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May 05, 2007

The Wages of Atheism

I've never said this before, and never will again, but I'm with Karl Rove. I deeply envy individuals of faith, and would happily bargain away whatever satisfaction I supposedly derive from my bold freethinking for a sense of serenity, a perceived connection to a more permanent and grounding plane, and a steadying faith in the continuation of my consciousness. I know many atheists and even agnostics who seem to extract great pleasure from their worldview and its implications, but I'm manifestly not one of them.

May 5, 2007 in Religion | Permalink


I really just don't get religion. I used to feel a lot like you do, but then I realized that there's really no point in being afraid of dying and just stopping - not a lot I can do about it. I'm not afraid I'm going to go to Hell. What I am glad about is that I derive my sense of ethics from the world I see around me, and a sense of duty to help the people around me to be happier and healthier. I'm not tempted to ignore suffering because God works in mysterious ways or is testing someone. It's reassuring to know that my standards of goodness are at least evidence-based, even if I end up making the wrong determinations about what is good from time to time.

Posted by: Sara | May 5, 2007 2:43:56 AM

I feel much the same way, Ezra. That is, I feel the draw of faith, and I think it's irrational that I (it seems) am wired to prefer my brand of rationality to the rationality I see in faith. If that makes sense. I don't think it's a good trade, but it's who I am.

Sara, your ethics, and a lot associated with them, owe more to faith than you probably suspect. I can't speak for others, but it's not primarily fear of dying that gives religious faith its appeal to me. It's love of living, and of those we live with, the things we value, and the highest things we feel.

Bladerunner just ended on TV, not a bad frame for this, in its way.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 5, 2007 5:10:37 AM

Are you sure you're not just envying a genetic predisposition towards low anxiety levels or a predisposition towards social conformity rather than faith itself? Or possibly just low intelligence?

Posted by: Ronald Brak | May 5, 2007 6:00:04 AM

Or possibly just low intelligence?

I wish atheists were smarter than this.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 5, 2007 6:42:07 AM

Y'know, a non-trivial number of believers don't get anything like simple serenity from their faith. Experiences that people find make most sense interpreted as encounters with the numinous are often scary, weird, and troubling. Jonah tried to run as far from an assigned mission as he could, and went through a lot of misery, and didn't have fun when he finally did surrender and fulfill his calling. Jesus shouted in agony at his crucifixion and died without any obvious answers coming in, and his disciples ended up martyred. Philip Dick was unusually articulate about his years of struggle to make sense of his experiences in early 1974, but in the years I was active in one church or another, I ran into quite a few members who were going through something very similar with a less elaborate verbal apparatus.

For that matter, thoroughly flaunted religiosity of the evangelical or fundamentalist style seems not to bring much comfort to many of the most prominent flaunters, from Aimee Semple Macpherson to Ted Haggard.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | May 5, 2007 7:06:18 AM

most of the popular religions on offer today are wish-fulfillment fantasies.

So, *of course* it would be nice if the world had the wish-fulfilling entities that they offer.

Cuddly Jesus and All-Knowing Daddy and even Donna Reed Mommy if you swing Roman. Sure, cool, don't we all wish there were super-heroes coming to our emotional rescue.

Thing is--that doesn't show much about the nature of religious vs. non-religious outlooks. Because religions have generally not been as benign, over the course of the millennia, as Cuddly Jesus Worship has been in the last few decades.

I mean--if Ezra were surrounded by Baal worshipers, I think he'd be less likely to envy individuals of faith. Serenity, joy, and a peaceful easy feeling were not on the menu. Dead babies were.

It's just that the current state of religion in the US offers us deities that are vast improvements over most of the deities available to earlier generations. They have been softened, humanized, secularized, and market-tested. They say reassuring things, like giant talking hug-me dolls. Jesus loves you.

Want to know if faith is really preferable to rationality? Try on a few of the more demanding faiths first.

Hell, even the faith of our colonial nut-job forefathers was no picnic. Start playing the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and you'd empty out a mega-church faster than a fire-drill.

Posted by: lister | May 5, 2007 7:07:48 AM

Ezra, have you ever listened to Julia Sweeney's [sp?] "Letting go of God"? Or read "The God Delusion"? Just curious.

