Atheism Redux

A cold, misty Saturday in Maryland ten years ago witnessed the start of a new chapter in my journey as an atheist. A birthday of sorts, though I didn’t consider it so at the time. But it also marked the beginning of the end for me as a wannabe member of the atheist movement.

Ellen Johnson, a former president of American Atheists, posted a video (transcript) that day. In it, she urged atheists to vote their values on election day 2008. Specifically, the secular value of a stable separation between church and state. Citing John F. Kennedy’s famous address to Protestant ministers in 1960, in which he expressed his belief in “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” she called on atheists to vote as a bloc for a candidate whose stated values aligned best with their vision of a safely secular union.

Far be it from me to disparage attempts to promote political engagement, or descend into useless pedantry over specific aspects of her speech. But rather than feeling encouraged, I came away perplexed. At the end of the video, she adjured us to “vote our atheism” during the election. But what, in the name of all heresy and impiety, did it mean to “vote [my] atheism”?

Is secularism a value rooted in atheism? Reason? Freedom? Science? Are any values derivative of, or grounded in, atheism? I wasn’t aware of any.

Up to this point, I considered myself an enthusiastic aspirant in the atheist movement. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens figured very prominently in my book collection, as did Dennett, Onfray, and others. And despite being an otherwise anonymous figure in atheist circles, I participated in and organized reasonably well-attended (I thought) Meetup groups for non-theists where I lived, and wrote intermittently in support of my views. But by 2009, though I continued participating in and organizing groups, even starting a new one in early 2012, I lost interest in putting fingers to keyboard as a proponent of atheism.

Atheists have values like anyone else, of course. Most of us will gladly talk about them, if asked. And just like everyone else we vote according to our values. But that video insinuated a new and disconcerting train of thought into my barely adequate brain. I began thinking about the foundations of atheism. In what sense and to what degree can it inform my values, my sense of meaning, or of purpose?

A perfectly sensible answer is to say it can’t, or doesn’t. Atheism offers no theory of values, meaning, or purpose. It’s only a label for one perspective on the existence of gods, opposite theism. Hence, it’s a mistake to look to atheism for the grounding of values and so forth. And I agree.

Also, from a practical standpoint, the basis of a person’s values, etc. rarely matters to us. Most of us just expect our neighbor’s values to mesh well enough with ours to live peaceably. Behavior, not belief, matters more. Again, I agree.

So why the perplexity? If my behavior sufficiently justifies my convictions, why concern myself with apologia? Three primary reasons. First, because beliefs influence behavior. This is well-known, and validates critiquing beliefs of all sorts. Second, I value self-knowledge. It seems self-evident, but in my experience, those who lack it wallow in incoherence. Third, I value integrity. If I’m unwilling to look candidly at my own ideas and beliefs, or speak openly about their imperfections, I compromise myself.

Returning to the path leading me away from movement atheism, a series of subsequent controversies convinced me of the need for reflection. Most of these superficially involved sharp differences of opinion regarding the aim and scope of the movement. I won’t recount them here. Suffice it to say interested readers can find the details easily enough online. In any event, as these disputes played out, deep divisions involving certain core beliefs about atheism and its potential emerged, seeming to lay at the heart of at least some of them. For example, how far, if at all, does (or can) atheism extend beyond individual notions about the existence of gods? One faction supported a definitional model in which atheism only applied to one question. Another supported an extensible model in which atheism could imply or sustain a set of values. Who is right? More to the point, what can atheists rely on to determine which position to take? Reason? Science? Intuition?

As the aforementioned controversies unfolded and became increasingly polarized, few elected to take up these questions. Some sought a middle ground; a position accounting for legitimate concerns raised by disputants of each camp, proposing explanations and resolutions, and seeking a way forward regardless of who came out on top. Others chose disengagement (my choice), retreating from the drama and pursuing other interests. Time passed, and eventually the conflict dissipated. In the meantime, I moved, left the groups I involved myself with, and spent some of my free time digging into philosophy, looking for insights with which I might formulate a more comprehensive system of beliefs.

My father once told me he thought questions were more interesting than answers. I found this to be the case as I mined the works of Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, and others. The questions arising first in my mind a decade ago remain at the forefront, and I’ve expanded and refined the list of questions considerably. So far, they remain unanswered, but I think I’ve gleaned enough from my informal studies to begin sketching a baseline; a tentative starting point for building a workable model by which to fill in some of the blanks and connect some of the dots. Hence this return to blogging about atheism, among other things.

I’m a writer at heart. Even as I abandoned atheism as a subject years ago, I continued to find ways to work out issues and express my thoughts & feelings in writing. Furthermore, I’m well aware of my limitations. I don’t believe it’s possible for me to answer those lingering questions on my own. Without open expression and the opportunity to engage with honest criticisms, the questions and answers may as well be dead on the vine.

So, my goal for this blog is to begin a conversation, to borrow an overused and sloppy refrain. My sincere wish is to learn from anyone who happens by and chooses to engage with the thoughts I plan to express here. Because I’m a writer, along the way I plan to post stories, some of which may be illustrations. In any case, please share your thoughts. Together, we might get to the bottom of things.

Image credit: Evan Dennis