheistically.

I found Wikipedia helpful here, at least to the extent that it recognized that the term “theism” has both a broad definition and a specific definition.  Broadly, it means the belief in at least one “deity”.  In the more specific sense, according to Wikipedia, “theism” means the belief in a single (i.e., monotheistic) God who is “personal, present, and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe.”  The same Pew survey discussed above revealed that while 7% of Americans do not believe in God or a universal spirit, only 2.4% identify as “atheists”.   So not only are there self-described atheists who believe in God, there are people (4.6% of the population) who do not believe in God who also don’t describe themselves as atheists.  Wikipedia defines “atheism” as a rejection of theism in the broad sense, whereas a rejection of theism in the narrow sense may take the form of deism, pantheism, and even polytheism.  It seems then that some people are using the term “atheism” to describe what Wikipedia calls deism or pantheism.  While this is enlightening, I think the discussion about what atheism means (like the discussion about what Pagan means) can take a turn for the worse when the dictionaries get whipped out and people start emphatically saying things like “words have meaning”.  I’m all for clarifying terminology if it’s going to lead to more dialogue, but more often than not it seems it is more about one or more group claiming authority to define a word for everyone else.

Rather than saying “I don’t call you an atheist”, which has been interpreted as a refusal to acknowledge Nyad’s self-definition (we’ve seen this kind of identity politics in the Pagan community), Oprah would have been better served by explaining what qualities she has always associated with the term “atheist”, while observing that those qualities do not seem applicable to Nyad.  Like Oprah, and perhaps like the 4.6% of people who don’t believe in God but also don’t call themselves atheists, “atheism” has long been associated in my mind with reductionism and disbelief (in contrast to non-belief), not to mention a kind of “religious” zeal which is like the mirror image of theistic evangelism.  This was what I was afraid my son was identifying with when he called himself “atheist”.  But it seems that, like that 14% of atheists who believe in God, my son is using the term “atheism” in a different way … as a way to make room for mystery.

Physicist Richard Fenyman said that “God was invented to explain mystery.  God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand.  Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore.”  (quoted in Superstrings : A Theory of Everything?, ed. Paul Davies and Julian Brown (1988)).  But I disagree with Fenyman.  Certainly, some religious fundamentalists see God as an explanation.  But for me, and I think for my son and for an increasing number of people, “God” is the name for the mystery, for what cannot be explained reductively.  It is the name that both Oprah and Nyad use to describe that which evokes the feeling of awe in us.  It does not seek to explain — that is the purview of science.  Instead, it makes room for questions (and in that way complements science).  Another physicist, Erwin Schroedinger, expresses my view of this issue:

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experiences in a magnificently consistent order, but is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, god and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”  —  Erwin Schroedinger, Nature and the Greeks (1954)

God is not the answer to our questions about the meaning of life.  “God” (or “Goddess” if you prefer) is the name for the question itself.  This is not a God in the gaps, in the sense of God filling the gaps in our knowledge of the universe, gaps which are increasing shrunk by the advance of science.  This is a God who is a gap-maker, a God whose only commandment is to “forbid our premature closing of accounts with reality” (William James), a God who reminds us to “love the questions” (Rilke) at least as much as the answers.  In this way, I think it does make sense to talk about atheists who believe in God.  These are people who reject a narrow kind of theism — which sees God as an explanation — in favor of a new kind of non-theism — which sees God as a question.  For these people, God is that which provokes awe in us.  Awe is the experience of a great big question mark (followed perhaps by an exclamation point) thrown out into the universe.  As long as my son is experiencing that question, I will not fear for him, no matter how he describes himself.

lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.

— Mary Oliver, “Bone”

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This resonates a lot with me, especially as I’ve been working to articulate a bit of spiritual autobiography for an upcoming presentation. My apostasy indeed left me with a sort of “reductive materialism that bleeds the world of beauty and meaning.” Not that I wanted that — who would? — but it seemed to be true, and I wanted to at least face the truth, however unpleasant. Truth, it has been noted, may have a certain noble beauty to it. But the mystery of life just keeps coming back to surprise me, and eventually I’ve come to where I am now, where the “atheist” label kinda fits and kinda doesn’t, depending on who I’m talking to. It’s been a long recursive process of returning to value and mystery.

    That line about how God “is the name for the question itself” is brilliant. I may have to cite you.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Curiously, critics of atheism are more reductive in their views of atheism than actual atheists in my experience.

      • John Halstead

        Good point.

    • ahermit

      Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you might appreciate Andre Comte-Sponville’s “Little Book of Atheist Spirituality”

  • Very few of my atheist friends, all brutally educated and very dear to my heart, have any problem with wonder or awe, and they tend to consider themselves Humanists. A good example of a Humanist atheist is Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials series, who said in an interview about his books,

    “I find the books upholding certain values that I think are important,
    such as life is immensely valuable and this world is an extraordinarily
    beautiful place. We should do what we can to increase the amount of
    wisdom in the world”.

    I wonder if much of the confusion actually comes from the necessary fiction of the monotheisms, which assert that there can be no morality or happyness outside of their system of belief. It seems less a question of belief itself (or the lamentable slippage of terminology, due more I suspect to lack of book-reading than conscious word-choice) and more an inherited dogma that non(mono)theists abandon all hope once they reject the One-True-God.

    Fortunately, this is a problem that Paganism seems perfectly poised to avoid, as neither the staunchest of Hard Polytheists nor Archetypalists make reference to their belief being the only way to live a moral, fulfilling, interesting life. Nobody’s gonna be claiming that their specific belief in a god/goddess is the only way to avoid a life of despair, moral depravity, hopelessness, and relentless misery.

    • John Halstead

      Good point. My reservations about atheism and my admittedly simplistic characterization of atheism may be baggage from my monotheistic past.

      • Pofarmer

        Hey John. I’m sort of a “New” Atheist, with a wife who is Catholic, and 3 boys going to a Catholic School, although that may have to change. What I can tell you is that, currently, I certainly don’t believe in the Christian bible, certainly don’t believe in the Catholic screed, and certainly can’t believe in Mormonism or any other religion. Does that mean there isn’t room for awe and wonder? Absolutely not. I’ve spent the last year reading about science, watching science vids on youtube, and on and on. There’s so much out there to explore and learn. The last thing to worry about is flat earth reductionism, which is a THEOLOGICAL problem.

  • kenofken

    There is no sense in worrying about a 14-year-old’s religious identity. That age is the beginning of a spiritual search, never the end. Growing up Catholic, they rushed confirmation at that age to “lock us in” to Catholicism. It was a complete farce. None of us had had time to do any of the deeper inventory of ourselves and our beliefs, and we had not done enough living to do so. It was at that age, and soon in high school, that I began the 20-year spiritual journey that led me to paganism, or rather, to embrace and give form to what I had been all my life.

    There were some long intervals in there in which I was an atheist, or at least a pretty firm secular humanist. Atheists can be a surly lot, but I’ve never come across one who struck me as incurious about big questions or incapable of experiencing awe in the world. On the other hand, the people who stayed with their childhood faiths just out of inertia often do blow off the big questions, figuring that their nominal identity has them covered like some life insurance policy their parents bought for them and stuffed away in a shoe box someplace.

    • Excellent points. My rational self was telling me all of this, while my emotional self was having a gut reaction to my teen son growing up.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    “Rather than saying “I don’t call you an atheist”, which has been
    interpreted as a refusal to acknowledge Nyad’s self-definition…, Oprah would
    have been better served by explaining what qualities she has always
    associated with the term “atheism”, while observing that those qualities
    do not seem applicable to Nyad.”

    I’m not certain that “let me define you so I can argue with you” is a productive method of developing discussion, unless that’s coupled with an explicit acknowledgement that the speaker is probably wrong and seeks to have their preconceptions and stereotypes challenged.

    It seems that this essay is stuck in cognitive dissonance between trying to nail atheists into a wonderless, joyless, and artless box, and recognizing that many of us don’t fit in that box.

    • “… unless that’s coupled with an explicit acknowledgement that the speaker is probably wrong and seeks to have their preconceptions”

      That was what I meant in fact.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        Thank you for the clarification.

    • “It seems that this essay is stuck in cognitive dissonance between trying to nail atheists into a wonderless, joyless, and artless box, and recognizing that many of us don’t fit in that box.”

      I think you’re right. Although I hope I’m not “stuck”. This post is part if the process of getting unstuck.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    There’s also a bit of dissonance between implying that “expansive atheism” is somehow a new thing when it’s been around throughout the 2500 year history of atheist and agnostic thought, especially while namedropping James and Feynman into the discussion.

    • I don’t think I implied it was new anywhere, just novel to me. And I don’t think every instance of quotation qualifies as “namedropping”.

  • MarilynLaCourt

    IMHO the major difference between atheists and religionists is that religionists keep searching for “the” meaning of life, as though there is one. Atheists, on the other hand acknowledge there is no one intrinsic meaning of life. Atheists acknowledge that we humans “attribute” meanings to life.
    It’s really that simple.
    Atheists often object to the way religionists attempt to foist onto all of humanity, their “particular” attributions about the “one” true meaning of life, (attributed by them).
    In the true sense of the word, if we’re honest, we are all agnostic. Nostic means “knowing for sure” and agnostic means not knowing, for sure. Nobody, if they are honest can “know” for sure whether or not there is some sort of “creator”. Atheists base their beliefs on evidence and probabilities. Even Richard Dawkins states there might be a 1% chance that there is a creator. Religionists tend to Know For Sure, based on faith, faith is a belief based on no evidence.
    Belief in a creator or not a creator is not the problem.
    Religion is the problem.

    • MarilynLaCourt

      I forgot to mention that religions ought to be viewed and treated like the political parties they are. Think about it.

      • MarilynLaCourt

        One more thing. Atheists are essentially another political party, one that wants there to be a separation between churches and state.

        • kenofken

          Atheists are not alone in wanting separation of churches and state. I’m 100% with them on that point, as are a great many pagans and even a fair number of Christians. One can be a theist and even a devout follower of a religion and still be a secularist by wanting those spheres kept apart.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    I find this whole article ironic since it reflects the misunderstandings of what it means to be an atheist period. Also, qualifiers like agnostic are disingenuous hair splitting. Do you believe in god or not? “I don’t know” is simply a qualified “no.”

    Of course atheists enjoy life, appreciate beauty, and can feel connected to the world. Otherwise, these people (myself included) would stop having children and moving life forward. All but 5 winners of the Nobel Prize in science are/were atheists, and most great scientists are driven by an intrinsic need to know more about the universe. Claiming there is some concern that atheism leads to anemic materialistic reductionism is a stereotype perpetrated by people offended by atheism just like extremist atheists who portray all believers as folks like St. John of the Cross engaged in self-flagellation while wearing sack cloth.

    Changing the definition of “god” just muddies the water. It is an unnecessary concession to people who participate in organized religion. Also, being an atheist does not mean anti-theism. Most atheists are just “normal” people who have jobs, families, mortgages and the same day to day concerns as anyone else. Most are not the militant folks you see in front of cameras or putting up billboards.

    We need to move past this need to qualify and justify non-belief. It should be an arbitrary check box that matters to no one but people collecting statistics. It will take a long time before we cross that threshold, but things are inching slowly forward. Articles like this are not helpful.

  • Wonderful thoughts, John. My brain is too muddied by a bad cold to make any coherent comments – but I will say that if I am an atheist, I am this kind of atheist.

