Saturday 11 June 2011

Psychology of an atheist


When I was an atheist I didn’t feel any need for Christianity.

I didn’t feel any need for it. I certainly felt alienated, but merely wanted relief from alienation, and conceptualised this in terms of relief in pleasure, or at least in distraction – in absorption, in leisure or in busyness.


I strongly resented the assumption that I had a need which Christianity would satisfy. I denied any such need.

I resented the idea that I was in a state of sin (whatever that might mean) from which I needed to be saved.

I regarded Christianity as being like psychoanalysis – something which itself created the pathology which it then claimed to cure.


I didn’t see that my alienation was a matter of perceived reality – that I felt alienated because the only things that seemed to matter were wholly subjective (unrelated to objective facts) hence delusional.


The un-alienated life was merely (I thought) a successful delusion – a game of ‘let’s pretend’ where you are able to forget that you are pretending.

I learned that hunter gatherers were, apparently, un-alienated and well-adjusted to their reality; but (I thought) precisely because hunter gatherer reality (animism) was a successfully self-gratifying delusion.

Hunter gatherers believed that the forest (or whatever their environment) was a benign parent, that theirs was a perfect world where they had ‘always’ lived, that they were always surrounded by aware and purposive agents with whom they had a personal relationship (trees, stones, hills) that things were as they should be – full of spirits and powers.


I regarded hunter gatherer beliefs as objectively wrong – but successfully self-gratifying. I envied them their happiness but regarded it as a delusion. The meanings which hunter gatherers perceived were projected meanings.

In reality I believed that there were no such meanings.


I believed that human reason and investigation had not discovered any link between human subjectivity and objective reality – indeed I believed that we moderns had discovered there was no such link, in the sense that the rational default inference was no meaning – and anything else was to pander to wishful thinking.


I did not believe in the reality of science, nor even of reason – but I believed that they were internally-consistent, un-contradicted and therefore (for some reason) preferable.

In a sense, I regarded the only reality as present gratification, and that the understanding of present reality was ultimately underwritten by the power of reason and science to enhance present gratification (e.g. more comfort, more stimulus, longer life…).

Yet, at the same time, I believed that hunter gatherers had greater personal gratification...


Therefore the human situation was tragic. We were apparently addicted to our present delusions – even though these delusions were (by comparison with hunter gatherer life) sub-optimal.

The main hope was therefore that humans would gain control of their own subjectivity – so that we could perceive and experience as we wanted.


I regarded morality – for example altruism, caring for others – as ultimately explicable as a contingent consequence of natural selection – therefore its imperative was pragmatic, but not ethically compelling (change the instinct, by science or maybe training, and the morality would change – so I was forced to admit, when trying to be consistent).

Why not be a selfish psychopath, then? That would be consistent? Why not exploit the world and other people for personal gratification?

Why not indeed?...


Yet I found myself constrained (and it could only be regarded as a constraint, ultimately) by Natural Law – by spontaneous human morality.

In a sense, I resented the spontaneous presence of ‘Natural Law’ in myself as a barrier to self-gratification.

At one level, I wanted things to be as I wanted them to be; but was frustrated that mind and body would not go along with this desire: that instinct and pathology (as I interpreted the phenomena) would contradict and often thwart me in trying to attain self-gratification.

So, in that sense, evolved instincts and the constraints of ‘the rest of the world’ (both experienced as two sides of the frustration of evolved instincts) were the only realities.

But all this had no moral implications – unless morality was re-defined as the relation between evolved instincts and the current environment (either or both of which might at some point be changed).


So, reality was self-contradictory, paradoxical.

But then why not? Who said reality had to make sense?

(Especially to a contingently evolved animal such as myself.)

Whatever the nature of reality, all I knew were my preferences and the constraints on their gratification.

Yet, how could I even know this?

Somehow I ‘knew’ that hunter gatherers were deluded in their contentment; but the criteria by which I judged them to be delusional were not – somehow – regarded as equally delusional.

I knew that science was a kind of delusion – yet somehow it seemed less delusional than animism.


All the time I was making evaluations and judgments (for example that science was realer than animism) yet there seemed no grounds for these – except perhaps that what is, what exists, has a greater reality than what was and is not now.

Existence validates reality?

(But how to evaluate existence?)

What seemed compelling was that hunter gatherers were few or extinct whereas rationalists, atheists, had ‘taken over’ the world.