Most religious people I know don't seem to have any more peace than I do.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 | May 5, 2007 7:51:44 AM

It's hard to accept the truth. It's kind of troubling to see someone who, having glimpsed the real world, would prefer it if he could pull the wool back over his own eyes, but people are fundamentally weak and I suppose that's to be expected.

Me, I wouldn't trade an uncomfortable truth for a convenient lie. I've never seen religion buy anyone peace. I've never seen it spur anyone on to help others. Most often, I see people using it as an excuse to feel superior to other people.

Posted by: soullite | May 5, 2007 8:20:44 AM

Rove's and Ezra's comments seem to me to oppose each other. Rove's is a sort of fetish for all things religious while Ezra's is a recognition that an Atheist cannot simply offload responsibility in a prayer nor fear in a faith.

Always remember Rove only says/does things that support his agenda.

Posted by: Fr33d0m | May 5, 2007 8:58:34 AM

As a believer, I envy much about being an atheist. I try to be a good person, and I do succeed to a large extent. In fact, on many dimensions of character, I am as good or better than most people. If I were an atheist, that would be enough to get by, and I wouldn't worry so much about the aspects of my character that are flawed. Moreover, there wouldn't be the constant call to do more for the less fortunate and stand up for justice. Certainly there would be pressure, but as before, I could reach some level and call it "good enough". But the moral standard for a Christian isn't "most people", it's Jesus, so there never is a good enough.

Posted by: Greg | May 5, 2007 9:04:36 AM

a little less ignorance from both sides, shall we?

about theism: "I've never seen it spur anyone on to help others."

wrong. Beliefs get people to do all sorts of things. Sometimes, people's religious beliefs get them to help others. As a matter of sociology, this is about as undeniable as "sometimes advertising influences people's shopping behavior". There are a ton of religious people--Mormons, Jesuits, Salvation Army, Quaker, on and on--whose religious beliefs spur them on to help others. If you haven't met any personally, try reading a book.

about atheism: "If I were an atheist...there wouldn't be the constant call to do more for the less fortunate and stand up for justice."

wrong. Lots of atheists stand up for justice, and lots of atheists have ethical codes that are maximally stringent. If you make ending poverty and suffering your life's work, then you're going to be working for your whole life. Jesus may set one sort of unattainable ideal, but there are lots of other unattainable ideals you can set for yourself.

And as to calling it "good enough"--how complacent or how tormented you feel by your failure to live up to your ideals is a completely different question from where your ideals come from.

You can set out to conquer world poverty, help a few people here and there, and then react either way--complacent satisfaction or agonized awareness of the millions unhelped.

You can set Jesus as your ideal and feel anguish at your manifold imperfections. Or you can be a complacent fuck driving your SUV with a bumper sticker saying "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven."

So, look: there's probably no way to carry on this post without a lot of cheap sociology going on. But maybe just avoid the obviously stupid claims?

Posted by: ayee | May 5, 2007 9:27:42 AM

I don't envy "people of faith" because I've yet to meet one who wasn't, under the surface, faithless and looking for someone or something to fill the void.

And, by the way, this is a wholly christian centered view of what "faith" would look like. Hinduism doesn't presuppose that faith in gods means faith that good things will happen, or that its all meant for the best, or any of the other crap christianity and, toa certain extent, islam and judaism peddle. And as far as I know neither did the roman or greek pantheons. As I posted elsewhere it was more like "pay for play" with many religious systems.

Having "faith" is a meaningless construct unless you detail what the "beliver" believes in. A manichean world view, for example, which many christians *actually* posesses though they try to cover it up, really doesn't offer much comfort.

And, of course, I agree with ayee that the claims being advanced for atheists and their moral stances are simply bogus--part of the manicheanism I was alluding to myself. It is not the case that because "believers" believe X that "atheists don't believe x" or that because believers think they do y then atheists, in order to be atheists, must do "Not y." On the contrary. I'd be much more comfortable asserting that most christian believers utterly fail to live up to the moral contract that their belief in a christian god demands but that has nothing to do with whether atheists do or don't have a moral compass. What I believe, and how I act as an atheist, has literally nothing to do with what my christian sister in law is mumbling in church tomorrow. But I'll put my good works up against hers any day.


Posted by: aimai | May 5, 2007 9:35:13 AM

At the GOP debate, I think it was Huckabee that said something like "atheists don't believe anything". Talk about prejudicial phrasing!

