Can Atheists Receive the Benefits of Theism?

(For a follow-up to this post, see my March 21 entry.)

In reading Julian Baggini’s “Heathens Progress” blog, I am impressed at how hard he tries to be objective in the theist-atheist debate. Although he’s an atheist, he often takes his fellow “heathens” to task, and he acknowledges positive aspects of religion that non-believers tend to ignore.

On January 5, for example, he posted “Can it be rational for the religious to be non-rational?” In this post and the next (January 12), he showed why the answer may be a qualified “yes.”

“We heathens may be proud that we have refused to sell off our reason to pay the unacceptably high price of faith. But we should admit that as a consequence, others are enjoying the rewards of their purchase while we have to make and mend do with alternatives that are adequate, better in some ways, but very possibly inferior overall.”

Seeing erroneous belief as the price people pay for practical benefits “offers atheists a richer credible error theory for why people persist with religious belief. Putting it down to just human stupidity or wishful thinking won’t do.”

Baggini also provides solid support for what I call broad-spectrum agnosticism. “[Decades of research in psychology have shown us to be unreliable, distorting, self-serving creatures who routinely reason with prejudice.” It is difficult or impossible to think our way out of these limitations. In fact, highly intelligent people “sometimes seem to be more capable of distortion than others, since they are clever enough to construct whatever argument they need to prop up what they already believe.”

Have you known bright people who outsmart themselves, glibly rationalizing irrational behavior? I certainly have!

Because we tend to be irrational, some philosophers despair of knowing anything at all, but I do not agree with such extreme skepticism. In principle, I admit that radical skepticism could be correct. In could be, for example, that the entire universe came into being five minutes ago, in a way that endowed every person with false memories of past experiences. But setting aside such unlikely scenarios, what we know about human cognition demonstrates that our beliefs are sometimes highly accurate, sometimes off-base but good enough to get by, and other times almost totally unreliable.

Obvious cases of well-justified beliefs: I’m now sitting in a chair, I’m quite hungry, and as I glance out the window I see that it’s sunny. These are the kinds of concerns we were evolved to address, and we deal with them well.

Politics and religion, on the other hand, are hard for us to get right. Although I have strong opinions in each of these areas, I know that I am probably wrong in at least some significant ways. Such issues are complex, involving many unknown factors. They also tend to be emotionally loaded. Complexity and emotionality befuddle us, especially in combination.

Even so, some of the reasoning power that helps us get ourselves in out of the rain also enables us to figure out some important things about more challenging issues. I’ll explain what I mean in a subsequent post.

Julian is also interested in finding atheistic analogues of traditional spiritual practices. His January 12 essay begins, “I’ve recently started praying. Well, not exactly praying …” He’s spending a few minutes each morning reflecting on topics such as: how he should be living, his responsibilities to others, his own failings, and being grateful for his relative good fortune.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have suggested something similar to UUs who are atheist or agnostic: Find out what “sings the god-song” for you. What plays roughly the same positive role in your life that belief in God plays for theists? Those who reject the concept of god can look for a related concept, a conceptual cousin of theism. Or if you dislike the very idea of deity, then just add an o to “god” and focus on your vision of the good.

Baggini doubts that non-theistic spirituality will ever amount to more than “small, fringe movements. Much as I appreciate the non-realist Sea of Faith movement and the non-creedal Unitarian church, there just isn’t a strong enough reason for most people to join such groups.”

Since he’s from the UK, I assume he’s referring to the Unitarian Church in England. American Unitarian Universalism is somewhat different, but we certainly aren’t as large a denomination as I would hope. Even so, it may take a long time to shape new ways of meeting age-old psychological and spiritual needs. Success in this endeavor is not assured, but it’s well worth the effort.

Roger Schriner

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8 thoughts on “Can Atheists Receive the Benefits of Theism?

  1. In one of your first posts you said you were going to keep your own views in the background but now I discover your true colours! I wonder whether/ how this will affect my responses to these posts? Of course you are clearly open-minded but even so it is interesting.

    I agree that believers may enjoy benefits that non-believers cannot. A friend recently described his re-exploration of his faith. He still wasn’t that sure of what he could be sure about but felt being a believer made him a better person so decided to carry on with believing. I don’t think I could do that with the belief aspect (although it’s possible with the behaviours and the group membership), but I relate to what he said. Being part of such a unique community does change you, hopefully for the better if it’s a good one. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere else like it. And why is it that nearly everyone at a recent meeting of local volunteers were Christians (plus a few Muslims)? Is that coincidence? Or do volunteers have some personality trait that makes them more likely to have religious beliefs?

