Motives for Atheism By David Carlin
In the United States nowadays, atheism is out in the open: it has come “out of the closet.” Evidence for this can be found in the fact that a number of pro-atheism books have been best-sellers in the last two or three years; for example, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Further evidence can be found at the popular (or I should say, vulgar) level on the HBO program of the frankly atheistic comedian Bill Maher. It used to be, in the good old days, that the only open enemy of their religion that American Catholics had to worry about was Protestantism. But the old dispute between Catholicism and Protestantism was small potatoes in comparison to the new dispute between Catholicism and atheism. Protestantism objected to certain particulars of Catholicism; atheism objects to the whole thing. Atheism is a root-and-branch enemy of Christianity.
All this being the case, American Catholics would be wise to give serious attention to the study of atheism. It will be an immense study, for atheism has been in the world for many centuries, it has many varieties, it has offered many defenses of itself and it arises from many different motives.
In this essay I wish to make a modest contribution to the study of the motives that give rise to atheism. In doing so, however, I warn the reader of two things. First, I don’t claim that the list of motives I give below is a complete list; there may well be further motives. Second, it is possible, indeed it is very likely, that an atheist will have more than one motive for his atheism. After all, not many people have only a single motive for what they do, and in this atheists are no different from everybody else.
Some people are atheists because they cannot, if they wish to maintain their intellectual integrity, be anything else. They see no evidence for the existence of God, and they believe that it is an intellectually dishonest thing to believe in something for which there is no evidence; and since intellectual dishonesty is a moral failing, then one is ethically culpable to believe in God without sufficient evidence for this belief. An especially famous expression of this argument was given by the nineteenth-century Englishman W.K. Clifford. It was Clifford’s argument that helped inspire William James’ counter-argument in his The Will to Believe. It is possible, they concede, that God exists; yet it is also possible that elves and fairies exist. But absent some positive evidence that God or elves or fairies actually exist, it is intellectually dishonest to affirm their existence. Many who are atheists for this reason would like to be believers; that is, they would like to find evidence for God’s existence. Often atheists of this kind were reared in families that believed in God, and from nostalgia, if for no other reason, they would like once again to be able to believe. But they cannot, because to do so would be to compromise their intellectual integrity, which is something they value far more than any nostalgic attachment.
Compassion for Human Suffering
Many are atheists because they are deeply troubled by the immense amount of apparently pointless suffering that takes place in the world, suffering that is not distributed on the basis of merit. It would make sense, perhaps, if bad people and only bad people suffered, and if good people and innocent babies and children did not suffer. But that’s not the way the world is arranged. Atheists of this kind are troubled by what is usually called the “problem of evil.” Think of the Holocaust; think of the millions of people dying of cancer at this moment; think of tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes; think of young children living in extreme neglect because of parents who are criminals, drunks or drug addicts; think of people who live in chronic poverty and need; and so on and so forth. The world abounds in unmerited pain and suffering. How could such a world have been created by a God who is by definition good? To atheists of this kind it seems a betrayal of human solidarity to believe in a good God when there is such great suffering in the world. To affirm the existence of God is in effect to tell all those sufferers, all those billions of people who have lived in this world of pain, that their suffering really doesn’t matter. It is better to be an atheist; it is more compassionate, more humane.
Indignation at Evil Done by Theists
It’s not just that God, according to the theistic view, has caused and permitted a vast sum of pain and suffering. Worse still in some ways, believers in God — i.e., Christians and other theists — have added to this sum by inflicting further pain and suffering from motives of religious duty or love of God. There were, to give a very abbreviated list of examples, the Crusades; centuries of warfare between Christians and Muslims in Spain and in the Mideast; the Spanish Inquisition; the Thirty Years War; the persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, of one sect of Protestants by another sect; the witch trials in Germany, France and Massachusetts; the ghetto imposed on European Jews; the Holocaust; not to mention the millions of small injuries and indignities inflicted over the centuries by the religiously orthodox on religious nonconformists.
It might be argued that the Holocaust should not be on this list, since it was the Nazis who produced the Holocaust, and the Nazis were a non-Christian, indeed an anti-Christian, movement. But many of the actual perpetrators, the S.S. members who manned the death camps, for instance, were Catholics and Protestants; Hitler himself was a baptized Catholic, never formally excommunicated; and at all events the genocide program could not have been carried out had it not been for centuries of anti-Semitism among Christians that paved the way for the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis.
For an excellent and highly readable history of Christian anti-Semitism, see The Anguish of the Jews, authored by the late Edward Flannery, a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Providence. Belief in God, it seems to this kind of atheist, has all too often proven to be a prologue to criminal behavior. Therefore a decent person should not believe in God.
