Preaching atheism

Saint Francis instructed: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Not bad advice, even for atheists.

Christopher Hitchens’ death has occasioned an outpouring of deep affection and sadness among his many friends, and an outpouring of equally deeply-felt criticism of both his misjudgments and his excessive drinking and smoking. Some of the deepest praise and the deepest criticisms have come from the same people.

Then there was Hitchens’ unapologetic and polemical atheism. I confess to being of two minds here. As an out and proud atheist, I see value in frank defense of what atheists believe. There’s too much that is harmful or untrue in religious faith and religious dogma to keep silent. That’s most obvious in the case of crude fundamentalism, but the harm extends further, too. We’ve just learned too much from Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzche, with maybe Bertrand Russell bringing up the rear. The scientific, political, and psychological critiques go too deep.

When I consider Darwin and the rest, I’m awed by the courage, clarity, and moral urgency of the challenges they posed to religious orthodoxy and organized religions’ worldly authority. Hitchens came from an honorable and bracing atheist tradition.

Yet he and other new atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins turn me off, too….

For one thing, they have sometimes presented themselves as if they’re being brave to repeat arguments that were truly daring and necessary when they were first aired seven, or ten, or twenty decades ago. It’s not brave to say God is dead or to attack the Catholic Church in an era that features Madonna hanging a crucifix from her crotch performing in sports arenas.

Drawing on Darwin and the rest, new atheists inherited an intellectual arsenal sufficient to win many arguments with religious believers. They have proven less adept in genuinely persuading or learning from other people. That’s too bad, because atheists, agnostics, and people of faith struggle with similar basic questions about how to live our lives and what these lives are really for.

To embrace our common humanity, we must do a better job of crossing boundaries between believers, non-believers, and doubters. We must really be able to see that people who find very different answers to these questions are capable of living their lives with the same insight, dignity, and depth of experience that we hope to do.

Ross Douthat, in a deeply-felt but I believe mistaken essay memorializing Hitchens, writes: “Rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor.” That’s not the way I experience things.  I feel no less joy at my daughter’s dazzling smile, no less pain at the sight of the wrinkles on my mother’s beautiful face, than any religious believer. There’s no need to accept or reject any particular religious view to be moved to action at the sight of a cancer patient going medically bankrupt and losing her home.

There’s plenty to find meaning about in our short stay on this earth. Finding and pursuing that meaning is a challenge for everyone, regardless of one’s religious metaphysics. This is true whatever God is up to, and whether or not he is even there.

We atheists could express the most important and humane messages simply by living worthy lives. We could lower the dose of bullying polemicism and set a better example of humility and empathy, too. Saint Francis instructed: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Not bad advice, even for us.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

33 thoughts on “Preaching atheism”

  1. My problem with Hitchens was his writing style and, to a lesser extent, his political views. If I want to read Henry James, I’ll read Henry James. Get to the point, man! As for his belief in atheism, I have a gut feeling that God doesn’t take these things at all personally. (If I die and it turns out that God does, I’ll die again from the surprise.) I think the key is how we treat other people, first and last. It seems like Hitchens did try to stick up for the underdog sometimes, which is to me the highest mark you can give someone.

  2. I think Hitchens (who I will miss a great deal) and Harris served a useful role for atheists and their fellow travelers by putting up a strong offense and making it clear that there was no need for atheists to take shit from anyone, to put it colloquially. Others may play the roles of feather smoothing and reasoning-together (Hitchens was quite capable of the second). They also serve who agitate. I found Douthat’s typically smug lecture not worth the spit it made me want to expectorate.

    1. Or to put it differently, would Martin Luther King have been so effective if Malcolm X weren’t lurking in the background?
      If you want to read a polite well-mannered atheist, read Daniel Dennett.

      On a slightly different point, it is silly to tar “atheists” with the sins of a few (and it is a few) notable examples. Your criticism is directed at Hitchens, not at “atheists”. It’s even sillier given that Hitchens was a TERRIBLE example of an atheist. I can’t speak for others, but I think there would be broad agreement that the atheist critique of religion is not so much a hostility to the idea of a deity as hostility to the idea that some concepts are so “true” that they remain true regardless of whatever happens in the real world. But Hitchens was a prime example of the sort of person who insisted on precisely that, that certain ideas (starting with his Trotskyite phase, but hardly ending there) are simply true, screw the evidence of history and the real world.

