Varieties of Atheism # 6 – Atheism and the Good of Humanity

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to University of Chicago Press for granting me a review copy. — David Hume (left) and Richard Rorty

The second chapter in Varieties of Atheism was, for me, a thought-provoker. It touches on the fundamentals of “How do we know?” and why we cannot justifiably sink into a self-centred “Why should I care about anyone else if there is no God?” approach to life. The author, Andre C. Willis, in the chapter titled “Atheism and Society”, examines these questions through a discussion of two philosophers, the Enlightenment era’s David Hume and the Postmodernist Richard Rorty.

Willis opens with a challenge that made me question if I was going to enjoy the rest of his chapter:

Public disputes between those who hold the idea that God exists and those who reject this idea are often fanned on one side by hostility for the Abrahamic traditions and fueled on the other side by animus for skepticism. This is why these polemical and often performative debates between so-called theists and so-called atheists often strike me as disingenuous; they masquerade as serious intellectual argument as a way to conceal low-grade animus.

I may have once had some level of hostility towards “Abrahamic traditions” but did I not have some justification for that hostility, and did those feelings negate my reasoning about them, or the question of God’s existence? Might not a certain level of animus sometimes be a product of concern for a greater good?

A little later Willis throws out another challenge, drawing on the words of Denys Turner in “How to be an Atheist”:

The hubris of a confident theism that knows “all too well what [it] is affirming when [it] says ‘God exists’” is the “mirror image” of a bold atheism that “know (s) all too well what it [is] denying when [it] says ‘God does not exist.’”

Turner goes on to explain:

For both the affirmer and the denier are complicit in a sort of cosy and mutually reassuring idolatrous domesticity: in short, they keep each other in a job.

Are the grounds for each position the same? If not, can the atheist in that exchange really be a “mirror image” of the theist? Maybe Turner has in mind an atheist I am not so familiar with. I’d rather explore new and old ideas than hang around to argue such a point ….

…. like exploring once more the thoughts of Hume and Rorty, and understanding where I fit between the philosophical systems each of those names represents.

One thing I have discovered through my own reflections on life and beliefs since leaving religion behind is that I have independently made myself part of a larger “community” of nonbelievers who share similar ideas and fundamental values. So often I find myself inwardly smiling in recognition at hearing others espousing outlooks about life and humanity that it took me years to learn for myself. There is something in common binding us and I do “wonder” a little, but unlike Willis I draw back from suggesting that this “wonder” over “something” should have a religious or theistic dimension.

Certainly it is true that reason alone is not enough to explain “life” or persuade anyone to disbelieve in God:

The conventional pillars of the Western philosophical enterprise — rational certainty, formal argumen­tation, and ethical persuasion — which, to them [Hume and Rorty], had proved insufficient tools to combat idolatry. They recognized that literature (especially Rorty’s notion of philosophy as poetics), captivating narratives (especially Rorty’s idea of redescription as a literary practice), multivocality (Hume’s numer­ous dialogues), and close attention to literary form (especially Hume’s es­says, philosophical treatises, political arguments, historical writings, and letters) were just as important as, if not more important than, the formal philosophical grammars of metaphysics and epistemology, particularly when it came to contending with belief in deities and embracing tenets of a religious tradition.

Another echo from my early days exploring a world without god: I used to say, when pushed, that I believe in poetry. Not quite sure why but I think what I was trying to say was that we resort to metaphors to convey certain experiences. That’s not spiritual but, I think, something wired into our cranial circuits. Such a “reductionist” explanation doesn’t rob it of meaning, though.

Hume worked through the logic of the arguments to conclude that there can be no reason to believe in God. Rorty concluded that all our knowledge and understanding is bound up in our language, the words and concepts we use, and we cannot go beyond those words and we may doubt that we can justify our set of words over another person’s set of words.

Like Rorty’s liberal ironist, who has continuing doubts about her final vocabulary, Hume’s moderate skeptic is “diffident of his philosophical doubts, as well as of his philosophical convictions” . . . The similarities here are glaring.

The rationale might be different but the end result is the same – humility.

I have avoided repeating (or even explaining) here Willis’s explanations of the grounds of Hume’s and Rorty’s reasoning in the hope that interested readers will grasp some partial but sufficient sense of what each is about. Both believe in some kind of action that takes us beyond mere words or logic.

There are at least three resonances between Hume’s “easy philosophy” and the approach of Rorty’s liberal ironist that are worth noting. First, Hume says that it “bor­rows all helps from poetry.” Recall . . . Rorty’s . . . . philosophy as a form of poetry. Second, similar to the affective strengths of the Rortyan ironist, Hume’s “easy philosophy” appeals to our feelings and sentiments, not reason alone. And third, Hume’s easy philosophy understands hu­mans as “born for action” in ways that the ironist is driven to the action of redescription.

