The Spiritual Life of an Atheist, Part One: The Death of God

Amusingly enough, this story begins with a Christmas gift.

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, to be precise.

Unfortunately, the usually-stellar Porter airlines somehow managed to lose my checked bag, which – while it contained nothing essential to my survival – happened to be carrying said book. And my skis, too, but that’s another matter entirely. Long before I boarded that flight, I recall reading the first few pages of this little book. The author said something about the influence of his Christian (Catholic?) upbringing on his spiritual life, even after becoming an Atheist. As he argues, that’s more or less inevitable; we cannot, after all, simply erase the past. Being that as it may, I began to sense a thread that I find…if not troubling, then concerning in some parts of modern Atheism. It is often phrased thusly:

billboard with a background picture of a sunrise, having the text 'Are You Good Without God? Millions Are' on it

Often accompanied by examples of Atheist charities, or perhaps Atheist ‘heroes’* and soldiers who risk death in order to save lives or defend ideals. Which is all very well and good, but I can’t shake the feeling that the definition of “good” (and, consequently, “evil”) in use are derived from the very religions that Atheism tends to criticize. More accurately, the very religion: Christianity. In and of itself, this is hardly a bad thing; in a historical context, Atheism evolves from Humanism, which in turn has its roots in Protestantism. This is a case in which we surely cannot erase the past, nor should we want to. It is imperative to be aware of our origins. My concern lies in what this proposition “good without god” says about the nature and future of Atheism. When I said Atheists “criticize” religion earlier, my choice of words was deliberate. If we are willing to accept some or most of the moral and ethical dictates of our “parent” religions, I think we run the risk of becoming – if we are not already – just that: a criticism; a critique.

“The New Atheism” is a term quite widely used to refer to the harsh, abrasive appraisals of religion offered by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I mention this because Atheism itself is not particularly new. If you accept that religion must be taught (and we can argue about that until we are blue in the face at some other time), then our earliest hominid ancestors were Atheists, at least until they started asking questions to which no satisfactory answers could be found. Avowed, purposeful Atheists, those who rejected religion are also to be found in history: Theodorus the Greek, for example. So, our belief system may be old, but the concept of a “New Atheism” I find powerful. I think it is a mantle worth donning, but we must be ready to accept not only the powers that come with it, but the responsibilities. Specifically, I mean that as we gain the power to articulate new philosophies, new values, we have a responsibility to re-examine old values – and discard them. Not, I should think, all “old values”, but those which we find now to be more burdensome than bountiful.

It is probably clear that I have been reading Nietzsche of late. This is both true and relevant.

Obvious: there is no “Church of Atheism”, or if there is something by that name that does exist, it is not what it claims to be. I should explain that if I think Atheists should be hammering out their vision of morality or spirituality, it is not meant to be absolute. No Atheist speaks for all atheists. Why, then, should “we” do this, as though there is such an entity as “we” to begin with? For me, the answer is simple: ideas do not need to be enforced to be adopted. They do not need to be enforced to be useful. Atheists should articulate their ideas to each other (and to non-Atheists) not because it will create a better Atheism (although it will do that), but because it will create better Atheists.

So, Nietzsche. I implicitly promised that I would elaborate on that thought, and here I shall. In something known as the “parable of the madman”, Nietzsche observed a truth in Western** society that only a madman could discover or articulate: God is dead, and we have killed him. This is, as a lawyer or TV cop might say, a very serious charge. Perhaps we’ll have time to stage the trial in part 2 or 3 (or however many of these I write), but for now I’d like to examine the aftermath, rather than the evidence. Re-reading the passage, I remember the confusion with which I originally confronted this insight. I wondered if Nietzsche was celebrating the death of God…or lamenting it. Now, I think I understand: it is neither. We are being presented with no more and no less than the truth, and the madman’s questions are for us to answer. What shall we do, what must we do, knowing that God is dead, and that we are his murderers?

