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The Culture of Atheism

In Atheism in the Third Millennium, Kim Walker argues that atheism would benefit from having its own culture, its own songs, stories, heroes, celebrations, rituals, sanctuaries, symbols and monuments reflecting the atheist lifestyle. Walker says that a “lack of cultural depth” holds atheists back, despite the intellectual merits of atheism itself. “Must all our literature remain squarely focused on religion, or can we also focus on the consequences and constructs of our atheism? Must atheism remain a ghetto for the disaffected, or can it truly become a lifestyle in itself? Must atheism remain the preserve of a tiny minority, or can it be given broader appeal?” So far, Walker says, atheism has been more an “academic curiosity” than a cultural force.

I think this view of atheism rests on some confusions. Atheism is not a minority position, and in most developed countries a practically atheistic culture has already predominated since the rise of modern science, capitalism, and democracy. Granted, few people in these societies use the word “atheism.” In North America, you’ll hardly ever hear the word uttered on the street, on television or in movies, or read the word in magazines, newspapers, or novels. But this is just a linguistic point about, for example, the American government’s having polluted the word with unfavorable connotations during the Cold War. “Atheism,” by name, is taboo, like “amnesty,” “liberalism” or “elitism”; these hot-button words arouse suspicion in those who have been socially conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to react upon mere sight of the corresponding labels. Whether a culture is called atheistic isn’t nearly as important as whether the culture is in fact a counterpart of atheism.

Granted also, the practically atheistic culture isn’t directly the result of atheism, since this culture is driven by other engines which work best, however, only in the presence of practical, or what I’ll call functional atheism. A “functional” atheist is someone who behaves as an atheist regardless of any religious beliefs the person may have, not because the person is dishonest, but because the “beliefs” are so empty and obsolete that the person can’t bear to treat them with seriousness; to succeed in a certain culture, these beliefs have to be set aside. A “methodological” atheist is one who has to assume atheism to succeed at some specific, difficult task, such as the task of understanding how the universe works. The culture I’m speaking of is just the one based on science, technology, capitalism, and democracy, on the ideas and values that emerged in Europe during the Scientific Revolution and the eighteenth-century period of the Enlightenment, and that influenced the founding of the U.S., which in turn has influenced many countries, spreading this culture far and wide. Let’s look at the above four elements of modern culture to see how they flourish only within populations of functional atheists.

Four Driving Forces of Secularism

Scientists are statistically more likely than nonscientists to be atheists, deists or pantheists as opposed to theists. On the other hand, much of the scientific outlook is logically compatible with theism. A theist who believes the world was created by God might want to learn about God by learning about nature. Natural theology is based on the idea that reason and observation should be able to support theistic belief, since God made these tools and left divine footprints in nature for people to find; intelligent design theory is a remnant of this kind of theology. However, despite this compatibility, science flourishes only when scientists compartmentalize their theistic beliefs, making scientists at least functional or methodological atheists. In principle, science doesn’t exclude theism, but in practice science and theism are in conflict.

This is because instead of finding evidence in favor of theism, scientists have been able to answer a great many questions about how nature works only by assuming philosophical naturalism. Naturalism is the worldview that takes there to be a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for everything. Naturalistic science has answered so many questions that theists have found themselves resorting to the belief in what some call a “God-of-the-gaps.” Of course, there are still mysteries that scientists haven’t solved, but science is filling in the gaps, giving God less and less work to do, leaving more room for deism or for pantheism than for theism.[1]

The point, then, is that science is effectively part of atheistic (secular) culture. Therefore, in all areas of life influenced by science, there too are areas influenced by what is, practically speaking, atheism. Science has influenced business, medicine, government, education, and pretty much all other aspects of modern life. Of course, the results of science have negatively impacted theism, in part by fueling the other engines of secular culture. One of the main results of science is the advancement of technology. The more we learn about nature, the more we learn how to use nature to achieve our goals. We achieve these goals with techniques, with planned actions which are means to ends. Science beefs up these techniques, enhancing our abilities with technology. Since technology obviously flourishes only with naturalistic science, and scientific methods in turn depend on functional atheism, technology too is part of secular culture.

