Motivations for Atheism

“In studies on college students, atheists and agnostics reported more anger at God during their lifetimes than believers. A separate study also found this pattern among bereaved individuals.”  — CNN’s Elizabeth Landau reporting on Case Western Reserve University research (Jan. 2011)

When asked why they are atheist/humanist/naturalist, most people will tell you that it’s only rational, it’s obvious, science proves it, etc. But, is that really why they adopted that worldview, either consciously or subconsciously?

Richard Lewontin

I think it’s much more complex than that and involves a whole lot more emotion and “illogic” than many will admit or perhaps recognize in themselves. Of course, just as with any worldview or philosophical tenet, we have go be careful about generalizing. Every individual’s “reasons” are particular to their background and circumstance. But, I find it enlightening to read what some of the luminaries from the non-theist community have said themselves on this subject. Let’s begin with a quote from evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin’s famous “Billions and Billions of Demons” article from the New York Times (1997). Many are familiar with the “Divine foot in the door” bit, but here’s a little more context:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”


It sounds to me as if Lewontin is admitting that the philosophical commitment to materialism gives rise to — and, thus, precedes — the naturalistic approach to science. This is contrary to the “Science disproves the existence of God” claim we’ve been told.

In the PBS documentary Nine Conversations: The Question of God (2004), professional skeptic Michael Shermer explained his “de-conversion” this way:

“Socially, when I moved from theism to atheism, and science as a worldview, I guess, to be honest, I just like the people in science, and the scientists, and their books, and just the lifestyle, and the way of living. I liked that better than the religious books, the religious people I was hanging out with — just socially. It just felt more comfortable for me…. In reality I think most of us arrive at most of our beliefs for non-rational reasons, and then we justify them with these reasons after the fact.”

A remarkable admission from Shermer.

In Ends and Means (1937), humanist Aldous Huxley wrote:

“The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. The voluntary, as opposed to the intellectual, reasons for holding the doctrines of materialism, for example, may be predominantly erotic, as they were in the case of La Mettrie… or predominantly political, as they were in the case of Karl Marx….

Aldous Huxley (1946) – Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever….

Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.”

So, justification of one’s political and/or sexual desires was the order of the day for Huxley’s generation. (I’ve heard/read other, more contemporary non-theists say as much. For example, I think Christopher Hitchens did, but I can’t find the quote.)

Philosopher Thomas Nagel is quite forthright about his own motivations, as revealed in The Last Word (1997):

“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.”

Such honesty is refreshing! (It is also precisely why Nagel has gotten in hot water with many of his fellow atheists.)

Again, these are only a few examples of reasons given for adopting an atheist view, as shared by famous exemplars. As I said before, I found them to be enlightening. (That was a pun.) What did you think? Do you have any other quotes or personal anecdotes to add? Please share…


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline