A Honest Atheist – A Response to Damon Linker from The Week

A.C. Grayling has a new book coming out soonish and Damon Linker from The Week takes umbrage to his book.

So here is a response. (Gah! The Week! Why must you use hyperlink advertisement!)

Does the world really need another “new atheist” manifesto? Another attack on the ludicrousness of religion and the childishness of belief in God? Another paean to the spiritual and intellectual satisfactions of secularism, materialism, and humanism? Do the efforts of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and their many lesser imitators really require further reinforcement? British philosopher A.C. Grayling must think so, since that is precisely what his latest book (The God Argument, which will be published on March 26) aims to provide.

Yes it does. Honestly? If we keep thinking about Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens et. al. as the sole source of our atheist view point then we ourselves fall prey to the weakness of stagnant thought. Thought progresses with time and perhaps Grayling has something new to introduce to us. I don’t think I am more honest than the next man but I can still field the question.

If anything it’s nice to see something new. While we have grown comfortable with people such as Dawkins and Randi and even people like PZ Myers and Sam Harris. We often forget that we do require a new generation of atheists to spread their wings and “fly”. We cannot keep saying that we only want to hear from Four Horsemen.

Grayling is mistaken. The style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end. It’s one thing to catalogue the manifest faults within this or that religious tradition, which the new atheists have ably done… over and over and over again. It’s quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.

Yet we still see people following religious viewpoints to the end points of bigotry and hate. We still see the reduction of the rights of women across the globe at the hands of religious faith. Clearly while Mr. Linker got the message people haven’t. We still are under represented amongst people of colour and atheists in many parts of the world face death for their lack of faith.

And while it’s nice to keep parroting the beliefs of Hitchens, it’s time we spread our own wings. Otherwise we are doomed to become a cargo cult, forever quoting from Hitch rather than from what new things we can come up with.

A quick look through the comments section there shows us how much said view points are needed. Within a few posts you can already see the tired old argument of “Stalin and Mao killed millions because of their atheism”. If anything this indicates how much we DO need new blood in the atheist movement as new voices.

Atheism is not good or bad. Atheism merely is the stance that there are no gods so that YOU are responsible for your actions. Yes YOU. Fourth Wall Breaking You! The sad fact of the matter is you have always been responsible for your actions. It’s just that religion sometimes allows you to ignore that responsibility of thought while atheism does not. Your actions are entirely yours in atheism and atheism doesn’t tell you to behave one way or another. It is up to you to think about what your actions mean in the grand scheme of things and do the “appropriate” thing.

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

If you exclude the 7 billion other human beings then you will always be truly alone. If you exclude family, friends and the sheer bulk of humanity then only can you be “alone” in this universe.

Our prayers have never been asnwered. For every “answered” prayer there are countless people whose prayers are unanswered. For every answered prayer about the outcome of a football match there are the unanswered prayers of a child who wants food. Ultimately? Most prayers are answered by human beings rather than any gods. Your footballers win your matches and your humans fail to deliver food.

Human dignity is not innate or intrinsic. It is a concept we have created and given credence to by our respect for human life that is based on the notion that all humans are equal and should have the same rights and the same chance to live a happy and satisfying life. It has long been fought for and often against religion which has sought to place restrictions on the freedoms of others be it the GLBT, women, people of a different ethnicity, tribes, heretics or anyone who doesn’t follow their particular religion.

Honest atheists understand this. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, but he called it an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for humanity, which now faced the monumental task of avoiding a descent into nihilism. Essayist Albert Camus likewise recognized that when the longing for a satisfying answer to the question of “why?” confronts the “unreasonable silence of the world,” the goodness of human life appears to dissolve and must be reconstructed from the ground up. 

Nietzsche is right though.

Life has no inherent value. Just an hour ago I sat on an ant hill and engaged in mortal combat (kombat?) with denizens of said hill. Let’s just say I had to valiantly engage in a baiting action where my pretend screams and flailing were meant to lull my ant opponents into a false sense of security. Jokes aside? I killed a fair few of them. Their lives had no inherent value to me. I could annihilate them at whim.

In the time since I started writing this, dozens if not hundreds of people have died. Many of them children.

Why do their deaths matter?

Their deaths matter because we as humans have decided to place value. We have looked at an uncaring and enormous planet in an uncaring and enormous universe and decided to improve it by caring about each other because it’s a powerful survival strategy. Human life is valuable because at one point every human was vital to the survival of the group and we made the change from run away screaming from danger and standing and fighting.