Atheists are often described – positively – as “ambassadors”, or “non-confrontational” when they take a live-and-let-live approach with faith (this is a major point given in praise of the book which sparked the rant you are now reading, in fact) or religion. Perhaps the “firebrands”, the “confrontational” Atheists, have not been a great help in illustrating precisely why such a “tolerant” position might be detrimental to both theists and non-theists. I think that’s because a lot of the firebrand critiques tend to be along the lines of “how stupid would you have to be to ignore [insert mountain of scientific evidence here] and persist in your belief in a supernatural God?”, trying to attack the certainty of the faithful by asserting that one cannot concurrently accept both rationality and religion. Leaving aside for the moment that “it is the mark of an enlightened mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it” (Aristotle?), that’s an approach doomed to failure. There will always be room for one of two things to happen. A) the believer in question can “move the goalposts”, so to speak, redefining God in an ever-shrinking, but unfalsifiable way, or B) the believer simply asserts that the two parties in the argument are operating from different fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world, and therefore may not engage in discourse that will change either party’s mind. While perhaps any movement that prides itself on being “confrontational” probably isn’t interested in the well-being of anyone, I would respectfully submit that a better argumentative tack would not be to illustrate the nonexistence of God, but the unbelief in God demonstrated even by those who cling to their Bibles the tightest.

Assuming you accept the death of God, both believers and non-believers alike need to be in search of a post-God understanding of the world; a post-spirituality, if you will. To the Atheist firebrands among us, I would like to say that your present strategy is alienating to potential allies in what promises to be a difficult search. Our eventual destinations may be different, and our present dialog is neither necessary, nor productive. But maybe someday those believers are going to wake up to the stench of God’s rotting corpse wafting through their windows, and they are going to need help from people like us – people who have already considered the dilemmas that they will be facing.

And now we come to the crux of the matter: what does a post-spirituality look like? This takes some deep digging. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche traces the origins of Jewish, and by extension Christian morality to the priests who created it. Priests who resented the power of what Nietzsche referred to as the “knightly-aristocratic” caste in society: the warriors and leaders, the physically-powerful individuals who reveled in carnal pleasures: food, violence, sex. Being weaker, less able to enjoy these sensations, the priests devised a world in direct opposition to the one they lived in; a world where weakness was strength, creating the fiction that those who “chose” to abstain from pleasures such as food, sex, and violence would be rewarded for their temperance. They borrowed from Plato’s concept of the “world of forms”, and created Heaven. Of course, being not of this tortured world, Heaven could not be populated by flesh-and-blood beings, for such would be self-defeating! The soul (or spirit), then, became necessary. Something dwelling within a person that was constant, unrelated to their physical stature, or strength, or will. Something that could be found in every human, something that could be loved equally by God in all of them.

The ascetic values of Christianity, it’s high opinion of restraint and temperance can therefore be found to stem from an intrinsic hatred for the world, says Nietzsche. When Christianity says “do not”, or “choose not to”, it is merely taking a state of weakness (“cannot”) and making it appear to be something other than what it is: strength – in this case, of the will. Of course, as Atheists and materialists, the idea of measuring strength of will or strength of character by what it is unable to accomplish, by the list of those things that it has no power to effect (or affect, both are appropriate) in the world, is patently absurd. Spirituality cannot be maintained, because the spirit – an intangible thing of value residing within ourselves, yet outside of reality – is no more than a fiction, a fever dream.

I must admit, now, that I have been disingenuous. My title has become inappropriate, since as you can see I have come to the conclusion that Atheists should not have a spiritual life, certainly not if they are serious about their rejection of God and/or religion (Christianity in this example, but the hatred of the world which leads to asceticism is by no means unique to it). Of course, as humans I think we are not particularly pleased with stopping there. We like to analyze and categorize and name and catalogue. We are not happy without value judgements, I do not think. What we are left with, then, is a desire to find tangible, defensible values in the real world that we can live with. And that is where I will leave you (until part 2)

*”heroes” in the modern sense of the word, e.g. people who run into burning buildings to rescue pets or children. I’m not talking about Beowulf or Odysseus.

** I know everyone hates the term “Western”, but look you at least have a rudimentary idea of what I mean here, okay?

New (Pseudonymous) Hotness

I have been blogging as “Loud” for what must be close to 5 years now. While I still feel that’s who I am, a new project that I’m working on (stay tuned) presented me with a challenge. I’m going to be analyzing science fiction and fantasy narratives in an academic context, and – should the project become successful – may feel the desire to publish my work. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that you can author an academic paper as “Loud Blogger”. At the same time, I’d like to connect all (or most) of my online writing under one name and reputation

While I do not, at this moment, fear any particular reprisal for stating my opinions online, I can easily imagine a number of circumstances in which I might begin to do so. The challenge for me, then, was to create a pseudonym that is respectable enough for print media, and which also felt like it fit me.

