50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk (Chichester, U.K.: Publisher, 2009, cloth ISBN 978-1-4051-9045-9) and paper 978-1-4051-9046-6) 346 pp. Cloth $69.25. Paper $26. 95.
“The fool has said in his heart, there is no God,” Psalms declares and adds, “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good,” indicting all of humanity. Not even one human being is worthy; yet these words have come to be used to single out atheists.
50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists is a collection of essays from fifty “fools”: scientists, philosophers, science fiction writers, and one magician about unbelief in the greatest imaginary being of human times. It reminds us of the shame that still attaches to atheism, especially in the United States. The Bible’s equal-opportunity condemnation of human history is narrowly applied to atheism, with mockery.
Religionists, fundamentalists, and their apologists disgrace logic, because faith forbids disproof and debate; an open question is a catastrophe. The insistence of the faithful puts skeptics in the untenable position of proving the negative that God does not exist. A passing grade in logic demands a positive proof. That faith speaks as a convenient tautology, assuming the conclusion as proof of itself, is ignored. Minds slam shut against the enemy; the issue is settled, certain.
Atheism, both critical and casual, has been much of the world’s prevailing view (see The Existence of God by Joseph McCabe [London: Watt & Co., 1933]) and may still be so, if more people admit it. Plato and Aristotle were not as well regarded in their times as were their atheistic predecessors, the Pre-Socratic followers of Democritus who were most like the scientists of today. Plato and Aristotle found later favor primarily because they were theists (albeit of differing sorts), much needed by the medieval Catholic Church. The Pre-Socratic “atomists”—whose speculative writings found vindication only in modern times—survive today in fragments. Their philosophy of material analysis and observational honesty before experience has triumphed in our mathematical analysis of matter and its application as technology; but imaginative theology, based on the superstitious insistence of faith, persists. It is unsurprising, given the horrors, both human and physical, of the twentieth century, that we have imagined both hell and a paradise awaiting us. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were so horrified by the two world wars that they retreated into their vastly imagined virtual worlds of fantasy and ingenious theisms; ironically, their common theology is rarely noted by readers in love with the stories.
For long stretches in the West, the central doctrine of the existence of God was not to be debated but remained the assumed basis of law and ethics. Without God, all social governance would fall into tyranny and abuse—“If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” But this great fear touted by theists is a non sequitur; humankind committed horrors even in the name of the Greatest Possible Being. Atheism continues to be feared, perhaps for its possible truth as it whispers to the conscience of those who fear self-delusion but have to live with the faithful around them. Perhaps ethics and law do not need a lord of the universe as originator or enforcer.
Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church by H. G. Wells (1943) was for some years regarded as a crank work, despite its keen observations of priestly detachment from daily human life except in the world’s poor places, where the heresy of “liberation theology,” now nameless, continues to be discouraged by the Vatican. Wells’s short book argued against the exemption from bombing accorded the Vatican and Rome during World War II while so many other cities suffered. Today, it does not seem such a strange work after all.
The Future of Unbelief by Gerhard Szczesny (German edition 1958; English 1961) eloquently confronted the spectacle of theism placing itself beyond question, fearful that any fair debate would reveal the weakness of faith as mere insistence and superstition. Opening the existence of God to question or refutation would threaten the pedigree of all law, ethics, and social order, and thus social control would slip into tyranny and abuse, even anarchy; that it has done so even with the Greatest Possible Being in the social saddle was ignored.
The wave of freethinking, anti-theistic books, begun with Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man and The Outcast (1872 and 1875) and the various works of Joseph McCabe, seemed to have abated with Gerhard Szczesny and Joachim Kahl’s The Misery of Christianity: A Plea for a Humanity Without God (German 1968; English 1971). Now the insistence of faith is again challenged, and the last decade has seen a resurgence with The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2004); The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006); and God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger (2007), who also appears in this collection with “Godless Cosmology.” Another notable book is Tom Flynn’s edited volume, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007), with a foreword by Dawkins.
