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A response to Peter Bowden’s "God, Atheism, and Human Needs"

The idea that human beings universally need some form of mythological belief has been one of the mainstays of the defenders of faith for centuries. They claim that even if god doesn’t exist or religion causes violence and hatred, it’s acceptable because it makes some people feel better about the harsh realities of life. This is a multi-pronged deceptive ploy used to abdicate themselves from any responsibility for those actions and to keep people thinking that their assertion is correct.

Many people have either been raised without theistic belief or have abandoned theism and discovered even greater meaning and value for their lives. Peter Bowden assumes in his article "God, Atheism, and Human Needs" that proponents of atheism such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Onfray, and Dennett must provide "deeper insight into ourselves, our needs as human beings, and ways to conduct our lives." In essence, a replacement for, rather than the elimination of, religion. Life does seem much simpler when all of the answers are handed to you on a silver platter (or aged papyri), but it eliminates the worthwhile exercise of introspection and discovery that one must engage in to formulate their own self-concepts, needs, and morals.

This makes Bowden’s claim that atheists are "[avoiding] a fundamental quest of the human race" even more absurd. Figuring these things out for oneself is infinitely more important, and difficult, than accepting an ancient dogma in its stead. Perhaps the reason why so many are opposed to self-examination is because it is exactly as I described it—exercise. It can be excruciatingly difficult to step outside of yourself, examine your beliefs, and dissect that which lies beneath your exterior. If one has been inculcated with the notion that whatever resides in there is dirty, depraved, and evil, that urge to integrate your beliefs and behavior will be furiously resisted and likely satiated with religion.

Being told that your worldview is incorrect and that it’s going to be a difficult process to regain your bearings once you realize that there is no grand plan for your life will often be interpreted as an attack. Even if doing nothing more than pointing out the harm that has been done under the auspices of piety, the news will not be received with accolades from the religious. Compartmentalization and rationalization (as in the psychological phenomenon) are fundamental aspects of maintaining any faith-based belief in the face of contrary evidence. Despite the common perception, it is not viciousness which compels us as atheists to speak out against religion. It is with the hope that we can help those who live under the ever-looming spectre of god’s presence to stop accepting the illusion of freedom and truly experience it.

Bowden points out that one of the charges frequently leveled against religion is its bellicosity. The reason that argument is so oft-used is because it is true. Religion has been the impetus for more violence than any other single reason throughout history. Was the acquisition of territory, resources, and power often a corroborating justification? Of course. Religion is unique, though, in the sense that it literally dehumanizes those with different beliefs, similar to the way that racism does. The adherents of a different religion are literally inferior to their opponents, and too often the drive to appropriate their land or wealth is intensified and rationalized by the division between the two groups. Evangelism has long been used as a cover for the usurpation of power from native inhabitants. After all, god would want to civilize the savages, now wouldn’t he? Certainly, religion is not the sole force, but it is definitely a contributing factor, and one that could be eliminated.

The two arguments that can be proposed to counter the case that the hazards of religion outweigh the benefits are the comfort and meaning it supposedly provides people and that religious groups may help less fortunate people. The latter is true, but only within certain confines. Missionaries who traverse the globe "helping people" often do little more than proselytize, and their aid may depend on your acceptance of their doctrine or willingness to attend church services. In the case of the catholic church in sub-Saharran Africa, it can actually be detrimental. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters may have similar prerequisites, although not all do.

Bowden asserts that "atheists are not into helping others in any organized way." This is demonstrably false as there are more and more secular charities arising every day, but why would one expect there to be large charities funded by what essentially amounts to a non-group of people? Atheists are individuals with no churches and, until recently, little social networking. On an individual level, though, atheists are some of the world’s largest contributors to charities around the world. In fact, the number one philanthropist on Earth is an atheist. Ever hear of Bill Gates? How about Warren Buffet? That being said, I would encourage people to gather together and contribute in whatever way they are able, not to promote a group or a name, but to create a better world for every person. We are all united in the sense that we are humans sharing this planet, and that is infinitely more important than allegiances to imaginary dictators.

Bowden then comes full-circle back to the comfort/meaning/reason for living argument by claiming that we need a reason for being, that reason must be something "beyond the normalities of our daily lives", and that religion provides it. First of all, I don’t know that making the claim that needing a reason for being is a fundamental attribute of human beings is entirely accurate, but it is plausible that most people desire that kind of affirmation.