  • Y. A. Warren

    You bring up many fine points. I believe the problem people are facing is the concept that “God” is so immense that we can never fully explain or understand “Him”, simultaneous with the concept that some declare that they know, understand, and can limit the sources of awe that I like to refer to as The Sacred Spirit (energy) in the universe from which all matter is made to their own conceptions and manifestations. Talk about cognitive dissonance, or as we used to say in certain circles of the seventies, crazy-making.

    • Noah Smith

      “Whereof one cannot speak therefore one must be silent” But theists keep talking and talking.

      • Y. A. Warren

        My daddy used to say about many, “They keep talking without saying anything.”

      • l think there are other options than remaining silent. There is poetry. There is music. There is ritual. And there is (intentional) silence.

        • Noah Smith

          Oh yeah, I’m a great fan of finding the luminous through the arts and contemplation. When I criticized theists talking about God I meant more along the lines of “God can’t be found via reductionist, materialist inquiry” I mean how can anybody know that?

          • Interesting question. For me, at least, the word “God” invokes precisely those aspects of human experience which seem to be lost through reductive methods.

            • Noah Smith

              Thank you I try my best. But God/Universe is greater than human experience. My understanding of reductionism is that you break an object down and then build it back up again with a greater understanding of the object. I think critics like yourself just focus on the breaking down part. However I do agree that its dangerous when applied to human society (example Pol Pot’s Year Zero and other revolutions which wanted to break down and remake society entirely). Similar to the way that evolutionary Darwinism, whilst true, is dangerous when offered as a blueprint for society.

            • That’s interesting. I’ve heard of constructive postmodernism but never a reconstructive reductionism.

            • AshleyWB

              Have you ever cooked a dish or a meal using a recipe, or made a list of items you needed for a project? If so, you’ve used reconstructive reductionism. A beautifully cooked meal can be reduced to its individual ingredients but the final product is more than those ingredients. A remodeled family room can be reduced to a shopping list and an estimate of man-hours, but the result is more than those items and labors. RR is a basic, fundamental approach that all humans use to deal with the complexity and variety of our world.

            • John Halstead

              I like that analogy! Are there authors you can refer me to to read more about a reconstructive reductionism?

            • Noah Smith

              And it works. Look at the great strides Science has made over the last 300 years.

            • CBrachyrhynchos

              I don’t quite understand how, “we are matter” is reductive while “we are spirit” and we “we are spirit and matter” are not. My experience is that “God language” usually imposes one-size-fits-all thought onto my relationships and experiences, while graciously letting Beings reveal themselves as Beings does not.

            • John Halstead

              That’s the tricky thing about language. It can open horizons of possibility and allow Being to manifest, or it can slam that door and cut us off from Being. I think Heidegger wrote something like that. I think that’s what he meant when he said “Language is the house of being.” To put it differently, as Ann Ulanov writes, “it is very much a human impulse to try to picture God and God does come to find us in those very pictures as well as in the smashing of them”.

            • CBrachyrhynchos

              I think one of the reasons why the Nyad/Oprah conversation and Einstein’s use of god-language is fraught with problems is that there is something out there I call bait-and-switch apologetics. Agreement to defining god as a philosophical abstraction gets reframed as agreement to God as defined by the Nicene Creed. I’ve seen this enough times to be extremely cautious about my personal use of god-language and skeptical (non-cognitivist) about god-language elsewhere.

              That is, I don’t believe I can understand what you mean by “God” without participating with you in a process that’s akin to ethnography, which makes god-language a roadblock for trying to build understanding. In linguistic terms, “god” is a false-friend between radically different worldviews.

              Even in this conversation, we’ve shifted from my concrete “Beings” (shortlist for today: Juniper, Oaks, Squirrels, Cardinal, which I’m abstracting for brevity) to “Being.” I’m not offended, I’m uncertain that my use of “BeingS” and Heidegger’s “being” are the same thing and I suspect that “being” is likely another false-friend.

