Damon Linker, in his article “How to be an honest atheist”, makes a few false assumptions about atheism and atheists. This is not surprising coming from those who are not themselves atheists.
He starts off by saying that atheists claim that godlessness “is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings.” He’s using quotation marks, but doesn’t say who the quote is from; maybe from a comment left on his column? But whoever he’s quoting is wrong; atheism does not make any positive statements other than that of personal belief. Atheism makes no claims of God’s existence or not, or any claims about anything else. If a person claims that god is not real, he may very well be an atheist, in that he doesn’t believe in god, but the claim itself is a Gnostic claim. The person is making a knowledge claim, not a belief claim.
In his article that precedes the one referenced above, he claims that ‘atheism is “utterly tragic” — and that the denial of this tragedy amounted to little more than “sentimental, superficial happy talk.”’ That is simply not the case, and a visit to any meeting of atheists would dispel that notion immediately.
However, he doesn’t seem to consider that a group of believers, when discussing the after-life, make a heck of a lot more “happy talk” than any group of atheists; and that happy talk is based on stories that have preposterous claims of miracles, resurrections, heaven and eternal life. That, combined with the fact that many live their lives as serfs to religious leaders that demand their money, time and efforts, all the while accepting delusions which are unverified and unverifiable, cannot have a good outcome; no matter how much “purpose” it gives them.
He claims that existentialism is the preferred state of belief over atheism and that we atheists should all switch over. However, I fail to see why he thinks it is mutually exclusive with atheism. Existentialism doesn’t mention a belief in god at all.
Webster defines existentialism as: “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad”
There is nothing in existentialism that prevents atheists from adopting it, indeed many have. What the author fails to recognize (and, indeed, many others as well) is that atheism signifies nothing more than one answer to one question: “Do you believe in god(s)”. If you answer yes, you’re a theist, if you answer anything else, then you don’t have a belief in god(s) and you’re an atheist.
Atheists come in every philosophical color of the rainbow. Buddhists don’t believe that Buddha is a god, therefore they are atheists. Taoists and Confucians don’t believe in gods, so they are atheists. The Samkhya and Mimamsa Schools of Hinduism are atheistic. Jainism is Atheistic. Many cultural Jews are atheists and there is even a group called Atheists for Christ, who don’t believe in god but do follow the liberal teachings of Jesus.
I would say that most American and European atheist are, by this definition, existential atheists, i.e. they concur that people are “individuals who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad”. Indeed, they accept much more responsibility over their lives than do most of the believers of the world who abdicate their will, their fortunes and, in some cases, even their very lives to the Church or the Mosque.
Damon references many philosophers and playwrights to make his case. However all of the examples he shares, including Camus, seemed to be fixated on the self; their search for meaning never seems to include the larger picture; i.e. the betterment of the human condition.
The only philosophical respite available to these bleak examples is represented by Eugene O’Neil when he gets a glimpse of “a deeper sense of meaning than his atheism usually allows” when he has “a handful of spiritual experiences” that are “without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man. To life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way.” Would Damon have us toss out reality and base our lives on spiritual experiences simply for a sense of meaning? Would he have us all using LSD or eating mushrooms? Should we visit our nearest Guru? And even then, he would have us abdicate our own life purpose for that given to us by the guru.
I would say, as an atheist, it’s perfectly fine to have something greater than your own life to live for. There are a great many things to live for; real, rewarding things that can do actual good in your life and in the lives of those around you.
Most of us already live for ourselves and our families. But go farther; live for community and camaraderie with your fellow man. Live for humanity and the next generation. Live for the legacy of human knowledge that you might be able to add to. Live for passing on hard-won skills. Live for Art. Live for Science. But don’t tie your very existence to an ethereal realm which, in the end, may not be there where the time comes to examine it closely. And don’t give your right to a self-determined purpose to others who want to pick one for you; especially when doing so will benefit them more than you; or humanity.
As well and good as existentialism is, it does not have to be our sole philosophy. I propose that we add humanism to our living philosophies. The Oxford dictionary defines humanism as: “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. (You can read more about Humanism here.)
Where Damon sees atheism as “utterly tragic”, I couldn’t disagree more. Living a life full of goodness, action and wonder does not require an ethereal veil; indeed that veil would have us base our endeavors on mysticism. Rather, live and work for the betterment of humanity. We know it’s real, and it needs all the help we can muster. Take full responsibility for your own life and actions for the benefit of all mankind. Choose your field, choose your medium, but there is no better calling that a life spent working with your fellow man, for a better future for all of us.