Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writers and Atheism

Why are so many writers atheists? Not all of them, by any means, or even most of them, but I have been noticing lately that atheism is over-represented among book people. The official stats are that about 2% of Americans are atheist, which, considering the people I know, seems ludicrously low. Then again, I think the official numbers of gay and Jewish people also seem too low, so maybe my view of reality is a tad distorted.

I am an atheist. It's not an important part of my identity or anything, and I have no interest in reading about atheism or joining atheist gangs or whatever. I'm an atheist because I was raised without religion, and my life's experience hasn't caused me to change my mind or feel the need for or the presence of a deity. Au contraire, in fact. Recently an old friend died, too young, of esophageal cancer. He was an artist, a painter, who dedicated his life to his art. Really, I don't say this lightly, but he was a kind of angel: he inspired everyone he met by his love of and single-minded devotion to light and color and paint. He gave me so many gifts. He was a sweetheart. But now he's dead of an incredibly cruel and painful disease, and certain other evil bastards still walk the earth. If there is a god, he has some explaining to do.

And of course, that's just the latest. The Holocaust is, for me, the biggie. I can't reconcile that and God. Also, famine, genocide, children with cancer, etc., etc. I have heard a lot of arguments on the part of the religious, but the explanation there is no God is still the most convincing one to me.

Anyway, I'm not interested in arguing theology here. I keep my opinions to myself for the most part. I have religious friends and I respect the fact that they have grappled with the exact same questions and come to a different conclusion.

Because there have been a number of books for and against atheism published lately I've found myself thinking about it more, and justifying my position to myself. I was reading Wendy Lesser's essay about her friendship with Leonard Michaels ("Difficult Friends") in her book Room for Doubt, and I came across this bit:
It's strange that I can feel so intensely about Annunciations without having any feeling for God at all. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that if I have any feeling about God, it is utterly negative. I don't believe he exists but I dislike him anyway. Nothing in my life justifies this attitude: unlike Job, I don't have a particularly valid gripe against God. But I have managed, in my typical fashion, to convert a rational sense of disbelief into a more personal emotion. Raised as an agnostic, I have instead turned into a full-blown atheist, with an intense reaction against almost any form of religious observance. My rational agnostic side is what makes a philosopher like David Hume so attractive to me, but my faith-based atheism makes me much more like Lenny, who was eminently capable of holding two logically conflicting positions at once. Like Lenny, I am personally offended at God's demonstrably bad administrative performance; and like Lenny, I have chosen to replace God with art.

Then just yesterday Terri Gross on Fresh Air was replaying an interview with Philip Roth in honor of his 75th birthday. She ended the interview with a question about faith or spirituality, but he was having nothing to do with it. "I'm not interested in deluding myself," he said. Another atheist!

It's possible that writers actually aren't more likely to be atheists than the population at large, and it just seems that way because they're the ones writing about it. But I don't know. I feel that if I were religious, I wouldn't have the urge to write. I feel like my urge to write is very much tied to my need to find meaning in the world, and that if I believed in God, I would find meaning there, instead.

There are religious writers, of course, Flannery O'Connor not the least of them. But I really do think that for many of us, reading and writing literature serves the same function as a religion. It provides a structure for the consideration of moral questions. It's about why the world is the way it is. It's about beauty and ugliness. It offers glimpses of the possibility of immortality.

If we had a Bible, what would it be? Strunk and White?
Our first Communion -- a library card?


Gloria, Writer Reading said...

As you know, as a daughter of Nazi concentration camp survivors, I've struggled with this all my life and have come down to the Wendy Lesser position since childhood: I don't believe in God but I hate him anyway for the havoc he's wreaked and equate him with Hitler. On the other hand, there is a lot of beauty in life. I think writers need to hold both sides of the dialectic and can't resort to the sort of denial of reality required by religious thinking. (I was raised very religious. I know what I'm talking about.) I think intellectuals in general tend towards atheism. There is a blog group of atheistic bloggers that has a couple hundred listed. The Creator of the list examines each blog to check for God content. I have considered joining the list but can't bring myself to call myself an atheist. I think atheism itself can be a version of religion, embodying a kind of certainty about a Godless universe that I think of as presumptuous as a Godful one. To me, humility about the enormity of it all, the pathetic limitations of our small brains, make it impossible for us to know one way or the other. I'm sure there is no personified God that is represented in most religions, but what else is out there is utterly impossible for us to know.

rmellis said...

Yeah, my mother always called herself an agnostic, because she didn't want to presume to know one way or the other. But I'm fine calling myself an atheist, with a small a. I just take it to mean Without God, or that I don't believe in God. I don't. But I don't presume to know there isn't some greater power, either. I agree: our minds are too small to even come close to understanding the universe.

For some reason I find the idea of an atheism blog off-putting.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

Of course, between Flannery O'Conner and Tolstoy, my whole theory is blown to...Hell.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I don't think I'm too wild about getting on the atheist blog list, personally. It sounds a little too much like a competing religion.

I generally describe myself as an agnostic, since I have no more "proof" that there isn't some higher power than I do that there is. If there is, though, he's often a real asshole, and so my money--or at least my grim hope--is on his nonexistence.

I grew up Catholic myself, and quickly learned that you couldn't win any admirers by asking the very obvious unanswerable questions. Instead you got called a weisenheimer. My entire life since has mostly been about 1) enjoying the hell out of myself and 2) asking unanswerable questions.

In fact, #2 is essentially the entire job description of the fiction writer. Which perhaps is why so many of us are atheists.