  • Noah Smith

    I appreciate the candor about your views on atheism. But you appear to believe that the only legitimate atheist is an atheist that believes in God. I find that view so incoherent that it’s difficult to be offended. Would I be right to think that you used to be an evangelical Christian?

    • Nope. I was Mormon. But I was somewhat “evangelical” about my Mormonism. Admittedly, I have carried some of my habits of closed-mindedmess over from my faith of origin. This may be an example of this. That being said, I didn’t mean to indicate anything about the “legitimacy” of anyone else’s beliefs. I’m writing here as a parent, who, while respecting atheists, hopes that his son will be like him, so we can relate to each other and have more to talk about in my old age.

      • Noah Smith

        Apologies if I caused any offence. I’m from the U.K. and so I’m more aware of American evangelicals then Mormons. Like I said I appreciate the candor. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you to be proud of your son but you should be proud of your son. I’m an atheist and the way these things work my kids will probably be atheists too. But if one or both grow up to be theists I’d be a bit disappointed but also I think proud as it’d show that they’re independently minded people. I think his spiritual development reflects well on you as a parent. You’ve allowed him space to become an atheist in a society where 90% believe in God.

        I’m sure you’d have things to talk about with your son in your old age. Not least about his Nobel Prize for Science. Taking a science book to a party, well done, young sir, well done.

        • None taken. When I wrote this, I was thinking primarily about my Pagan audience and naively did not consider how it might be read by self-identified (non-Pagan) atheists.

          • Noah Smith

            I understand.

  • stanz2reason

    It seems common these days is to blur the definition of God into something vague like “God is that which provokes awe in us” to make it palpable to skeptics of all shapes and sizes, but this seems like nothing but wordplay. Why would an Atheist need to warp the definition of God to jam it into our worldview when we already have words like ‘awe’ that already suffice for describing such things?

    “I was concerned that his atheism would translate into a kind of “flat earth” reductive materialism that bleeds the world of beauty and meaning and everything that makes life an interesting adventure.”

    I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’ve found the acceptance of aspects of materialism to make the world more beautiful & more meaningful. You might consider that possibility can hold for him as well.

    • “Why would an Atheist need to warp the definition of God to jam it into our worldview when we already have words like ‘awe’ that already suffice for describing such things?”

      That’s a good question I’ve been wresting with after I wrote this. It’s also an issue that comes up frequently in the Humanstic/Naturalistic Pagan online community I belong to — why bother with God language. For me, I use it because it is more evocative, more emotionally resonant. See my post on “eikonic atheism” here:

      “… the acceptance of aspects of materialism to make the world more beautiful & more meaningful.”

      Me too. In fact, I have Paganism to thank for bringing me down to earth from transcendental heights of my previous Christianity. I don’t think all naturalism/materialism is reductive. See my essay on a non-reductive naturalism here:

      • stanz2reason

        I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with the term ‘eikonic atheism’, though I enjoyed reading your post about poetry & ritual practicing.

        Consider this for a moment: my wife is a devote Christian believer while I am an Atheist, yet when we talk I’ll use the words ‘God’ or ‘Soul’ as a means to properly communicate a sentiment I’m looking to share using language I know will resonate more clearly with her.

        What you’re suggesting is the opposite.

        When someone uses the word ‘God’ to an Atheist, it is a term being used because it resonates with the speaker, not the listener. I acknowledge that the use of ‘God’ in such cases is not done to deliberately muddle the clarity of the discussion but as an attempt to relate within the limitations of language. However, by using terms that resonate with you (rather than the listener) and broadening the definition of such words to a point that they no longer resemble that which they are typically understood to mean shows a lack of understanding of the position of the person at the other end of the conversation, and by doing so you’re fostering confusion rather than communication.

        I also enjoyed your non-reductive naturalism article as well. It was really terrific.

