The emotional appeal for Atheism

[This is a repost of a comment I’d made on http://thephilosophyforum.com]

ย The Emotional argument for Atheism
This topic of discussion has piqued my interest and so I humbly attempt a contribution:
I understand an ’emotional appeal’ not to be an outburst of irrational emotion on behalf of the orator, but rather an oration intended to appeal to the audience’s emotions – that is, intended to arouse specific emotions within the listener. The manner in which this is done can vary, but a well-reasoned and logical argument, if successfully ‘appealing to the emotions’ has the benefit of being sound and able to withstand attempts to de-construct it.

In that light, one of the reasons which compels me to remain conscientiously atheistic (while admitting my unavoidable agnosticism of never being able to definitively know one way or the other), and which appeals to a hazy mix of my own emotions is the following:

For far too many centuries, Mankind (humans-as-a-species; forgive the linguistic gender bias) has appealed to a higher power to save it from its miseries – more often than not, miseries it caused on its own. Mankind has prayed and pleaded, committed sacrifices to ‘please’ that (or those) higher power(s), and invented strict rules of behaviour which were meant to appease it (them). For many of those early centuries, when Mankind was in its ‘infancy’, our invented divinities played the parental role well – consoling, ‘punishing’, and establishing limits for this infant collective.

But Mankind has had ample time in which to mature and assume responsibility for its own existence. Mankind fears many things, but prominent among them are The Unknown (such as the question of whether there is anything beyond death) and Being Alone. It is most certainly understandable then, if Mankind is Alone in the Unknown, that it has shied away from acknowledging this. It has desperately clung to this notion of a higher power, even though the collective knowledge of the species (Science and Philosophy) has diminished The Unknown considerably. This is like the ‘adult adolescent’ – the grown-up person who still lives at home, and though physically it is adult and thus is expected to assume adult responsibilities (taxes, employment, an occupation, marriage, and starting a family of its own), mentally and emotionally, the individual is stunted and immature. It would be incapable of doing (or simply would not think to do) many things, were it not for their overly-patient parents who do these things for their overgrown child. (This is not to say that ‘just as an immature adult nevertheless lives with an actual parent, so too does mankind have an actual god’ – the actual existence or not of a higher power is not the topic of discussion here.) There is also a notion of this prolonged dependence as being ‘unhealthy’: just as a ‘people-pleaser’ can never really please all people, nor can they be fulfilled or develop their own well-defined identity so long as they continue to conform to other people’s expectations and desires; so too Mankind as a whole cannot expect to please an imagined higher power nor can it fulfil its potential while it continues to defer to the power of an imaginary being over its own capacity to effect change.

So I am of the opinion that it behoves the species to finally recognize and accept that it is Alone in the Unknown. It may help, however, to recognize a crucial difference between the Individual and the Species as a whole: While the majority of individuals may feel this fear, and thus the species as a whole may be seen to suffer from this fear, the primary element of fear – that of being Alone – does not apply to the species – precisely because it is a species (i.e. a collectivity of individuals). The individual can find consolation for this fear of Being Alone in the recognition of the fact that it is not ‘alone’ – but that there are many many individuals which form our unique species. That is to say we’re not alone – we have each other. As such then, we realize that we do not need a higher power – because we have each other.
There are many benefits as a reward for such a realization:
– Mankind as a whole will find new freedom and will no longer be held back by two crippling fears – damnation (fear of displeasing a god) and solitude (see above).
– It will necessarily (though admittedly slowly, like growing pains) bring about ‘world peace’ – because if we all recognize we are ‘alone’ but that ‘we have each other’ – or that we are ‘alone together’, then we will immediately have a very deep common truth. We will all have recognized the common plight and thus we will at long last acknowledge the value every individual has in their similar plight.
– Mankind will awaken to its new responsibility as being the ‘leading’ sentient beings (sentient, with opposable thumbs, able to affect its environment and manipulate the world on a large scale) on this one planet and will thus have to adapt its collective impact upon the delicate ecology of this, our only home. The species becomes the Curator and Caretaker for Life on Earth (no longer the purview of a fictional supreme being)
– If there is no god, then there is no ‘people preferred by god’, so there is no ‘people not preferred by god’ either.
So this is an appeal to us as a species, that we see ourselves as mature and at last capable of advancing without an imagined god – for all the moral responsibility that such a conscientious decision entails. It’s time to grow up and leave home, step-out on our own and become responsible and independent. For that, we must make the conscientious decision to let go of our fears, let go of our dependence and let go of our imagined gods. We must, like all adults, face reality as it is, not how we wish it to be. It’s far more beautiful and far more empowering to actually be a part of this reality – with all of its remaining Unknowns.