After much deliberation, I have decided upon just such a name. It is:

Hendrik Willemszen

…or “H. Willemszen” for short.

I hope you like it half as much as I do.

PS: You may still (and are, indeed, encouraged to) refer to me as “Loud”, should that strike your fancy.

Life Imitates Art

A few years ago, a videogame was released. You might be the least bit familiar with it; it’s name was Bioshock. This game featured a level called “Arcadia”, which you may also be familiar with. For those not so enlightened, a brief description/synopsis is to be found below:

In a fictional, underwater building from Bioshock's city of Rapture, a lone figure in an old-timey diving suit (brass and all) can be seen among some fiddlehead ferns. Behind him and to his far right stands a deciduous tree which seems to have a purple hue by virtue of the lighting. The whole scene is capped by a glass and metal dome, behind which the rest of the eerie, glowing city resides.

Bioshock, for non-gamers, is/was a very popular action/horror game. Its fictional world was Rapture, a libertarian utopia / art deco metropolis built miles under the sea (near Iceland) sometime after World War II. By the time the player discovers the city in 1960, it has disintegrated both socially and structurally as the result of a bloody civil war fought between the supporters of city founder Andrew Ryan and the legions of smuggler/con-man Frank Fontaine (under his alias “Atlas”). Oh, yes, before I forget: large swaths of the city’s population have been driven to extreme mental instability by “Adam”, a naturally-occurring substance that, when refined, renders the human body and genome quite malleable – at the cost of being tremendously addictive and disfiguring to both body and mind. As a whole, the game’s narrative largely serves as a rhetorical kick to Ayn Rand…when she’d never really been standing on two feet to begin with. The Arcadia level takes the player to the source of Rapture’s food and oxygen; an improbable undersea garden/forest created by the brilliant biologist Julie Langford.

Rapture, in its architecture, is modeled after something of a dreamlike, ideal Manhattan – merely submerged. How intriguing, then, that there are plans now being put forward to transform an old, abandoned, subterranean tram terminal into…an improbable underground park, supplied with light by way of fiber-optic “remote skylights”!

Somehow, I doubt that the developers were particularly influenced by Bioshock, but it would be interesting to know if they’ve ever seen the game, or even heard of it. In the game, the attitude expressed toward science, art, and industry by the denizens of Rapture (before the calamity) was that of “because we can!” or “because it’s there!”, and while there is a certain amount of that ethos embedded in this project, it carries as well the hallmarks of necessity. Building a park underground in New York isn’t just a testament to the technological power of humankind; as the article linked above notes, it’s essentially the only kind of project that can create new parkland in a metropolis so crowded. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, I think, between these two worlds that are at once so close – and yet so far.

Here is a Delicious Thing You Can Make!

I’m working on a more substantial post for the moment, but while I do that, how about I share a recipe for this food I just made (up)?

Ingredients (per person to be served):

  • 1-1.5 cups dry pasta – I used Spaghetti, but honestly anything goes.
  • 100-150g old cheddar cheese – probably nothing too upscale, we’re just gonna melt it down
  • 1-2 Tbsp each flour and butter or margarine
  • at least 2/3rds of a cup of milk, probably more to be safe?
  • black pepper and hot chili powder to taste
  • one-half of a medium-large onion
  • one half of a head of broccoli, cut into florets and then cross-sectioned into about 4 pieces per floret (less if smaller, more if larger) DO NOT DISCARD THE STEM IT IS DELICIOUS USE IT IN SOMETHING ELSE.
  • one half of a zucchini, cut into thin strips
  • three to five mushrooms, quartered
  • three modestly-sized cloves of garlic
  • probably too much olive oil
  • Light beer (Pilsener, Hefeweizen, etc.) or white wine.

How You Do It:

First, you know how to boil noodles. Do that about 15-20 minutes before you think everything else will be done. Don’t make the same mistake as me and start boiling the water too late. Have a glass of beer or wine to drink while you’re cooking.

The first thing you’ll probably want to do is find a frying pan of proportional size to that of the meal you are setting out to cook. Next, add olive oil generously, and apply just a touch above medium heat. In a couple minutes, you want a hot layer of oil about 1-2mm thick covering the bottom of the pan. This is excessive, but delicious. Next, chop the onion and fry it until it’s starting to smell good. Since all stoves are unique and evil in their own way, I won’t give you a numbered setting. Cook it so the onion sizzles a lot, but doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan or burn. Then, once it smells delicious, add the broccoli (chop it while the onion fries, but do stir the onion every so often). After another few minutes, add the zucchini and then the mushrooms in much the same fashion. Finally, add the garlic and fry for about 30 seconds, again, time isn’t so much important as smell: when you can smell the garlic, take the whole thing off the heat and cover it so it stays warm.

