The Varieties of Unreligious Experience
Free Inquiry, February/March 2008
Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. Louise Antony, editor. (Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0195173079) 336 pages, $28.00, cloth
It used to be so easy not believing in God. Now there are books atheists have to read, and books, and more books.
I thought I’d never read another book promoting atheism after reading my fourth last summer, but then along came the essay collection Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and A Secular Life, edited by Louise Antony. It turns out there really is more to say on the subject.
The first section of the book consists of autobiographical essays, many reminding me of the song “Losing My Religion” (by REM). Orthodox Judaism is lost by several writers and various forms of Christianity by many more. Then there are those who never had a religion to begin with, but find themselves close to the world of religion either through family ties or scholarship. How best to think about religion is something they vitally need to sort out.
Many of these authors—all of them British and American philosophers--experience disconnection. The atheist adult is disconnected from the religious child she once was; a son is disconnected from his parents; several find themselves disconnected from the religious outlook of the philosophers they study; there’s even disconnection between one author and his wife and children.
Disconnection sounds bad, but a recurrent theme is the joy of breaking away. Louise Antony finds it positively liberating when she finally realizes in college that she doesn’t believe in God. Thus she is relieved of having to solve a huge number of puzzles that have mounted up over the years. Couldn’t God have let Hitler kill just (say) a million Jews? Was the good of his having free will—if that’s the best story available—really worth all six million deaths?
Many of the authors recount happy moments of enlightenment when it became clear that one religious doctrine or another is utterly absurd. For Joseph Levine, it is too absurd to think the Jews are “the chosen people.” For several what’s too absurd is Christian exclusivism. The problem of evil is cited again and again.
Since I read Philosophers without Gods after four other atheist books, all chock full of the joys of disconnecting, what intrigued me most in the volume were the essays conveying a desire for connection. I happen to be one of those strange atheists who go to synagogue on major holidays. I might enjoy a good harangue about the absurdity of religion on the way, and even revisit the theme on the way home, but while sitting in the beautiful sanctuary of the Temple where I’m a member (even!), I’m entirely happy to be there. Naturally, I’ve got to respect the participation of the other congregants, whether they’re non-believers like me or (more likely) believers.
Am I just irrational, or is connection with religious people, religious thinkers, earlier religious selves—and even religion itself--a coherent possibility for an atheist? I was moved by the willingness to experience connection that’s expressed in many of these essays. Those who say atheists are hostile to religion will find their view challenged many times over. Though he’s put it completely behind him, Joseph Levine remembers the “beauty and grandeur” of Torah Judaism, the “warmth and spiritual joy,” the “penetrating intellectual power” and “keen sense of irony and humor” of his first Talmud teacher. Daniel Garber speaks of his sympathy with the religious philosophers he studies as a student of 17th century thought. He carefully examines his esteem for the PensÃ©es of Pascal, and even the oft-derided wager, which exhorts non-believers to take all the steps they can toward belief, since the rewards are infinite (if there is a God), and the costs are minimal (if there isn’t). I find something empathic and moving about his sense that it might be good to find oneself believing; and that finding oneself believing needn’t involve unreason. What stops him, then? The worry is that the initial steps would feel like steps toward self-deception. In other words (mine, not his), the price is too high if one must take a pill to become a believer.
Another writer on the connection side of the aisle is Marvin Belzer, who traces a journey away from Christianity that starts because of the stranger at the dinner table brought in by his evangelical parents. Loath to see his gradual journey away from religion as a rebellion against anything, he actually finds the seeds in faith itself. His faith makes him see the stranger (at the table, or in the remote jungles of South America) as loved by God whether Christian or not Christian. But if God doesn’t care if the stranger believes, it starts to seem unimportant whether he himself believes. It’s his faith that initiates a growing detachment. But then, as he recounts it, faith leads to unfaith. “And then something completely unexpected happened. I totally stopped thinking about God.” In the end he winds up a meditation leader still enjoying something like the religious ecstasy he felt as a child.
Anthony Laden is clear that there’s nothing actually repellant to him about faith, but it just isn’t a real possibility. “God plays no role in my imaginative, reflective, or even emotional understanding of or engagement with the world around me. God, I might say, never seriously occurs to me.” Still, transcendence of some kind is something he aspires to. For me, going to services involves going beyond what is me-here-now to what is long ago, far away, communal, morally significant, mysterious, beautiful. Laden explores what transcendence is, seeing it in Aristotelian contemplation, but also in religious rapture, and even in awakening from racism.
But let’s be serious. Can it make sense to respect, really respect, people who believe things you find completely crazy? In the second half of the volume, Georges Rey makes the surprising suggestion that there may not be so many real believers. Educated people who say they believe in God must be misdescribing themselves--the problems with theism are so obvious and overwhelming. But if self-deception is involved, there are two possibilities. (1) Self-described theists might fend off problems, suppress doubt, and appeal to faith, thereby succeeding in believing against their better judgment; or (2) their better judgment could stop them ever really believing, though they refuse to admit this is so. Rey picks (2). Maybe there are many cases of (2), but surely there are also (1)’s. And (come on!) also (3)’s--people who, free of all nefarious machinations, really do believe.
The further you read into this volume the more respect will come to seem problematic. (See the trenchantly skeptical essays by Elizabeth Anderson and David Lewis, among others.) Still, we all have smart friends who believe. Can’t atheists hold out the olive branch, maybe saying things like “Reasonable people will disagree”? This platitude is put to a thorough test in Richard Feldman’s thought-provoking essay, and found (regrettably) wanting. If two people find themselves with contradictory beliefs, but regard each other as entirely reasonable, the logical response, he claims, is for each to withhold judgment. We must disagree disrespectfully, he argues, or stop disagreeing!
Simon Blackburn is confronted with the issue of respect when he’s invited for Shabbat dinner at the home of a Jewish friend. He refuses to go along with the local rituals (“putting on hats”)—a resolute “disconnect.” But then, half-way through his amusing and subtle essay, he pivots. It turns out he rather likes English parish churches, “their comfortable spaces and simple pieties, their quiet graveyards.” And alas (“it is hard to confess”) he likes religious music and poetry. What’s that all about?
It’s not about embracing a minimalist, “expressive” theology—an option he very effectively dismantles. Blackburn interprets his response as a product of empathy: “I admire people who try to give voice to the great events and emotions of human life.” Standing in the Taj Mahal, it would be downright strange not to be swept off one’s feet. “Second order piety,” as he calls it, is a sort of respect. Having come to this semi-deferential conclusion, he’s less certain in the end about his reaction at the Shabbat dinner.
I doubt that “second-order piety” is all that I feel sitting in my synagogue, or all that you might feel listening to Handel’s Messiah. Religious music evokes awe about the supernatural for believers, but awe about the world itself for the rest of us. This is “first order awe,” not a feeling about the faithful. Atheists can actually have some of the same thoughts and feelings as the faithful and perhaps it’s on this foundation that we must build respect.
Taken as a group, these readable, personal, and provocative essays make it clear that there are many kinds of non-believers, and even many different elements that make up a single skeptical outlook. Contrary to the popular image, atheism isn’t all rebellious trumpets and defiant drums. That part of the orchestra is essential, but here we have all the varieties of unreligious experience, a full symphony of unbelief.
Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Blackwell, 2007). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.