These works, along with the fifty voices in the current volume, are part of a job of liberation that is being done again. They surround the hypothesis of a supreme being with an array of critical thoughts and an embarrassing void of evidence in place of speculative theology and the exhortations of faith, as well as with thoughtfully motivated feelings. Naked insistence has never been sufficient, nor have negative proofs for the existence of a Greatest Possible Being; positive disproofs have shown more modesty, often winding up in a formal, forgiving agnosticism that believers seize upon as a “proof” in their favor. A modest book that urges undogmatic science is Religion Without Revelation (1957) by Julian Huxley. A startling fallback position, not often aired so openly, occurs in a 1941 movie, One Foot in Heaven, in which Fredric March’s minister contends with a medical doctor and finally tells him that if he doesn’t like faith and all its attendant theology then he should settle for the ethics and be done with it. One foot in heaven, indeed. I refer the reader to “Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion” by Peter Singer and Marc Hauser in the present collection, but also to the often-cited poll in which the majority of Americans absurdly deny that atheists can be moral human beings. Hollywood, that hotbed of moral failures, also included a line in Ivanhoe (1952) in which Walter Scott’s Bomba the squire proclaims that “for every Muslim who is not a Christian I will show you a Christian who is not a Christian!” I mention these examples because popular culture travels far and sometimes whispers to us with intelligent wit.
But the most urgent entries in this volume involve the use of logic and reasoning not based purely on the historical and psychological embarrassments of human behavior. Even in philosophical circles there has been a tendency to pull the teeth of logic as the basis for assertions about ethics and religious faith. But robust logical constructions should obligate and compel our reason, our passions, and our actions, when properly arrived at, as much as we are compelled by the accurate balancing of our checkbooks, where we do not add imaginary balances. You cannot think as you please or invent facts.
Yet in general discussion, in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, there is a fear of logic and serious reasoning whenever it seems to threaten our material interests or even our social standing. Reason is the faithful dog that helps us fetch what we want, rationalizing all the means, rarely examining the merits of an issue or an action; tough-love reasoning might lead to a conclusion contrary to our wishes or to a cost for moral action that we do not wish to pay. Martin Luther King Jr. put himself in the position of the local priest who was praised when he fed the poor but damned as a communist when he asked why they were poor.
But doing right and thinking correctly does not always bring us gain, and so critical conclusions are ignored or denied. Such is the belief in God. The horrors of unbelief must be held back, even if, as Voltaire said, we have to invent a God as the pedigreed source of our moral laws—our own just won’t serve. Never mind that they can stand on their own, mattering not whether Moses carved them himself or took dictation.
These essays demonstrate the difference between the core issue, whether God exists or not and that there is no demonstrable subject to disbelieve in, and the corollary problems of law and human behavior that tend to support the atheistic position but do not decide the truth of atheism. It is this core issue that so much reconciliationist debate between humane religionist impulses and the critical thought of unbelievers seeks to keep off the table.
Our physics and biology show us a lack of design in a universe that seems to have it, on the naive level of claiming that noses were made for glasses. Human failures throughout history are admitted by both religionists and atheists, and both blame human nature—human responsibility by atheists and the misuse of free will that God gave his creatures by religionists.
We are free enough to fail, even to destroy ourselves, as the decades of nuclear terror and now climate failure clearly illustrate.
Might we not drop theism and its theologies, view these as psychological pathologies of our yearning for justice, and simply keep the ethics? That is the claim of religionists: that we will lose the ethics without the support of a literal God and the faith that binds us to that ultimate being, even though free will is clearly as chancy with a God as without. Or do the vast religious bureaucracies seek to preserve their wealth and power?
The question to be answered about the existence of God and the need for faith is whether we will be bound by reason and logic or not. The purveyors of faith refuse to be obligated by reason, pointing to its undoubted failures even as they try to argue according to its canons. But this is too convenient; we do make mistakes with our checkbooks, but we do not abolish arithmetic. You can’t think just anything; you are bound by evidence and inference, however unhappy it might make you. There is a list of common fallacies that cannot be wished away, and faith is a seducer that dances with all of them.
The emotional fear of atheism makes for high drama: “They’re mean people!” “Even if they’re right, we can’t tell that to the children.” “We can’t just tell them there’s . . . nothing after they die.” “There’s gotta be something!” “You know that when you look at the sky!”
