Giving advice on how to be an atheist

It is curious how many people there are who think that many atheists are getting it all wrong and feel they must tell us how we should think. Much of this advice comes from fellow atheists ‘and sophisticated theologians’ (i.e., those whose religious beliefs are so rarified that it has almost no overlap with the beliefs of ordinary religious person except that they agree on the fact that the material world is not all there is).

This ‘advice’ follows the same pattern. They say that atheists who ditch the supernatural because of a lack of evidence and because it makes no sense are being superficial and doing it all wrong. It seems we must feel serious angst about it. We must suffer.

Damon Linker is the latest in this trend. He has an article How to be an honest atheist, the title of which is condescending enough. He quotes philosophy and poetry “to show that, viewed honestly, atheism is “utterly tragic” — and that the denial of this tragedy amounted to little more than “sentimental, superficial happy talk.””

He claims that a true atheist must be an existentialist and that “Existentialism differs from the greeting-card version of atheism so prevalent today, in taking its cue from the realization that life without God is hard.”

No, it isn’t. What is hard is shaking off the shackles of belief. But if you can do so, it is actually a lot of fun and life without belief in a god is much easier. At least it was for me. You don’t need to wade through Camus and Sartre and Nietzsche to be an atheist though I have no problems with people who feel they must do so.

Linker is free to struggle and suffer if he likes. I wish he would stop suggesting that the atheism of the rest of us is somehow inferior because we feel no need to share in his misery.


  1. Chiroptera says

    He quotes philosophy and poetry “to show that, viewed honestly, atheism is “utterly tragic…”

    Huh. He must not be aware of conservative Evangelical Protestant theology. Dude, there’s some tragic right there!


    He claims that a true atheist must be an existentialist and that “Existentialism differs from the greeting-card version of atheism so prevalent today, in taking its cue from the realization that life without God is hard.”

    Huh. Considering how non-specific and amorphous much of the sophistmacated theology is, I can’s see how that’s really any less existential or hard.

    As a former evangelical, I will say that suddenly realizing that you’re an atheist can be unsettling: suddenly, you don’t have all the nice pat answers for anything and you realize that in the end there is no guarantee of a happy ending. But once you get used to it, you realize that you’re life is pretty much the same. Except without religion, it’s much much more difficult to convince someone to support things that deep down inside they realize are immoral.

  2. says

    He claims that a true atheist must be an existentialist

    Not true; we can also be nihilists.

    Existentialism is just reifying yourself to replace god. As he says, it’s a lot of work and -- it’s mostly bullshit anyway. So why not simply accept the apparent truth that nothing matters, our lives are short and pointless, and most of the humans that have lived have got it pretty tough. So those of us who don’t can maybe choose to spend what little time we have in pursuits that we find enjoyable or useful (or both!) based on our sense of pleasure and pain?

    As I wrote the above, I realize that Epicurus actually gutted Linker’s silly “argument” a couple thousand years ago; if Linker wants to pretend to play philosopher he should do a better job seeking clarity and maybe avoid the overly-turgid products of victorian German philosophy and French post-war humiliated angst.

  3. doublereed says

    Really? Because I found life with God to be much much harder. Life without God is super fun and easy.

    I’ve known plenty of people who concern themselves terribly with pleasing a deity and trying to reconcile it with what they want out of life. I’ve seen women try to fit their assertive, confident demeanor into the godly, submissive gender role and hate themselves for failing. God tears families apart because of nonsense bigotry and silliness. And don’t forget all that guilt about sex.

    No, there’s nothing easy about God. It just makes people miserable.

  4. doublereed says

    And to bring it back to the main point: Atheism is about freedom and human solidarity. If there was a God I would want him dead, if only for our freedom.

    Honestly, I can’t think of a more spiritually fulfilling idea than that.

  5. wtfwhateverd00d says

    It is curious how many people there are who think that many atheists are getting it all wrong and feel they must tell us how we should think.

    I’m still not convinced you read your cobloggers at Free Thought Blogs.

  6. rq says

    Life without god was easier. Not easy, but easier. It freed me, in a lot of ways.
    I’d be suffering anyhow; I’d rather suffer on my terms, rather than god’s.

  7. noastronomer says

    Sleep in on Sunday mornings. Or go kayaking. Depending on the weather. That’s my advice.



  8. johnhodges says

    There was a time, shortly after I lost faith in my last serious religion, that I said “Losing your faith is like losing a leg.” I was depressed for about a year. But I got over it. I read and thought about philosophy for some years, and constructed my own set of answers to life’s questions. (I knew about the existence of philosophy because of one of my earliest religions, the Objectivism of Ayn Rand.) Existentialism is not the only possible atheist philosophy; There are others readymade, such as Epicureanism and Aristoteleanism (I’ve even met an atheist Utilitarian), or you can make your own; the one I assembled is the second half of this essay:

  9. Nick Gotts says

    I’d never heard of Damon Linker. Now I know he’s a pretentious numpty. I doubt that I need to know any more about him.