Posted by: Mark | May 5, 2007 10:09:23 AM

right, whereas theists *will* believe anything.

Posted by: buh duh | May 5, 2007 10:16:17 AM

I won't attempt to understand, on a fundamental level, what it is that truly religious people get from their faith. I know what they say. I know what they do. And from those observations I would suggest that a drug habit involving something fairly non-addicitive would probably fill the same bill.

If you want things that do not exist, you can wish for them. Some call it prayer.

If you want peace knowing you're always right and guided by a force greater than you...that one is tougher but as I suggested above, perhaps some drugs would give you the same feeling.

And while this sounds like 180 proof snark, it's not. It's just a statement recognizing that ponies don't magically appear even though we wish they would. And those same ponies don't free you from the responsibility of making decisions that affect your life and the lives of others. In a sense, religion is the desire to be someone's puppy. You want to be cute. You want to be ruled over by someone who will always love you, always tell you what to do and when you shit on the floor, they'll swat you lightly with a newspaper and all will be forgiven. Problem is, life here on Earth doesn't work that way. I didn't arrange it but that's the way it is.

Posted by: ice weasel | May 5, 2007 10:20:40 AM

As an atheist I derive great satisfaction from the fact that American fundamentalists still admire GWB whose actions directly caused deaths of so many people and created misery for so many others. If he can be accepted so readily as a person of faith, the whole concept of God and religion is clearly a sham.

You do not become a good person just by closing your eys to fake sincerity as all major religions of the world tell you to do.

Posted by: gregor | May 5, 2007 10:36:09 AM

I wonder if "envy" is the right word. Children, believing in Santa Claus as they do, experience Christmas in a way that is forever closed to me. But is it right to say that I envy them? I certainly don't wish I believed in Santa Claus. I wouldn't choose to believe in Santa Claus if given the choice. What I want is a way to express the idea that children genuinely find Christmas more exciting than I do, yet for all that, I don't desire to be like them in this regard. Is "envy" the right word?

Posted by: Nate W. | May 5, 2007 10:38:49 AM

yeah, good point Nate W.

the children's feeling looks desirable.
the children's state of ignorance is not desirable.

could you have the feeling without the ignorance? only if there really were a santa clause, and you knew it.

that would be an enviable state, full stop:
if the world were such that those feelings were a natural response to our clear-eyed knowledge of the world.

so, if there's a possible world in which there is a santa, and in which the children know that there is a santa, and in which the children feel about that real, non-delusory santa the way that actual children feel about the santa-delusion here,
then i envy those children.

getting suckered by montgomery wards marketing myths? not so enviable.

Posted by: iphonely | May 5, 2007 10:48:18 AM

Most who posted in this thread seem to be athiests. Most who post on this board are pretty far to the left. Would it be fair to make a correlation between the far left and atheism?

Since most of you athiests seem to think that religion simply fills a human flaw, are athiests really immune, or have they substituted something else to fill that flaw?

I seems to me that those on the far left use certain causes and treat them as their religion. Global warming would be a good example.

Here is an interesting article on this very subject.


Posted by: Fred Jones | May 5, 2007 10:55:26 AM

The more stringent of the comments here seem to take a more narrow view of the benefits one derives from religion than does Ezra's post. His phrase "a perceived connection to a more permanent and grounding plane" strikes me as less connected to eternal life and / or salvation through prayer or whatever than it is with the notion that there is something underlying and unifying our being. For all my dislike of organized religion, that's an idea that doesn't bother me in the least.

That said, as a non-religious person who does believe in God -- though, and this will sound paradoxical as all truly honest religious thought is, I'm not sure that man didn't invent God, but I don't think that invalidates his existence -- I certainly don't get any sort of great comfort from that mere belief in existence. And I do tend to take a humanist approach to most things, and those things for which humanism holds no answers I'm willing to consider open questions rather than settled by the text of an old book written by fallible mortals.

Actually, it's the dialetheias (a type of paradox) of it all that I think are so interesting and, in their way, add strength to religion rather than detract from it. (Examining paradoxical notions was also my favorite thing about being a philosophy major, so I suppose I'm predisposed to accepting their possible truth than most.) And the fact that it doesn't fit into the overly-neat version of logic that underlay western thought from Aristotle until Nietzsche blew it up (oh irony!) has never struck me as a reason to reject it. I usually do, but not for that reason.