So look around you; wherever you see technology, there you will see also people enjoying a lifestyle that requires the setting aside of theism. If you’re interested in finding indirect monuments to atheism, look no further than the entire artificial landscape of a modern society the creation of which depends on what people learned by seeing for themselves how the world works, rather than by trusting in the authority of any religious institution or text. See how modern (or postmodern) people order their lives around technology rather than around the dictates of a transcendent personal Creator. See how these people use planes, trains, and ships to transport themselves across great distances, and cell phones and the internet to communicate anywhere on the planet, thus making the world a smaller place rather than dwelling on the gulf between this world and a next one. See how these people cherish medical equipment to improve or to save their earthly life at the cost of caring primarily about the supposed afterlife. See how modern teenagers worship celebrities who are made popular thanks to their appearing larger than life on movie and on television screens; prayers go out for contact with celebrities as though they were the angelic hosts. See how science and technology raise the standard of living, even while making possible a shallow materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle, which is also part of atheistic culture. See how science and technology improve our ability to kill, thus adding to the dark side of this culture: we extinguish many other species and live under the shadow of total annihilation.

But the point is that technology is a driving force of industrial and postindustrial societies, which in turn dominate life everywhere else on this planet, and technology can advance now only in so far as people ignore ancient conjectures and superstitions. So technology, and all the institutions dedicated to creating, selling, and improving technology, are indirect social expressions of functional atheism which in turn influence culture in countless ways that reflect their source in functional atheism.

Capitalism replaced feudalism as the merchants gained more power than the nobles whose own power depended more on their birthright than on their control of trade. The essence of capitalism is privatization. The idea is that power, symbolized by money, should be given to those who actually meet people’s demand with adequate supply. Owners can profit and enjoy a heavenly lifestyle now, once they’re permitted to own the means of production and what they themselves purchase with their profits. Privatization may not logically exclude theism, but the two are not in harmony. Supposing that God created the universe, God would then own everything so any creature that claims to own something would either be blaspheming in Satanic fashion or be an avatar of God. Thus feudalism, which depends on the faith-based idea of the divine right of kings through blood or spiritual connection to avatars, such as Jesus Christ, is the more fitting theistic economic system. Like science and technology, capitalism makes for a this-worldly culture, for a culture that focuses on what we can do by and for ourselves in the present life. A person can start his or her own company and produce goods which satisfy people’s demands, thus effectively replacing God as the supplier, and can then use the financial rewards to increase the quality of his or her natural life, largely by using the technology which naturalistic science–not religion or scripture–makes possible.[2]

Finally, while democracy may be logically compatible with theism, this political system is most easily paired with a secular, naturalistic value system, and with a capitalistic economy which prizes technology and thus science and functional atheism. Monarchy is more clearly a theistic form of government, since monarchy centralizes power so that an avatar, or a descendant of one, can impose on subjects human-made social laws which are presumed to be divine commandments.[3] Democracy takes power away from any such alleged eternal source, and gives power to the majority. Technically, a democracy can become theocratic so long as the majority wish to be ruled by religious laws, but in practice this doesn’t happen, because of the liberal principles that accompany functioning democracies. One such principle is the freedom of speech, which allows for the freedom of demagogues and special interests to shape mass opinion, thus making change rather than religious dogma the norm in democracies. So long as the majority have the power to elect political representatives, they have the power also to overturn or to amend the laws that govern their society. A theocrat believes all people ought to live according to God’s laws which are written in holy scripture; the idea that people should instead govern themselves according to what are openly believed to be human-made social laws tends to strike the theocrat as again Satanic. Recall that, according to Christian tradition, Satan’s sin was the sin of pride which he demonstrated by trying to usurp God’s power and authority. In a democracy, the majority of people are given autonomy, which is the power to govern their own lives as they choose. Democracy thus sanctions the freedom to sin, whereas a theocracy would punish those who perpetrate theistically defined crimes.[4]

