The spiritual quest of the atheist, in six questions.


A Chick Tract example of the fundamentalist fascination with nihilism.

Atheism, because it refuses to believe in gods, is necessarily a rejection of the religious order, which claims to be based on the will of the gods. While most Christians recognize this as an attack against traditional beliefs and values, and treat it as a spiritual war, a few are clear-headed enough to recognize that most secular people are not engaged in spiritual war against Christianity and actually try to engage “the world” instead of attacking it.

One such example is Brian McLaren in his book Finding Faith: A Self-Discovery Guide for your Spiritual Quest, which is an attempt to adapt Christian faith to our postmodern age. While such attempts are silly, because Christianity is a primitive, corrupt, fear-based religion at its core, it does demonstrate the one good thing that Christians are able to do: cut to the fundamentals of why we believe what we believe.

McLaren, in suitable postmodern fashion, frames faith as a spiritual quest, a profoundly individualistic and pragmatic endeavor, in order to appeal to “millennials” and other hip young people. In the chapter “Can I Believe in Atheism,” he asks six questions to try to disprove atheism as an alternative to spirituality. These questions are garbed in academic philosophical terms in order to sound sophisticated, but ultimately they are no different from the “gotcha” questions given to us by mainstream Christians. Still, I think that their reformulation brings up some interesting points to discuss.

1. If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? This question was asked by Aristotle and Leibniz alike – albeit with differing answers. But it is an historic concern.

I think the question “why is there something rather than nothing” is a linguistic trick, nothing more. “Nothing” is an abstraction, and “something” designates actual things, so they cannot be compared at all. It’s as silly as trying to compare apples with square-circles. Furthermore, we have no idea what it means for there to “be nothing.” No matter what we point at, no matter what state we experience, it’s “something.”

Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet…

This question is answered by the theory of evolution. This is not a possibility for a lot of Christians, who reject science except when it fits their agenda. Furthermore, Christianity fails to answer the question altogether, since “God did it” is not an answer. “God” is a label we put on questions to which we do not have the answers: as the area of our knowledge increases, the label “God” gets progressively pushed back. To say “God did it” is merely a roundabout way of saying “we don’t actually know, but I’m pretty sure my religion is the only right framework to think about the issue anyway.”

…and is there any meaning to this life? If there is meaning, what kind of meaning and how is it found? Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?

I put all these questions together because they highlight something that is interesting to me. I think many Christians, especially those who think about their faith a great deal, have a sick fascination with, and toy with, the idea that there is no innate meaning. Christianity deals in absolute meaning generated by a universal, abstract Creator. Like conspiracy theorists, they cannot help but believe that everything in the universe has a reason and a purpose, and therefore everything that exists has a clear innate and absolute meaning. The idea that there might not be any innate meaning frightens them, because it strips their worldview of any potency, but at the same time they recognize the dizzying mental freedom that this idea entails. They are obsessed about this idea and it has a dark allure to them, a little bit like a housewife reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Christians often make claims like “without God, everything is permitted” and “if I was not a Christian, I would become a murderer.” Taken literally, these statements are psychotic. But I think we should understand them as a fear of the mental freedom entailed by rejecting Christian absolutism. Like a furtive reader of dark literature, the Christian does not want to know about the average non-Christian or even bad non-Christians: he wants to fantasize about the Stalins and the Hitlers (and McLaren does get into his dark fantasies about non-Christian dictators in question 3).

Meaning is the product of a mind. This does not necessarily imply that one must create something in order to give it meaning: one may give meaning to things that already exist (like how Christians superpose their absolute meanings over things that already exist). As such, the question “is there meaning to this life” can mean two things:

1. What meaning can people give to life? A lot of different meanings, as it turns out.
2. Is there any innate meaning to life? Even if a god existed, there could not be; and if there could be, it would be unknowable to humans anyway.

To explain point 2, think of a text written in English. This text has definite meaning, which can be understood by anyone who reads it and understands English well enough. Is this its “innate meaning”? To someone who doesn’t understand English, the meaning may be inferred depending on where the text was found, or it may be assumed based on words that look similar to their language. To someone living a thousand years from now, the text may be regarded as entirely meaningless. Which meaning is the “innate meaning”? One may argue that our understanding of the meaning “improves” with our understanding of the language, but that’s precisely the issue: it cannot be “innate” if it depends crucially on our own knowledge.

