Atheism: Its Existential Problem

After reading the description of my recently published book, Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, people occasionally inquire whether I’m an atheist. I tell them that I’m basically agnostic and a hopeful theist. It would be wonderful, to my way of thinking, if a convivial, non-dictatorial God existed. It’s a lonely world out there in the universe if we’re all alone. Yet, I haven’t found evidence that any god actually does exist. So to my knowledge, we’re alone with other living things. I also admit that I’m willing to be strategically atheistic when that helps in making a case, as it does in the book. My larger ambition is to get the hellish dictator and martial god other people worship out of the war business and bedroom, and attract folks toward an appreciation of science and love of nature. So I’m supportive of atheists when I share their goals, which is often, but I don’t identify myself as an atheist.

While rarely a real problem for anyone, it’s interesting to realize that people who identify themselves as atheists day in and night out face a possible identity problem. Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you are an atheist plunked into a world where no one believes or has ever believed in God, a place where deities never existed. Who would you be in this world? How would you identify yourself? “I’m an atheist” would immediately turn into a meaningless, ridiculous answer. You would be forced by circumstances to retire the atheist identity altogether and select some other statuses to identify yourself by in public. That’s the atheist’s existential dilemma. The identity is meaningless without deists and theists to contrast oneself against and push around. The identity is fundamentally negative and basically confrontational. You are against another’s belief. You bother yourself and others with what doesn’t exist.

Surely the disappearance of atheist identity wouldn’t be a big deal to all or even most atheists. But it would affect people who have made atheism part of their essential core, their personal identity. They would have built their history and life story around their atheism. The potential for identity disappearance might be a concern to them, and cause, do I dare suggest it, actual soul-searching.

Attention. Listen up! Serious, dedicated, confirmed atheists, arise! Prepare for the future. Ready yourself for the day no one believes in God and you will be free to rejoin your brethren as something else! Until that day, use your atheism wisely and sympathetically to introduce believers to a better, more hopeful world. And, to you personally, good luck!

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 18,  2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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16 thoughts on “Atheism: Its Existential Problem

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  1. Thanks for sharing that concept, a world without god. Will read your book. As for having an identity crisis, should all theists disappear, I, as an Atheist, think the focus will turn to the ‘process of believing’ as the defect in thinking. The problem is not what people believe in, but that they believe.

    1. Dave, thanks so much for your comment. In it you raise a tantalizing insight of your own, that the ‘process of believing’ might be a “defect of thinking.” You say: ”The problem is not what people believe in, but that they believe.” This raises some interesting questions: What is it o believe? Are beliefs avoidable? What is the process of forming belief? Does the process have stages? Where in the process does it go wrong and mislead? Must beliefs deceive? I’d love to hear more from you on the subject if you have time.

      Will

      1. Dave,

        Thanks for the invitation to read your blog essays. While I haven’t read all of them, I understand from the ones I have read your purposes, principles, proofs, and method, and find them very powerful. They indeed answer the questions I raised in response to your initial comment on my blog essay. In general, I agree with your principles and can see that your methods are straight-forward, practical, and very effective.

        I think you’ll enjoy my book too. I deal with many of the same issues, but in a context of working on a different but related problem. If you get the chance to read the book, I’ll be interested in your reflections and conclusions. Thank you very much. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance.

        Will

      2. Hi Will. Sorry for the delayed response. Out of town. Hey thanks for the positive critique. It’s a long blog. It’s actually a book. I see from your first post that you view yourself as an agnostic – theist. If you didn’t already do so, you might look at my definition of Atheism in my blog and see if you can identify with it. It’s a short 3 minute read. I redefine Atheism accenting the ‘believe’ aspect and leave open the possibility of gods.

        As for your book, if you point me to a link that has an electronic version of it, I shall see if I can add it to my reading list. I will be out of the country for a couple of months and I think that it would be a good time to catch up on my reading. Books are heavy though, when you travel. May not get a chance to reply here till I get back.

      3. Hi Dave,

        To respond to the book question first, yes, the book is in ebook as well as paper and hardcover formats, and can be purchased through any of the usual internet stores. Just google the title or follow the link to Amazon and you’ll find the ebook version easily enough.

        On the question you ask about definitions of atheism, I think the approach you develop in your blog is clear, internally consistent and useful for the purposes you make of it. So, I have no problem with your way of looking at the subject.

        As for myself and my work, I approach the subject differently. I don’t have a problem with dictionary definitions. I think they are useful catalogs of words and cultural meanings. I have no problems with the definitions and ideas of “belief “ and “believing.” The definitions seem as useful and necessary in conveying a practical certainty that roads, cars, passengers and stop signs exist when we drive as they are in understanding that Joe’s a Muslim and Jack a Catholic. I’m not an enemy of religion. In general I think religion is a good idea and I try to reinvent it without a deity. I focus on the idea that Life is sacred. I don’t have a complaint with people who are either believers or unbelievers, as long as they are pacific and nature friendly, although I’m in the nonbeliever camp. My preoccupation in Abdication: God Steps Down for Good is to prevent nuclear war and protect life on the planet by getting God out of the war business. For this work I depend on Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion:

        a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them.” Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) (p44.)

        With this definition, as I’ve said, I feature “Life” rather than a deity as sacred. This is all part of an outrageous effort to “reinvent,” humanity!
        I hope this is reasonably clear.

        Best wishes.

        Will

  2. I went from Christian to skeptic to agnostic to atheist to secular humanist to humanist. I settled on humanist because it defines me (if one must be defined) based on what I believe not on the beliefs of others or my opposition to their beliefs.

    1. Dawna, that’s a very nice point. ‘Humanist’ is a positive and inspiring label that conveys both high regard for our fellow human beings and a faith in the ideals, philosophy, and practices of a humanist liberal arts education.

      Will

  3. You are assuming that Atheists use the term “Atheist” to define their entire identity. Just because someone is an Atheist doesn’t mean they don’t believe in other ideas or concepts. For example, many Atheists are Humanists. In addition, your scenario is a non-issue because in a world where no one ever believed in god, there would be no need to identify that way, it would just be default “normal”. The identity arose because there was a need for it.

    1. Melinda, thanks for your comment. We may have a disagreement, but I don’t see one. Atheist can be used as an adjective as well as a noun, and neither use requires firm belief or a personal identity claim. And, yes, atheists have excellent reasons for being atheist. I use the label in advancing the causes I care about: my book couldn’t have been written otherwise. Some might call the book an atheist tract! I agree also that atheists enjoy friendships with those who choose to call themselves ‘secularists,’ ‘agnostics,’ ‘skeptics,’ rationalists,’ ‘naturalists,’ ‘freethinkers,’ ‘brights,’ ‘inquirers,’ and ‘humanists.’

      Will

  4. “… and push around” So your definition of atheists are people that push around people of faith. Interesting. Could you site some personal examples of how you witness this, or is this pretentious bullshit? How about I just sum up your beliefs and you tell me how close I am: “My name is Will and although I like to say I’m atheist once in a while, I’m not one because it isn’t cool so I get to be one and criticize them at the same time. Don’t you wish you were me? But you can’t, but hey I still wish you well so don’t be mad at me either!”

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