This was an argument of validation by demographic trends, as it dawned on me. Demography is truth?

A pragmatic argument.


Yet what about these demographic trends? Had rationalism and atheism and materialism really taken-over?

How come if atheism is valid then religions are increasing? How come that, among religions, Islam has been the most obviously successful in recent demographic trends?

The conclusion could be delayed by comparing wealth and technical ability – but surely these are only a means to an end; and wealth and technical ability are only validated if they are able to prevail – which surely means they ought to be prevailing now?

I was trying to judge pragmatically, yet I was finding that pragmatic judgement pointed towards transcendental values.

How to stave-off transcendence?


‘Transcendent reality’ is (by definition) outside of science and pragmatic discourse.

Yet apparently the application of a pragmatic system of evaluation seemed to conclude that transcendence is pragmatically validated.

Apparently, only by basing life on transcendent Goods can life be pragmatically validated…


I was led to the same conclusions in science and it art. In science, it seemed that honesty was vital to real science, yet honesty depended upon regarding transcendent truth as real.

In art, it seemed that regarding beauty as transcendentally real was essential to real achievement.

Indeed, the achievements of creative genius in whatever field seemed to depend on the sense that reality was transcendent of that field.

Pragmatism led merely to professionalism, or careerism, or plain psychopathic fakery.


Once I had reached this point, the point of acknowledging the primacy of the transcendent, then I was no longer an atheist.

The question changed: from then onwards, it was not a question of atheism versus religion, but instead a question of which religion?



FeminizedWesternMale said...

Bravo! Thank you for sharing something as deeply personal, as it is painstakingly enlightening. I know this because I went through a similar process.
Once it happens, we do have a desire to share it. Perhaps this is part of the "Good News."


The Crow said...

Christianity is mostly its own worst enemy.
This is unfortunate, and so unnecessary.
Being sold as a reward-system: be like this, and you get that...
Evangelism is so destructive.
My own orientation involves no wish to "convert" anyone else, and this seems far more natural.

I look at it like this:
It costs one nothing to believe in God. It can be a completely passive belief. No rituals, no wearing of it on one's sleeve. Like an inoculation against future malaise. Do it and get on with your life. You may as well.

This leaves one open to what happens as a result; unseen energy flows through unseen wires, and becomes available at the unseen outlet.

People see themselves as the appliance, when really, they are the conduit, and life itself, the appliance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - I think you are only partly right. I think that evangelism is, in some sense, a duty - but then then are many ways of doing it, including yours...

RS said...

Very interesting, and I don't begrudge you your deontology yet I am closer to your old self.

(Jargon time, I fear - a non-jargon sketch follows.) But words like 'preferences' and 'gratification' smack of the Greek /hedonia/ - as does 'materialism' if you mean ethical materialism as opposed to the not-totally-unrelated ontological materialism. You thus give short shrift to virtue ethics and the closely related eudaimonist consequentialism, and/or you tend to blur those positions with hedonism. (I think Mr. Kalb may do something of the same thing, but I'm not sure.) I hold those eudaimonist-like positions, like Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and Aristotle, so I am like 'two ships passing in the night' vis-a-vis your essay; to 'attack' the likes of me would require attacking those positions, which my kind consider very distinct from hedonism or even from 'semi-hedonism'.

I'm also not an atheist, ontological materialist, or pure rationalist. Nor was Nietzsche, excepting maybe atheism, but I think I could argue he was agnostic.

Non-jargonically, we can say stuff like suffering is usually crucial to one's development to a higher or more superb/beautiful state of being. Held by Rimbaud, this was underlined again and again by Nietzsche, who opined that 'we have lost a philosopher' in the case of Emerson - whom Nietzsche much admired, but who he felt had been spared the severe suffering necessary to build up a first-rank philosoph. Thus hedonism is dismissed by those men I swear by. (Well, sort of swear by. I wouldn't necessarily say Rimbaud had a good life or that Nietzsche, overall, managed to have a good impact on the West.)

For Aristotle, the good man has a strong will which he uses to pursue noble, 'beautiful' conduct. I think maybe he roots the beauty and lack of beauty in human nature, specifically the nature of /good/ men - but he would not feel that this is unsatisfying and that a deontology would be more satisfying. Sure, the bad man has his own 'truth' perhaps, according to his own nature - which nature is to be either too weak to choose the (often painful) beautiful course, or very different in what he finds beautiful. --But who cares? Basically all strong and healthy men more or less agree that the smell of the rose is noble and beautiful, whereas carrion smells like ignoble conduct. Manful conduct in battle is noble. To make out with a babe with enchantment, with soul, is relatively noble; base by comparison is seizing her over-hedonically like a chimp. As for the opposite 'truths', they deserve contempt, and the totally superfluous quest for 'objective truth' merits a chuckle. Nobility itself and a fair scent are the font of value; objective, universal truth isn't.

