Why are atheists atheists?

So Julian turns up on Comment is free.

If there’s one thing philosophers are not in short supply of it’s confidence and self-esteem…The unexamined life, we are fond of repeating, is not worth living. It sounds very noble, until you realise that the subtext is that not only are the Big Brother-watching masses unfit for existence, but even those engaged in less fundamental academic pursuits are lower forms of life.

But is that the subtext? It depends how you decide what a subtext is, I guess (the subness of a subtext gives a certain leeway for accusing people of saying things they haven’t actually literally said, which can be interesting but unfair or fair but uninteresting or various other things), but I have doubts. Saying a life is not worth living is not the same thing as saying that people who have lives of that kind are unfit for existence – it could be, for instance (and is, surely), rather advice to people in general to try to have such a life, one that is within reach of anyone not incapacitated by illness or desperate poverty or the like. I don’t think it has to be read as necessarily an elitist bit of self-congratulation, any more than an enthusiastic recommendation of ‘Hamlet’ does.

Of course, Julian knows a lot more philosophers than I do, and maybe he’s speaking from experience; maybe they do swan around preening themselves on their examined lives and pitying everyone else. But I’m not sure that bromide about the unexamined life has to be read that way.

Formal schooling in philosophy tends to teach you to listen for just one thing: logical consistency. That is as wrong-headed as learning to listen only to the melody of a piece of music and to ignore harmony, rhythm, timbre, phrasing and the rest. I’ve increasingly noticed this in debates about religion. Many atheist philosophers seem to think the value and nature of religion is determined purely by the truth or falsity of its creeds, understood literally. Religion’s other dimensions – practice, attitude, form of life and so on – are ignored as irrelevant at best, and secondary at worst. As an atheist myself, I find this spiritual tone-deafness detrimental to the cause.

Hmmm. Well, again, Julian would know about atheist philosophers, but all the same – I’m not convinced that that amounts to spiritual deafness. In fact – this just occurred to me – if the truth and falsity of the creeds aren’t primary for Julian himself, then why is he an atheist? If he thinks practice, attitude, form of life ought to be primary along with the truth and falsity of the creeds, then couldn’t he just be a non-believing religious person?

That’s why atheists are atheists, isn’t it? It’s certainly why I am. Even when we do value the practice, attitude, form of life, singing, and the rest, we can’t and don’t want to sign up to the whole thing simply because we don’t believe it. The truth or falsity question is primary and everything else is secondary because it is (for those to whom it is). I can see that there’s more to talk about, but I’m not sure I can see why truth or falsity should be anything other than primary.

And apart from that, the idea that truth or falsity should modestly step back a little makes me uneasy. Doesn’t that just open the door to all those instrumentalist arguments for why religion is so wonderful? It’s good for your health, it makes you happier, it’s consoling (unless you think things through), it provides community, it motivates many people to be good, so never mind that it’s all an invention. But it’s very hard not to mind that, and it’s also not intellectually honest. Does that amount to spiritual deafness? I don’t think it does.

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