    I like the idea of meditating on “the good” and of God being the embodiment of that without any other doctrinal connotations. In the book Christian Atheist (Brian Mountford), Julian Barnes is quoted as saying “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” That kind of sums up the loss that can be the cost of not believing. It would be good to explore further how that might not be necessary.

    • Dear ChristianAtheist,

      You mentioned that now you have discovered my “true colours.” Of course I would love to know what colors I seem to be showing. If you’ll tell me, I promise to tell you whether your concept of my true colors matches mine!

  2. There is a sort of universal acceptance that can come from theistic belief- but I think it’s best in an inter-religious, multi-theistic sense. I dabbled in Shinto and Daoism in junior high and they stay with me- as does my secularism, humanism, existentialism, and ultimate cosmic apathy about the use of a god. So I’m an atheist in the sense that there is no god by my view of things- but when I talk to atheists they find my view of order (in the Daoist, Shinto spiritual sense, and the sense of natural constants) rather strange- I hear it’s ‘positivist’ when someone pushed me on my cosmic beliefs.

    But ultimately, I’m mostly a humanist and existentialist. I don’t really care what happens after life or before life- all I know is I’m here and that matters to myself and the species that live here.

    • Indeed some atheists do find it strange that other non-believers might affirm Daoist order or some similar concept. But a great many atheists and agnostics do not fit the stereotype of scientifically-oriented atheism. In saying this I am not condemning science-oriented worldviews, or even “scientism.” I am just pointing out that it’s not the only way to be an unbeliever. As I wrote in Bridging the God Gap, “Unbelievers often mix secular and spiritual tendencies. They may despise traditional religion but appreciate yoga, meditation, or Eastern thought, and this opens them to criticism from their fellow skeptics.” Jack Huberman, The Quotable Atheist, p. xiv, notes that “At least one atheist Web site displays an amusingly McCarthyite zeal for rooting out religious or spiritual sympathies among supposed nonbelievers.”

      Thanks for your comment, Kaz.

  3. Hi Roger
    You say “As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have suggested ……” – so, unless you are no longer such a minister, I would think this is telling us quite a lot about your beliefs, values and perhaps what you DON’T believe and value. Of course I don’t want to put you in too small a box, but if you are a minister you are likely to have a vested interest in paying more attention to the underlying reinforcers of those beliefs and values (and norms and behaviours, probably) that are needed to maintain that role. I would be interested to know what you think about this!

  4. The American religion called Unitarian Universalism is value-centered rather than belief-centered. We endorse no particular theory of Reality. So a UU minister can be a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or none of the above.

    Some UUs manage to straddle the fence between theism and atheism. When the Rev. John Wolf was asked whether he was a secular humanist or a theist, he replied, “That depends on you. If you’re a Humanist, I’m a Theist; if you’re a Theist, I’m a Humanist.” (The Church Where People Laugh, ed. Gwen Foss, p. 52)

    An unusual approach, but it works for us!


  5. Wow, this sounds great! I must find out more. Valuing being open minded is a value I very much endorse. We probably all need to practise being more open minded. Rehearsing our responses to statements we don’t agree with is useful, which is why the dialogue on this blog is hopefully modelling good ways of dialoguing.
    I am sorry I made assumptions about your role as a minister – a good example of being influenced by a stereotype and the emotional connotations attached to it! I don’t think we have UU in the UK much, though – I have certainly never met a UU minister or member.

  6. Re: I don’t think we have UU in the UK much, though – I have certainly never met a UU minister or member.

    There is a Unitarian Church in the UK, and I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about it. Here’s their site:

    The UUA site is

    Glancing at the UK home page, it looks as if they are theologically parallel to US UU’s. For example they explicitly state that they include atheists.

    I’m happy to answer any questions you have about UUism. It is, in many of its congregations and organizations, a truly wonderful, life-giving breakthrough in non-doctrinal spirituality. It has its share of faults and foibles, but over time I see good progress. When people try to create something new, not every effort turns out well. But we keep building on what works.

    Good wishes,

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