Hatred of Religion/Christianity
Some Americans feel a strong disapproval, even a hatred, of religion: religion in general but Christianity in particular. It is not surprising that this hatred of religion should focus on Christianity, since Christianity is far and away the most widely held and influential religion in the United States. If you’re an American religion-hater, it would make little sense for you to focus on, say, Hinduism or Buddhism.
They would like to see it vanish from the world; or if the vanishing of religion is a beautiful but impossible dream, then at a minimum they’d like to see religion/Christianity decline greatly in importance. Now, you can fight the battle against religion/Christianity in a detailed way, criticizing it for this, criticizing it for that, hoping that the accumulation of many small criticisms will eventually have a big effect. Or you can go for the “nuclear option” — destroy the foundational belief of religion/Christianity, namely belief in God, and the whole structure will collapse. Christianity is a subclass within the class of religion; and religion is a subclass within the class of theism. Destroy theism, and you will have destroyed all its included classes and subclasses.
The Nitzschean reason
There is, next, the reason that seems to have inspired Nietzsche. He held that the noblest human life was not the hedonistic life of pleasure/happiness: happiness is the ignoble goal of life aimed at by Jews, Christians, English men (especially utilitarian philosophers and economists), democrats and socialists. No, the noblest life is one of struggle and suffering and hardship. The world, a difficult place, is a suitable arena for this kind of nobility. But it becomes more suitable still when we realize that there is no God, that there is no power that can redeem our suffering and bring us to happiness in the end. A world with God, despite its apparent unpleasantness, is a comfortable world; a world without God is bleak — just the thing for a man who wants a noble life of hardship.
Man, The Absolute
Some people are atheists because they want man, not God, to be the supreme being. If God exists, humans are inferior and subordinate beings, indeed very inferior and very subordinate. But if God does not exist, then humans — perhaps not so much in their individuality as in their collective humanity — become supreme. Barring the existence of superior beings on some remote planet, humans are then the most intelligent and most powerful of all beings. It is, to be sure, a relatively weak intelligence and power in comparison with the power and intelligence that religious believers have imagined God to possess; but it is real, not imaginary, intelligence and power. We humans then become responsible for the well-being of one another and the overall well-being of the planet. It is a fearsome responsibility, but embracing this responsibility makes life a serious thing, both the life of the individual and the life of the human race. If God exists, we don’t really have this responsibility; as a result, the seriousness of life is diminished, if God exists, man loses his ultimate and absolute importance; the existence of God is a defeat for man; it is even an affront to man. Therefore let us do away with the existence of God.
Peace Of Mind
The greatest atheist of the ancient world, the hedonistic philosopher Epicurus, held that atheism contributes greatly to peace of mind, which he regarded as the best and greatest of pleasures. Epicurus, it is true, taught that gods exist. But these gods had nothing Godlike about them. They did not create or govern the world; they performed no miracles; they did not punish sin or reward virtue; they took no interest in the world; and they were not even aware of the existence of human beings. They did not exist eternally or everlastingly. In short, they were gods in name only.
This sounds a bit odd to us today, since our common notion of God is that he is, for those who believe in him, a source of comfort and assurance, not a source of fear and apprehension. So how can anyone increase his peace of mind by turning atheist? Well, if Calvinism (which had a gloomy and frightening idea of God) has pretty much disappeared from the world today, it has not totally disappeared; its aftershocks can still be felt. He was a hedonist, but of a very refined sort. He desired mental rather than bodily pleasures, and the greatest of mental pleasures was peace of mind (or the absence of fear, worry, anxiety, depression, etc.). He recommended that we live lives of strict virtue, since virtue brings us pleasure and enables us to avoid pain. Or Jansenism, which was in effect the Catholic version of Calvinism. Beginning in Holland, it took root in France in the seventeenth century, and until well into the twentieth century it had a powerful impact on Catholicism in France, Canada, Ireland and the United States.
Moderns tend to think of God as a “good guy,” but more traditional believers sometimes remember that the Bible often describes God as a “God of wrath.” If you hold this notion of God, especially if you are a young person holding this notion, it can lead to considerable anxiety. Small wonder that you’d want to get rid of it, something that can be done in either of two ways. You might modify your conception of God, moving it more in the direction of a “good guy” conception. Or you might simply get rid of belief in God altogether. This latter is the safer way, since it more effectively protects against a reversion to the idea of a God of wrath.
