Atheists Who Want Atheism to be True
The existence of God is a topic that tends to elicit strong passions. People have their beliefs about whether God exists or not, but they also have their hopes. Many people hope God does exist, but some prominent voices express a hope quite to the contrary.
This idea that one might hope God doesn’t exist appears deeply perplexing from a Christian perspective, so it is perhaps understandable why a Christian might be inclined to assume such a hope is automatically indicative of sinful rebellion. But is that necessarily the case? Or might there be other reasons why a person might hope God doesn’t exist?
Before going any further, we should take a moment to define the topic under debate. As the saying goes, tell me about the god you don’t believe in because I probably don’t believe in that god either. The same point applies to hope: if you hope God doesn’t exist, there is a good chance that I also hope God (as defined) doesn’t exist. So it is critically important that we start by defining God so as not to talk past one another.
With that in mind, we can define God as a necessary being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good and who created everything other than God. If that is what we mean by God, is it possible that a person might reasonably hope God doesn’t exist?
You might think that the place to begin is with the new atheists, for they have surely been among the most vocal in expressing their opposition to the very idea of God. But I will turn instead to a much-discussed passage from Thomas Nagel’s 1997 book The Last Word. Nagel’s testimony is particularly relevant here because while the new atheists are populists with an iconoclastic ax to grind, Nagel is a deeply respected and sober philosopher, a professor at New York University and the author of such critically acclaimed books as The View From Nowhere and Mortal Questions. What is more, while the new atheists are unabashedly partisan in their critiques of God and religion, Nagel is measured and very fair. One can find evidence of Nagel’s objectivity in the fact that he has occasionally angered many in the broader atheist community, and endured substantial derision as a result, by endorsing positions or making arguments at odds with majority atheist opinion.1
With that in mind, Nagel’s candid observations about atheism in The Last Word have attracted a lot of attention from theists. He wrote:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.”2
It’s not surprising that this quote should have caught the attention of Christians committed to the Rebellion Thesis. After all, as already noted, Nagel is a leading philosopher and an independent thinker so his testimony immediately carries far more weight than your typical new atheist polemicist, Nagel speaks the truth as he sees it without lens-distorting party-line commitments. Moreover, after beginning with a reflection on his own state of unbelief, he then opines that many atheists share the same “cosmic authority problem.” Now that’s starting to sound promising. In the accompanying footnote, Nagel refuses to speculate on which sources, Oedipal or otherwise, might explain the genesis of this aversion. This, in turn, leaves it open for the Christian to attribute that opposition to sin, just as the Rebellion Thesis supposes.
Given the aura of this quote, it shouldn’t surprise us that several Christians have appealed to it as support for the Rebellion Thesis. Steven Cowan and James S. Spiegel draw attention to the passage in their book The Love of Wisdom: “Nagel, like others, has a problem with ‘cosmic authority.’ He doesn’t want there to be an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good deity to hold him accountable.”3 Even more significant, in his commentary on the quote, Douglas Groothuis opines that Nagel’s words harken back to Paul’s description of cosmic rebellion: “Nagel’s visceral disclosure resembles the apostle Paul’s description of those who, in opposition to the divine knowledge of which they have access, suppress the truth of God’s existence, fail to give God thanks, and thus become darkened in their understanding (see Rom 1:18-21).”4
Perhaps Cowan, Spiegel and Groothuis are on to something. It is true that the Rebellion Thesis doesn’t look quite as outrageous after considering Nagel’s quote. Add to this the self-described antitheist Hitchens as he gripes about “the prospect of serfdom” under God and you just might see a pattern emerging. So could it be that Nagel is demonstrating that this cosmic authority problem really does bring us to the heart of atheism? To put it another way, did Nagel inadvertently produce his own “47 percent” quote, one which lays bare the intransigent spirit of atheism?
