What is atheism? Is it an antagonistic denial of god or is it is a positive belief in human potential, failings and creativity? Is it a hatred for the adherents of religious faith or is it a celebration of the human animal? Or if it is none of these things yet, what should it strive to become? Atheism has become a topic of conversation for many minds in the left-liberal world; be it in the halls of academia, research laboratories or increasingly in the homes and hearts of many a work-a-day citizen. Many critical of this development see this as a side-effect of many Americans fear of “militant Islam and the American religious right”(Damon Linkler, The Religious Test, page 193) and these movements threat to classical liberal republicanism in a secular society. While I agree that some measure of anxiety over these modern problems has contributed to the growth in interest in atheism, to chock it all up to this would be to grossly over simplify a much more universal and human issue.
Human beings in the modern world are little different from their ancient forebears in one basic sense: we have always had a profound sense of interest in the world around us and our place in that world. It is no surprise that the only animal that has yet proven to be fully self-aware would be the one that also struggles with self-discovery and meaning on a day by day even moment by moment basis. I do not intend to be the one to claim I have any more insight then the next person on what we should base our conclusions of ourselves on. The best minds in the atheist/humanist tradition did not spend their time trying to disprove the existence of some petty deity. They instead focused their efforts on exploring why we ask the questions we do, what observation of the natural world has to teach us, and how we can better ourselves and our fellow human animals. They created philosophies and modes of thought and literature that attempted to enlighten and not obscure or pontificate. From Socrates to Spinoza to de Sade Nietzsche to Kahlil Gibran our great minds have put their greatest effort into designing a more poetic and worthwhile worldview based around love, anger, color, sensuality and exploration. Many have failed, some have come very close to specific answers to important questions, but most reached a point where their ideas about the larger scope of human understanding collided with their own personal hopes. I for one feel there is nothing wrong in this outcome. To expect that in one human lifetime to be able to puzzle out all matters of human conception, material entanglement, physics and ethics is quite a strain on incredulity, an exercise in futility that I think leads to the inevitable Sisyphian disillusionment remarked on with such poetry by Camus. We must strive towards understanding and discovery, not towards an intellectual and spiritual omniscience that has no place in the human experience.
Why should we as atheists settle for a simple denouncement of one segment of humanity’s desperate existential contrivance? Should all of our intellectual efforts be focused on a denial? Before I am torn apart by the devotees of the fashionable “new atheism” (some of whose apologists I quite admire, notably the magnificent and sublime Christopher Hitchens) for this seeming display of gross oversimplification I will clarify that my own personal inclination is towards a disbelief in all gods and in any theologies that seek to impose the dictates of these deities onto mankind. As far as I am concern there is no god, there never was one, and there is no need for one…But I am not going to get into another ontological/rhetorical debate about existence versus non-existence. The point of this essay is not to prove anything to another group, but to persuade and enlighten members of my own community of non-believers.
I think, personally, that a bit too much intellectual energy has been spent on disproving the existence or relevancy of god. If any concern exists for the plight of any religious person caught in conflict between their own minds and feelings and those of their community’s and its theology then rest assured there is more than enough evidence and information out there for them to come to conclusion that personal liberation is a beneficial goal. What about atheists? What about our minds and our imaginations? I fear we are in danger of lapsing into the nihilism and loathing we decry in the religious community. So much of religious dialogue and “creativity” is aimed at prostelatyzing towards, shaming, and plotting the destruction of their secular foes. We must not fall into that same depressing spiral of self-righteous indignation. We must continue to point out that religion is not the genesis of art or of creativity, but in many cases art has been created in opposition to the dictates and restriction of religion, and the best art has almost always been a defiance of the archaic religious idea that to depict the world and its wonders and beauty is a shameful and decadent thing. The examples of Michelangelo and Caravaggio and the like are used as arguments for the idea that religion is the greatest patron and genesis of art. This is a nonsensical argument however; painting Christ on the cross does not make the painting a Christian thing anymore then cookies baked at a church bake sale are somehow infused with the spiritual essence. Art is created by human beings, not by god or by religious patrons. Religion can be a great inspiration for art, and even a motivating factor for some people, but it is not the cause of the human urge to create nor does being religious lead to a greater ability in artistic pursuits. Inspiration has to often become a synonym for spirituality, and this cheapens and makes metaphysical a feeling and concept that is human to its core.
