Does the concept of atheism need a makeover? Is the term too negative, too focused on what one doesn’t believe? That’s one of the intriguing suggestions of Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg in his new book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.
As it happens, Rosenberg proposes “scientism” as a positive term to describe a worldview that does not contain a supernatural being. It’s a relatively minor point but it’s indicative of the focus of his book, which aims to provide a positive set of beliefs for today’s atheist. For Rosenberg, who has extensive training in the natural sciences—indeed, he began his education intending to go into physics before switching to philosophy—the issue of God’s existence is a question that’s long been settled by science. Instead, what interests him is what science has to tell us about the reality of our existence.
Independent: Is this your first book on atheism?
Rosenberg: It’s my 14th book but it’s my first book on atheism. But it’s not really a book on atheism. It’s a book about what we atheists should believe, about all the other big issues that, as I say in the book, keep us up at night wondering.
The book begins by saying “there is no God, and we believe there is no God because science rules God’s existence out.” And then goes on to answer all the other questions on the basis of science. So in that sense, it’s not another book proving atheism.
I was going to ask you about popular titles like those by Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). Those books were very popular, but you’re saying that you don’t think the project of persuading people there is no God is one worth pursuing?
My book differs from all of them in that it is not another indictment of religion, not another brief on the irrationality of a belief in God, not another analysis of how religion seduces us into belief—those are the aims of three of the most popular books. My book is about what else we should believe now that we believe in atheism.
What would you tell people are the basic things atheists should believe?
The quick and dirty version is on page 3 of my book, where there is list of questions and short answers: “Is there a God?” “No.” “What is the nature of reality?” “What physics says it is”—
—“What is the purpose of the universe?”—
—“there is none.” “What’s the meaning of life?” “Ditto.” “Why am I here?” “Just dumb luck.”
We could go through that list, that’s the short-answer list, and the rest of the book substantiates each of those answers and explains why science dictates each of those answers. But the tour goes like this: I try to explain why the nature of reality is what physics tells us it is and nothing more than what physics says, and then to show that biological phenomena are the result of Darwinian natural selection and that is mandated by physics alone. All you need to believe Darwin is to believe physics because Darwin’s theory is a consequence of the operation of purely physical processes. All the adaptation and all the appearance of design in the universe could only happen that way. There’s no room for intelligent design.
Then the next question is “What about human values, what about ethics, what about our core morality? I try to explain why it is that the “new atheists,” like Sam Harris and [Daniel] Dennett and, to some extent, Dawkins think they can ground ethics on science, and they really can’t. That means you can’t really ground ethics on anything at all.
I think you have to adopt a position I call “nice nihilism.” “Nice” because that’s what the lesson of science explains, why we are nice, why we are cooperative—with the doubtful exception of a couple of psychopaths on one end of the extreme and Mother Teresa on the other—most people are cooperative, agreeable, moral, law-abiding people and we don’t need any further justification. It’s, so to speak, in our genes. We were built that way and our species never would have survived on the bottom of the food chain on the African savannah a million years ago unless we figured out how to cooperate, and that’s basically the cause of our moral core, [the one] that everyone accepts. To look for something more by way of justification is a mistake.
And the rest of the book explains why we shouldn’t believe what introspection or consciousness misleadingly tells us about the nature of ourselves, the meaning of our lives—
—we should NOT believe what consciousness tells us?
Consciousness is extremely misleading. Most of the chapters are about neuroscience and theories, experiments in neuroscience that show that our belief in free will is an illusion, that our belief in a continuing identical self over a lifetime is an illusion, that we get the nature of cognitive thought fundamentally wrong, and when we do we’re susceptible to the narratives of religion. A good chunk of the book is an attempt to explain what contemporary Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience tells us about the mind and telling us the truth about the mind dispels most of the illusions that make religious belief [exciting.]
You talk about how science doesn’t come with a narrative. How might atheism be taught to people who don’t understand the periodic table, who don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics? How can atheism be made sensible to people who respond to stories, who don’t understand science?
That’s a great question, and in fact, what the book says, and what’s true, is that those of us who understand science and even scientists, we are all constantly bewitched by stories, by narrative. Things always seem to be more intelligible and understandable if they come compacted in plots with beginnings and middles and ends narratives and motives and schemes and conspiracies and stuff like that. Even the most scientific person is inevitably seduced by stories.
Those of us who are most seduced by stories are the ones for whom atheism is the hardest to wrap our minds around. I suppose the answer to your question is probably to understand some of the science, which is never stories, never ever stories. Even biology, even evolutionary history, isn’t stories in the sense that were using the term as a narrative or a plot or motive. It takes the ability to understand reality without the crutch of stories in order to take atheism seriously.
An interesting fact is that the history of atheism and the history of science are pretty much contemporaneous. You just don’t get atheism until you get modern science from the 17th century onward. […] Even more interesting, if you look at the membership of the National Academy of Sciences—you know, the 400 top scientists in the country. Seventy-five percent say they’re atheists, 20 percent say they’re agnostics and only five percent are religious. That heavy a proportion of atheists probably shows that you can’t convince someone who takes stories seriously to be an atheist.
What about the other five percent? They’re still excellent scientists, right?
Yes, I’ve known a few—not very many, only a couple—who claim to be religious. The most famous example of this is Francis Collins, who is the head of the National Institutes of Health and used to be the head of the Human Genome Project. He wrote a book about five or eight years ago in which he argued the evolution and theism were perfectly compatible and that you never have to choose between science and religion.
The interesting fact is that it’s very important politically for scientists to say that because scientists of course get their money from the federal government. That’s what drives fundamental research in this country, and that means that the taxpayers. No scientist in his right mind is going to stand up and announce that science makes atheism rationally mandatory. That is literally to bite the hand that feeds you, provoke the Tea Party into ceasing to support any kind of science on the grounds that its not just next to godless atheism, it’s the foundation of godless atheism.
So most scientists, even in the National Academy, will publicly support the claim that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion even though they’re all atheists.
That brings me to my next question: There’s a movie coming out this Friday called The Ides of March. George Clooney plays a presidential candidate, a very liberal one who’s also an avowed atheist. The point isn’t really developed in the film and it seems to be a slightly unrealistic touch. In your book you discuss religiosity in American political life. Why do you think Americans expect ritual piety from their politicians and do you expect it to change?
It’s the connection between religiosity and morality that means no politician in this country can publicly admit to being an atheist. Now what’s interesting is that it’s not the case anywhere else in the world, certainly not in the Western world. Most of the politicians on the front benches of the Labor Party and the British Conservative Party and the Liberal Democratic party are acknowledged atheists. It’s also true in France and all over Scandinavia. It’s not true in Germany, I believe Angela Merkel is an evangelical—
Of a European stripe. Not the same as an American evangelical. But, by and large—take Japan: Shinto is not a religion. People there don’t think religion has anything to do with morality. But in the United States, that’s basically the problem. Any political figure who openly avows atheism would never win elective office.
It’s interesting, because our Founding Fathers were considerably less religious than today’s politicians.
Yes, they called themselves deists, the ones who weren’t atheists. And as far as I’m concerned, deists might as well be atheists.