Do Atheists Exist?

by Nicholas Frankovich
A new “godless” church makes you wonder.

For people who like church except for the parts about God, a British couple have bodied forth a new denomination that cheerfully excludes him, raising the volume on the question “What is atheism?” several decibels overnight. The Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” founded in East London last January by standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, now boasts affiliates in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Canberra, Melbourne, New York, and Portland, Ore. On September 21, it announced a “global missionary tour”: This past fall, interested individuals in 22 cities across the Anglosphere held Sunday Assembly meet-ups. Look for permanent congregations to be established in some of those locations. Look for more to follow if the momentum continues.

“Church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked),” Jones and Evans confess in a short piece that appeared in the New York Times to mark the launch of their venture. Stuart Balkham, an earnest convert, told the Guardian that at a London meeting he attended the Assembly was “unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format,” which he thought was great.

Half ironically, the founders allow that the Assembly is a church, dedicated to benevolent acts and the search for transcendence. Though they draw the line at “religion,” insisting that it and atheism are mutually exclusive, the openness with which they borrow ecclesial atmospherics and nomenclature suggests that they see their atheist outfit as not entirely secular either. You might call it a third way, an alternative to religion and secularity both, much as the Church of England was historically a “via media” between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Speaking the language of the many who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” the Assembly draws on an increasingly widespread understanding of religion as something like what “the letter” of the law was for Saint Paul — “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). If “religion” remains the inevitable word for a certain moral and philosophical seriousness, however, atheism is, or should be, counted as religious after all. Among the latest to advance that thesis is Ronald Dworkin, whose Religion without God was published posthumously in September. His argument is solid at least insofar as it’s not original; his readers may be quicker to grasp it than he anticipated. Citing Torcasco v. Watkins (1961), Dworkin quoted Hugo Black, who in a clarifying footnote to that Supreme Court decision had commented that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others,” a list to which the casual observer could be forgiven for adding several mainline Protestant denominations whose vanishing theism quotients have haunted the landscape of organized religion in America for half a century or more. And so the Sunday Assembly, its rejection of the label “religion” notwithstanding, joins a distinguished parade of institutions demonstrating that religious practice persists as an anthropological fact even where belief in God is muted or absent.

We live in a post-secular age, having run up against the limitations of procedural liberalism, which, while regulating the market on which God and the Devil compete for souls, remains scrupulously disinterested in the outcome. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, an atheist, created a stir twelve years ago when he began to argue that the secular state has an interest in the distinctive contributions that Judaism and Christianity make to the political order. The Italian philosopher Marcello Pera, also an atheist, goes further, proposing a Christian civil religion to replenish the Judeo-Christian matrix from which the West derives the moral values on which liberal democracy depends. The values uprooted from their native religion are like cut flowers, good for a time but not sustainable. The Sunday Assembly is hardly the first attempt to keep them going a while longer.

In embracing altruism, the Assembly touches on moral theology, as do Habermas and Pera, but unlike them it does so from a position it has staked out on the near outskirts of metaphysics, which lends the godless church much of its warmth. The third part of the Assembly’s motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more,” reflects a value attractive to souls seeking relief from the cool, or chill, as they experience it, of the secular climate in which they live. “Our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age. “The sense that there is something more presses in.”

Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.

Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it. The articulation of thought about what that mystery is — “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” in Wittgenstein’s succinct rendition of the matter — has been so honed by succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology that it’s now difficult for anyone, whether theist or atheist, to improve on their exact formulations. So the atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.

A dramatic declaration of atheism is usually an assertion of disbelief in a god no one else believes in either. Judging the shadowy masculine presence at the center of the Hebrew Bible to be a tyrannical father figure and a lie — Richard Dawkins calls him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” — atheists who cross over into militant antitheism make quite the show of manfully defying the Lord’s authority to command them. They plant their flag in the ground. There they stand, they can do no other.

They lose their footing when they recoil as they do, reflexively, from classical theism as well. They don’t trust it. If it’s related to Him, they’re not interested; they won’t be seduced. They plug their ears to keep from hearing too distinctly the siren song of sweet reason, which they dodge, rather than confront. Either they see plainly or they intuit that God in his aspect as God of the philosophers is ground on which reason offers no apparent means of escape or resistance. We might as well try to refute the multiplication tables. They are what they are.

“I Am That I Am” is the conventional translation of the enigmatic Hebrew expression by which God in the burning bush identifies himself to Moses (Exodus 3:14). In the Greek of the Septuagint, “I am” is egō eimi. Jesus scandalizes his critics when, shifting to the present tense in a context in which you would expect the past tense, he answers them, “Before Abraham ever was, I am” — egō eimi (John 8:58). In first-century Jerusalem, that statement is either blasphemous or a theophany.

Greek philosophy influenced this turn toward equating God with Being itself, as Hellenistic culture spread across the eastern Mediterranean, and the influence was reciprocal: Classical theism is the cumulative achievement of generations of theologians reading scripture in the light of Plato and Aristotle, but also vice versa. From the New Testament we can estimate the extent to which Jews by the time of Christ had come to understand that Yahweh was not a god — not, at any rate, in the sense in which their ancestors had spoken of “strange gods,” “household gods,” or the gods of other nations. The discernment of God as what Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century would term “ipsum esse subsistens” — the “Ground of Being,” in the parlance of Christian mysticism and theology — developed organically over the course of more than a millennium, with no clear moment of birth, although it was mature certainly by the High Middle Ages. Where the approach to God had been anthropological, it was now also philosophical — ontological, to be more precise.