Something? Or else what? We are left free, responsible to each other, capable of lawmaking. A godless universe leaves us with what may well be the best imaginable one—as God might have intended. Atheism sets us free. “The universe is,” writes physicist Sean M. Carroll in this collection, “and part of our job is to discover what it is . . . to live in it, and construct meaning and depth from the shape of our lives. . . . It’s a big, cold pointless universe. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
We would be less free with a God. There’s no trick in believing in a God who proves his/her/its existence and takes away our faith, coercing us into following a sure thing. So he’s there, says the religionist, begging the question, and won’t show himself; we have to find God. The religionist can have it both ways: why God seems unobvious, even invisible, as a kindness to lead us into faith—and that is evidence of his existence. Oh, the circles within circles of medieval scholasticism’s answer to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! Add enough assumptions and you can have any conclusion you wish.
Are we obligated by reason? No—faith dictates.
Pull up the ladder after yourself. Immunize yourself against all thought and evidence; become thought-proof and “good.” The question of God’s existence must never be vulnerable, because the answer might go the wrong way. The dogmatist insists while the honest skeptic must admit that he or she can’t, technically, disprove a negative (and should not have to) or even easily present a positive form of “there is no God.” Honesty works against both atheist and agnostic.
Would a genuine disproof be recognized by a dogmatist, when people of faith often express hostility to all the constraints of reason? Oh, that would certainly have to be a trick of some kind!
Faith is immune, a wish fulfillment in the face of human death. Of such stuff are martyrs made. And yet a positive disproof is not beyond possibility. The faithful fear it. Science is bringing it. Run!
Faith is a “reinforced dogmatism,” whose central declarative sentence has written into it a prohibition on denying or questioning itself; this makes it a tautology, a circularity that assumes its conclusion to prove the conclusion, an attempt to build a house from the roof down. Childish, mere insistence that refutes itself. Schoolboys, as Mark Twain once said of faith, know it ain’t so.
What if we could induce a cure for states of faith? The religionist would say that it would prove nothing. Yet that is what happens in the conversion process, either way. It would be one conversion against another.
The essays in this book cluster around a variety of issues concerning unbelief and skepticism, some hewing closer to the core problem than others. They all illustrate what happens when very different people reason about belief/unbelief, showing that few people reason about it at all; they fear surprising themselves with conclusions.
One fact emerges: religious theologies, with all their exhortations of good behavior, have as much effect on the horrors of human actions as the atheist’s denials; one way or another, human action is not changed. This only shows that other forces are at work within us and are not changed in the larger picture, however noble an individual religionist or atheist might be in the ethical realm. We are in fact admirable in the ethical individual and barbaric in the mass.
In his 1930s book, Joseph McCabe cites a clear observation: in four thousand years of human history, “disbelief in God or gods has spread always in exact proportion to the growth of knowledge and of the freedom to express one’s belief.” He also cites Harvard divinity scholars discussing the formation of Christian Atheist congregations. Historically, the evolution of laws and ethics finds its earliest expression in the assumed authority of religions, arises from a need for order, and grows into what we call secular law and ethics. Then the myth declines and leaves us an order for which we alone are responsible. No longer must the Israelites wonder whether Moses carved the tablets himself; they are enough by themselves, because they express our human needs, both personal and social. This is all the authority needed. The need is always for a place where the buck must stop, in cosmology and in human affairs.
Jesus Christ said that “the kingdom of God is within.” But today he might say to us that “I spoke to you in terms of Father and Family, in ways understandable to you, and you built a theology on my words, an authority that you no longer need today to know right from wrong.”
Unbelief leaves us with a great responsibility, to each other and to our planet, both of which we continue to imperil. That is the lesson of this collection, coming as it does in a wave of recent books that take more of our growing knowledge into account in examining the idea of faith—which still defends itself by prohibiting all questioning.
So God is not what we imagined, and goodness can stand by itself; but what of life after death? Is there nothing to offset this great loss? Jesus promised eternal life for one well lived here. There must be something beyond all this misery and failure.