Functional Atheism and Modern Culture

So secular culture is alive and well. Atheists are not actually in “a ghetto for the disaffected” nor in a “preserve of a tiny minority.” Nominally, atheists are in a minority, but the linguistic issue of whether people like to call their lifestyle “atheistic” shouldn’t be confused with the substantive issue of whether people actually live as atheists. Also, a culture which is indirectly the result of atheism is still itself fundamentally atheistic, regardless of any pretense that superficial shows of religion make a culture theistic. The combination of science, technology, capitalism, and democracy makes for a functionally atheistic culture, for a culture in which religions have comparatively little relevance. So long as people tend at work and at home to set aside rather than to act on their religious beliefs in any significant way, these people might as well be called atheists even if they don’t like the word “atheist.” These people are functional atheists, because they live in secular societies in which the prime movers aren’t religious institutions, but the secular ones of science, technology, capitalism, and democracy. Any part of culture which is shaped by these four forces is shaped indirectly by atheism, by the laying aside of religion.

Kim Walker wants an explicitly atheistic culture. Instead, there is a variety of secular cultural expressions, because atheism is a negative position which doesn’t itself inspire direct, uniform cultural expressions. However, functional atheism has already shaped the last few centuries and is set to shape the next ones; what’s happened is that the authority of religious institutions has been rescinded by science, technology, capitalism, and democracy, and a secular culture driven by these forces has filled the vacuum. For example, reformed Jewish culture survives by being functionally atheistic, or at least deistic; most Jews aren’t interested in theology, but find meaning in secular culture. Many so-called Christians verbally confess that they’re not atheists even while their life choices demonstrate they’re interested mainly in succeeding in secular terms. This is so regardless of whether these people are aware that their shows of religion are as mere driftwood in the four seas of secularism.

For example, many American Christians value family and marriage between a man and a woman. Yet Jesus said that the family relation between our divine parent and ourselves should be so much more important than our earthly families, that these earthly families could break up for all Jesus cared (Matt. 10:34-39). Likewise, many Christians think abortion is abhorrent, despite the Bible having nothing to say on the matter and no scientific or philosophical authority, in any case, to tell when a group of cells becomes a person with rights of his or her own. These values of “life” and family were only recently popularized by the Republican party to appeal to extremists in its political base, given the apathy of the millions of eligible American voters who don’t vote. Thus, even some aspects of culture which are often taken to be expressions of religion are more properly regarded as indirect results of atheism, of the replacement of religion by the four driving forces of secularism.

But to return to the point, that there already is a popular culture which is the indirect result of atheism, here are examples of functionally atheistic cultural expressions that come close to satisfying Kim Walker’s desiderata. Atheistic songs: any song that glorifies sex as an end in itself, including the majority of pop, rock, and rap songs ever recorded, brings to bear a naturalistic outlook according to which we’re ruled more by blind genetic impulses than by an abstract God’s call for asceticism or at least for marital restrictions on sex. Atheistic stories: science fiction glorifies science and technology, being ways we have of solving our own problems in the absence of a divine parent, and the recent superhero movies likewise fantasize about how science and technology might enhance our abilities so that we ourselves might accomplish great deeds–again in God’s absence. Atheistic heroes: there are many people who are respected for living as though they were atheists, regardless of whether these heroes are card-carrying atheists or whether they publicly defend atheism; these heroes of functional atheism include any well-known, productive and highly successful person, given that the person’s success depends on his or her functional or methodological atheism. It’s conceivable even that years from now George W. Bush will be considered a hero of functional atheism, assuming his foreign policy will help either bring forth an Islamic Reformation or call out the rationalist tradition in Islam to defang Islamic fundamentalism. Like a scientist, a U.S. President has to be at least a methodological atheist; that’s just a job requirement.