        • John Halstead

          ” my wife is a devote Christian believer while I am an Atheist, yet when we talk I’ll use the words ‘God’ or ‘Soul’ as a means to properly communicate a sentiment I’m looking to share using language I know will resonate more clearly with her. […] When someone uses the word ‘God’ to an Atheist …”

          Excellent point. We have to consider our audience. That’s what make blogging so difficult … because everyone is potentially your audience. Like you, I freely use God-language when talking to my atheist wife, but avoid it when talking to my atheist friend. I can stalk about my experiences in both ways and still feel like I’m being true to my experience.

  • Great post. And it’s not only “atheist” that is so widely misunderstood and constantly miscast. Your headline could just as easily have read: “Being a Christian just ain’t what it used to be.” It’s amazing to me the vast differences between one “Christian” and another. Some Christians I know don’t even believe in the virgin birth, or that Jesus is the “literal” son of God. (I’m sure Oprah would say, “Well, then I don’t call you a Christian.”) Everyone brings their own experiences to their faith (or lack thereof), and it’s getting impossibly hard to stereotype each other one way or the other. Which is precisely why I wish we’d all stop doing it.

    Thanks again.


    • John Halstead

      I’d like to see a different approach to the words we use to describe ourselves. We tend to think of them as delimiting, marking the boundaries that separate us from others. But is there another way to think about them?

      • I totally agree. I think an awful lot of problems we face right now come down to terminology. Seems to me we either need less labels or more of them, though I’m not sure which yet. Is it more important for people to show they’re different from others under the same “label” — or to show that, no matter what the label, people are often essentially the same? The better choice is not necessarily the more realistic one.

        But I also do see the value of “atheist” right now, too. The longer I blog about secularism, the harder it is to stay away from the atheist label for myself. I feel a bit of a responsibility to deconstruct all the misinformation out there about the term, but also to tell it like it is: If you want to know whether I’m an atheist (that is, whether I don’t believe in God), then yes. That’s exactly what I am.

        So it’s hard. But I think atheism’s rise is opening up the door to a different approach. For so long, it was: Pay attention to us! We’re people, too! And we’re everywhere! But soon, with any luck, we won’t need to make our case anymore; the case will be made. And we can simmer down and start looking for ways to bridge our differences.

    • John Halstead

      BTW, I love the name of your blog.

  • Helmsman Of-Inepu

    I think the term “God” and even the term “Religion” have become exclusively associated with Judaism/Christianity/Islam in people’s minds. So if they’re not associating themselves with that structure, they call themselves “Atheist.”
    It’s like self-proclaimed “Vegetarians” who eat chicken and fish.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      That may be true for some, but I’m not convinced it’s broadly true.

    • Christopher R Weiss

      You are confusing people who claim they are “spiritual” but not religious, with genuine atheists.

      • John Halstead

        I think people are calling themselves atheists when they do not fit a more narrow definition of that term.

    • John Halstead

      I think so too.

    • Noah Smith

      I doubt that’s true in China

  • quickshot

    Fascinating article! If your son doesn’t grow up to be a scientist of some stripe, he will surely be a blogger: with such a diverse upbringing, how could you NOT blog about it? 🙂

    • John Halstead

      🙂 I am very proud of him.

  • axelbeingcivil

    I’m afraid I have a hard time sharing the viewpoint of people who view an explicable universe – one where answers are known – as a necessarily bad one. While it’s possible to be content with mysteries we cannot presently answer, declaring that reductionism diminishes the awe and wonder one experiences or can experience about the world is something I find disappointing.

    Any child can pick up an encyclopedia (or, far more likely, browse Wikipedia) and come to understand that the light they streaming down from the sky in the morning is made of discrete quanta known as photons; that photons excite electrons, and it is by doing so that the signal present in the light is transduced into cellular information; they can learn about the nerve cells that compose their eye and ocular nerve and brain, and come to understand just how and why that light functions and the magnificent complexity therein.