Winwood Reade, in his follow-up book to The Martyrdom of Man, wrote:
Suppose that a good man, converted by your arguments, gave up the belief in his own immortality, loved others, laboured for others, strove to purify his heart, but took no heed for his own soul, and died believing in annihilation and there should be no future life after all—what then? Why, then he would be perfectly prepared for the life which he did not anticipate . . . disbelieve in future rewards, and so eradicate all selfish longings from our hearts; but if, contrary to our expectations, there should be a future life with rewards, none will rank with ourselves. For what life is so highly deserving of reward as that which is spent in doing good without the hope or desire of reward?
Atheism is also a stance of ultimate concern. Theism has no monopoly on ethics and spirituality.
And yet, faith in a god who provides for us a life to come is not surprising; it is natural to deny the finality of death. Our imaginations squirm and invent and more recently project and prophesy. We know what we want: not to be reborn in the impersonal guise of nature, which resurrects itself around us, with us and without us, and which we now threaten; but to survive indefinitely in our own skins. As Woody Allen once wrote, “I don’t want to achieve immortality in my works. I prefer to achieve it by not dying.”
It may well be that our theological heaven-building is but a vision of a time when our knowledge and skill may well give us indefinite life spans. Heaven on Earth might well cut us off from heaven and the fellowship of God. Sounds like hell to me, C.S. Lewis might have said, appalled by the use of scientific words to replace the hope of death’s defeat offered by faith. Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out that what may seem difficult for one age to do may be easy for another. We no longer die early in some parts of the world, and we may yet live indefinitely. And if the religious among us are overly worried about their entrance into heaven, then one might assure them that in time accidents will certainly send us all over; our indefinite time here might well be “Purgatory” for the believers.
The essays in this book reveal a great concern for our human plight, a concern that is the equal of religious impulses; they raise a richness of issues that are too often ignored, including the ultimate fear of theists that perhaps in time it may well be possible to settle the question of God’s existence.
In past centuries it took an imaginative fool to say that there is no God and to face derision for it. Today, it may well be that God is not the entity we imagined (so variously) but something else—perhaps the inconceivable background, the infinity that has always been there, needing, like our notion of God, no beginning, which made the expansion of our local universe possible. The infinite scheme makes foreground changes, even our minds, possible; and it lasts forever; it’s where the buck stops, which is what all explanations need.
One way or another, the universe, or some locality of it, made us possible, as surely as the stars cooked up the heavy elements needed to make us; and one day, we may learn how to hang around longer in it. Our hopes for an afterlife may be a prophetic vision of that realization. Right now, we come and go quickly; but we are learning to stay—and we think about it.
A notable grouping of accomplished authors appears in this collection—the science-fiction writers Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford, Greg Egan, Jack Dann, Damien Broderick, and Sean Williams. I mention them in connection with the shame that still clings to the word atheist in many peoples’ minds. A recent article lists several science-fiction writers who are atheists, presuming it a reprehensible thing to be both SF writer and atheist. The piece listed Asimov, Sagan, Heinlein, Clarke, Vonnegut, and Roddenberry but no believers. While there are distinctive science-fiction writers who have been and are theists, it is true that the field has been defined by the skeptics and nonbelievers, as with the majority of the scientific community. But the article raised the alarm against science fiction in general as “a strange world without God” and a bad influence on readers: “Evolution is the preeminent science fiction. Beware!”
In an America where you cannot drive through most cities and towns without seeing several churches; where many people feel guilty about their good fortune and proclaim American exceptionalism while fearing a punishing sky-god; suspect homosexuals, atheists, women and minorities, or anyone who shows a critical mind toward their government; fail to educate their children by skewing textbooks; extol jocks over intellectual nerds; and sell out education, health care, and legal services to big money, the fifty voices in this book have spoken out with more than a small amount of courage.
But it is still difficult to consider the depths of vindictive, self-justifying, wish-fulfillment superstition, only one step above burning at the stake, that are still plumbed by those religionists who threaten unbelievers and skeptics with “the absence of God,” which is hell, while heaven is “seeing God,” worshipfully glorying in his presence throughout an infinite afterlife. Remind yourself that the Vatican still has a “chief exorcist.”
“Do you have no fear of God?” they ask unbelievers, hiding in that question a host of assumptions. Recast in a secular sense, the question is “Do you not fear the law?”
“No—I do not fear it. I respect the law because it is right.”
A cultural anthropologist can “renormalize” theological terms and imagery by taking well-intentioned storybook thinking and restating it in terms of secular law and human needs, showing that the original magical thinking is about more important things than its literal push. But the fundamentalists want the literal theology to be true, without question or doubt, absolutely.
Organized atheism, like organized religion and political ideologies or even the political correctness enforcers, can go wrong and has done so. But for the critical mind, probably our greatest human accomplishment, the motto might well be: “Do ask, do tell.”
These writers have told. What emerges from thinking about these essays is a realization of what human reason is up against, within ourselves. To the faithful, reason’s critique of faith as a form of superstition is wrong and dangerous, but the faithful cannot say how, except to insist. In a technical sense, belief is an obvious fallacy, at best a suspicion that may turn out to be true, as some suspicions do; but simply being a belief does not make it true. Reason’s rules have a hard time prevailing. Religious faith in God and an afterlife might make one a better person, but you will know it’s true only if it is; if you die into nothing, you will never know. The truth of religious claims is always set conveniently aside. Religion as an historical phenomenon, a yearning for law, just will not do. “An atheist cannot be a moral person” wins in a polling of Americans.
The core, obligatory questions to be faced are: How much loyalty do we owe our reasoning? And how much loyalty do we owe our corrective reasoning, as when we argue against our own conclusions? Is this essay a lot of insistence? Discuss among yourselves.
Reason and evidence are inescapable. Even defenders of faith want us to think that they are reasonable. But we all know how to kick over the game board and be unreasonable; it is a part of human flexibility, and it’s sometimes monstrous.
We cannot escape some forms of faith any more than we can avoid reason and evidence (no one would wish to be tried for their life on the evidence of faith). But there is a vast difference between the canons of reason and a faith in theological assertions about an invisible all-powerful being and the afterlife. Reason has a track record of effectiveness; faith insists, but is explainable by the psychology of storytellers whose intent was lawmaking—a first try, a rough draft of ethics and social order and cosmology—to get us to behave and to feel at home in nature.
But more is possible. William Morris once wrote: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
Religion as an ultimate concern for our presence in nature can be ours without an imaginary divinity’s revelations, without fears of punishment in an afterlife, in a universe of inconceivable order that we may one day understand without the need to imagine that it was made. You can have anything you wish in your mind, but only our evidenced sciences reign in this megalomania of the imagination.
This collection of essays recalls an even more profound thought, once voiced by Isaac Asimov, that even if it were certain that there is a God and an afterlife, we would then be playing a game not of our own making—and he would therefore prefer the darkness. Thus, the atheist is doubly damned—in the realm of imaginative insistence. Milton struggled with this insight when he wrote, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Of course, Asimov was sure that nothing like God or an afterlife was possible and he would have found it revolting even if it were true. How could we be anything to an infinite being who runs the universe as a moral testing ground, professes to love his creatures, and permits eternal damnation but sent his only son on a suicide mission to save us from ourselves? Even a few logical tools easily demolish what is professed: the reductio ad absurdum, the argument from authority, the fall into an infinite regress, and the tautology (also known as begging the question, assuming the case to prove the conclusion). Between the assumption and the conclusion, there should be a space filled with evidence; the premise cannot be the conclusion.
Faith is life’s acceptance of its own heartbeat, and God the exaggeration of our hopes and our need for an end to questioning. It is on this psychological-evolutionary rootedness in nature that elaborate theologies build their faiths. These essays, especially Thomas W. Clark’s “Too Good To Be True, Too Obscure To Explain .. .” show us why we should accept that God and religious faith are something other than what the dogmatists profess, and that we should not fear it. The writers here also show how faith’s defenders do not think about their beliefs, that they see thought as the enemy; and when they do think, they undertake endless contortions of assumptions, adding imaginative plug-ins as needed to avoid logical objections.