This argument falls on its face in the next two steps, though. Why must this meaning be something greater than the daily activities in which we engage? Is life not made up of a series of days filled with these "normalities"? Normalities such as pursuing a career or education, caring for children, or just making it through this existence? What if there is no "greater purpose"? Will civilization suddenly vanish or will people adapt to being the agents in their lives instead of the pawns in a cosmic chess match? Furthermore, I will submit that religion only provides a façade of fulfilling either of the preceding "needs".

Whether religion is an evolutionary adaptation making sense of a discordant existence or a spandrel of such processes, coming to terms with reality would only be the next step in our development. Holding on to the crutches that we once needed after the cast has been taken off is counter-productive, and as long as we do so, we will never run. Life can be frightening, bewildering, wonderful, and tedious. It can be mysterious, magical, and ordinary. It can be all of those things at once. Making up answers where there are none is not the solution, and in fact, prevents one from seeking answers themselves. Atheism is not the destruction of the quest for meaning—it is the necessary starting point for the journey.

   * Atheist Volunteers
   * Earthward
   * Atheists for Autism Research
   * Online atheist community raised $3,555 in the last few weeks for a family in need.

Originally posted to Kelly OConnor on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 03:10 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  thank you! (0+ / 0-)

    It's nice to not be vilified for once.

  •  As an atheist (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JohnGor0, Free Spirit, marykk, forestgreen

    I have no desire to turn other people into atheists.  I understand the urge to believe in a higher power and find it very plausible that religion comforts many people.  

    Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

    by johnny rotten on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 03:16:30 PM PST

  •  interesting article (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    johnny rotten, SeanF, JohnGor0, justrock

    I'll pray for you.

    "People say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. People say this to you with a straight face, and I always say, 'Who. Wants. Flies?'"

    by Colbert08 on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 03:17:39 PM PST

  •  Sure they do. Isn't it obvious? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    johnny rotten
  •  there is still the question, Why have beliefs? (0+ / 0-)

    I'd argue that belief systems, however chaotic and unsystematic, are universal, even amongst atheists, and that they are not mere spandrels.  So, while I have no need to be proselytized to, I still think that is an interesting problem to explain.

    We don't have time for short-term thinking.

    by Compound F on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 03:28:36 PM PST

    •  You have it because it's cheap. (3+ / 0-)

      For each and every individual to unravel morality and explanations for everything else is time intensive and difficult. But belief systems are like those packages of refrigerated cookies that you don't even need to roll out - you can just pop them in the toaster oven and in 9 minutes be done. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn how to make them properly, however.

      Buddha offered up his teachings as you would a boat to cross a river. When you reach the other side you leave the boat behind.

      And we have a lot of cultural parallels to this - the tooth fairy, for example. Some kids really have trouble accepting that part of them has gone away. But the tooth fairy is a reassuring thing by not treating the tooth as trash (throwing away part of yourself is a bit unsettling in a certain way) but as part of some other ritual that has a positive outcome. When you are older and can better accept the idea of discarding part of yourself, you toss away the ritual as it is no longer useful.

      So, I have no problem with belief being used as a temporary bridge to help people understand or accept certain things, but I see religion used primarily as an end unto itself - where belief isn't there to support the individual, rather the individual is there to support the belief. I question not only the value but the honesty of that.

      This whole creationism fight is a perfect example of situation where some aspect of faith used to explain things around us is no longer needed. But rather than the church say 'Oh, cool, we no longer need this noodley appendage answer to the question' and cast it off, they are holding on like grim death out of fear that people will abandon the foundation of the faith due to lack of need. Rather than accept that people may no longer need to believe to understand, they are held captive out of fear that the faith may wither and die due to lack of need.

      -6.00, -7.03
      "I want my people to be the most intolerant people in the world." - Jerry Falwell

      by johnsonwax on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:07:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Maybe they don't need to, but... (0+ / 0-) awful lot of them want to.