I have only lightly edited the above, so I am prepared to recognize any and all weaknesses in the logic and reasoning. But as an emotional appeal, what emotions does it stir in you?

8 thoughts on “The emotional appeal for Atheism

  1. It stirs exactly the intended emotions in me. But then, as a non-believer, I’m a member of the choir.

    As someone who lives a relatively comfortable life, it’s relatively easy for me to live without the idea of a loving higher power who will make everything right in an afterlife. It might be far more difficult if my life were harsh and vulnerable to events outside of my control. (A state that most of humanity still finds itself in.)

    Those who want to see religion disappear need to work to see poverty, desperation, discrimination, and educational neglect disappear. With those removed, religion is probably a relatively easy target. But while they remain pervasive, giving up religion remains a luxury that only some of us can emotionally afford.

    1. Hi Michael, and thanks for replying!
      I would disagree whole-heartedly by pointing you towards Buddhism which is an atheistic ‘religion’, Jain(ism), Taoism (the philosophy, not the folk-religion with spirits and demons), or Humanism if that can be called a religion (there are Humanist Chaplains after all). I don’t think (nor do I think I said in the post above) that ‘religion’ should be tossed out with the bath-water. Religion is (or should be) the consolatory system for human-kind. Buddhism and the others achieves this. There is no necessary ‘luxury’ in the capacity to become atheistic.
      Wealth may facilitate better education and thus atheism, but it is not sine qua non. Education would be a more crucial element than monetary wealth (you point out ‘educational neglect’ so I’m not exactly telling you anything you haven’t already seen).

      1. Hi Tom,
        I did conflate religion with supernatural beliefs above. I do know that there are religious naturalists. However, my impression is that the lived version of these religions experienced by the vast majority of adherents include supernatural beliefs. (Although I’m open to being convinced otherwise if there is data.)

        On wealth versus education and which is more crucial, my impression is the opposite of yours, primarily due to data like this:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_and_religion
        Although actually, I don’t think the factor is wealth per se, but security (economic and physical). A strong social safety net seems more important than straight income per capita, which is probably why the US is an outlier.

      2. Hi Mike,

        I concede your point only because I haven’t the data to contradict it. I haven’t been to ‘poor’ countries where people identify with a supposed atheistic religion to determine whether or not they sneak-in some supernatural beliefs. I know that there are Buddhist ‘deities’ of a sort, but ‘those in-the-know’ (monks and more educated students of these religions) know they aren’t _actually_ gods, but more like ‘useful mnemonics’ – tools of mental representation which serve as compressed ‘packets’ of meditational subject matter. As to whether those ‘not in-the-know’ really believe they are deities, it has yet to be determined (by myself – I haven’t done any research online either for the moment).

        That graph you pointed to is interesting! I’m in Switzerland, and to see it lie near the US in ‘religiosity’ is striking and ‘feels’ wrong (but again, I haven’t interviewed thousands of Swiss citizens lately!). Do note however, China being low on the scale and low on ‘wealth’ too, my point made. You make an interesting point about social security though, again, China seems to contradict that. I would say ‘thinking doesn’t cost money’ and with a little thinking one can reason one’s way out of supernatural beliefs. But ‘security’ comes into play certainly if one’s situation is precarious, one doesn’t have the leisure time to ponder – having to work to earn one’s daily bread instead. So again, you’re right that ‘philosophy’ would be majoritarily a luxury (but Indian ascetics and beggar-monks again go against this idea). Pressure to conform probably doesn’t encourage free thought so maybe that ‘pressure’ (oppression) might fall into your ‘security’ idea… But I speculate too much.
        Glad you stuck around ๐Ÿ™‚ Always a pleasure!