  3. My only problem with those who call themselves atheists is when they say this is what I believe.I don’t call myself anything because I don’t know what comes after. Is there a god? I don’t know. Is there no God? I don’t know. To say anything else is conceit. To say anything else is no different than religionists who push belief. The only way anyone can say there is or there is no God is to die and find out for sure. So far nobody has come back to tell us one way or the other.

    I dont know and neither do you. Sorry

    1. I did want to add that doing the right thing because it’s the right thing is the only value that matters.

    2. One can mean either of two things when one claims that God does not exist. One can state it with certainty, and an atheist who does that, I agree, is no different from a theist, in that both assert, on the basis of faith, facts that they cannot prove. One cannot prove the non-existence of anything. But few atheists make this claim.

      Most atheists, rather, view God as they view unicorns and Santa Claus. Any of the three might exist, but, in the absence of any evidence for them, their existence is exceedingly unlikely. To say, “God does not exist” is a loose way of saying, “There is no reason to believe that God exists.” It is no more a “conceit” than to claim that unicorns don’t exist.

      Thus, the large majority of atheists do not deny the logical possibility that God exists. These atheists may be distinguished from agnostics in that agnostics take seriously the question whether God exists, and wrestle with it. To an atheist, that makes as much sense as wrestling with the question whether unicorns exist.

      1. A shorter way of putting this is that the burden of proof lies with those making the positive assertion of God’s existence as a matter of fact. Just as a criminal defendant is presumptively innocent until proven guilty, God must be regarded as presumptively nonexistent so long as theists cannot offer a falsifiable body of evidence and reason suggesting the contrary. And since no reasonable person would claim than God’s existence could be satisfactorily established by the verdict of a petit jury, the evidentiary burden on the theists is far heavier than the state’s would be in a criminal prosecution.

  4. We’ve just learned too much from Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzche, with maybe Bertrand Russell bringing up the rear. … When I consider Darwin and the rest, I’m awed by the courage, clarity, and moral urgency of the challenges they posed …

    This is a somewhat bizarre 1-2 punch. Nietzche indeed was daring in his challenges–he called out the hypocrisy of the orthodoxy. Sadly, he was later grotesquely misrepresented by a group of crazy followers who represented exactly the kind of dogma and conformity that he fought against. Freud is an intriguing case–his work not only was not particularly contrary to religion per se (much of his conceptual underpinnings had been derived from early education in Judaism), but he did make a point to separate the rational from the irrational from the mythical and the subconscious. If it was a challenge to religion, it was not intentional. Marx, of course, was a vehement atheist, but it did not take much courage. Coming from a family of Jewish Christian converts, he developed a neurosis over his Jewish roots, but never quite took to the Christian orthodoxy. Thankfully–for him–he got bankrolled by Engels, so he never had to suffer any serious consequences for his “rebellion”. And Darwin was not a particular challenge to religious orthodoxy at all. He simply presented his observations with a modicum of theoretical musings. It was only later that the theory of evolution became a threat to particularly virulent, fundamentalist religious orthodoxies. At the time, it was not much of a revolution. Bertrand Russell was far better established than the rest of the bunch and he could endure academic hardships without so much as a whimper. But he did not have to–much of his academic career took place during the time of philosophical upheaval, when challenging orthodoxies–and not just religious–was the popular thing to do. As such, only Nietzche had to pay a price for his challenge and he alone may be considered “courageous” in this light. The rest were simply functioning either within academia or within their particular theoretical milieu, sheltered from consequences that affected Galileo’s work or ended Bruno’s life. If anything, Russell had to worry more about the consequences of his sexual practices than his atheistic musings.

    Hitchens was not particularly courageous either. He was, for lack of a precise academic term, an asshole. His courage largely stemmed from the bottle, as he was perpetually pickled. Possessing a sharp wit and a fairly limited depth of knowledge, he made the gadfly act his particular schtick. It worked for him, as he was celebrated as a truth-to-power kind of guy–which he could absolutely not give two shits about speaking truth to power. He would just as easily challenged the atheist “orthodoxy” had he seen an opening from that direction. Had he been courageous, he’d quit drinking. Instead, he chose the easy path as the drunken celebrity.