As a lay outsider I find it surprising and encouraging to see some common ground between Enlightenment and Postmodernist thinking. Or rather than “thinking” should that be “feeling”? We are animals, after all, and we have feelings before we are able to “think” in any formal logical sense.

Rorty’s “urging” for a human solidarity that cannot be justified via any “philosophical presuppositions” aims, ultimately, to function as a way to link suffering human agents. To recognize our “similarities with respect to pain and humiliation” . . . is, for Rorty, to create togetherness across vari­ous divisions and to generate connections where it feels unnatural to do so. To my ear, this way of thinking about generating connections carries a religious residue, has a teleological dimension, and relies on, in some ways, something like a quasi-theological — or at least not-fully-comprehensible – power.

I hesitate once again. Maybe it’s a matter of definition. But does not the word “theological” (even if modified with “quasi”) throw in an unnecessary factor? Why not simply call it poetical? Does not our depth of experience and wonder prompt us to call upon metaphors? Is that not enough? Is that not enough to justify a communication with a theologian?

We are all the same, however different. We all have a natural investment in the good of “us”.

Newheiser, David, ed. The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022.

Turner, Denys. “How to Be an Atheist.” New Blackfriars 83, no. 977/978 (2002): 317–35.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Varieties of Atheism # 6 – Atheism and the Good of Humanity”

  1. The imaginary debate between “belief” and “nonbelief” is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian epistemology, and seemingly cannot take place without mistrust and hostility. A “serious debate” cannot occur without open minds on both sides of it, and the deepest assumptions or premises of the people on either side of the referenced divide are so widely at variance that meaningful communication between them is almost impossible. When someone says to me, “I believe in God,” I usually simply walk away; but if I were to engage such a person in “debate,” my first question to them would be, “What do you mean by that?” The resulting conversation would either end immediately, or it would take forever to complete.

    For that reason, I have long since stopped asking myself whether I believe this or that idea with religious connotations (“God”), and instead ask what I can know that is true, and how I can know it to be true. The British empiricists, and particularly Hume, come closest to what seems to me the best method for determining both questions. You can see, therefore, why this post intrigues me. What interests me most of all is the discussion of “poetry,” the reference to “mere words,” and the final line about the significance of “us.”

    I read this post with a sense of irony, because I find that the empiricist who follows his or her experiential observations as far as they can go may find that the conclusions reached are strangely similar, in some few respects, to religious ideas. For example, the idea that there is no death, because death, by definition and observation, is the absence of experience; therefore, while we can experience dying, we cannot experience death. Christians and some other religious people typically deny death, but their denial of death is tied to the perpetuation of their individual egos, whereas experience tells us that we can experience the death of others as an absence or as the observation of a dead body, which then disintegrates. It is our own death that cannot be experienced.

    Alan Watts says that Jesus was simply experiencing the Oneness of life, an idea which occurs in other religions also, and that his unique position as a salvific figure is a misconstrual of his teachings. The empiricist can also reach an observation of this oneness, and that’s how I understand the last line of this post. As for “mere words and logic,” I think we should allow that logic is more limited than “mere words,” and that’s where poetry comes in, not that poetry has all the answers, because it doesn’t, and nothing does.

  2. “…exploring a world without god: I used to say, when pushed, that I believe in poetry.”

    Art has replaced religion for me too. The sense of peace and beauty, and communion with transcendent ideas that can be shared by everyone regardless of background. One needn’t believe in the literal truth of particular myths in order to be committed to that universe of ideas.

  3. Such cynicism! “They keep each other in a job.” Talk about false equivalences. Christian apologists often make considerable sums doing their “job.” I don’t see the same position being held by any atheists. (Yes, some atheists make monet off of books and whatnot, but the “don’t give up your day job” is in play.)

    And to pose a debate between one who “believes a god exists” and one who “does not believe a god exists” is a wrong posing. When I tell theists I am an unbeliever, I tell them it is them I do not believe. I find their arguments for the existence of a god very, very weak. So, I do not believe their claims. As to not believing in their god, I ask them to have their god contact me so we can discuss it. So far, no one has taken me up on that request.

  4. Hume (along with his contemporaries) is influential in my discipline for building a relativistic epistemology out of human works and physiology without need for religion. “Poetic” for me bundles all that into one adjective, though an ongoing debate over what constituted “taste” was the vogue term in Hume’s circle. How do we know what we know? The touchstones: we study history, we consult experts, and we note what ideas and values tend to endure and what do not, all without certain knowledge of the future.

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