    To find this knowledge upsetting, to find an understanding of processes and complexity to somehow dull things down, and prefer ignorance over fact strikes me as profoundly disappointing. When I see the play of light in the morning sky, filtering through clouds, to know that I can understand the processes therein – however dimly I actually do – gives me great joy; to be able to perceive and imagine the interactions of light, particles, and how they go from infinitesimal interactions to the grandest of scales is enthralling. The knowledge that this pleasure is due to neurotransmitters in my brain rewarding me for spotting underlying patterns diminishes this not in the slightest, either. If you want it in grandiose terms, it lets you recognize yourself as a part – however tiny and insignificant – of the grander pattern, and explore majesty within and without.

    I need no ascribing of supernatural qualities to these things. Reduce everything in the cosmos down to “mere” facts, explain all there is to know, and I shall find myself more in awe, more in wonder, than before, not less.

    • It’s a curious contradiction that scientific knowledge can both facilitate and inhibit what I call “sacramental consciousness”. In an article in UU World, the magazine of the UUA, entitled “Before Words”, Doug Muder offers two examples of how scientific understanding can either destroy or enable this sacramental consciousness:

      “In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain relates how sunset over the river had been an enrapturing experience, until he trained to be a riverboat captain:

      ‘[A] day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face. . . . Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion:

      ‘This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising.’

      “He goes on for some while, interpreting every detail he sees, and then wistfully concludes:

      ‘No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.’

      “That once-indescribable scene was now pregnant with highly significant information, but it was no longer spiritual. Sunsets had not changed, but Twain had.

      “Conversely, sophistication can illuminate indescribable depths that the ordinary person is blind to. Consider this curious little quote from the mathematician R. W. Hamming:

      ‘I have tried, with little success, to get some of my friends to understand my amazement that the abstraction of . . . counting is both possible and useful. Is it not remarkable that six sheep plus seven sheep make thirteen sheep; that six stones plus seven stones make thirteen stones? Is it not a miracle that the universe is so constructed that such a simple abstraction as a number is possible?’

      “Rather than transforming mystery into mechanism, Hamming’s mathematical sophistication allowed him to experience counting as something strange and wonderful.”

      In her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, Ursula Goodenough describes a similar experience. She explains how her scientific understanding of the universe ruined the night sky for her by reducing it to “mere facts” (Newberg’s phrase) and drove her to nihilism. Later, she discovered a sense of wonder at the mystery of it all and the universe became a sacred place to her again.

      • axelbeingcivil

        As noted, I don’t really feel the same way as these people. Wonder, for me, is amplified by knowledge, not detracted from. These people have their own tastes, their own opinions, and I can appreciate the power of mystique and mystery, but I don’t lose those in the face of greater knowledge. Quite the opposite.

        I find it sad because these people engage in suffering for something that should – and can – improve their lives and make them richer, not poorer. I understand that these are their feelings, but I find that view pitiable, and would, were it possible for me to do so, try with all my efforts to convince them otherwise.

        • Courtney

          I agree with you. It’s like that quote from Einstein:
          “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
          You can either reduce or elevate. You can say, “Oh, my thoughts and dreams and hope and love are nothing special, because it ultimately all comes down to matter and energy just bouncing around.” Or you can see matter and energy, our whole universe, as amazing (even sacred, if you want to use that kind of language) because of everything it gives birth to- stars, planets, and life – because that matter and energy itself is capable of hope, love, dreams, and awe/wonder when it looks at its own reflection.

          Knowing the universe has rules comforts me as I feel the universe can’t be “glitched” or horribly broken. For instance, while I love Harry Potter, it always bothered me -even as a ten-year-old – that the students learned to turn pencil sharpeners into gerbils, and so on. Where does the energy and matter come from to convert a simple object into a living creature?