As we consider whether Nagel’s quote supports the Rebellion Thesis, let’s start by noting that Nagel himself nowhere suggests that all atheism can be attributed to a “cosmic authority problem.” He merely speculates that many instances could be. He also suggests that there is nobody neutral about the existence of God.5 But one simply can’t support the Rebellion Thesis based on those comparatively meager results.
What is more, a careful reading of The Last Word suggests that Nagel provides at least one explanation for this aversion toward God which is not, in fact, driven by antitheistic hostility. In the following passage, Nagel offers a fascinating speculation on the ultimate source of this aversion and this source is not tied to any problem with cosmic authority per se:
“there is really no reason to assume that the only alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one. However, this may not be comforting enough, because the feeling that I have called the fear of religion may extend far beyond the existence of a personal god, to include any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and nonaccidental part. I suspect that there is a deep-seated aversion in the modern ‘disenchanted’ Weltanschauung to any ultimate principles that are not dead—that is, devoid of any reference to the possibility of life or consciousness.”6
Note that in this passage Nagel suggests that the aversion to God may, in fact, be sourced in a more fundamental aversion to, or even fear of, ultimate explanatory principles that are personal in nature. If Nagel is right about this then his problem, and that of other atheists like him, may not be that they are against God but rather that they have an aversion to unknowable or mysterious personal explanations.
Perhaps you’re not exactly clear about what Nagel is referring to here, so let me try an illustration to unpack his speculation a bit further. Imagine that there is an indigenous tribe living beside some sweeping sand dunes. Day after day there is a low, mysterious hum emitting from the sand dunes and the indigenous people attribute that hum to a supernatural cause, i.e., mysterious spirits that live in the dunes. Many western visitors to this community would not only be inclined to think there is a natural explanation, but they also might prefer there to be a natural explanation. Why? This could be for at least two reasons. To begin with, the westerners would prefer the parsimony (that is, the simplicity) and familiarity of a picture of the world in which novel phenomena can ultimately be attributable to natural causes. In addition, those westerners might simply find the notion of spiritual agencies wandering the dunes to be unsettling.
And why exactly is this unsettling? Well, consider another illustration closer to home. Indeed, it could be in your home. When I hear a strange bump in the night, I could attribute it to a ghost, but I’d certainly prefer to think it was the dog! The prospect of unknown (and perhaps unknowable) nonphysical personal agencies interacting in our world is indeed unsettling. It isn’t that the westerners are necessarily hostile to spirit beings humming in the dunes. But they hope such beings don’t exist just the same. In a very interesting passage in The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis locates this fear, this aversion with respect to Rudolf Otto’s conception of the numinous:
“Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked.’ This feeling may be described as awe and the object which excites it as the Numinous.”7
As Lewis points out, the fear of the ghost is quite different from the fear of the tiger. It is a fear that appears to overlap significantly with Nagel’s aversion to “ultimate principles that are not dead.” The key to recognize is that this aversion (which, in its purest form, Otto referred to as the mysterium tremendum) is not necessarily indicative of hatred or hostility. Instead, it is closer to that uncanny fear of the unknown, like Lewis’ ghost in the next room, or mysterious entities wandering the sand dunes.8
Speaking of those entities in the sand dunes, let’s return to that illustration for a moment. The indigenous people in the illustration represent a perspective that we can call the “enchanters” while the westerners represent the “disenchanters” position. Enchanters tend to be drawn to magic and mystery and mental agencies. Consequently, they seem to find ultimate personal explanations and the numinous to be appealing. By contrast, the disenchanters prefer natural and scientific explanations that appeal to matter, energy and forces. In their sociological study of atheism in America, sociologists Williamson and Yancey effectively contrast the two perspectives:
“For many believers [i.e., enchanters], this may seem a dismal thought — that there is no mystery, that there is no ‘other,’ and that there is no eternal father to protect and comfort them. For many nonbelievers [i.e., disenchanters], though, the idea is liberating: no fear of death and no fear of judgment, just a marvelous universe to experience and explore — empirically.”9
To be sure, the disenchanter’s perspective is consistent with some degree of active rebellion against God. The desire to avoid divine judgment, for example, could reinforce a predisposition to the disenchanter’s position. But the key for us is that we simply don’t know to what extent Nagel’s aversion toward God is generated by antitheistic impulses versus a more general aversion to the Uncanny side of life. It could be that Nagel maintains a preference for a simpler, predictable and familiar world which is reducible to certain fundamental material principles. And thus it is for that reason that he hopes atheism is true. Consequently, we simply don’t have enough information to count Nagel’s comment as evidence for the Rebellion Thesis.