      3. Hi Tom,
        Speculation is fun, and fine, as long as we’re clear we are speculating. Which is what I’m about to do ๐Ÿ™‚ (Although it is speculation grounded on what I hope are facts.)

        The similarity between the US and Switzerland appears to be an optical trick of the graph. In actuality, they’re over 20 pts apart on the question, “Is religion important in your daily life?” (41% for the Swiss vs 65% for the US) Taking into account that religiosity appears to be diminishing in the US, I think your feeling about the Swiss is probably right.

        China is definitely an outlier on the wealth relationship (although the overall pattern remains striking). But I think we have to consider a major fact about China.

        It’s a country that has had an authoritarian regime for generations that discouraged, and often persecuted, religious belief. That’s a sustained top down suppression of religiosity. I think it makes surveys about people’s beliefs there a bit suspect.

        Consider the pattern in many other Communist countries where, after the fall of Communism, there was often a resurgence of religion, probably due to an increase in existential anxiety, and existential anxiety appears to fuel religion.

        Of course, some people can overcome any existential anxiety to think rationally, but they seem to be in the minority. And others will be chronically anxious no matter how comfortable and secure their lives are, which might mean there will always be a minority of people who are religious.

        But the question is, if religion is essentially a coping mechanism, and I believe that remains its last major function, then what is the best strategy for those who’d like to see it diminish? It seems like removing the need for the coping mechanism is a good course. It’s a lot easier to accept that this life is all there is when that life is enjoyable instead of harsh and uncertain.

        I enjoy our discussions also. Hope to have many more!

      4. Quite true, when life is good it’s most probably easier to let go – just look at the way Western kids only write home to their parents when they need the money! ;P

        While again, I don’t think religion should be removed, I do think belief in the supernatural should be removed from religions. What kind of a religion is left if you removed that? Probably something along the lines of the already excruciatingly smarmy self-help trash that’s out there now. But (and I highly recommend you get a copy immediately) Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” shows there are things that can be taken (salvaged? scavenged?) from what would remain from religion after you removed the BS. The infrastucture and the thing that struck me most: the calendar – the reminder to people to be mindful of bigger things and important truths on a regular basis (too often we get bogged-down by the drudgery of daily worries and we forget to think about others and to take the time to let big ideas sink in, to realign our attitudes towards ourselves and others in relation to The Big Picture). So while I think we can and should see the world as it is, without deities, we should also see ourselves as we are – forgetful and often lazy or just exhausted. That means the ‘coping mechanisms’ still need to be there – belief in the supernatural or not, mature species or not. Even adults need post-it notes from time to time ๐Ÿ˜‰
        stick around! I’m brewing some other stuff soon – though less about religion or spirituality, more about cognitive science (I think!). I look forward to your views on those too!
        Take care,
        Tom

  2. I read your article and dialogue with SelfAwarePatterns with interest. I have also read de Botton’s book and found it generally disappointing.

    In the UK, religion has faded away quite significantly, especially amongst the under-50s, and is trending down.

    However, I’m not certain what has replaced it. A certain amount of emotional growing up has taken place, but equally a lot of new age bullshit and belief in anything that comes along. On balance, I think we’re probably muddling along all right without God to tell us what to do.

    1. Hi Steve, welcome, and thank you for commenting ๐Ÿ™‚
      I can see where you could feel disappointed with de Botton – I often am also, but I think it’s because he irks me, as though his ‘compassion’ were disingenuous or something, I dunno. But the provocative incitement to ‘scavenge’ from religions (and again, I found the utility of the ‘holy calendar as a reminder’ idea personally significant because I recognize my own _terrible_ memory).
      New Ageism (if it’s even possible to make an ‘ism’ out of that mess), I feel is particularly noxious for the mind, and on so many levels.
      I read about that Amish church that ‘went out of business’ recently in the UK – the article cheekily suggested the ‘new religion is no religion’…. ugh.

      Something /does/ need to take its place though – being godless isn’t enough, and there is a lot of wisdom and compassion that needs to be cultivated – again, Buddhism is pretty good – but again, like most religions there are ‘variants’ of buddhism which means differing interpretations… that I think is leaving the door open to more problems. But I dunno… The ‘replacement’ has yet to be properly developed I think.

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