          I think people tend to associate science with loss of the sacred because we humans love a sense of mystery. Some people stop at that sense, but it’s what pulls others to learn more. It’s at the very core of what has driven our species to thrive. I think the fear is that someday science will be able to explain *everything* and all magic, and a core part of our humanity, will be lost. I personally believe that a) the universe will continue to surprise us on both reductive and emergent directions; it may turn out to be built on some never-ending rabbit hole and once we think we’ve discovered the most basic laws, there will still be something underneath it, or another dimension… or b) if this universe’s sentience attains ultimate knowledge of itself, the omniscience will make it tantamount to a god that can create new rules and new universes, and “go to sleep” therein until it wakes up by evolving new consciousness that once again finds itself immersed in a grand universe as a puzzle to solve. Part of me believes this is the cycle that happens time and time again… (because thanks, Alan Watts!)

          • Wow, beautiful! I love that Einstein quote!

            I’ve never heard of the idea of the the universe achieving ultimate self-awareness and then going to “sleep” again. Is that Watts?

            • Courtney

              Yeah, I got it from Watts who got it from Hindu ideas of the cyclical nature of Brahman. Discovering Alan Watts earlier this year really blew my mind open. Ever since then I’ve been thinking and feeling and that’s what eventually led me here… to no longer call myself an atheist but a pantheist.

              See also, Asimov’s “The Last Question” : I first read it many years ago and thought it was just a nice and very thought-provoking story, but now it seems more real to me, that something of that nature is and was very possible and perhaps already happened.

            • Watts was a godsend when I left Christianty. His book *Behold the Spirit* was my new Bible for a while.

              I’ll have to read Asimov’s story. Thanks for the reference.

  • mayarend

    I’ve been, just recently, redefining myself as a pagan-atheist.
    I’ve tried to identify as pagan (something close to wicca but not quite) when I was 12 to 16, but that didn’t work out well (could never quite feel it).
    Then I identified as Atheist, since it made more sense, until just recently (I’m 26).
    Lately, I’ve taken the “label” of pagan-atheist, since I believe MANY things that are of the pagan community and pagan “religions” (paths, etc.), but I do not believe in a deity per-se.
    I do believe these atheists are atheists, but they have a hard time separating “God(s)” or “Goddess(es)” from anything else that can be mysterious and magickal.
    I am a half-skeptic (excuse me if my spelling fails, English isn’t my mother language), as in I believe science, but I also believe there are things that exist and happen and are real, but science didn’t manage to prove and explain… Yet. But will, someday.
    Science explaining things and knowing things weren’t “created” by some random deity with a temper should (and usually do) make people more in awe at things than on the other model. IMO.
    This is the first post I read on your blog, so excuse me if I sound uninformed, but you mention Humanistic paganism just below on the comments. That’s interesting because I did go after that when I started identifying as atheist-pagan… But I think I prefer the atheist-pagan label much more hehe It’s more self-explanatory.
    It was a great post, yours. I could go on and on about it, since I’ve thought about it a lot, but I’d probably repeat myself (or you), so thank you and great job 🙂

  • Why do you still think atheist life is void of meaning and joy (paraphrasing). That is such bs. I’m an atheist and often find myself drunk on life. Especially after going through engineering school and learning the really cool stuff about physics, biology, chemistry, cosmology, and electricity. But besides all that, it’s very disturbing yo hear the empty-atheist mantra used over and over by you and other theists (or pagans) when I’m fully enjoying life and all its wonders. From my perspective you sound naive and spreading an unhealthy ideas of atheism to children.

    • It’s interesting that you felt that I was saying atheists’ lives are devoid of meaning and joy. That was not my intent. What I wrote was that “I was concerned that his atheism would translate into a kind of “flat earth” reductive materialism that bleeds the world of beauty and meaning …” This implies that atheism is not necessarily equivalent to a reductive materialism. I then went on to explicitly state: “… there is quite a diverse spectrum of atheists.” And in fact, the title of the post itself as well as the content is an invitation to question the “empty-atheist mantra”. I invite you to re-read it, because I think we are in agreement.