Nagel gives us a bit more on what I’m calling the disenchanter position elsewhere in The Last Word when he ties this drive for disenchantment to the laudable desire to have explanations that we can understand. As he puts it, “the idea of God serves as a placeholder for an explanation where something seems to demand explanation and none is available . . . .”10 Further, he adds, “I have never been able to understand the idea of God well enough to see such a theory as truly explanatory: It seems rather to stand for a still unspecified purposiveness that itself remains unexplained.”11 From this perspective Nagel’s aversion to God is an aversion to giving up the quest for further understanding. Once again, we see that we need not attribute his words to any divine rebellion.
When we draw all these points together we find that Nagel’s initial comment offers very little to support a robust Rebellion Thesis. It is true that Nagel speculates that many atheists may have a cosmic authority problem, but he never suggests that all do. Moreover, he also offers another plausible explanation for the desire that God not exist, one which is rooted not in an aversion to divine authority, but rather in the disenchanter’s drive for simplicity, predictability, and explanations that can be grasped by the human mind. And as Lewis illustrates, every one of us can sympathize with this impulse, at least to some degree. (I sure hope that thump in the next room wasn’t caused by a ghost.) To cap it off, Nagel also warns atheists about allowing preferences to color their reasoning. At one point he cautions, “it is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist.”12
To sum up, while Nagel’s quote allows for the possibility that an indeterminate number of atheists may be in rebellion against God, it simply does not provide good evidence for the Rebellion Thesis. If I may be blunt, it seems to me that Christians who attempt to play isolated quotes like that of Nagel as a “47 percent trump card” to support of the Rebellion Thesis are engaged in little more than quote-mining. (And yes, quote-mining is as bad as it sounds.)
NOTE: This article is adapted from a section of my book titled Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism.
- In his book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel argues that the reigning philosophical paradigm among contemporary atheists—a position called naturalism—is a failure and should be replaced with another philosophical theory. This thesis rankled many atheists who believed the attack on naturalism was unjustified. Equally controversial was Nagel’s high profile endorsement in the Times Literary Supplement of Christian intelligent design theorist Stephen Meyer’s monograph Signature in the Cell as one of the best books of 2009. Whether you agree with him or not, Nagel speaks the truth as he sees it without lens-distorting party-line commitments. ↩
- Nagel, The Last Word, 130, emphasis added. ↩
- Cowan and Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy, 256. ↩
- Groothuis, “Why Truth Matters Most: An Apologetic for Truth-Seeking in Postmodern Times,” 444. See also Moreland and Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, 59. Other Christian apologists are more nuanced in their appeal to Nagel’s quote. See, for example, Copan, That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith, 21. ↩
- Nagel, The Last Word, 130, n. ↩
- Nagel, The Last Word, 133, emphasis added. ↩
- Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 17. ↩
- In 1974 Canadian singer Burton Cummings walked into St. Thomas Church in New York and was suddenly overcome with the sense of a presence he could not understand, a presence very much like Lewis’s Uncanny and Otto’s mysterium tremendum. After this unsettling experience Cummings wrote a song about it that became a big hit. He called the song “I’m Scared.” ↩
- Williamson and Yancey, There is No God: Atheists in America, 12. ↩
- Nagel, The Last Word, 132–3. ↩
- Nagel, The Last Word, 75–6. ↩
- Nagel, The Last Word, 131. ↩
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