Furthermore, the “understanding helps decipher the innate meaning of a text” is disproven by the Bible. In this case, we have billions of people throughout history who have had the highest incentive to understand it completely, some of whom had deep knowledge of its original languages, and yet there are still deep disagreements between Bible-believing Christians on what any passage may mean. If we start from the premise that the Bible was inspired by God, and that therefore we do not, and cannot, understand the mind behind it, then looking for “innate meaning” becomes strictly impossible. And finally, the Bible being the product of a mind means that its “absolute meaning,” as attributed by God, is actually subjective, since it is dependent on a mind for its very existence.

A Christian would probably say that this is a very postmodernist approach to the question. But this book is supposed to be a postmodernist approach to Christianity, anyhow, so there is hardly room to complain here.

I do want to come back to the issue of right and wrong, since that’s a different issue from that of meaning. Christians tend to lump them together because God’s absolute meaning carries with it moral absolutism as well, God being perfectly good (whatever that means), therefore whatever God approves of is right and whatever God disapproves of is wrong (even though the things designated right and wrong vary wildly within the Bible itself). To moral realists like myself, right and wrong are not subjective, i.e. their truth-value is not dependent on feelings, whims, desires, or beliefs, but rather are a factual part of the world. Right and wrong, like all other forms of knowledge, can only be understood by looking at reality, not by believing things strongly enough.

Spirituality, as I understand it, is about finding and understanding our place in reality. It’s about relating to something greater than yourself, a universal common ground, a higher level of reality than the mundane level of our everyday lives. The staple of Christianity, and other monotheistic religions, is that they try to take you out of a spiritual path and comfort you by telling you that you are special: you were specially created by God, you have a purpose determined by God, you have the knowledge of God that no one else has, and you live at a crucial moment of the history of the cosmos. There is no curiosity about “the world” in the Bible, only disdain and separation, a retreat into one’s specialness at all times. The only desire Christians have for engaging with “the world” is in converting more people.

If you are content within atheism, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?

As a question asked at the end of a series of questions about meaning and morality, this ends up being rather tortuous. Am I content within atheism… as regards to meaning and morality? I don’t really think anyone thinks of their attitude about their atheism as being dependent on answers about meaning and morality. Am I content about being an atheist in general? Sure. So what circumstances would make me more open to other answers about meaning or morality? I have not the faintest clue. How is one supposed to answer such a question? A blow to the head might just do it, but I doubt this is what McLaren has in mind.

2. If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning, so why don’t we see more atheists like Jean Paul Sartre, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Michel Foucault? These three philosophers, who also embraced atheism, recognized that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. The crisis of atheistic meaninglessness is depicted in Sartre’s book Nausea. Without God, there is a crisis of meaning, and these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.

Why don’t we see more atheists who experience a “crisis of meaning”? Well, there’s many reasons for that. The most obvious is that there is no “crisis of meaning” without God. Being liberated from the absolutism of believing in a Creator god is an opportunity to develop one’s own reasoning faculties and critical thinking, to discover more about reality, not a crisis that cripples us. It is the narrowness of the Christian worldview that is crippling, not atheism.

This also connects with the anti-naturalistic line pushed by Christians, which holds that denying God means we’re just a bunch of atoms banging around, or as in this case, “just stuff thrown out into space and time.” Yet this is clearly not true: we also have an inner life full of emotions, understanding, truths, and yes, meaning. The fact that there is no inherent meaning to anything does not mean there is no meaning. As the existentialists discussed, we create our own meanings and take responsibility for our own actions.

McLaren brings up the book La Nausée, by Jean-Paul Sartre, as the literary representation of the “crisis of meaning” (so perhaps this book is his “meaninglessness porn”?). Personally, I really like La Peste, by Albert Camus. Perhaps McLaren should read it, although it probably would not turn him on. La Peste shows the struggles of various characters as a plague sweeps an Algerian city and forces authorities to seal off the town. This book, like existentialism in general, is about people trying to follow their values and make rational decisions in an irrational universe.

