How (Not) To Be An Atheist

It took Friedrich Nietzsche almost 40 years to lose his faith in God.

In 1844, he was born into a long line of Lutheran clergymen on both sides of his family. His father was a local pastor known for his religious strictness.

He hardly sold any books and lived in poverty. His brilliance was recognized posthumously and he became the most admired and influential moral philosopher of the last two centuries (i.e. since Immanuel Kant).

In 1882, he famously concluded that

“God is dead”.

Today, we misunderstand the attitude that Nietzsche was expressing with this statement. This misinterpretation reflects the mistaken ideas New Atheists have about religion.

As an atheist, I want to set the record straight.

“Overwhelmed by compassion”

Nietzsche’s life was not a pleasant one. His health problems gave him frequent, prolonged and intense pain.

He was also a highly sensitive soul, in a way that he feared would disable him:

“My greatest dangers lie in pity. I imagine the suffering of others as far greater than they really are. I only need to expose myself to the sight of some genuine distress, and I am lost.”

Nietzsche claimed that, if someone had full knowledge of the conscious lives of others, Nietzsche writes, he would “despair of the value of life”. If we were aware of the sufferings of others, we would be “overwhelmed by compassion”.

When Nietzsche, near the end of his life, collapsed into madness in a street in Turin, he was putting his arms around a cart horse to protect it from a further beating.

Sir Bernard Williams, the great British 20th-century philosopher, infers that Nietzsche had “a hypersensitivity to suffering”.

The real message behind “God is dead”

During ‘the long 18th century’ (1685–1815), the Enlightenment had brought about the triumph of scientific rationality and the rise of philosophical Naturalism. The ‘Age of Reason’ had dispensed with the existence of a Transcendent Being.

When Nietzsche, a few decades later, writes that God is dead, he means that Europeans are ceasing to believe that God exists, because the Enlightenment had “killed” the possibility of belief in a God.

Contrary to popular opinion, Nietzsche was greatly disturbed by his loss of belief in God. This death of God will lead, Nietzsche said, not only to the rejection of a cosmic order, but also to doubts concerning whether anything has value.

If we were created by God for some purpose, Nietzsche assumes, the meaning of our life would be given by the goal that God gave to us. But now we are losing our belief in God, and in what Nietzsche calls “a moral world order”.

This raises

“A terrifying question: Has existence any meaning at all?

We no longer know

“what this tremendous process was actually for … A new What for? — that is what mankind needs.

We shall otherwise “tip over into nihilism”, believing that nothing matters. Nietzsche approaches the problem of nihilism as a personal one, stating that this problem of the modern world is a problem that has “become conscious” in him.

Without a new ‘what for’, the point of life is not clear. When we cease to be Christians

“For a while we don’t know which way to turn. We rush headlong in the opposite valuations.”

Nietzsche was deeply troubled by this:

“There now seems to be no meaning at all in existence, everything seems to be in vain”.

When Nietzsche concluded that we were not created for some purpose by God, he feared that our lives are meaningless, and have no value.

We associate Nietzsche with nihilism, but what he was actually trying to do was save us from the loss of meaning that came with the decline of religion.

Nietzsche’s declaration sounds pretty not-nice towards God, but he didn’t mean it like that.

“God is dead” and now “everything seems to be in vain”. There can only be one conclusion: Nietzsche’s statement is not an exclamation of victory — it’s an outcry of despair.


What’s wrong with ‘New Atheism’

Understanding Nietzsche helps us to see that contemporary New Atheism — championed by people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — is wrong about what it means to believe.

According to New Atheism, firstly, God is not needed to understand reality. Secondly, religious sacred texts often contain dubious moral commandments. Therefore, we should not tolerate, but criticize religion.

These atheist critiques are shallow. They present a misleading picture of religious belief.

In The Meaning of Belief, philosopher Tim Crane argues that this cosmology plus-morality picture of religion is inadequate, and that its persistence frustrates the proper understanding of the phenomenon of religion and religious belief.

It’s simply not true that all of the principles of religion fit into this cosmology-plus-morality model. Consider the Five Pillars of Islam:

Only one of them expresses a cosmological belief: there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. The others are about how a Muslim should behave: pray five times a day; give alms; fast in the period of Ramadan; and make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life. The injunctions to go on pilgrimage, to fast, and to pray are injunctions about how to live, in a broad sense, but they are not moral injunctions. Not every principle relating to how to live is a moral principle.”

Or consider the idea of a sacrament, an essential part of Roman Catholic doctrine. A sacrament is a manifestation of God’s grace in the world, where grace is defined in various ways; for example, in terms of the benevolence and mercy shown by God towards the human race.

“Some of these sacramental rites are performed in a believer’s life only once (baptism and confirmation being the uncontroversial examples) and some on a regular basis (confession and the Eucharist). But none of them have much to do with morality in the usual sense of that word. Nor are they, in any straightforward sense, mere expressions of cosmological belief.”

This shows that there’s more to religion than cosmological and moral tenets. It also involves doing.

“Being a believer essentially involves performing certain activities, either once in one’s life (baptism, confirmation, the hajj) or on a regular, repeated basis (ritual prayers, giving alms, the Sabbath). These activities are absolutely fundamental to anything that we recognize as a religion, but they are neither matters of morality nor simply the straightforward expression of some cosmological belief.”

Religion involves what the American philosopher William James (1842–1910) calledthe religious impulse”: a collective disposition among believers to try and reach, reflect, or express a reality beyond our experience.

Identification — a sense belonging to a group that has participated in the same practices for thousands of years — is another crucial part. Religious belief has a deeply communal nature. It is about finding meaning through communal practices, while relying on a community of people with similar values.

New Atheism ignores these aspects of religious practice. It simplifies religion in a way that leaves out its most central features.

How to be an atheist

As Tim explained when I interviewed him for my podcast The Understanding Project, religion is both a theoretical and a practical way of understanding our place in the world and our relation to what rises above ordinary experience — it’s an attempt to orient yourself with respect to the transcendent.

Sometimes I envy religious people. If one good testimony to one’s existence having a point is that the question of its point does not arise — what is that they’ve figured out about the meaning of life that I have yet to learn?

In the words of Nietzsche:

“Just this I seek, some reason for it all.”

Religion introduces meaning in the life of the believer. But it does not do this by informing her about propositions that can be tested against the evidence.

It’s not about learning something. Rather, faith is a kind of commitment that allows the believer to engage in age-old practices that are situated within a social framework, thereby becoming a constitutive part of the believer’s identity.

On a general level, the core business of religion is not to put forward specific testable hypotheses. Instead, belief is a complex response to fundamental human needs. It’s not something that should die with the advent of science. It doesn’t warrant the combativeness stirred up by New Atheists.

As an atheist, it is worth asking whether ‘we’ should trash religion, as New Atheists want us to. If Crane is right, the efforts of zealous atheists to aggressively debunk religious belief are pointless and wrongheaded.

Perhaps all our lives would go better if religious and non-religious people would take a more respectful and nuanced view of each other.

I leave you with Crane’s conclusion:

We need to give a proper place to the phenomena of religious practice and identification if we are to shift the atheist’s conception of religion away from a view of it as something anomalous in human society, and therefore something that can be, and should be, removed without leaving much of a scar. My view is closer to Durkheim’s: actual human societies are religious through and through, both in terms of what human habits and structures religion employs, and in terms of what traces religious ideas and traditions have left in even the most secular communities.”

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