So now we know that something of what Moses experienced when God visited him on Mount Horeb is available to anyone who will only take enough thought. The mystery of being induces wonder, or awe, commensurate with our willingness to engage it. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that anything exists.

Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?

A: God, although maybe we need a new name for him.

Many people who would never think to participate in the rancor of public antitheism are nonetheless susceptible to the zeitgeist in which atheism flourishes. It’s what they know. Doesn’t it speak well enough for them too? They start from the proposition that God is a person and rule it out as implausible. The argument that God can only be personal because he can’t be less than we are may be cogent in itself, but it needs a lot of unpacking. It has as its premise the God of the philosophers. To begin to make theism intelligible to a modern atheist, you have to bracket the God of the patriarchs and start from the premise.

Atheism is religion for people in a hurry. They’re quick to assume they understand someone who, engrossed in the question of why there isn’t nothing, says a few words to indicate what he sees the question pointing to. They mistake his verbal gesture for an answer that’s intended to close the question or do it justice. To see what he’s trying to get at, they would have to enter into the wonder that the question elicits in him and dwell there for a moment. The closest thing the question has to an answer is the wonder itself.

Religious culture adorns our collective understanding of God but also conceals it. The Psalms, the Sistine Chapel, the terms of art employed by philosophers and theologians — all those noble efforts at representing God can be helps to someone who speaks their language. To someone who doesn’t, they can be a hindrance. For their rejection of all “gods” in the familiar sense of the term, Christians in ancient Rome were sometimes accused of being atheists. Now the misunderstanding is turned on its head: Atheists hold the Christian, and indeed any modern theist, to be most glaringly wrong in his understanding that God is a person, like a god of pagan antiquity. Training their sights on the notion of an anthropomorphic god, they excite and distract themselves. God as Being itself barely registers with them.

“Why don’t you see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing?” Dawkins asked the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, during a debate at the Cambridge Union Society last year. “Why clutter it up with something so messy as God?”

“I’m not thinking of God as being shoehorned in,” Williams answered.

But “that is exactly how I see God,” Dawkins replied, helpfully, illustrating how the sound and the fury that is the New Atheism — and the old atheism, for that matter — is generated mostly from confusion about the terms of the debate. That the world comes “from nothing” is an idea that Dawkins finds to be of “extraordinary beauty.” To ask what he means by “nothing” will provoke some eyeball-rolling at first, but the longer you think about it, the more you realize just how stubbornly inscrutable a concept “nothing” is, like “time,” which gave Saint Augustine so much trouble: “I know what time is until you ask me for a definition of it.”

In A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist, undertook to counter the ontological argument for God as the answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” That argument is elegant, simple, and starker than apparently he appreciated. In the afterword to the book, Dawkins with characteristic verve celebrated Krauss’s claim to have removed the philosophical cornerstone of theism.

By “nothing,” it turns out, Krauss meant only the vacuum state, which in quantum theory is a field characterized by the occurrence of fleeting electromagnetic waves. In a withering review, David Albert, a theoretical physicist and philosophy professor at Columbia, dismissed A Universe from Nothing as a fraud and excoriated Krauss for failing to deliver the goods advertised in its title: “Vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!”

Had he more space, Albert might have mentioned that Krauss’s first misstep was his attempt to identify nothing: To define “nothing” is to say what it is, when what it’s intended to convey is an absence of being. You can’t talk about nothing without treating it as something. And so, on close inspection, the question “Why is there not nothing?” turns out to be paradoxical — as we should expect, given that “when the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question,” as Wittgenstein observed. Still, it’s hard to let the question go; we intuit the intended meaning even as it eludes our ability to capture it in precise language. While the word “nothing” is self-contradictory and irrational when strictly interpreted, it does, like the number zero in mathematics, serve a purpose when used gingerly or with enough qualification.

Used loosely, “nothing” is put to practical use every day. Dawkins makes it a placeholder for “God.” By invoking “nothing,” he can point to the source of the universe without implying that You Know Who had anything to do with it. So much anxiety rides on the “G” word and what Dawkins evidently regards as the undue respect it might connote. He treats it as if it were a proper name, which it isn’t, as David Bentley Hart patiently points out in his gem of a new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Still, on their own terms, antitheists are correct to be mindful of the halo that surrounds “God” in everyday usage; some observant Jews omit the vowel, for example, treating it almost as if it were the Tetragrammaton itself.

It’s become too familiar, this ordinary English word for what we tend to talk around rather than talk about. So forget “God.” Call him “Nothing,” if you prefer:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Nothing, and the Word was Nothing.” The key to understanding John 1:1 turns on the verbs, not the nouns. Dawkins in his awe before the Nothing sounds like Heidegger but without Heidegger’s awareness of the unfathomable profundity of what it means “to be.”

Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.

“Wonder more,” the Sunday Assembly urges, and adherents of monotheistic religions echo the advice back to them. No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him.

— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review. This is adapted from an article that ran in the December 31, 2013, issue of NR.

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