Now, it’s time for cheese sauce. We need to make something called a roux. Begin by melting the butter in the bottom of an appropriately-sized pot (only you know how many people you’re feeding). Then, slowly add flour and whisk this mixture together. Once you’ve got a paste going on, start adding milk very slowly (whisking briskly all the while). The goal here is to create a sort of creamy, thick liquid. It should offer some resistance to stirring, but should not be like glue. Once this has been achieved, begin grating cheese into and (you guessed it) whisking the mixture some more. Add milk along the way to maintain a thick, but still liquid consistency. The ideal cheese sauce will vary from person to person, so honestly just make something you’ll find appetizing: if you want it really gooey and stringy, use more cheese and less milk. If you think that’s gross, make it more of a liquid. Remember that once you take the heat off, this stuff starts to congeal something fierce, so don’t worry if it looks runny in the pot when you’re making it. Add black pepper and chili powder to give it some kick. Again, once it’s ready, remove from heat and cover.

The noodles should be done (you timed that right, didn’t you?). Put them in a bowl or bowls, and then top the noodles with the mixture of delicious, fried vegetables. Apply cheese sauce as desired. Now, you’ve been drinking on an empty stomach while you were cooking, so when your palate encounters the triple threat of protein-fat-carbohydrate, it will taste like ambrosia.


PS oops I forgot to take a picture of this stuff. Maybe next time.

Social Notworking

Today, I took a step that I felt had been a long time coming; I initiated the self-destruct countdown on Facebook and Google+. Within two weeks, my presence in the world of social networking should be completely erased.

Why on Earth would I do such a thing?

To some extent, quitting Facebook as a fad has already come and gone. Privacy settings changed, and people either left or moved on. I felt a little bit stuck. At the time, I still used Facebook to communicate and co-ordinate with my friends. Despite any worries I might have had about privacy, I guess I still felt the exchange – my personal information for their free, useful service – was worthwhile.

I think the summer changed that. I stopped posting status updates. I stopped checking Facebook for notifications every day. I stopped using the service, and after a while I could no longer say I missed it. Like any new toy, Facebook had seduced me with its novelty. But when that thin veneer at last peeled away, what I saw underneath seemed fit for the trash heap.

I like the idea of an internet where people can meet and interact with other people with whom they would never have come into contact otherwise. I like the idea of an internet where you are judged only by what you contribute to the conversation. I like the idea of an internet that is something else than just an extension, a plug-in for your “real life”.

Facebook, and by extension all social networks, present a compelling challenge to this view of cyberspace. Instead of creating new relationships, they seek to mirror and further cement existing ones. Where once the internet could be an escape from the cruelty of the cubicle farm or the high school locker room, it could now extend the tyranny of both. Instead of challenging the user with new ideas and new perspectives, Facebook builds a stone rampart around your existing belief system.

And while it did all that, it provided a platform for the most devious, crowd-sourced personality-modelling project yet. With millions of status updates, likes, fan pages, and interest lists, Facebook’s Trojan horse has ferried an army of advertisers right past our high firewalls. Our fate, less sanguine, will be little different from that of the Trojans. They have slashed our expectations of privacy, and soon they will carry off our hopes and dreams into indentured servitude.

I have been a coward to allow this for so long, but I would be a fool to let it continue any longer. So from now on, if you really care what I’m up to, you can bloody well ask me!


First, Principles

While it is extremely unlikely that anyone reading this blog will not be well-acquainted with me in person, I would nevertheless like to state for the record that…

  1. The contents of this blog are my opinion. Unless specifically stated otherwise, I make no claim to speak for anyone but myself.
  2. While I will strive for accuracy when reporting facts and figures, I am a human being and therefore fallible. I will, whenever possible, print any retractions/corrections promptly and prominently. This blog is – at least for the foreseeable future – intended to be approached as an op-ed page, and not as ‘pure’ journalism, investigative or otherwise.
  3. Bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I believe in end-user freedoms. To that end, this blog is licensed under Creative Commons. See here for more information.

Plans for the Future

  1. Move to a self-hosted, self-styled instance of WordPress