I am sad to say that many popular “new atheists” today do not help our cause much. Beneath many of the wonderful arguments and clever prose of the “big three” and the various blogosphere polemicists there is a nasty lack of intellectual originality that at its worst descends into downright juvenile name-calling, and even worse a staggering lack of empathy for those who think differently. We can disagree with the way people live their lives and think, but we do not have to make every act or thought they have or take an affront to our own humanity. There is no need to dehumanize those we disagree with, nor do we need to pity them. We should convince people with positive ideas and actions, and not with an armed camp mentality that makes us no better than the people we so strenuously denounce. No matter how much it makes us feel better about ourselves simple religious indoctrination is not the moral equivalent of child molestation (Mr. Dawkins), nor is it our collective responsibility as atheists to save every poor child from the tribulations of a religious household. If we truly believe in the veracity and wisdom of our cause then we should realize that a religious upbringing is no real obstacle to eventually coming to humanism. Let’s cut back on the “atheist knows best” attitude and focus on representing ourselves in the best way possible. Sanctimony is unbecoming of us.
I for one am all for the occasional “Christ-tard” crack or communion wafer prank (the non-existent lord knows I have been guilty of committed a few anti-theocratic jokes myself), but I think the line should be drawn at demagoguery. We need not condemn those who we can talk to intelligently: It is always easier to bring someone around to your point of view by appealing to their intellect and sense of human decency then it is to demean and belittle them for their mistaken views. This common sense tact and respect for our fellow human beings should never be confused with timidity or lack of certainty in our arguments and ideas. We should never be afraid to say things that may offend sensibilities or push the envelope in favor of greater expression
That being said I believe atheists have allowed their fear of failing in an argument or being wrong on some small issues or points of fact get in the way of the more general and constructive brilliance that comes from striving for betterment. Falling short and learning from mistakes made is the hallmark of humanism and scientific inquiry. We must move beyond this fear of failing and embrace that all too human attribute called “imperfection”. That is why the idea of a god is so offensive to the atheist/humanist heart and mind; something that is perfect is beyond humanity, and therefore an affront to it and a denial of the basic nature of life itself. Think what you will about heaven and hell, after life and eternity, but do not live for universal existence. Live instead for the moments we have, and more importantly with the moments have. Let us create beautiful paintings, feast upon succulent food, compose sublime poetry and behold the natural, all too imperfect world around us.
Nietzsche recognized that men can come up with the most edifying and enlightening of philosophies, but they mean nothing if they are not accompanied by a renaissance of creativity and an exercise of a will towards betterment. Truth can be a terrifying thing sometimes, and the majority of humanity may not want to hear it or acknowledge it, but it is there. Sometimes Zarathustra comes down from his cave to soon…and sometimes the cave itself can be an intoxicating and warm place to hide from existence. Truth cannot always set the world free, sometimes the world prefers to be enslaved, but truth can be made more accessible through the example of art and a love of life. So of course we must continue to add to the debate about the existence and relevance of gods and the afterlife, and of course we can do this through arguments, logical analysis, polemical and rhetorical media and of course cynical and humorous lampooning.
Yet the best argument against god remains a person living life as though it didn’t matter whether there was a god or not. Do not waste your time worshiping the god through your hatred. Every second spent hating a god we know and feel instinctively is non-existent is a second wasted, and a lifetime of possibilities lost. So yes, of course, counter ignorance and religious hatred when it attempts to attack the basis of civic order or the foundations of our human rights. Please do speak up when the faithful misrepresent your beliefs and twist your words, and always feel free to satirize the idiocy and hypocrisy that permeates religion. But always remember that we are not atheists because we fear god or wish to react against it. No, we are atheists because we are human, because we hate the injustice engendered and inspired by religious fervor and most importantly because we cherish the time we have, and the humanity that comes with looking at the world and seeing the potential for discovery and creativity.