The point that McLaren is missing here is that atheists can adopt all sorts of systems of meaning, of which existentialism is one. He only sees crisis because he sees only the vacuum left behind by the rejection of God, not the fresh air that replaces it afterwards. All that concerns him is the despair of absolute freedom. The spiritual path is about finding out who you are, what your highest values are, and how you can bring them about in your own life. Freedom is only the first step in that path.

3. When people have embraced atheism, the historical results can be horrific, as in the regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? In other words, what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments? It could be argued, that these behaviors – of the regimes in question – are more consistent with the implications of atheism.

The problem with this statement is that there are no “implications of atheism,” apart from the rejection of all theistic positions. State Communism is not theistic, and therefore is compatible with atheism, but it cannot be “consistent” with implications that do not exist. Atheism is not an ethical or political position. Furthermore, the horrors of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are no more or less salient than the horrors of Christianity and Christian-backed capitalism throughout history. Bean-counting for one side or the other is pointless: the point is that all forms of tyranny, including Christianity and dictatorial statism, are evil.

The question of what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments is an interesting one, but it seems to be more of a throwaway than anything. Indeed, McLaren should not look at that question too closely, otherwise he might come to some unsavory conclusions about Christianity as well.

Though, I’m thankful that many of the atheists I know do not live the implications of these beliefs out for themselves like others did! It could be argued that the socio-political ideologies could very well be the outworking of a particular set of beliefs – beliefs that posited the ideal state as an atheistic one.

By definition, all atheists lack a belief in God, and therefore they all “live the implications of these [atheistic belief commitments] out,” insofar as the atheistic belief commitment should be a commitment to not believe in any theistic ideology or system. No atheist believes in Christian Creationism or in divine command theory. No doubt McLaren was actually clumsily referring to State Communism, although in that case I have no idea what “the implication of these beliefs” is supposed to mean.

Likewise, I have no idea what an “atheistic state” means, apart perhaps from being a State which does not recognize theism as a basis for governance. This would presumably include the American government, of which McLaren is a subject. And yet McLaren’s own government is not busy exterminating Christians on its own soil, and it is not outlawing Christianity in any form (except in the mind of paranoid schizophrenic fundamentalists who see anti-Christian ghosts in every news story).

4. If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of ultimate justice, or of the suffering being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. Why would we seek the alleviation of suffering without objective morality grounded in a God of justice?

These questions show a definite lack of self-awareness. Christianity devalues justice at a very fundamental level: the belief that Jesus Christ saved mankind by sacrificing his own life is the antithesis of what the concept of justice is supposed to be about, and the fact that salvation comes from believing and not right actions shows that there is no “ultimate justice” or “God of justice” in Christianity. The belief system of Christianity is fundamentally about denying moral responsibility and demanding that believers forego justice on this Earth in favor of the “next life.”

The problem of evil has been solved a long time ago, by Epicurus (and probably before that, even). Christians cannot accept this because it leaves evil as an opaque, inscrutable force which does not yield to their absolute meaning. Having accepted a morally perfect deity, they have no grounds on which to justify the existence of indefensible events like tsunamis, plagues, or genocides. The problem of evil forces Christians to stop treating these events like so many walls on which to hang their theoretical frames, and to look at them as actual problems, as actual things that happen to real people in the world.

What solution does the Christian offer to suffering? Ultimate justice? None to be found in Christianity. The attribution of meaning to suffering? As I said, the problem of evil has dealt with that (although, of course, many are unconvinced). Redemption through suffering? A fine philosophy, as long as one does not have to go through real suffering. But these are people who hold Mother Teresa, a torturer, a sadist, as a holy woman, and who hold a tortured man as their savior. This is the bloody esthetics of BDSM without the sexual pleasure: the worst of both worlds.

Suffering is the one issue that does not invite easy answers. Physiological or psychological, it is the one thing that the vast majority of humans are biologically programmed to evade at all costs, and we will go to extraordinary, and profoundly irrational, lengths to do so. The Christian doctrine that suffering is actually a good thing goes against our every instinct and intuition, and it takes quite a deal of religious conviction to uphold it.

