Motives for Atheism

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism

Motives for Atheism

In this section I wish to conclude my reflections on the definition of atheism. The characteristics presented in the previous section are, basically, what the concept is all about. An atheist simply denies the claims of theism. As we have seen, we should not mix this up with the ways in which atheism can be defended. Nor should we fail to distinguish between what atheism is and the motives for atheism.

This is – to my mind – what is neglected in the attempt to define atheism by the Irish philosopher and sociologist Patrick Masterson (1936- ). Masterson writes in his book Atheism and Alienation (1971) that the emphasis of contemporary atheists has shifted from a critique of the proofs for the existence of God to the rejection of the properties traditionally attributed to Him. The atheism of his day, so he continues, consists chiefly in asserting the impossibility of the coexistence of finite and infinite being. What contemporary atheists object to is that “the affirmation of God as infinite being necessarily implies the devaluation of finite being and, in particular, the dehumanization of man.”[119] This is all very well, but isn’t this more about the motives of contemporary atheists?

Many people are motivated not to subscribe to the belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good, personal god because this would conflict with important values they would prefer to uphold. It is also perfectly possible to say that one can be a “non-believer” in the existence of God (and so an atheist) and a “believer” in human freedom, human dignity, progress, and many other things. As a matter of fact, this is a combination that one often encounters. People’s motives for developing an atheist position are often grounded in a laudable type of engagement and not in disillusion. So, in most atheists we find a combination of “belief” and “unbelief,” but what they believe in is not God and is sometimes deemed to be irreconcilable with God. That is manifested clearly in a kind of “profession of faith” by the great American infidel Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899). Ingersoll wrote:

I am an unbeliever, and I am a believer…. I do not believe in the “Mosaic” account of creation, or in the flood, or the Tower of Babel, or that General Joshua turned back the sun or stopped the earth. I do not believe in the Jonah story … and I have my doubts about the broiled quails furnished in the wilderness. Neither do I believe that man is wholly depraved. I have not the least faith in the Eden, snake and apple story. Neither do I believe that God is an eternal jailer; that he is going to be the warden of an everlasting penitentiary in which the most of men are to be eternally tormented. I do not believe that any man can be justly punished or rewarded on account of his belief.

But I do believe in the nobility of human nature; I believe in love and home, and kindness and humanity; I believe in good fellowship and cheerfulness, in making wife and children happy. I believe in good nature, in giving to others all the rights that you claim for yourself. I believe in free thought, in reason, observation and experience. I believe in self-reliance and in expressing your honest thoughts. I have hope for the whole human race. What will happen to one, will, I hope, happen to all, and that, I hope, will be good. Above all, I believe in Liberty.[120]

Ingersoll was a very successful public speaker, as everyone who reads this passage will understand, and this probably has to do with the fact that he, like no other, understood how to ride the moral high ground. He competed with the religious orators in the sense that he used some of their imagery, e.g. when he writes: “I believe in the religion of reason – the gospel of this world; in the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature to feed and clothe the world.”[121]

It is difficult to cast somebody who writes and speaks like this as a cynic or as someone without firm beliefs and ideals.

As we might expect on the basis of the last sentence from the passage by Ingersoll, one of the most important values that animates much of atheist writing is the attempt to safeguard human freedom. This we encounter in the work of the German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906). In 1874 von Hartmann wrote a small book under the title Die Selbstzersetzung des Christenthums und die Religion der Zukunft [The Self-Annihilation of Christianity and the Religion of the Future]. In that book von Hartmann distinguished between the traditional religious position, based on moral heteronomy, and his own position, which was based on moral autonomy (see Chapter 4). It was the Protestant tradition in Christianity in particular that brought human autonomy to the fore, but, so von Hartmann argued, the principle of moral autonomy, although generated within the Christian worldview, will ultimately destroy Christianity. And he would have been pleased with that. Once one gives primacy to human reason and moral autonomy, the authority of the divine will and scripture have to be rejected: “For the absolute moral principle of Christianity is obedience to the divine will as expressed in Holy Scripture.”[122] This is – and here comes my point – irreconcilable with human freedom, according to von Hartmann. As long as we believe in the theistic god who has created us and the rest of the world we have to conclude that we are nothing, he claims. Our true morality, von Hartmann tells us, can be nothing other than strict submission to the almighty will of this transcendent god. In that situation morality is heteronomous.[123]

True morality, so von Hartmann contended, will always start with human autonomy, and, like Ingersoll, he also spelled out what this implies for the theistic worldview: “then all theistic morality will be necessarily unethical.”[124] This implies that the “Christian idea has run its full course.”[125] We have to find a new moral perspective for the modern world. As long as we believe in the idea of the theistic God we are nothing but an object, a material object made by a divine creator and, accordingly, limited in our freedom.

A similar argument to von Hartmann’s is used by another German philosopher, Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950). In his Ethics (1926)[126] Hartmann developed a theory of values that, though objective, have ideal being, affecting the world insofar as men act on them.

It has been rightly said that “the absence of religious thought in Hartmann’s philosophy is conspicuous.”[127] For the history of atheism Hartmann is important because he denies the existence of a providential God. God’s providence would annihilate human freedom. Hartmann, in his “postulatory atheism,” teaches the opposite of Kant with regard to God: human freedom does not necessitate us to postulate God, but the reverse. God’s nature and human freedom stand in a contradictory relation as “thesis” and “anti-thesis.”

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[119] Masterson, Patrick, Atheism and Alienation: A Study of the Philosophical Sources of Contemporary Atheism, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1973 (1971), p. 13.
[120] Quoted in: Williams, David Allen, A Celebration of Humanism and Freethought, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1995, p. 67.
[121] See: Ingersoll, R.G., “Why Am I an Agnostic?” North American Review, December 1889, Part I, pp. 1-14, p. 6. See also: Ingersoll, R.G., “Mistakes of Moses,” in: R.G. Ingersoll, Complete Lectures of Col. R.G. Ingersoll, M.A. Donogue & Company, Chicago 1900, pp. 7-19, p. 7: “Now and then someone asks me why I am endeavoring to interfere with the religious faith of others, and why I try to take from the world the consolation naturally arising from a belief in eternal fire. And I answer: I want to do what little I can to make my country truly free. I want to broaden the horizon of our people.”
[122] Von Hartmann, Eduard, Die Selbstzersetzung des Christenthums und die Religion der Zukunft [The Self-Annihilation of Christianity and the Religion of the Future], Zweite Auflage, Carl Ducker Verlag, Berlin 1874, p. 12.
[123] Ibid., p. 30.
[124] Ibid.
[125] Ibid., p. 91.
[126] Reissued in English as: Hartmann, Nicolai, Moral Phenomena, Vol. I of Ethics, With a new introduction by Andreas A.M. Kinneging, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 2002; Hartmann, Nicolai, Moral Values, Vol. II of Ethics, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2003; Hartmann, Nicolai, Moral Freedom, Vol. III of Ethics, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2004.
[127] Cerf, Walter, “Nicolai Hartmann,” in: Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. III, Macmillan & The Free Press, New York 1967, pp. 421-426, p. 426.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

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