    The Senate is the last bastion of white supremacy. --Andrew Gumbel

    by Free Spirit on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 03:37:13 PM PST

  •  But for some reason they still do it (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    valadon, subtropolis

    I don't understand why myself, but the preponderance of humans on earth still ascribe magical properties to many events (I.E. the lucky charm) and still ascribe control over human life and well being to a Santa Claus type(usually human male gender) in the sky ...or somewhere.  

  •  I am a theist... (6+ / 0-)

    ...and I would never belittle your beliefs or lack thereof.  I ask only the same in return.

    •  Well, that's just the thing (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      We think it's harmful, not just an opinion, akin to, "I think your shoes are ugly." This isn't about belittlement, but cognitive awakening.

      (note: i'm not saying your stupid—there's a huge difference there.)

      "People who say I'm dystopian are middle class pussies!" – William Gibson

      by subtropolis on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 05:00:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's nice. (0+ / 0-)

        I don't think atheism is harmful, and as far as I know my theism has harmed nobody.  And I think it's a little arrogant to assume that "cognitive awakening" requires that one first disbelieve in a god or gods.

        •  well, that's my perspective (0+ / 0-)

          Nothing personal, but that's just how i see things.

          … as far as I know my theism has harmed nobody.

          Nobody's saying anything about your theism. The subject is theism, in general, and how some of us consider it to be detrimental to human advancement.

          "People who say I'm dystopian are middle class pussies!" – William Gibson

          by subtropolis on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 11:19:52 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and rebuttal Kelly...the difference of course is whether we accept some of our narrative myths as fact or fiction.

    I truly think that we give meaning to our own lives: with our relationships, our interests or pursuits, our concerns about the world and others and our thirst for knowledge. And in everything we do as humans, that as a species, is connected to all life.

    I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere ~ Thomas Jefferson

    by valadon on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 03:56:02 PM PST

  •  One must also consider... (5+ / 0-)

    that religious groups provide a social network wherein physical, emotional, and financial needs of individual members are met.

    It's not simply a matter of providing cognitive reassurance.

    As of yet, atheism has no equivalent social network which provides for real needs. Religions have been doing it for thousands of years.

    This isn't a critique of non-belief, but rather a refocusing of the question as to what "needs" might be met by religious groups.

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Upton Sinclair via Al Gore; -6.62, -5.28

    by bluejeandem on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:04:24 PM PST

    •  Excellent point (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Those social networks are sorely needed and atheists have not made much headway as yet. We've tried, but it just hasn't come together.

      -6.00, -7.03
      "I want my people to be the most intolerant people in the world." - Jerry Falwell

      by johnsonwax on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:09:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Very true (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      subtropolis, ChemBob, bluejeandem

      in terms of a social network BJD, and that is something which many Atheists, such as myself, but most notably those who have a more public forum, are also concerned with.

      They are not saying let's pull the rug out from under someone, but let's give them the tools to understand why humans think, and feel as they do, and subsequently they can make more informed choices.

      A fact that you might consider as well, is that Atheists as a whole normally do not have the social cohesion because they have been so ostracized within social communities. One really has to wonder how Atheists managed to make their own lives meaningful without mainstream or dogmatic belief.


      I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere ~ Thomas Jefferson

      by valadon on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:13:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think another answer as to "atheist cohesion".. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        valadon, marykk

        might lie within this difference btw atheism and religion:

        A religion is an identity group which has at its core a belief in an absolute which is ultimately beyond refutation. This acts as a secure basis around which an identity can be formed and maintained.

        Atheism has no such "belief-core", and is therefore a weaker form of social identity.

        Recently, however, as the original article points out, there has been a chorus of voices proposing an absolutist form of Atheism (Hitchens, etc...). It's not simply non-belief, but rather a firm groundedness in the "belief" that God does not exist and WE KNOW God does not exist.

        Perhaps this new absolutist atheism can act as a core for new social group formation which does act similarly to religious groups in meeting physical and emotional needs?

        What do you think?

        "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Upton Sinclair via Al Gore; -6.62, -5.28

        by bluejeandem on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:27:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well I'm not an absolutist (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          subtropolis, bluejeandem

          But that's a fair question even so...I prefer to think of myself as someone who questions life in the way a scientist would...neither affirming nor denying without a resonable explanation. I think that Dawkins and Hitchens are not absolutists either even though some mistake their concern for humanity for absolutism. If you listen to them speak they appreciate the aesthetic quality that has been inspired by religion in terms of art and literature etc. And on several occasions the fab four has admitted that they don't want to destroy religious practice per se...they just hope to rid us of the superstition and irrationality.