Unfortunately, the existence of suffering is itself a painful fact that most people want desperately to evade, creating a vicious circle. Many people are content to simply ignore it as best they can. Christians exploit other people’s suffering for religious purposes. Any spiritual path which refuses to confront the reality of suffering is a path which is dead set on ignoring a large part of reality. Suffering is an inexorable part of life: it must not be glorified or ignored, but examined with at least as much care as we examine happiness or pleasure.

5. If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong –really wrong? Where do those standards come from?

Here we are back again with the fascination with meaninglessness. In this delirium of freedom, where God does not dictate anything, who will dictate to us what to do and what not to do? The real answer to all these “who” questions is “no one.” The truth does not depend on the opinion of any single individual, or any group of individuals. Standards do not become more or less valid based on popular approval. If the entire world declares that torturing prisoners of war (to give just one relatively recent example) is a good thing, that fact alone does not in itself make it a good thing. Even McLaren realizes this, as the rest of his point demonstrates:

Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

He is essentially correct. Subjectivity is not a criterion of truth. And that is a profound argument against Christianity, whose moral standards are based on pure subjectivity, the subjective will of God (as interpreted by the subjectivity of the believer).

Human beings come pre-loaded with intuitions which apply to many different areas of thought, including morality. Humans are social animals and, like all primates, we are equipped with the mental abilities necessary to navigate social hierarchies and keep them functioning. That is why there are core values which exist in all known human societies: we all think murder, assault, theft, are things which should be avoided for a society to persist and be relatively fair. Belief systems like statism and religion come in and impose their values on the individual, distorting the incentives we’re faced with. As the famous maxim says, “it takes religion to make good people do evil things.” The main reason why societies vary so much in what they accept and what they do not accept is mainly due to these belief systems.

Christianity has not been a force for good in Western societies. It has defended slavery, it has justified monarchies, and now capitalism. It has justified religious intolerance all the way up to genocide. For these things, we cannot lay the blame on “society” but on Christianity specifically. There is nothing inherent to the nature of societies that makes arbitrary and capricious laws/social rules/social norms necessary. In general, the more a society is riddled with delusional and tyrannical belief systems, the more arbitrary and capricious it is (I think this is so obvious that it might as well be an iron law).

McLaren wants to blame the extreme freedom of atheism for the vagaries of human cultures, but many of the cultures who held the things he deplores were Christian cultures, so I’m afraid the connection doesn’t make much logical sense. Christian societies seem to be no better at preventing lying, cheating, adultery, child molestation, slavery, interracial marriage (??), or polygamy.

Like pretty much everyone in the world, religious people don’t like criticism. But to equate social criticism of religion with lying, cheating or adultery is just plain stupid. Wouldn’t the fact that Christians themselves publicly criticize other religions make them lying cheating adulterers as well?

6. If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why do I feel unfulfilled or empty? Why do we hunger for the spiritual, and how do we explain these longings if nothing can exist beyond the material world?

The answer to that last question, I think, is pretty simple: we don’t really have a longing for something “beyond the material world.” What religions like Christianity provides is something that secular belief systems are able to provide as well, and that’s specialness. You can have specialness for all sorts of reasons which are purely material: because you have special knowledge that no one outside the group has, because you are enlightened (according to the group’s definition of enlightenment), because you have access to a wise guru who shows you the way to a better life, because you have power over other human beings, and so on and so forth.

That being said, I don’t want to say there is nothing to the spiritual aspect, I just don’t think it exists “beyond the material world,” whatever that means. I think it stems from the fact that human beings are paradoxical: we are bound to remain completely and utterly physical, but at the same time we have minds that can dwell in the rarefied air of pure abstraction. We are physically unfree but mentally free, to the extent that we allow ourselves to be. It’s no wonder that we have a natural attraction to limitless abstractions like “God” or “spirit.” We yearn for freedom from our physical limitations, freedom from the body, freedom from old age, freedom from death. There’s no need to invoke anything beyond human minds.