  5. “For one thing, they have sometimes presented themselves as if they’re being brave to repeat arguments that were truly daring and necessary when they were first aired seven, or ten, or twenty decades ago.”

    When? Please be specific. I have never heard any prominent American or British “New Atheist” call themselves brave, but I have heard them call other atheist activists brave. Whatever Madonna does with a crucifix, it doesn’t stop teenagers for receiving death threats for standing up for the separation of church and state.

    “They have proven less adept in genuinely persuading or learning from other people. That’s too bad, because atheists, agnostics, and people of faith struggle with similar basic questions about how to live our lives and what these lives are really for.”

    What the hell does this even mean? What does persuading people have to do with moral philosophy? Can you give any examples showing that atheists are, in general, less adept at learning from other people? Have you ever even read a new atheist talking about these subjects? (Hint: Richard Carrier) I gonna go with, in reverse order, no, none, not a bit, and nothing. You can do better than this.

    “We atheists could express the most important and humane messages simply by living worthy lives. ”

    Simply wrong. Religion enjoys a place of extreme privilege in our society. Most people are raised religious and assume that religion is the basis of all morals. This has consequences: people will continue to assume that the only way to raise up a moral child is to teach it random soundbites about imaginary friends. Unless those assumptions are explicitly challenged, people will continue to assume that an atheist is automatically less moral, leading, for instance, to explicit discrimination in child custody disputes. Changing this requires being out and open. If an atheist just lives a good life, most people will assume that it is because of their religion, unless they get out in the open about it. Inasmuch as the New Atheism is a coherent movement, this is the entire point of it.

  6. “It’s not brave to say God is dead or to attack the Catholic Church in an era that features Madonna hanging a crucifix from her crotch performing in sports arenas.”

    No one who attacks the Catholic Church or disavows the existence of God can hope to be elected to political office anywhere in this country. Proof of religous bona fides and repeated invocations of God are a pre-requisite for public office. There are no openly atheist talk show hosts, newspaper columnists,or news anchors. In most of the US, publicly saying that God is dead can get you fired from your job. Outside a handful of big cities, the first question a newcomer is asked is, “What church do you attend?” and answering “None, I’m an atheist” is about equivalent to saying in response to “are you married?”, “no, I’m a pederast.”

    Yes, there are a miniscule number of people who make a living out being outrageous, Madonna and Hitchens among them. But even Madonna doesn’t claim to be an atheist.

    And have you noticed that the bloggers who admit to atheism tend to be tenured professors, or to use pseudonyms, or to be among the very few people who make a living out of blogging?

    The vast majority of American atheists, I believe, are deep in the closest. Admitting to atheism is just too dangerous to anyone who has to hold a job or send his kids to the neighborhood school.

    1. I am an open agnostic and elected to public office, albeit only at a local level (a water district). Nobody cares. Congressman Stark is openly atheist. I think your point is broadly true, but you’re overstating it.

  7. These points are well-taken. I agree that atheists continue to suffer stigma and marginalization in the public square. I do believe that there is a qualitative difference between facing majority disapproval and being prosecuted or locked up as (say) Bertrand Russell was for advocating contraception.

  8. I always thought Hitchens was mostly a very witty but not great writer and the last of a dying breed. It which must be added that he was a shameless self promoter who sold out to the right and was apparently a mean, nasty drunk; both of which are simply inexcusable.

    Nevertheless, you are a man who lives in a very sheltered place where you are free to express yourself without fear. You are deluding yourself if you think that somehow describes live in this country. Hitchens was, in fact, very brave in speaking out as he did since he risked everything that he had gained by selling out to the right by doing so.

    1. Yes indeed I do. I am very grateful for the privileged position of the tenured academic. This is quite a responsibility.

  9. The supremacist Pope Boniface VIII was accused of atheism by his enemies after his death in 1304. It´s a very peculiar charge, unlike sodomy and simony which were standard mudslinging. Most mediaeval Italians and Frenchmen would just have been puzzled by the idea; it would have had little popular traction. So perhaps there was something in it.

