God, atheism, and what it is to be human

Kenan Malik expands on his previous talk on religion and atheism:

There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.

Historically, much of the discussion of God has been about the possibility of God. Christian apologetics grew out of the attempt rationally to defend the possibility of God’s existence, while atheists wanted to show that the idea of God made no rational sense. Much of the contemporary debate is about the consequences of religious belief. The so-called New Atheists, in particular, have been scathing in their attack on what they see as the wicked and malevolent social consequences of faith — from the harassment of gays to mass suicide bombings. I, too, am sceptical of the possibilities of God. And, while I do not think, as many do, that faith is, in and of itself, pernicious, I do believe that there are often social and moral problems that arise from religious belief. What I want to concentrate on today, however, is on the first type of argument. And that is because for me, as it is for many other atheists, this is the primary motivation for my atheism — I simply do not see the necessity for God.

There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life.  Let us look at each of these claims in turn.

The rest here, and well worth reading. His bravely humanist conclusion:

[T]here is a broader issue here. In part, the argument that without God there is no meaning derives from the idea that, as William Craig has put it, ‘on the atheist view humans are just animals’. In fact I would argue the very opposite. Only an atheist view allows us to be truly human.

Religion played a vital part in the development of civilised life because it made possible the belief that there was more to life than mere animal existence.  But the price of transcendence has been enslavement to the [sacred]. Religion attempts to give meaning and a dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred. But in doing so, the sacred becomes a means of diminishing the sense of what it is to be human. ‘The sacred order’, as Leszek Kolokowski the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

For me to be human is precisely to reject the idea that ‘this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise’.  It is about wanting to seize responsibility for human fate away from God’s hands so that humans can help shape their own future. Meaning and dignity derives not from the acceptance of fate, as in religion, but from our capacity to defy it.

I wholeheartedly concur. And here’s something else I find interesting: both this kind of humanistic atheism and the notion of “the American spirit” are rooted in this notion of rejecting authority, of defying fate and shaping one’s destiny in one’s own hands. This nation was founded on the principle that we are not merely bound to meekly accept authority, that we have the power to throw off rulers whom we deem unjust, that we have the right and the responsibility to govern ourselves and determine the course of our future. We get to decide what to value, and what to be. What could be more humanist and more fundamentally American than that? In a way, atheism could be seen as a logical extension of that attitude; it’s a shame — and one of life’s many ironies — that it isn’t more accepted in a nation so temperamentally suited for it.

More of Malik’s thoughts on the subject here and here.

(Photo by Erik Johannson. “Traveller, there is no road; the road is made by walking.” — Antonio Machado)

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One response to “God, atheism, and what it is to be human

  1. Pingback: Atheism ~ Morality in everyday Life. « An atheist dwelling in the Himalayas.

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