But to modify this, there are degrees of excellence, there are limitations from individual nature, and it's difficult to be excellent in every area.

As for who should win when two noble conducts clash - should Athens conquer Sparta or vice versa - well, assuming the war itself is noble in the first place and not base, then eudaimonisms have no answer - or, has only answer 'may the stronger or more beautful win' - the two will just have to conflict.

Thus, to rival Byzantium: ..............Hellas of course!

Bruce Charlton said...

RS - thanks for this.

The Psychology (and morality) above is 'as was' (and, obviously, misses much) - not 'as is'.

If The Good is to be underpinned by anything other than gratification/ hedonism; then the universe must be Good, and the universe must 'care' whether I personally am Good.

I don't think it answers things to make a list of things that are Good (smell of rose, bravery in battle), nor even to try and define what characteristic unites the members of this list.

In the end it that kind of thing comes back to my own subjectivity and its gratifications.

In the end we are pushed back to either divine revelation and 'Law' as the basis of all knowledge, or to nihilism - which is self-refuting, nothing can be said about it.

In the end, either we personally - our specific doings, our choices - are relevant to the universe; or they are not.

(Either everything we personally do is important, or nothing at all is important: God or nihilism.)

If we personally are not relevant to the universe, then *all human activity*, including, Genius, and including Ancient Greek culture, is a delusion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RS - "Non-jargonically, we can say stuff like suffering is usually crucial to one's development to a higher or more superb/beautiful state of being. Held by Rimbaud, this was underlined again and again by Nietzsche, who opined that 'we have lost a philosopher' in the case of Emerson - whom Nietzsche much admired, but who he felt had been spared the severe suffering necessary to build up a first-rank philosoph. "

I think this is a mistaken idea in two ways.

First it is not suffering as such that is valuable for assisting with higher insights - but the purifying discipline of ascetic religious practices (prayer, prostrations, special postures, fasting etc).

This discipline is necessary in order to try and avoid, or at least detect, 'demonic' religious experiences.

But the idea that Emerson did not suffer is absurd: I can only assume Nietzsche didn't know about his multiple bereavements in early life: brothers, newly wed wife, beloved young son...

Nietzsche suffered from serious migraines in mid-life (as do I) and from the consequences of his personality; and terminally from syphilis.

A different kind of suffering than Emerson, but I wouldn't say it was greater - although Emerson certainly seemed to have been less scarred.

But for secular philosophers suffering serves mainly as a rhetorical tool - it is not a means to something equivalent to holiness.

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

Your dilemma, as you have described it here, very closely resembles my own. But I don't understand your conclusion (the one that leads you to accept transcendence).

You very expertly lay out a paradox, and then point out that a belief in transcendence is the only way out of the paradox. But I do not see how this is necessarily so. It is the only satisfying answer to the dilemma. But there is also another, entirely unsatisfying answer: that nothing makes any sense and the only answer is pure nihilism.

One sees the problem in judging science vs animism (your example) without an appeal to transcendent truth. But what about the ole shrug of the shoulders? The materialist/nihilist would say: yes, you are correct, moral instincts are evolved. Yes, you are correct, science can't be proven to be more true than animism except that it is much better at manipulating the physical environment, and therefore is at least pragmatically more true. And yes (you don't suggest this one, but it's an easy argument that's been made many times), what seems beautiful in art is also just a product of evolution. We don't find beautiful what slugs find beautiful. Neither are slugs interested in Caravaggio.

So, to repeat, while I find your story relevant and indeed compelling, I don't see how you really made the leap you did. Acknowledging that you don't necessarily intend this as some sort of proof (you have presented it merely as your own psychological journey), can I ask you what I have missed here in my response? Or were these questions simply never important to you?

One more rephrasing, if you will indulge me. You seem to have chosen theism because it was more comforting that pure nihilism. But I don't see how it's any more necessary that pure nihilism. One or the other, it would seem. But why, from a formal logic point of view, the one and not the other?