But the thing I've always found attractive about religion isn't God per se; it's the community. Even though I don't get anything out of going to church, I know my mom does, so I go with her when I'm staying with my parents. I know it adds to the experience-of-community she has there, and all it takes is an hour of my time. That's a feeling I wish I could get out of it; I just don't. That's the only thing I envy.

Posted by: jhupp | May 5, 2007 11:07:56 AM

fred, it's a good mark of how deluded you are, that you think that most of Ezra's readers are "pretty far to the left".

I'm just an ordinary, middle-aged, buttoned down, married guy with two kids. I support Social Security and greater income equality and universal health-care, I think the Iraq War was a disaster and I disapprove of Bush's performance.

In other words, I'm right in the middle of the American public.

It's losers like you, Bushist dead-enders pimping for the Permanent Republican Majority, who are way, way out of the mainstream.

The fact that I don't believe in any gods probably makes me part a minority in the US. The fact that I *admit* to not believing in any gods *certainly* makes me a minority. (Much of the alleged religiosity in this country is just go-along-get-along conformism, not that there's anything wrong with that.)

If you claim to believe in gods, fred, then you agree with the majority of Americans on that one issue.

If you are still pushing your Bush-loving sycophancy, your Republicanism über alles partisanship, your Religious Right authoritarianism, and your global-warming denialism, then you are way, way, out of the mainstream.

In other words, a far right nutjob. But then we knew that about you.

Posted by: centrist atheist | May 5, 2007 11:08:57 AM

So, look: there's probably no way to carry on this post without a lot of cheap sociology going on. But maybe just avoid the obviously stupid claims?

What ayee said, the whole thing.

Threads about atheism and belief always devolve into a contest of atheism versus belief, but it does not need to be so.

I'm going to give Ezra, and Sanpete and others the benefit of the doubt and believe that they have met people with religious beliefs who are not deceived by "montgomery wards marketing myths," who do not think of prayer as wishing for ponies, who do not use their religious faith as a bludgeon or as a crutch to replace critical thinking.

That there are highly ethical, compassionate atheists is so obvious it should not need to be mentioned. But atheism should not be confused with inherent enlightenment. It may be for you, but there are many for whom it is merely a way to reject what they see as the negative impact of their parents or George Bush or some other thing, an ultimately ineffective way to deal with their psychological hurts.

The religious belief described in this comment thread would be unrecognizable even in many Southern Baptist churches. It's a caricature, developed most recently and fully by Dawkins and Harris, that serves to bolster their outrageous claims and unscientific conclusions, nothing more. Religious faith in America, especially Christianity, is in straits dire enough without having to resort to the intellectually deficient claims of Dawkins and Harris to find a case against it.

Posted by: Stephen | May 5, 2007 11:11:35 AM

"I deeply envy individuals of faith, and would happily bargain away whatever satisfaction I supposedly derive from my bold freethinking for a sense of serenity, a perceived connection to a more permanent and grounding plane, and a steadying faith in the continuation of my consciousness."

This makes no sense to me. It seems as if you are either being disingenuous or are not actually an atheist. How could you envy someone for their illusions? If you truly don't believe, you are saying you would rather be mistaken about something that will guide the course of your life.

Your statement is like saying that you would rather be married to someone who cheats on you and doesn't actually love you than remaining single.

Posted by: Josh Nelson | May 5, 2007 11:23:10 AM

Well, except for the centrist, married guy with two kids part, centrist atheist took everything I was going to say to Fred. The reason so many people think theists are stupid is because the most vocal and politically involved among them tend to be people who are simply uninterested in actually, you know, thinking about their religion. Instead, it's just a good opportunity for them to push anti-liberalism. Jebus, why would anyone want to be part of a religion like that?

Posted by: jhupp | May 5, 2007 11:25:38 AM

I suppose I envy the religious in their brighter moments. I like gospel music. But I'm pretty certain that were *I* religious it wouldn't bring me much comfort. Instead of living with the anxiety that death is the end, I'd live with the anxiety that death is *not* the end and I might be going to hell. I'd be anxious about whether I'd chosen the right religion, and the right sect of that religion. And so on ...

Posted by: Kevin B. O'Reilly | May 5, 2007 11:27:40 AM

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