These essays also show in various ways that theism and unbelief involve several other issues: the technical problem of the legitimacy of belief and its origins; the social failure of religions; the abuse of young people by priests, rabbis, nuns, and ministers; and the ultimate question of faith’s truth. All these issues mix together in better and lesser cases for atheism. These essays strive to untangle them.
It seems certain that recent worldwide abuses, so dodged by the Vatican, are a form of social failure that cannot be dismissed forever. The moral compass seems not to work well beyond the worthy individual. A way of real knowledge and reason must be sought and practiced. As Joseph McCabe wrote in The Popes and Their Church: A Candid Account (London, 1918): “The Paradox of our age is the survival of the Church of Rome.” It has persisted because of its great protective wealth, and it continues to do so, with much of its authority being exercised over its own corporate structure, namely the deck chairs of the Titanic.
The problem is not our human ethics and religions, our knowledge, or our well-intentioned social systems. The problem is our tribal survivalist inheritance from nature—predation and fear of others. What seems to bring out our ideals better are long spells of peace, which quiet the beast; small communities; thoughtful, isolate individuals who have been slowed down by illness in early life. The arts seem persuasive and revealing as they back off and stare at us, and we censor them out of fear.
But the problem is ourselves, and the inability of a self-referencing awareness that would change our inner realm: we cannot stand outside ourselves for long, even as these words seem to do that very thing. Hope is a perpetual step back that can never rest.
This collection steps back from faith, but it does so in a context of a century or more of thought that has clearly shown that religious institutions that summon the faith of congregations exhibit all the failures of human behavior, emotional and intellectual, faith-based and secular, and the only response left to reason is rigorous criticism and satirical ridicule—from Voltaire’s famous deconstruction of Catholic pretension to the exposure and condemnation of the “celibate” priesthoods’ vast attack on the young in its charge.
Some kind of greater collapse is coming—beyond the continuance of “traditions without belief” among the sentimental—as the fig leafs of reform fail to provide cover.
Critics of the “new atheism” have dismissed this and other books as irrelevant, in a confusion that fails to note atheists’ acceptance of the historical role of religion in the rise of ethics and law as nothing more than condescension. Soviet dictatorships, as an example of other confusions, did not call upon the denial of God but on class warfare for their justification, yet atheism, even agnosticism, is tarred by association with communism, Bolshevism, and socialism. The recent conquest of Palestine by European survivors of Hitler’s holocaust, with its succession of new Herods in connivance with the current Rome, calls upon God as a real estate agent.
The relevance of this collection in all this tangle is that to defeat theism, along with the embarrassments of its social and political apps, cannot be wished away by denial. When they lose the argument, religionists insist on faith.
But what could we say to them that would open their minds? In answer to Erwin Chargaff’s words “that grown-up people should avoid tautologies and that there is no point in trying to square a vicious circle” (Heraclitean Fire, New York, 1978), you would likely get a blank stare, and there would be no discussion.
There is more than one kind of salvation. As Arthur C. Clarke observed, some people are “thought-proof.” And since we are, in Robert A. Heinlein’s words, “a rationalizing and not a rational species,” we are in character to ridicule the thoughtless and point the finger at those of us who made them that way.
Alfred Hitchcock, it is told, once looked out his car window and saw what he said was “the most frightening sight I have ever seen.” A priest was talking to a small boy with one hand on the child’s shoulder.
“Run, little boy!” cried the master of suspense as he leaned out the window. “Run for your life!”
When this was first reported, many thought that the warning was against the dangers of indoctrination, as in the boast of Jesuits who claim that if given a child before the age of seven he will be theirs forever; today we suspect that Hitchcock was aware of much worse. But the misbehavior of priests and their church, evidencing a loss of moral credibility and a bankruptcy of leadership, is not as important as the fear and derision visited on atheism as the heart of secularism, arising from the suspicion and horror that it may be true; worse, that in a universe where we dance through only once, its evils are our own fault, because we will not face up to the growing body of knowledge about where we came from, and what we are, as we fail to find where we are going.
Only our growing knowledge, not mythic revelations, can tell us where we came from; only knowledge can tell us who we are; and only after such knowledge will we glimpse what we can make of ourselves.