  10. Al Dente says

    Since I’m neither an existentialist nor a nihilist, I guess I’m a “dishonest” atheist, at least according to Linker.

    It never fails to amaze me how goddists feel they should dictate how I as an atheist should think. Unlike Linker’s “honest” atheist, I don’t need my mommy to tuck me in at night. Nor to I feel the need to suffer angst over not believing in a fictitious sky pixie.

  11. Jack o' Spades ( & trowels) says

    I’ve been doing atheism wrong all this time! thanks DamonLinker!
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no hurry to die. Death means no more books, no more of my kids, no more cool dtuff to experience. Ever. That sucks, especially the no books part. And don’t get me started about justice, because there ain’t none! But here’s the deal. We’re grown ups. the meaning we make ourselves is no less meaningful than meaning dictated from on high, at least as I experience it. Weep in the fog if you want, Damon, but I intend to light a torch and burn that sucker as bright as I can. But thanks for philosopher-splaining how I would feel if I were honest! Too bad I’m such a liar. To myself. Or something.

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Hilaire Belloc, a papist, took the same view of an unbeliever’s choices:

    John Henderson, an unbeliever,
    Had lately lost his Joie de Vivre
    From reading far too many books.
    He went about with gloomy looks;
    Despair inhabited his breast
    And made the man a perfect pest.

    Not so his sister, Mary Lunn,
    She had a whacking lot of fun!
    Though unbelieving as a beast
    She didn’t worry in the least,
    But drank as hard as she was able
    And sang and danced upon the table;
    And when she met her brother Jack
    She used to smack him on the back
    So smartly as to make him jump,
    And cry ‘What-ho! You’ve got the hump!’
    A phrase which, more than any other,
    Was gall and wormwood to her brother;
    For, having an agnostic mind,
    He was exceedingly refined.

    The Christians, a declining band,
    Would point with monitory hand
    To Henderson his desperation,
    To Mary Lunn her dissipation,
    And often mutter, ‘Mark my words!
    Something will happen to those birds!’

    Which came to pass: for Mary Lunn
    Died suddenly, at ninety-one,
    Of Psittacosis, not before
    Becoming an appalling bore.
    While Henderson, I’m glad to state,
    Though naturally celibate,
    Married an intellectual wife
    Who made him lead the Higher life
    And wouldn’t give him any wine;
    Whereby he fell in a decline,
    And, at the time of writing this,
    Is suffering from paralysis,
    The which, we hear with no surprise,
    Will shortly end in his demise.

    The moral is (it is indeed!)
    You mustn’t monkey with the Creed.

    The book has illustrations of them, but I can’t find them on the ‘net.

  13. Margaret says

    With or without belief in a god or gods, life has hard and painful parts. But with belief in a god or gods, the painful parts of life have the added horror that there is somebody purposely doing it to you and that the pain is something you deserve. That’s a kind of psychological torture I’m glad to have escaped.

  14. mnb0 says

    “life without belief in a god is much easier. At least it was for me.”
    As I declared myself an agnost (ie without belief) at the tender age of 14 and even never have been baptized (thanks, mom and dad) I can’t compare. What I found hard was to put my moral instincts into an ethical system that made some sense. That took me some 15 years. But I like reading and thinking, so it wasn’t like a burden.
    At the other hand I’m often amazed which problems believers can suffer from. How to build a relationship with YHWH, Allah or whoever? Am I a sinner? Should I repent and how? Will I receive salvation? Does God exist or does he happen (the Dutch “atheist” preacher Klaas Hendrikse wrote two book about it)? Are my theological views not too far out of line?

  15. lpetrich says

    Seems almost like being mad at God for not existing. One is supposed to feel terrible and be very distraught over God not existing, it seems, and being angry at God for refusing to exist is not much of a step.

    One might as well be angry at Santa Claus for not existing.

  16. lanir says

    SInce most of us are lied to first, getting to atheism is a learning process. There are tons of ideas floating around about how people learn because a lot of people seem to go through the process themselves then through ignorance make the mistake of thinking there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the process in a general sense. This conceit through ignorance about how other people can or should be atheists is just a more specific shade of that.

  17. bmiller says

    The Gods presented by orthodox religion seem so horrific that even if one is of a gloomy turn of mind, existentialism and nihilism (and epicureanism) ALL seem superior to worshipping such a being.

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