          I, personally am not interested in creating a model that is similar to religion, but more interested in seeing individuals at least separate themselves from what is harmful about religious dogma.

          I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere ~ Thomas Jefferson

          by valadon on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:41:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  agreed (0+ / 0-)

            I think the Hitchens/Dawkins "absolutism" is a response to that practised for centuries by those who would rid the world of anything as dastardly as atheism. It's merely a tactic to ensure their voices are heard. It works, though it also gives their detractors somthing to use against them (though, there'll always be something with which to redirect with).

            "People who say I'm dystopian are middle class pussies!" – William Gibson

            by subtropolis on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:47:27 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Yes (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I give them a lot of credit for courage. I've often heard the term militant applied to them as well...that's what happens when you try to wake people up abruptly. LOL

              I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere ~ Thomas Jefferson

              by valadon on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:50:22 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

    •  Multiple reasons... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      valadon, subtropolis

      ...but one of the most important is that it's only been a few years (relative to religiosity) since it was safe in this society to admit that you are an atheist. And even if you did, try finding another who would profess it so you could organize. You were either shunned or killed for making such a pronouncement. Proclaiming Deism was about as far as you could go with your statements.

      People are still killed in many countries for not following the religious status quo. There is still a lot of anti-atheist sentiment in this country and most people don't even seem to have a clue what atheism means. I've met people who think it means we are devil-worshippers and the like.

      Actually, Richard Dawkins has set up an atheist charitable organization that is functional in both the US and the UK.

      Life isn't a battle between good and evil, it's a battle between signal and noise.

      by ChemBob on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:16:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  There are humanist and ethical organizations (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      johnny rotten

      that serve much the same role, but they aren't all that popular or widespread.  I considered going to a local one, but (now I'm sure they're fine people) seeing a picture of the group in their literature really put me off.  If you've ever watched the Libertarian Party Convention on CSPAN, that's what these folks looked like. :)

      Your political compass Economic Left/Right: -4.88 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.15

      by bythesea on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:43:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Here's a little ditty I wrote (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... trying to get my very religious mother to understand how I felt without offending her to the core of her being with every word:

    The Here And Now

  •  well spoken (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thanks for that.

    (do it again!)

    "People who say I'm dystopian are middle class pussies!" – William Gibson

    by subtropolis on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 04:37:02 PM PST

  •  I think it (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    valadon, ChemBob

    takes a giant set of brass balls to wake up every day and look in the mirror and know that when your time is up and your neurons stop firing you simply cease to exist.  No heaven, no spirit, just done and gone.  

    Most folks can't accept that.  If death was eliminated, the idea of god would lose it's appeal in a hurry.

  •  Well put, but you are sooo wrong! (0+ / 0-)

    Religion is indeed an artifact of evolution IMHO. The human race developed the facility for self-delusion as a way of coping with our increased understanding of the real world. We can't cope with the notion that we are constantly atop a spinning ball, hurling through space, held in place by this mysterious force called gravity.

    We evolved the ability to act as if false things were true to keep from going insane. Religion is just one of these delusions. There are many others (the idea that sports are important, that politicians can fix problems, that mass-produced beer tastes good, that talk show hoss aren't blithering idiots, etc.)

    Religion differs only in that most of us will admit to our other delusions and accept they are false. We can open our eyes to most things, but the evil of religion is that proof of its falsehoods is not acceptable.

    However, in recent years it has become more acceptable to point out that bullshit is bullshit. Books demonstrating the falsehood of religion are now best-sellers. So people may wake up to reality.

    Someday. I hope. Though that's just another delusion, perhaps.

    My last sig was forced into retirement. The position is open.

    by MakeChessNotWar on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 05:25:45 PM PST

  •  If You Look (0+ / 0-)

    at the entirety of evolution, from the "Big Bang" forward, you'll notice a pattern. View it using the scientific method and then tell me there's "nothing" more.

    If it really is a dog eat dog world, eventually you'll end up on the menu.

    by post rational on Fri Feb 15, 2008 at 06:57:01 PM PST

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