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January 3, 2006

A Positive Idea of Atheism?

I've been waiting, for a while now, for a new idea to come. I used to flatter myself with the thought that they came with some frequency. (Not truly original ideas, of course -- you're lucky to be blessed with one or two of those in a lifetime, as Norman Mailer noted somewhere; just something -- the product of a reaction, perhaps, between a thought heard and a fact read -- that seemed to have a new and interesting configuration.)

Such ideas appear, perhaps, to come a bit slower lately. Yeah, I've been too busy: moving, teaching, hassling this or that. Yet, I have been reading and even, sometimes, thinking and still...

I fear, as you may have noticed, that it has something to do with age. There probably is less RAM available to the central-processing unit. But, just as important, you gain, with wisdom, places to file most of the odd observations and little anomolies that used to cause confusion and, once in a while, spark a new thought. That's one reason I've taken on, in atheism, a topic upon which I had not accumulated great stores of wisdom.

I've known what kind of idea I want. Atheism can easily devolve into againstism: "Oh, no he doesn't!" I call this, unoriginally, the "negative idea" of atheism. I've been looking for the "positive idea."

Disbelief -- in sky spirits, in Apollo, in Genesis -- has cleared the way for science and aspects of philosophy. But is there a thread -- something positive that can be untangled from science and philosophy -- that runs through the thought of the often brilliant nonbelievers who will wander through my book? Don't want to sound too cocky, but I've assumed, since early in this project, that there is and that I'm gonna find it. But the idea hasn't come.

In the idea-generation business, travel, as we know, helps -- the quiet of it (once you've finally done all the crap that must be done to be able to go); the sense of being unstuck (physically and, often, temporally); the stimulation of "parts unknown" (or release from the bondage of vistas and conversations too well known).

And it is on the leg from Paris to Chennai -- reading The Anti-Christ and typing notes into my Palm -- that I think I might have come up with something. Nietzsche (who may have exceeded the Mailer limit by more than anyone) is fulminating against what he sees as Christianity's decadent, life-denying disparagement of health, intellect, strength and power. Christian "pity" particularly repulses him. And then he writes something that surprises me, something I have no comfortable place to file away: "Pity persuades to nothingness!" Nietzsche exclaims. "One does not say 'nothingness': one says 'the Beyond'; or 'God'."

Now, just last week (as I wrote here) a rabbi had told me how Roman soldiers, in the process of destroying the Temple, were shocked to enter the Holy of Holies and find...nothing -- no image, no statue, a void. And this rabbi (improvising, I suspect) suggested that the relationship between the Jews and their god might be seen as an attempt to establish a relationship with the void.

Now I've accumulated some dollops of wisdom over the decades on the idea of "the nothing," the void. (Heidegger's tour de force on the subject, "What is Metaphysics?", may be my all-time favorite piece of writing.) But I'd always thought of religion as an escape from nagging notions of nothingness, as an attempt to paper over the void.

Have I been missing a profound (in the rabbi's view) or decadent (in Nietzsche's) flirtation with, immersion in, nothingness by religion -- at least of the non-pagan variety? Can god be seen as the void with a beard?

And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, unknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Nietzsche....

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 3, 2006 5:55 AM


And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, nunknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.
I think one problem with either the rabbi's interpretation, or Nietzche's, is that both seek to simplify the religious experience down to one thing, and I don't think that quite works. Both, really, have a ring of truth about them, as long as you don't take it as a universal truth of all religious experience -- or even of Christian experience or Jewish experience. Those experiences can vary widely.

Certainly, though, I think there is something about unbelief that leads to a focus on this world, this life -- on that plenitude that you speak of. (I wonder -- have you read Gora at all? He conceived of atheism in very much those terms.)

Random, possibly wrong thought: I think Nietzsche may have been reacting to a religious obsession with purity and orderliness -- ideas that religion, and Christianity in particular, often deals with. The Void is the perfection of that, being devoid of anything that would "mar" it. And against that is the real world, which is always "messy," and thus harder to deal with, harder to make sense of.

Posted by: Gregory at January 3, 2006 4:06 PM

Nietzsche's complaint is more with the life-denying, don't-ask-for-too-much, wait-for-the-afterlife version of Christianity, which does have the taste of the void about it. You're certainly right about oversimplifying. Who is Gora? I see a writer for an atheist magazine by that name, but no books.

Posted by: mitch at January 4, 2006 3:53 AM

Gora was one of the whole revolutionary crowd in India in the 1930s and thereabouts. He admired Gandhi greatly, but was an atheist, and among other things wrote an interesting account of his meeting with Gandhi.

In India, he's probably most famous for his work to end prejudice and discrimination against the untouchables. If I remember correctly, he actually convinced/arranged for a son or daughter, or several, to wed untouchables.

He used the term "positive atheism," a term that he used to denote something we'd recognize as a socialist-leaning humanism. A very interesting man in many ways. You can find some of his stuff online here: http://www.positiveatheism.org/tochgora.htm

If nothing else, I recommend reading "An Atheist with Gandhi." It's an interesting memoire of their conversation, and his feelings about Gandhi (half hero-worship, half-exasperation with the religious stuff).