Why do we care for each other? Because it helped us survive. Why do we continue to do so? Because it helps us survive in the world better today. The concrete jungle is just as deadly as the rainforest in different ways. We cooperate to make it function. A single human is pathetic and weak and stupid.

Together we touched the moon. Together we killed smallpox. Together we can do a lot of things. Which is why we matter to each other. Which is why “humanity” has some meaning. On the grand scale of things it’s unimportant but we are not grand beasts.


In our own time, physicist Steven Weinberg admits that he is “nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God” and associates himself with the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a “note of sadness” in its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” Weinberg confesses to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find “in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role.”

So your biggest gripe is that we won’t be “special”. Someone’s awfully big headed…

The past century has given us many honest atheists, some well known, others less so: The playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett, aphorist E.M. Cioran, filmmaker Woody Allen. But perhaps the most brutally honest of all was the poet Philip Larkin, whose poems movingly describe the immense psychological struggles that often accompany atheism — an outlook he considered to be both “true” and “terrible.” Religion — “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die” — used to dispel the terror of annihilation, or at least try to. But Larkin will have none of it. And that leaves him — and us — with no solace or reassurance, confronting the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness: “This is what we fear: no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anesthetic from which none come round.” 

Yes. When we die we stop.

But that’s okay. If you are dead you won’t even realise it. You have stopped. You aren’t like the beliefs of the Naga where you remain trapped in your body unless decapitated. You won’t see the world, your chemistry will stop and you will return to the elements. You will have ceased to be. And that’s sad.

But for now you live. For now you are on the planet and heaven is what you make of it here.

To reject religion does not merely entail facing our finitude without comforting illusions. It also involves the denial of something noble. It is perfectly fitting, Larkin seems to say, for an atheist to lament his lack of belief in a God who bestows metaphysical meaning on the full range of human desires and experiences. As he puts it in the unforgettable closing stanza of “Church Going,” in which the poet ponders the prospect of a world without religion, the empty shell of the church he inspects with “awkward reverence” is, finally, “a serious house on serious earth.” And its seriousness flows from its capacity to serve as a place — perhaps the only place on earth — where “all our compulsions meet / Are recognized, and robed as destinies.” 

If we were to ignore all the negative aspects of religion…

Then ultimately it is still the tooth fairy for adults. A Santa Claus that we haven’t grown out. No matter how noble you claim it to be it’s still a fantasy.

The world is not a poorer place for discovering that our mum was the Tooth Fairy and that Santa Claus was your parents. We could replace the wonder of a chubby milk and biscuit guzzling magic man delivering elf made Sega Mega Drives with the joy of exchanging presents with humans and have it mean MORE.

This is like demanding our eyes be blinded because you don’t like the sight of starving children. If you are blinded to them it doesn’t stop them from starving. Believing in a god isn’t going to make one exist. It just means you lose sight of the real things out there.

It is a striking image, capturing at once the dignified beauty of religious ritual and its capacity to conceal the truth under a layer of intricate artifice: The whole point of the liturgy performed on the church altar, Larkin implies, is to seduce us with the beautiful and supremely fulfilling illusion that our worldly compulsions have cosmological meaning and significance. And for Larkin, this longing for our most precious hopes to link up with the order that governs the universe “never can be obsolete.” Which means that this aspect of religion, at least, may very well be too deeply rooted in the human soul ever to be completely purged.

Intricate bullshit doesn’t mean intricate artifice. A Rolex is intricate artifice. Religion is superstition given polite deference due to age.

And yes. People will always fall for superstition. The rise of “new” religions such as Mormonism and Scientology are perfect examples.

To a slightly skeptical observer both sound like incredible bullshit. But they rose from cults to “mainstreamish” religions. But if you are willing to accept superstition then you place yourself at the hands of the men and women who control that superstition. You not only are chained to the will of those who lead you, but refuse to undo the chains.

The compassionate generosity and honesty of Larkin’s atheism also infuse a poem titled “Faith Healing,” which reflects on the deepest sources of humanity’s religious impulses. Larkin suggests that human beings are creatures governed by the longing to love — and even more so, by the longing to be loved. It is a need, a hunger that never can be permanently satiated. But religion tries, understanding and responding to this crucially important aspect of humanity perhaps more fully than any other institution or practice. When a preacher looks into the eyes of a suffering parishioner, cradles her head in his hands, and utters “Dear child, what’s wrong?”, Larkin writes, “an immense slackening ache / … Spreads slowly through” her, “As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps.” The preacher’s love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart. 

