No worldview has grown faster since the early 20th century than atheism. Exact numbers are hard to give, but probably some 5-10% of the world’s population is now convinced that there is no God. Of course, in the West these numbers are higher and in particular realms of life, such as academia, the number of atheists usually surpasses 40%. The high days of the so-called New Atheism, like that of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, is undeniably over, partly also because of the sexist and Islamophobic turn it took, but atheism as a life orientation is here to stay, particular among those with university education.
Yet, I believe there is something deeply mistaken about how we debate atheism in the public realm. If you watch or attend an average public conversation on religion and atheism, you’ll probably witness an exchange of detailed arguments for and against the existence of God. The theist usually argues that there are solid considerations for God’s existence and that the atheist’s arguments leave room for doubt, while the atheist believes the arguments against God’s existence are much stronger. At the end of the debate, the theist usually goes home convinced that the atheist’s arguments do not hold water and that they can be discarded, while the atheist will usually do the exact opposite. Since this is so widespread, I have long accepted this as normal and natural. I now believe this misses out on two crucial things.
First, many people believe most of the important things they believe not on the basis of arguments. An average Christian or Muslim won’t believe in God because of Anselm’s ontological argument, William Lane Craig’s cosmological argument, Francis Collins’ fine-tuning argument, or anything along those lines. They tend to believe in God because of how they experience life, because they are convinced by the testimony of holy scriptures, because they feel they belong to a tradition, because they had religious and mystical experiences, and the like. They may know an argument or two, but those are at most supportive of their faith, those arguments don’t constitute the basis. In fact, there is nothing exceptional about faith in God in this regard: most of our beliefs in major things are not based on arguments. We believe in democracy, in the equality of men and women, in the value of freedom, in moral reality, and much more, but arguments are only tangential to that. The chances of us changing our minds on them if we bump into strong arguments to the contrary are low, very low indeed.
But if that holds for all the major things we believe in, why would atheism be any different? Why treat the view that no gods exist as the one big exception, as if the atheist is the rarest of all humans, driven purely by arguments? Some atheists may present themselves that way, but we are likely to miss out on crucial motivations for atheism if we take the ‘arguments-only-story’ for granted. Maybe somewhat like many have been lured into thinking that the Enlightenment stood out from previous eras by being the Age of Reason, a story that the Enlightenment liked to spread about itself, misrepresenting previous times (the crucial role of logic in Medieval Scholastics, for instance) and hiding from view that its Reason was primarily technical reason, seeking to control and manipulate the world—the consequences of which we now oversee much better.
So, what motivates atheists apart from an argument here or there? Rather than speculating about that, I had a careful look at various biographies and biographical essays that atheists wrote. Some atheists are remarkably upfront about how they are also motivated by things that have nothing to do with arguments. Take what Thomas Nagel writes:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
A desire and hope that there is no God is a crucial motivation for Nagel to be an atheist. Others are usually less upfront, but a study that I did on atheistic auto-biographies revealed that between the lines they honestly explain what they are motivated by: the ideal to think independently of any religious system or doctrine, the admiration of certain thinkers that happen to be atheist, moral repugnance at religious texts and communities, traumatic experiences, and a skeptical attitude towards any claim in general. As long as atheism is driven by such motivations, discussing arguments for and against God’s existence won’t make much of a difference. In the same way as most religious people are driven by experiences and intuitions of various kinds, atheists are driven by other kinds of experiences and intuitions. We need to have the courage and honesty to put those center stage in our debates and conversations on the God question. And, of course, we also need to fairly assess whether those motivations are actually good reasons to be a religious believer or to be an atheist.
The second big misunderstanding in the God debate, as I see it, is that if arguments against God’s existence or against having faith in God are not convincing, they are thereby worthless. I disagree. Many of these arguments show how untenable particular conceptions of faith or particular ideas about God are. They can rightly be considered a purification of faith and can be instrumental in showing where various fundamentalist movements go wrong. Take the argument that if God existed, alleged revelation in holy scriptures would look rather different. This is what Sam Harris says about it:
But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as “In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers—the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus—and this system shall be called the Internet.” The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.
I’m not particularly troubled by this. But I do believe there is great value in this observation: apparently, the primary purpose of divine revelation is not to reveal various historical or scientific facts about the world that we could not have known otherwise. Hence, books like the Bible should not be read that way, contrary to what some religious fundamentalists do, as if the Bible contains detailed natural scientific statements about how the universe came about, hidden and at the time unknowable insights about hygiene and medicine, prophecies about political developments in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the like. Divine revelation – and this chimes well with what the main religious traditions have been saying – is about God revealing himself to humankind (who he is, what he seeks for us) and revealing the state of humanity to humans themselves (that we need salvation and how it can be obtained). Or take the various well-known arguments from evil. If the primary purpose of God was to make humans as happy as possible, then we wouldn’t live in a world full of pain and suffering. Thus, contrary to what friends of the so-called Prosperity Gospel believe in, saying that if one’s faith in God is great enough he will inevitably bless you with wealth and well-being, God apparently has different purposes for us. Purposes such as forming our characters in such a way as to become better human beings, maybe to seek God amidst pain and suffering, to help and support each other, maybe even for God to share our harsh earthly existence in the person of Jesus Christ at some point, as the Christian tradition would say.
Religious believers and atheists, then, have much more in common than is often thought: they are both deeply motivated by a whole host of things that aren’t remotely like arguments, and they can both learn tremendously from arguments that atheists have leveled against God and against religious faith. If we can change the God debate along these two lines, we will all gain from that.