Atheism is so often considered in the negative: as a lack of faith, or a disbelief in god; as an essential deprivation. Atheism is seen as being destitute of meaning, value, purpose; unfertile ground for growing the feelings of belonging needed to overcome the alienation that dogs modern life. In more extreme critiques, atheism is considered to be another name for nihilism; a fundamental negation of existence, a noxious blight on creation itself.
Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole. The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.
The shackles of humanism
Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history.
When one considers the destruction that advanced capitalism visits on communities – from environmental catastrophes to war and genocide – then the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative.
In the brutal economic reality of a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, these concerns are rarely given due consideration when debating the questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of god. The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.
Atheism, suffering and solidarity
The writings of atheist poster boys Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett do not offer solace to the existential and political realities of our world. In some cases, they can make them worse. Calls for reason and scientific inquiry do not offer any coherent sense of solidarity to those who suffer. The humanist might argue the world would be a far more progressive place if scientific values guided our governments. But the reality is that humanism, together with its ethical correlate of individual dignity, remains ineffectual when it comes to offering a galvanising purpose, or inspiring a meaningful sense of belonging.
The most pressing concerns facing humans are philosophical, and sometimes even metaphysical. Humans have genuine fears that life is excessively cheap, a sense that the collective good is waning, that political action is equivalent to apathy and cynicism, and that any solution to any political problem is the ubiquitous idea of the entrepreneurial human.
This is why atheism, if it is to be relevant, must shed its humanism. The future vitality and relevance of atheism depends on its ability to broaden its focus away from the validity of god’s existence and narrow concerns over individual freedom. Instead, it must turn to address questions about economic causality, belonging and alienation, poverty, collective action, geo-politics, the social causes of environmental problems, class and gender inequality, and human suffering.
Obviously, the best person to consult on the rapidity of climate change is the scientist. But these kind of appeals to science as a way of understanding the world around us must be supplemented by the core philosophical considerations of humans existing in the world, who grapple daily with the enormity of undeniable problems. Atheism needs to renew itself if it is to be considered relevant for the new century.
But this is not to say that atheism must embrace an insipid, watered-down spiritualism. Instead, we can look to a different breed of atheism, found in the work of continental, anti-humanist philosophers. For example, we can turn to Nietzsche to understand the resentments generated by human suffering. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition offers us the means to understand the material conditions of unsustainable capitalism. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus allow us to comprehend our shared mortality, and the humour and tragedy of life in a godless universe.
There is a whole other philosophical vocabulary for atheism to explore. Both Nietzsche and Sartre observe a different atheism, one embedded in the context of genuine questions of cruelty, economic alienation, anxiety and mortality.
Atheism needs to be attentive to what it means to live with the consequences of violence, senselessness and suffering. The trouble with atheism in its more conventional guises is a nerdish fetishism for all things that work: what is accurate, the instrumental and the efficient. The trouble is, many aspects of our world are not working. Because of this, the atheist is in danger of being perceived as deluded and aloof from the violent mess of the real. Atheism, if it is to be vital, needs to reconnect itself with the more disturbing, darker aspects of the human condition.