Writer, Rejected said...

I don't know what I am: kind of a hard-ass skeptic when it comes to religion, and yet kind of a stupid believer in the saints of my childhood. I was raised Catholic. I've toyed with conversion to Judaism. I mostly consider writing to be my religion. and my novel ends up being about the story teller as savior. So, I don't know. I believe in goodness though, and in being good for whatever the hell that's worth.

This is a great topic, and these were really great comments.

AC said...

I like Wendy Lesser's term "faith-based atheism". If religious thinking is in fact a denial of reality, as Gloria says, it takes faith to deny the reality of other people's experiences with God. Intellectually speaking, there will always be holes in any kind of systemic theology. I also made myself unpopular in my youth by asking too many uncomfortable questions. But I've stayed within the Christian borders (just barely) because so many people I know and trust have had personal encounters with God. God is sort of a friend of a friend, and I prefer to keep it that way. I wouldn't go so far as to say that God is an asshole, but, like nature, he (for lack of a better pronoun) is not always gentle and safe. I don't have any problem with people who don't believe in God, but atheists lately seem to be crossing the line into bigotry. For instance, Philip Pullman.

rmellis said...

In the beginning of "Civilization and its Discontents," Freud describes a friend telling him that his belief in God had to do with an "oceanic feeling" he had -- and Freud says that maybe the reason he's an atheist is because he's never had that feeling.

I've come to wonder if faith is a feeling, a sense of knowing that some people have. But if you don't have it, how can anyone expect you to get it?

I don't deny the reality of anyone's experiences. But I can't change my beliefs based on the feelings of others, when my own experiences and feelings are so at odds.

But as I said, I do respect that others come to different conclusions than I have!

Anonymous said...

I certainly respect those who come to other conclusions, but I don't necessarily respect the conclusions. I'm very, very annoyed when I am asked to "respect" somebody's "faith," particularly in a political context.

I do think that "faith" may be some kind of gene. Having it is NOT a virtue, and I am not impressed by it, and I do not feel the need to accomodate other people's embrace of it. I respect it only insofar as it is a human quality like any other. I respect the whole human package. But a person is not special for accepting God's love.

The older I get, the less faith I have in anyone or anything. I feel as though every day is another crapshoot, and that if I want it to be meaningful--if I want life itself to be meaningful--then I have to be the one to make that meaning.

Which, again, is another pretty good job description for a writer.

grumpy said...

I was raised Catholic, retired, and became an atheist. I strongly agree with jrl that being told to "respect" primitive superstition sets one's teeth on edge.

Having said that, I am not terribly comfortable with those who seem to want to make atheism a system of belief on a level with religion. I prefer that atheism take a defensive position in a philosophical debate, i.e., I will believe in gods/fairies/flying spaghetti monsters when you show me evidence of their existence. Until that time, STFU.

Matt said...

From your post: "I feel that if I were religious, I wouldn't have the urge to write."

But you would, because writers who are also strong thinkers tend to be the least certain people on the planet. God isn't an answer or a cure, but - at one's choosing - yet another possible dimension in a seemingly unlimited universe. In other words: more questions, more tension. More writing.

I find the current Atheist Pride movement, while arguably necessary in terms of certain underlying causes ("intelligent design" being put into a science classes in the U.S.) otherwise repellent by its sheer intolerance and arrogant dismissal of all things religious/spiritual.

I like Rudolph Steiner's maxim, that Science, Art, and Religion are all the same - they all aim to bridge the gap between what we know and what we don't.

AC said...

Matt, I agree. In my experience, belief in God opens a whole additional dimension of questioning and appreciation in life.

Going back to the original post, I love the idea of reading and writing as a religious activity. It might be the only religion for some of us, but it can be practiced as a complement to any other faith. As long as we're talking about fiction, not polemic, literature ought to be the common ground for us all.

Anonymous said...

And then, just when I begin to feel that a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens doth protest too much, I read a post like Matt's accusing atheists of "intolerance."

Must be tough on you, Matt, to live in a society where a mere 90% of people identify themselves as religious. Where only 95% of politicians and 100% of all Presidents assert a religious faith. A country where more people say they would vote for an otherwise qualified woman, black, Muslim, Jew, or gay person than they would for an atheist.

And the arrogance of us atheists! To protest that your imaginary friends aren't real? The nerve.

Matt said...

Anonymous - I'm not sure what society you're talking about. Perhaps it's the United States. If so, those are interesting statistics. But you make two false presumptions:

a) that I'm a theist/deist.

b) that I'm American.

Still, if true, those are interesting stats. I'm just not sure how they apply to what I wrote - perhaps I'll discuss this with my "imaginary friends". That is, when I build up the "the nerve".

Anonymous said...

What would an atheist blog
about positively?

Terry Finley

RT Travaloni said...

I think the reason why a lot of writers are atheists is that we actually, in our work, spend a lot of time looking for god. And then we don't find him.

As opposed to just begging the question from the start.

All writers are scientists, in the end.

Friday said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Friday said...

There's something so utterly hopeless in not believing in anything. Good people die, and die young, and that's exactly why I can't bring myself to think that this is it. There's nothing else. What would the point be?

I wish I did believe in something concrete. There's a peace in that sort of blind faith and it's peace that I'll never have. I guess I would say I'm an agnostic, but only because I'm too scared to be an atheist.

Yeah, I just posted this a minute ago and was not paying attention to who wrote it. Two authors? Whaaaa?! (This should not have been as confusing to me as it was.)