Some people are atheists because they are too intellectually lazy to be theists. Theism — at least when it’s not the crude anthropomorphic theism of the child who pictures God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne up in the sky — requires a certain amount of intellectual effort. It requires, for instance, that we form a conception of a non-material being. it requires also that we be able to follow one or two arguments intended to “prove” the existence of God. And it requires that we be able to attend to arguments that refute atheistic arguments against the existence of God. Some people are too lazy to make that effort. The concept of a non-material being they find too nonsensical to be bothered with; and any arguments in defense of belief in God they find too abstruse. And so they say to themselves: “I believe only in those things that I can see, hear, taste, touch or smell; therefore I don’t believe in God.” Sometimes this skeptical materialism is a mask for some other atheistic motive; but often enough it is sincere, whether combined with some other motive or not.
Some people like to be “different.” If they are teenage girls, they may color their hair orange or wear a ring through their nose.
Prior to the sexual revolution, a teenage girl could differentiate herself from her peers by losing her virginity at an early age, an age at which almost nobody else would think of doing such a thing. But losing one’s virginity at an early age is too common an event to make a girl different nowadays. So she has little choice but to resort to orange hair or rings in her nose. And even nose rings are becoming so common that they are in danger of losing their shock value.
If they are teenage boys, they may talk very loud in inappropriate places or freely use obscenities in public. The point is to give offense to respectable opinion. In a cultural milieu in which everyone, or at least nearly everyone, takes it for granted that God exists, you can shock respectable opinion by openly announcing your atheism. A variant of this “shocking” nonconformity takes place when, although it is not your conscious intention to shock others, you nonetheless do so because you just can’t abide conventional opinion on the question of God and religion; it is too full, you feel, of sentimentality and sloppy reasoning and hypocrisy. So, either from disgust or a feeling of superiority (or both), you decide that you have to place yourself outside the circle of those holding conventional opinions; you become an atheist, and make no secret of it.
A few centuries ago (e.g., in seventeenth-century France) it was pretty much taken for granted among Christians that atheists had one predominant motive for their atheism — they were moral libertines, especially sexual libertines, and the non-existence of God wade the libertine life morally and psychologically easier. It may be that the libertine motive was the chief and almost sole motive in those days, especially in France; but clearly this is not the case anymore. Nonetheless the libertine motive for atheism, though it may no longer be the sole motive or even the number-one motive, is still in operation as a motive. Despite the sexual revolution, there are still many people in the United States who had a strict religious upbringing that was strongly linked to a strict code of sexual morality. Some of these, when they become adults or near-adults, decide that they would like to live a life of sexual liberty. But they are held back by their belief in God; somewhere in the back of their minds or in the depths of their unconscious they have the feeling that God is watching them and disapproving. Bertrand Russell says that he doubts that an atheist who had had a religious upbringing would be willing to commit adultery in the middle of a thunderstorm. (Could it be that Russell, no stranger himself to atheism or adultery, was speaking autobiographically?)
Convincing themselves that God doesn’t exist is a great step in the direction of true sexual liberation. But the desire for sexual freedom is not the only reason to wish for the nonexistence of God. There may be other moral— or rather, immoral—reasons. You may wish to commit, not adultery or some other sexual sin, but embezzlement or murder or treason. Getting rid of your old belief in God would facilitate these deeds; and once again the wish would be father to the opinion.
Hatred of God
There are people who have suffered great pains in life, who feel that life has treated them very unfairly, and who are angry with God that this happened. If they are angry enough, their anger rises to the level of downright hatred. “Curse God and die,” Job’s wife recommended. Job did not act on the recommendation (Job 2:9-10).
But how can an atheist hate God? How can anybody hate something or someone he believes to be non-existent? Well, it seems that there are some not-quite logical people who, although they deny God with their tongues and with the conscious part of their minds, believe that he exists in another and more hidden part of their minds. They believe this if only to have a target for their hatred. One could recommend to them that, in order to be consistent in their atheism, they should be angry, not with God, but with the universe, the meaningless and impersonal universe. But such an abstract and impersonal anger is irrational; it is like a child getting angry with a table that struck him in the head. To be rational, the anger you feel because life has treated you unfairly has to be directed at a person. It is not unwitting atoms and molecules that have treated you unfairly; there must be a person behind this unfairness — a powerful and malicious person. And one way to “get even” with this person is to deny his existence. A similar thing sometimes happens when one human feels hatred for another. The ultimate insult in a case like that goes something like this: “As far as I’m concerned, you are nothing; you no longer exist:’ If that’s good enough to punish your ex-spouse, who can be surprised that it often seems good enough to punish God?
Dr David R. Carlin, a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, is the author of The Decline and Fall of Catholicism in America (Sophia Institute Press, 2003). His most recent book is Can a Catholic Be a Democrat? (Sophia Institute Press, 2006).