Monday, March 10, 2014

The "Humbleness" Of Atheism

Andrew Wagener has an interesting piece explaining atheism that I found interesting enough to post a few of my thoughts. He seems intent on showing how much more humility there is in atheism than religion.
Now frankly, many of us religious folks could take that claim more seriously if atheists didn't go out of their way to question our intelligence from the get-go.

Even Wagener suggests religion "thrives on ignorance," as if there are few scholars or serious thinkers among the religious.

That's just not the case.
How humble is it for atheists to suggest that most of their fellow humans - past and present - are their intellectual inferiors?
Anyway, Wagener writes:
The religious contend that they are the humblest of people because they are as nothing before their god. But if they believe that the allmighty creator of the universe has a relationship with them as individuals, its not very humble,  is it? The atheist on the other hand sees himself as a higher order primate and a total insignificant speck in the context of the cosmos and geological time. That's humility.
But suppose a Divine Intelligence purposed to create intelligent creatures who could respond to and interact with Him/Her/It  and provided an environment for them (something like the poet Keats' "vale of soul-making") that would serve that end - would it not then be the proper thing (and not unhumble at all) to respond to and interact with this Intelligence?
And if (and I do emphasize the if) that were the case, the atheist's claim to be "a total insignificant speck" would then not be humility so much as copping out? 
Wagener goes on in this same vein when he writes:
The good deeds that religions do are to be applauded though. Every soup kitchen and every jersey knitted for a child is wonderful, but the motive is immoral if the idea is to buy timeshare in heaven or gain more converts.  These people will never know the intense satisfaction derived from doing a good deed out of an innate sense of morality and not because it is dictated from outside by some god.
That is an oversimplification atheists seem prone to make - even those who were once religious believers and should know better.  
Religious believers think of that "innate sense of morality" as coming from the moral law written by God on the human heart. Again, responding to that innate sense of morality is right and proper thing to do, 
What God adds to the picture is this: now doing good deeds becomes a matter of duty, rather than something one may choose to do in order to obtain that "intense satisfaction."

I'm not arguing here that the religious worldview is the correct one, just suggesting that in explaining atheism Mr. Wagener has misrepresented religious believers.


  1. I think there are gross exaggerations by both the religious and the irreligious. Atheists tend to think of religion in terms of fundamentalism and the religious tend to presume malicious intent upon the atheist. Both sides paint with pretty broad strokes.

    For instance, you say that God adds to the picture duty with respect to good deeds, but I would submit that a good many atheists feel compelled as a matter of duty for their fellow man rather than a a feeling of "intense satisfaction".

    Just today I was told that atheists deny reason and logic if they don't believe in a deity, and not just any deity, but the Christian God. I don't negate the possibility of a god existing, but I don't see sufficient evidence to claim a particular god.

    I don't doubt that a good many religious believers have been misrepresented by Wagener and many others. Whether spirituality is neurological or not is of no consequence in my opinion. If it fulfills and individual to pursue spirituality it's not my place to paint them with the stupid brush. It is wholly disrespectful.

    I have many posts regarding the damage that fundamentalism has caused to myself and others, but spirituality is another matter altogether. It is a matter for each individual to choose or reject without fear of derision.

    1. No doubt both sides do paint with "pretty broad strokes." I try not to do that or misrepresent those with whom I disagree. I hope I am not guilty of that in my post.

      Religious believers do embrace what Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently described as "the moral arc of the universe." Doing good, accordingly, is the proper thing and is even incumbent for them.

      On the other hand, if the universe is not the result of intent, if it is merely a fluke and accident, then of course there is no moral arc to it and no "oughts" to human behavior. We then would be, as Wagener states, "a total insignificant speck."

      You write "I don't see sufficient evidence to claim a particular god" and I think I understand what you mean. But for me I do find myself compelled to believe in a Logos or Intelligence behind existence, and for the same reason Steve Allen stated in his book on The Bible, Religion, and Morality, "belief in God seems to me slightly less preposterous than its opposite."

      As a former fundamentalist myself I am well aware of the damage that perversion of the religious impulse can inflict. But I believe we can and should mature spiritually (although I admit I went about it the long way, making my way back through a bout of unbelief).

      Ruth, I want to thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I enjoy your thoughtful responses which help me sharpen my thinking.

    2. Perhaps I should read the Wagener piece, but when I think of myself as "a total insignificant speck" I don't feel worthless. It's just that I don't feel more worth than the other aspects of the universe. It's a way of knowing my place and understanding that I'm not a "chosen" one. I evolved along with everything else and because humans have evolved to a state of higher thinking they do have a duty to be responsible for their actions and for doing good in the world. I guess it's a matter of perspective. I'm certainly not trying to talk you out of your spirituality or your journey back to Christianity if that's where you land.

      In the case of "painting with broad strokes" I think it's the handful(probably more than a handful, but not as many as it appears) of rather loud, obnoxious ranters that get the attention.

      Furthermore, as I have attempted to point out to a few of my fellow atheist/agnostics, insulting someone's intelligence or ability to reason is usually not very effective at anything but insulting. If insulting people is your aim, you have failed before you even began. I have no desire to de-convert anyone. My goal is for religious people to better understand and relate to people who don't share their particular beliefs.

    3. I don't have room in my spiritual outlook for "chosen people," but neither have I room in it for insignificant specks. I believe we all matter and have something to add to the tapestry of life. (Maybe I'm a dreamer, but contra many atheists, I don't think I'm a fool.) I really appreciate your kindly stance on the matter and wish more people would embrace diversity.

    4. Me, too, Doug. Thank you for your thought-provoking posts. I like to be able to see things from, if possible, all angles. It helps me to re-evaluate and truly consider what it is I believe.

      I think the "fool" fallacy happens on both sides of the fence and is rather unproductive altogether.

  2. There is enough ill will on both sides to go around. I respect some folks from both persuasions. After all, I was one on the Christian extreme at one time. That leads me to believe there is the Ying to my Yang on the other.

    1. No argument me from about the ill will on both sides. I dislike extremes very much.

  3. I wonder if there are different definitions of humility?

    I don't see it necessarily follows that someone who thinks God loves them is therefore proud. In human relations, realising your beloved actually loves you in return can be very humbling.

    Likewise I'm not sure why believing we are an insignificant speck in the cosmos makes one less likely to be proud. Pride generally compares with other people, not with the cosmos.

    I think pride and humility are based on other factors than the ones mentioned.

    1. Interesting point. Really I think the whole thing - which is more humble, atheism or religion? - is just an unhelpful way of thinking about the matter. And Wagener's article struck me as particularly shallow on that point.

  4. The New Atheists most often resort to ridicule and deride. I don't think a humble person would do that.
    They need to improve.