Posted by: Gregory at January 4, 2006 11:22 PM

You sound like you need to read more Robert Ingersoll. Now there's an inspirational atheist for you. Check his complete writings out at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/index.shtml

I just finished his "What is". A great short document (19 pages) that is really uplifting and vibrant.

I see a world without the beggar's outstretched palm, the miser's heartless, stony stare, the piteous wail of want, the pallid face of crime, the livid lips of lies, the cruel eyes of scorn. I see a race without disease of flesh or brain, shapely and fair, the married harmony of form and use, and as I look life lengthens, fear dies, joy deepens, love intensifies. The world is free. This shall be.

Posted by: Dave at January 8, 2006 2:30 AM

yeah, that's pretty. moving. And I will be reading more by him. However, a significant percentage of it is still -- why does this seem inevitable? -- phrased in the negative.

Posted by: mitch at January 9, 2006 12:01 AM

I personally find atheism to be a very positive thing, when I've got my head on straight.

Certainly it is not an original thing to say that a disbelief (or a considered lack of belief) in concepts such as reincarnation, divine judgment, fate, afterlife, and intercessionary higher powers can fire a greater concern for one's fellow man and the consequences of one's actions.  Think of the man who will not kill another because once you have ended a person's life, you have snuffed out a being completely.  Contrast this to one who believes that God (or karma or whatever) will punish or reward both the slayer and the slain appropriately for their actions.  The atheist may choose to view this lack of universal justice as cause to be as just as one can be, with the ardent belief that this is of value because if they are not as just as possible, no unseen hand is going to balance the scales for them.

Moreover, I think that atheism affords both responsibility and freedom.  Think of the philosophical differences between a child and an adult: an adult has much greater latitude in the way they choose to lead their life but must take responsibility for the choices they make, while a child has guardians who limit the freedoms of the child while also freeing them from the full adult burden of responsibility for their choices.  Similarly, an atheist is absolutely free and absolutely responsible in their decisions, while a theist is constrained by the nature of their religious beliefs but also has handed a portion of their responsibility to their higher powers.

I was recently at a funeral for a two-year-old niece, and I could barely listen to the priest's assurances that the child was in a better place, and that God had taken her unto him... To me, his words belittled the true nature of the tragedy that had brought us together, and belittled the loss which her parents (and the rest of the family) were grieving.

I've never found a completely succinct way of phrasing all of this, but it is, to me, all part of the positive idea of atheism -- that life without God is, in fact, more meaningful rather than utterly meaningless.

Posted by: Dayv at January 19, 2006 2:42 AM

Oh, this is frustrating.  I just composed about four or five paragraphs on what I see as the positive idea of atheism, and my browser appears to have eaten the text without a second thought.

Somewhere, a nonexistent deity is mocking me.

Posted by: Dayv at January 19, 2006 2:45 AM

Nevermind, there it is.

Posted by: Dayv at January 19, 2006 2:46 AM

On reflection, I suppose I'm saying that existentialism is the positive idea of atheism.

Perhaps with a side of buddhism and/or taoism?

Posted by: Dayv at January 19, 2006 3:10 PM

existentialism, I suspect, is probably in the right neighborhood as an answer, but gotta be careful about sneaking meaning in through the back door. And here's Sartre not sounding that positive: "Atheism is a cruel, long-term business."

Posted by: mitch at January 19, 2006 6:10 PM

isms are all limiting.

Answering questions about our there from in here invites isming.

As far as new ideas go; the rug must be pulled.
Look into the deepest darkest place or the brightest burning light or just eat some mushrooms.

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 13, 2006 1:34 AM

"If there were no reward to reap, no loving embrace to see me through, this tedious path I've chosen here, I certainly would have walked away by now."
And I still may. Buddha IS and atheist. Jesus IS a Buddhist, which means that WWJD means, 'how would you handle this shit without the gods?' Grace and forgiveness are karmically fucked and as we all know karma to be the silent evil bitch who runs the universe, atheism has pretty solid ground to stand on. Not socially, but phillosophically. The best atheists are probably millionare cathiloca, mormons, or fundamentalist televangelists. The speakers of the sermons, not the auidence. They've been in the buisness long enough to know that it's not god that will complete their life, or enlightenment, but their next paycheck will do more than all their prayers, or all the prayers in all of history.
In buddhism, consciousness is an aspect of matter that prevades all matter throughout the universe. Consciousness is a multi-dimensional thing, not a he or she. Some religons use our ability of self awareness as an excuse to burn down forests and kill of rhinos, because 'god made me boss, it's all good...' Fuck that, I have more right to stab you in the face than to kill off dodos or even own a single blade of grass. We are fucked up, but we're also insane monkeys who relish stupidity.
Atheism is the path for the true possesors of bravery and courage. If you were to spend your entire life focusing on your health, education, environment, and family and friends wellbieng, you would be the envy of not only every religon out there, but those non-exsistant gods would soon fizzle and fade to the back of our minds from which they came. peace
thomas kehr

Posted by: Thomas at October 11, 2006 11:46 AM

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