Atheistic celebrations: whenever consumers rush to buy the latest technological innovation, there is a celebration of the scientific understanding of the natural world; whenever a capitalistic stock exchange closes for the day, there is a celebration of privatization, of what the theist might regard as an arrogant denial of God’s sovereignty over all things; whenever a new government is democratically elected, there is a celebration of our autonomy, of our ability to govern ourselves with acknowledged human-made laws and with methodologically atheistic political leaders. Atheistic rituals: many secular rituals are found in the ways technology regiments our behavior, such as the way a person automatically looks both ways before crossing the street, or wears a seatbelt whenever entering a car. These may not be acts of worship, but they are ritualistic nods to nature, to the physical dimension of earthly life; to use technology and to achieve our goals in the natural world, we have to interact with our machines in the appropriate way, and this interaction has a style and ritualistic character of its own. Atheistic sanctuaries: the university, or the so-called Ivory Tower, and especially science and philosophy departments tend to be dedicated to piecing together the naturalistic worldview; just as a Church or a Synagogue promotes a religious message, so too most universities promote a naturalistic message, with each department investigating a different area of nature.

Atheistic symbols: corporations proliferate symbols and logos in their advertisements, symbols of the identities of the corporations that participate in the capitalistic economy which gives rise to a functionally atheistic culture. There’s the Nike swoosh symbol, the MGM lion, the Disney signature, and the McDonald’s arches. Of course, the symbolic content of these logos is shallow rather than uplifting, but these are still symbols of a functionally atheistic culture, albeit perhaps of the dark, materialistic side of this culture. Atheistic monuments: all pieces of technology testify to the truth of metaphysical naturalism and to the methodological atheism of scientists; from the computer to the nanomachine, from the space shuttle to the nuclear missile, technologies are designed and built on the assumption that there are no miracles and thus no work for God to do in the universe.

Given such expressions of functional atheism, it’s misguided to call for atheists to create an explicitly atheistic culture. This is in part because the linguistic issue is relatively unimportant; what matters is that secularism actually predominates. Perhaps there are other kinds of economy and government, besides capitalism and democracy, which could be smoothly integrated with functional atheism, and perhaps the next few centuries will see secular society change in such ways. But currently and for the past few centuries, secularism in the above four ways has indeed been in the ascent. There is no need to call present secular culture the only possible culture of atheism, because atheism, being merely a negative position, is compatible with different kinds of culture. Regardless of what modern culture is called, this culture depends on most of its practitioners having weak or no theistic beliefs. This makes modern culture practically, functionally atheistic.

It’s also mostly misguided to call for a directly atheistic culture, that is, for a culture which is mainly about atheism and which is caused directly by people’s atheism. There’s little motivation to do this because there’s already a massive effort to apply functional atheism for the good of science, technology, capitalism, and democracy. The intellectual implication of functional atheism is that the majority of people living in modern societies have little or no confidence in religious ideas. Perhaps these people don’t want to have explicit symbols of atheism waved in their faces, since then they would have to confront their functional atheism, which is to say the shallowness of their theism.

There’s an exception to the above point, which is that there should be, in my opinion, explicitly atheistic works of art that explore the consequences of atheism at a personal level, illustrating the lifestyle of people who happen to be atheists. To this extent I agree with Kim Walker. Jim Morrow’s satirical novels are examples of works that deal with atheistic themes. Richard Dawkins argues in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, that scientific discoveries should inspire artists of all kinds to create artworks that help people replace reverence for God with reverence for nature. This atheistic art might be needed also to curb the negative aspects of secular culture, such as hedonism, materialism, and the shallowness of some popular forms of entertainment. Perhaps atheistic art could help change the minds of theists and counter the negative connotations of “atheism.” Still, the main cultural expressions of atheism are mediated by science, technology, capitalism, and democracy themselves. The pressure on theists comes from those four forces, from the power of secularism and from the ensuing temptation to let the God-of-the-gaps slip through the gaps into obsolescence.


[1] Some theists employ transcendental arguments against science, claiming that only God could be the source of the laws of nature and of logic. (A “transcendental” argument has to do with the conditions that make something possible.) This is a supernaturalist view of laws which is at odds with naturalism and therefore with the methods that have been found to be so successful by scientists. The laws of nature and of logic are descriptions, not prescriptions. Science doesn’t address questions of value, of the goodness of things that would have to live up to God’s commandments, as though the law of gravity were at all like any of the social Ten Commandments. Newton did indeed have a theistic view of the laws of nature, but his methods didn’t depend on his mystical, theistic assumptions. Scientists want to know whether the data that derive from careful observations support or disconfirm their hypotheses. The value or the goodness of something can’t be observed, as David Hume pointed out, so science as such doesn’t address qualitative questions. And scientists have successfully answered quantitative questions generally by ignoring theistic doctrines.