Okay. We agree that Preacher’s Love is a charade. We agree that there is no god working here. What we see here is a human being asking “What’s Wrong” to someone who wants to get things off their chest.

You are attributing special spiritual powers to something any human being is capable off.

That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain, no doubt in part because they want to sell books — and greeting cards do a brisk business. But honesty requires more than sentimental, superficial happy talk, which is all readers will get from A.C. Grayling and his anti-religious comrades in arms.

It is a major problem that we claim that Atheism is “simple” and Religion is “filled with depth and nuance”. So is Warhammer, but it doesn’t make it real.

Honestly? There is no evidence for any gods. Until there is some the fact we are discussing the hypothetical existence of one is idiotic. We may as well debate the existence of Hogwarts. It’s terrible because we stop being the special envoys of a divine being. It’s not terrible because we are masters of our own destinies and captains of our own fates.

The truth is often superficial. That doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. Sometimes the meaning is simple and mundane.

A rainbow is not the covenant of a mystical god and a promise to never hurt the world after that “one time” due to all the sinful humans. It’s the refraction of light through water causing the dispersion of the various wavelengths of light. The superficial truth is better than the deep lie.


  1. Ulysses says

    Apparently gnu atheists don’t appreciate the majesty and mysticism that religion provides. Plus we don’t suffer enough angst for the loss of religion in our lives. I doubt Linker has ever talked to an atheist about atheism but I doubt he would want to. Then he might have to lose some of the smugness, superciliousness and hauteur he feels towards atheists.

  2. DumbDrunkAndRacist says

    Excuse my dumbness in not catching on, but was that supposed to be a book review? If so, what about the book? Were are the good and bad points of its message and style? Who would it appeal to? etc.
    This is just Mr Linker taking pot-shots at (New) Atheism from behind the dust jacket of a book he hasn’t read. It looks like he’s trying to gain recognition by linking his name to the New Atheists, just like all the religious people who mention Richard Dawkins or cite “The God Delusion”.
    And Ulysses is right, he obviously doesn’t know any Atheists if he thinks everything is bleak and empty for us.

  3. dora says

    Credo che i più poetici argomenti a sostegno del non aver paura della morte, e di guardare alle cose del mondo con spirito “scientifico” (premonitore, data l’epoca!) di non credere agli dei si trovi nel “De rerum naturae”, un libro di una persona libera da pregiudizi di sorta.

  4. Brian E says

    For some reason, this song about meaningless, atheistic love reminded me of this excellent blog post of yours…

  5. Brian E says

    Or more logically, your excellent blog post reminded me of this meaningless, atheistic love song.

  6. Sercee says

    “A rainbow is not the covenant of a mystical god and a promise to never hurt the world after that “one time” due to all the sinful humans. It’s the refraction of light through water causing the dispersion of the various wavelengths of light. The superficial truth is better than the deep lie.”

    I love reading your blog, Avi. I’m pretty sure you’re my favorite.

  7. thumper1990 says

    Linker’s entire screed is just one big Argument from Consequences. And therefore proves precisely nothing, other than my long-held belief that the continued propagation of religion is due mainly to certain people’s inability to distinguish between a thing being desireable and a thing being true.

  8. thumper1990 says

    “A rainbow is not the covenant of a mystical god and a promise to never hurt the world after that “one time” due to all the sinful humans. It’s the refraction of light through water causing the dispersion of the various wavelengths of light.”

    And no less beautiful for all that. Good post, Avi.

  9. says

    @4, 5

    That song always makes me want to jump up and down and go “Me! Me!”

    Hell, I’d take being a floating sack of unhinged madness in the void of space over oblivion…

  10. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    I will agree with Damon Linker that atheism doesn’t provide the sense of wonder and majesty and meaning that religion offers.

    Of course, atheism also won’t sweep my floor, fold my laundry and finish my paperwork in the office. Because that’s not what atheism is for.

    And really, all those wonderful things that religion promises? It isn’t so great at those, either. Not every function of religion is better served by atheism — some are better served by science, some by poetry, some by a glass of wine and a chat with friends and/or a good novel and/or a well-tuned metaphor and/or a Queen song. “But my widget does fifty things badly!” isn’t a very good selling point when we have good tools for all of those things.

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