    1. An interesting observation. Personally, I have always thought that the vast majority of religious leaders and especially political leaders of a religious bent must be quite certain in their own minds that there is no God and therefore no one to whom they would ever need answer for the evil they do in his name.

    2. Ah, Benny Gaetani. One of my all-time fave pontiffs. Unam sanctam, now: you won’t find any of these modern-day popes speaking in tones so admirably clear and uncompromising. (That the world total Roman Catholic population would be about 250 if they did surely cannot have anything to do with that. The Lord’s ways are not the ways of the world.) Whenever in Rome, I make it a point to visit his tomb in that big chapel in the microstate created by Benito Mussolini and Pius XII’s older brother, just to reassure myself that the auld fecker is indeed still dead.

      Dante famously put B8’s predecessor, the transparently good and innocent Celestine V (a canonized saint!), into hell solely because Celestine’s abdication permitted Boniface to wrest the tiara out of the ruck.

      The Colonna were surely thugs and mafiosi, but my heart will always have a place for them for giving Boniface the brutal beating from which he shortly thereafter died.

  10. Hitchens was never angrier and more blustery than when someone accused him of treating atheism like a religion–specifically, like a commercialized messianic cult in the fashion of your average third-rate Falwell clone. That usually prompted Olympian harrumphing at the gall it took to raise such a libelous and discredited smear, yadda yadda yadda something about how HE had never cut off a woman’s genitals, anyway.

    Okay, Hitchens, have it your way.

    What remains is that the NON-RELIGIOUS Hitchens who was NOT in any way the semiotic equivalent of a megachurch pastor with a book deal, COINCIDENTALLY managed to reprise all the great sins of modern fundamentalism. Draw an imaginary circle around yourself, demonize everyone outside of it regardless of circumstances, write a book, rinse and repeat. Punish apostasy, externalize evil onto the Other, make every slight an existential threat, make every German a Hitler, etc.

    I’m an atheist and I won’t miss him. Which is not to say we’re rid of him. The business model works too well.

  11. “Rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor.”

    I think you’re going waaaay to light on Douthat, and essentially praising with faint damn. This sentiment — that atheism is somehow life-rejecting, and borderline anti-human, is the most pernicious and pervasive attack on atheists. It’s maddening because it assumes that the only way to affirm one’s humanity in life is to make a pact with others about what happens after we die. It’s the laziest of lazy thinking in a tradition laced with lazy thinking. Nobody ever stops to consider that the atheist, secure in the faith that this life is the only life he’ll know, may focus on this life while the theists of every prefix go through their petty rituals in the hopes that it may someday bring them another, altogether different life. Nobody ever stops to say “hey, while you’re busy being terrified of another life that may never happen, I’m going to focus on treating my fellow humans decently, because I think this life is the only life we’ve got,” is much more life-affirming than Douthat’s alternative.

    Sure, sure, there’s some good Christians, here and there . . . but really I think we must agree that rigorous monotheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor.

  12. Excuse me, “bullying?” Do we live in a country in which atheists have run the government for the last 30 years? Where Christians are routinely censored, and atheistic messages are proclaimed using state resources? Where simply running a billboard ad saying that Christians EXIST, sends state legislators scurrying around complaining that atheists are UNDER ATTACK?

    I didn’t think so.

    1. Do we live in a country in which atheists have run the government for the last 30 years?
      Essentially, yes; in every legal battle over whether government should side with atheists or theists, the atheist position has won.

      Where Christians are routinely censored
      Have you read the news recently? Most Christian social services providers are under significant threat, a significant number have lost their funding and accreditation.

      1. “. . . in every legal battle over whether government should side with atheists or theists, the atheist position has won.”

        Name one. Just one.

        1. Abington vs Schempp

          Note that I’m arguing that the effect was pro-atheist, not the nominal grounds.

          1. Abington v. Schempp held that requiring prayer in public school violates the Constitution. How is that pro-atheist? As many religious people recognize, it protects religion from governmental interference. To require prayer in school, of course, requires a government official to choose the prayer. The fact that the decision also protects atheists from having religion crammed down their throats does not make it pro-atheist. I’d call it pro-Constitution.

      2. As so many Christians do, you appear to confuse government funding with free speech rights. Christians have no restrictions on their right to provide social services (and sectarian religious indoctrination) with church funds.

  13. “Finding and pursuing that meaning is a challenge for everyone, regardless of one’s religious metaphysics.”

    I think religion is basically about the idea that meaning — G-d’s meaning — is inherent in the universe. And so when are are about “finding” meaning, the meaning we are out to find already exists.

    Your position I think is more that human beings MAKE meaning. And while it’s true that there is a core common element here — atheists and theists alike may believe that a good life is a meaningful life — I think there’s a huge disagreement about where that meaning comes from.

    And so, as a good (but conflicted) atheist, I wish you a Happy Hanukah! Because historical meaning is part of a (humanly constructed) meaningful life.

    1. I would respectfully suggest that the overwhelming number of adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would very strongly disagree with your attempt to harmonize their belief in God (which they view, obviously, as the very essence of their faiths) with either Eastern mysticism or atheism. The existence or nonexistence of God is a first order question for all of them. You do religious believers, in particular, an injustice by refusing to accept them on their on terms and simply waving away their sincerely held belief in God by describing God in mystical terms and those who claim to believe in him as merely fellow seekers of “meaning”. They may indeed be seeking meaning but they are doing so within the very specific context of belief in a supreme being, often described by them to be the ruler or creator of the universe. That is the essence of their religious beliefs and deserves to be respected.

      Speaking for myself, I am probably within the category of Jewish agnostics or maybe a sort of John Adams-type deist. Nevertheless, to steal from Woody Allen, it seems to me that if God does indeed exist he has a lot to answer for and he will need a very good excuse.

      1. I seem to be expressing myself very poorly lately. The conflation you ascribe to me (“we’re all searchers after meaning in the end”) is exactly the mistake I thought Harold was making in the quote I excerpted. People who believe in a ruler of the Universe believe that the Universe and everything in it has a meaning and that that meaning is G-d’s intention or purpose. It is their role as human beings to find that meaning, at least as it pertains to them. Atheists may be “searchers after meaning”, but not at all in the sense of believing that that meaning is pre-existing on account of the intentions or purpose of a supernatural ruler of the Universe, precisely because they don’t believe in that supernatural ruler of the Universe. (Although, to be clear, I think one of the key psychological motivations for religious belief goes the other way around, i.e., the fear that life is meaningless can be relieved by delegating the responsibility for its meaning to some outside agency.) So I thought Harold’s “we’re all one big happy family of meaning seekers” was a bit Pollyanna-ish.

        1. Larry,

          Your explanation is excellent and once I was prompted to make a closer reading of your comment I could see where I went wrong. I think we are both saying basically the much same thing in slightly different ways.

  14. It is virtually impossible for a self-proclaimed atheist to win a political office in the US. Of the entire Congress, we have exactly one self-described atheist. There is a severe anti-atheist bigotry in this country, particularly among putative Protestant Christians. Most of them are absolutely incapable of differentiating between atheism, humanism and secularism. It is quite possible to be any one of those three and not either of the other two. It is easily possible to be a devote Christian and a secularist–that’s why we have constitutional separation of Church and State. Christian–particularly clerical–understanding of morality is that one cannot be a moral person without being religious. Lately–quite a change from past expressions–there have been admissions that religious people of other faiths CAN be moral. Whooptee-do! The idiocy of conflation of morality with religiosity is simply impenetrable. More people would oppose an atheist candidate for president (and, presumably, many lower offices) than they would a member of a major religion–more Christians would admit to opposing an atheist than they would a Muslim (whether they perform the same way in practice is a different question). The only other countries that are as bigoted as US against atheists are all Islamic fundamentalist. And, to add insult to injury, the Christians–mostly conservatives–love to play victim. None of what I said above in this comment is an opinion–these are fact-based observations. But just think, for a moment–most Americans would oppose someone for a political office if he failed to share in their superstition. It really gives you pause when you consider that the US was the first nation in the world that has eliminated religious tests for political office–the Netherlands were first to admit all faiths to participatory democracy, but holding offices still required a particular Christian tilt.

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