As for why people feel unfulfilled and empty, I think that is a result of Christianity waning: not because Christianity was doing us any favors, but because its system of meaning has lost credibility to people with modern thoughts. This has created an ideological vacuum which has not yet been replaced. We know religions are good at taking space in people’s lives, because they propagate mostly by brainwashing children or young people. It’s obvious that people who were raised with such a sense of self-importance, and then lost it, would feel like there’s something missing in their lives. Again, no mumbo-jumbo required to explain it.

The answers to our spiritual quest can be found in the human mind, not in some imaginary non-material mind that has all the answers. That’s a seductive idea, and it makes people feel special that they have all the answers, but it’s an illusion. The goal of a true spiritual quest is not to fall to illusions, but to confront the reality behind the veil. That much seems to be a constant of spiritual awareness. What Christianity has to offer is not real spirituality, it’s the equivalent of McDonalds compared to real food, if McDonalds was toxic and changed your body chemistry to the extent that you became unable to eat real food (I know, I know, it already is, ha ha). If I was a spiritual seeker, I would look elsewhere.

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7 thoughts on “The spiritual quest of the atheist, in six questions.

  1. chandlerklebs February 3, 2017 at 09:53 Reply

    I loved this post. I also came to the conclusion that God cannot be the basis for something being right or wrong because all God would have to do is change his mind and declare rape, murder, lying, or whatever else good and then everything would be flipped around. The idea of an objective morality which is nothing more than the subjective emotion of an unproven magic man in the sky is quite a contradiction in terms.

    • Francois Tremblay February 3, 2017 at 09:55 Reply

      Absolutely! That’s a point that I don’t see expressed a lot and that seems to me to be rather important. The absolutism is just a pretense.

  2. John Doe February 4, 2017 at 02:04 Reply

    One thing I’ve always wanted to tell someone is that believing that the Constitution is a living document is just as theocratic as saying that the bible is a living book, as they both inspire moral absolutism.

  3. Jonny boy February 4, 2017 at 21:37 Reply

    What is the meaning of wind?

    • Francois Tremblay February 4, 2017 at 21:57 Reply

      wind 1 (wĭnd)
      n.
      1.
      a. Moving air, especially a natural and perceptible movement of air parallel to or along the ground.
      b. A movement of air generated artificially, as by bellows or a fan.
      2.
      a. The direction from which a movement of air comes: The wind is north-northwest.
      b. A movement of air coming from one of the four cardinal points of the compass: the four winds.
      3. Moving air carrying sound, an odor, or a scent.
      4.
      a. Breath, especially normal or adequate breathing; respiration: had the wind knocked out of them.
      b. Gas produced in the stomach or intestines during digestion; flatulence.
      5. often winds Music
      a. The brass and woodwinds sections of a band or orchestra.
      b. Wind instruments or their players considered as a group.
      c. Woodwinds.
      6.
      a. Something that disrupts or destroys: the winds of war.
      b. A tendency; a trend: the winds of change.
      7. Information, especially of something concealed; intimation: Trouble will ensue if wind of this scandal gets out.
      8.
      a. Speech or writing empty of meaning; verbiage: His remarks on the subject are nothing but wind.
      b. Vain self-importance; pomposity: an expert who was full of wind even before becoming famous.
      tr.v. wind·ed, wind·ing, winds
      1. To expose to free movement of air; ventilate or dry.
      2.
      a. To detect the smell of; catch a scent of.
      b. To pursue by following a scent.
      3. To cause to be out of or short of breath.
      4. To afford a recovery of breath: stopped to wind and water the horses.

  4. Richard Downs February 6, 2017 at 14:03 Reply

    I read and appreciate your posts, Francois. I think that while we do have moral intuitions about things, the problem for most people is that they don’t add up to a comprehensive system. It is very difficult for people to just say or hear, “We (or I) don’t think killing someone is good” and leave it at that. We want to say why – although this adds nothing to the situation. The comprehensive system of meaning does make us feel special, but I don’t think it is only religions that foster this. The problem is not denying that God exists, but actually living as if God doesn’t matter. In this sense, even discussing God’s existence is a red herring. It keeps us playing a game that is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, catastrophic.

    • Francois Tremblay February 6, 2017 at 15:18 Reply

      I’m not following what “game” you’re referring to, or why it’s catastrophic.

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