[2] Max Weber famously argued that the rise of capitalism was caused in part by a Protestant ethic. After the Reformation, Christians sought some other sign of their salvation than their membership in the Catholic Church. The upshot of Calvinism was that a Christian had to have confidence in his or her own salvation, since both salvation and damnation are predetermined, and this confidence would be expected to result in hard work in the present. Thus, this kind of Protestant would be a hard-working entrepreneur, and would be forced to deal with the financial fruits of this labor in a Christian way, by investing the profits, which created more infrastructure for trade. On the other hand, Weber also argued that capitalism eventually lost any religious basis, and that the initial fueling by Protestantism only helped to disenchant nature, making things safe for secularism. While capitalism may have benefited from the historical accident of the twisted logic of Calvinism, any religious motivation for capitalistic activity came to be viewed as superfluous, at best, by those immersed in earthly enterprises. Thus, for example, Dominionist Christians in the U.S., who want to use political power for “Christian” purposes, obviously rely on a multiply corrupted version of their religion.

[3] A frequent retort made by theists is that atheism is quite compatible with monarchy, as shown by the evil dictatorships of the last century. On the contrary, in the case of communist dictatorships, these were not harmonious with the secular principles of socialism, since the dictatorships were assumed to be needed only for a transitional stage between capitalism and a communist utopia. Monarchy wasn’t the stated goal of communist dictators, nor the assumed goal of communists. In the case of fascism, such centralization of power was made compatible with secularism (with science and capitalism) only by exchanging liberal values with pseudotheocratic ones, according to which the dictator should be considered superhuman. Hobbesian pessimism supports the idea that to escape the squalor of our natural state of war, most people need to live united by constant fear of a demigod, of a sovereign who is treated practically as a transcendent being owing to the grotesque power imbalance between the sovereign and the subjects. Pessimism and elitist double standards are certainly compatible with atheism, but a secular dictatorship which must be viewed by the dominated citizens as at least a pseudotheocracy is an unstable form of government, due to the tension between the power imbalance and the rejection of monotheism. Since the atheist rejects monotheism, the atheist shouldn’t tolerate a dictator pretending to rule like God; of course, if the dictator isn’t a superhuman or divine representative, the question remains why a single person should be entrusted with so much power. This raises the question of whether atheism is likewise at odds with the equivalent of polytheism, which is the transhumanist idea that everyone should transcend their human limitations and become more godlike.

[4] Jesus reportedly said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21), and this is taken by lukewarm Christians to sanction a separation between religious and secular institutions. But those early Christians who took Jesus to have said this also believed that all secular or pagan kingdoms would soon end thanks to Jesus’ imminent return. Thus, there was believed to be no need for Christians to fight against secular institutions, since God himself was expected very soon to destroy these institutions. Had those early Christians known that Jesus was not about to return so soon, they might have hoped to see secular institutions overcome by more earthly powers, in which case the statement about Jesus’ alleged preference for a (very temporary) separation between religious and secular societies would have been misplaced and wouldn’t easily have become part of the Christian canon.

On the other hand, as it became clear that Jesus wasn’t returning as soon as expected, the craftiest Christians might have realized that other Christian doctrines might likewise be mistaken. And so these ambivalent Christians would have wanted to strike a compromise with secular powers so that these so-called Christians could live well in the present life, given that this life wasn’t about to be rudely interrupted by the return of Jesus with his much higher social standards.

Either way, authentic Christians aren’t interested in political systems that give power just to mere mortals, as opposed to giving power to mortals who take themselves to be holding this power for, and channeling it from God. Democracy allows religions to influence public life, but the deeper democratic value is the freedom to choose how to live, including the freedom to accept or to reject religion, and this freedom isn’t the deepest theistic value. A religion like Christianity may permit the freedom of worship, but Christians don’t view this freedom as a good in itself; instead, the Christian imperative is for people to make the perfectly correct choice to become Christians.

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