PS: I ask all these questions in earnest and sympathetically, and do not mean to be needlessly combative.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - "point out that a belief in transcendence is the only way out of the paradox. But I do not see how this is necessarily so. It is the only satisfying answer to the dilemma. But there is also another, entirely unsatisfying answer: that nothing makes any sense and the only answer is pure nihilism."

We are agreed that nihilism and God are the only answers - but when you say 'satisfying' you seem to imply emotionally satisfying, whereas I mean satisfying to reason.

A nihilist cannot use reason, since he has no grounds at all to assume that reason is valid. Indeed a nihilist has no reason to say anything, do anything nor even to stay alive.

A consistent nihilist presumably just *feels* that everything is meaningless, including the feeling that everything is meaningless.

But having decided that reason is valid, I was trying to satisfy *reason* - not my feelings.

"You seem to have chosen theism because it was more comforting that pure nihilism. But I don't see how it's any more necessary that pure nihilism. One or the other, it would seem. But why, from a formal logic point of view, the one and not the other?"

I hope that this is answered by the previous point. It is not a matter of 'comfort' but reason, truth, the nature of reality (belief in God may, or may not, be comforting, varying at different times and situations).

Eugene (later Seraphim) Rose sets this out in his (online) book Nihilism which I have referenced innumerable times on this blog. He makes clear there really is *no middle ground* between God and nihilism: and nihilism is denial of reality - so if there ever was a coherent nihilist we would know nothing of them.

What we actually observe in the West is a partial nihilism, where nihilism is selectively-applied - usually to those parts of Christianity which stand in the path of self-gratification, or applied only to enemies' beliefs.

However, once the process of nihilism/ secularization has begun it eats away more and more meaning, purpose and relatedness - until it ends up being a hell on earth (misery, purposeless and alienation with no hope).

As we see.

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

But I still don't understand. I did emphasize emotional satisfaction over rational satisfaction in my previous comment, so I see your point there. I see the distinction you are making.

But I still don't understand why the distinction makes a difference. I have read twice the piece by Fr. Seraphim Rose (via Lawrence Auster), and it made a great impression on me (hence, probably, my shared readiness with you to dial things down to two stark options: God and nihilism).

Please forgive my sloppy reasoning, if indeed it is so, but I'm making the best attempt I can to get this. Why does changing the arena from emotion to reason make a drop of difference?

Perhaps shifting the terms a bit will make my question clearer. Let us use "hedonism" in the place of "nihilism". I see, thanks to your response, how a truly consistent nihilist must commit suicide or otherwise disappear from all debate (a la Fr. Rose). But what about a consistent hedonist who happens to be alive in 2011 and doesn't believe in God. If all is a dark blackness after death, and if there's no meaning to our lives here on earth, and if we nevertheless find ourselves alive, should we not simply get as much pleasure as we can, since that is the only gratification one can apparently get outside of theism?

The very starkness of this proposition troubles me. Yet I still cannot see the way out. The appeal to reason, as I think you have spelled it out, doesn't change the logical proposition. That is to say, yes, I am using reason to make this point, and in that sense I am vulnerable to the reason-based proof of theism that you elucidate. But as a consistent hedonist (which I am not convinced I truly am, but let us suppose for the sake of argument), I can always retreat to the shrug of the shoulders. To wit: "Yes my reason is inconsistent. What of it? It's an evolved trait anyway. I don't give it transcendent value. I accept that animism and science are equally untrue on a supposed 'transcendent' level. In the meantime, I propose to get as much pleasure, distraction, and pain-avoidance as possible."

Again, it's bleak as all hell. But if I deny reason itself, and simply focus on orgasms (or what have you), where is the logical flaw? Why must I believe in God to logically, consistently pursue my own pleasure? Why can I not, when confronted with the proof of transcendence that you offer above, simply respond with saying transcendence is fine when it works in my (hedonistic) favor, and otherwise ignore it?

I'm sure I haven't spelled this out with perfect logic, but I hope you see how your response doesn't answer my original question. I actually pretty badly want you to refute all this. But you have either already done so and I am too dense to see it, or you haven't explained yourself well enough, or — depressing thought — you are simply wrong.

Thank you for your blog and your indulgence of my questions in the comments.

[PS: to put it another way, a hedonist can simply pursue hedonism all his life and then die. At what point was he inconsistent in his hedonism?]

Bruce Charlton said...


Pursuing hedonism in the way you suggest is not consistent - because that is a rational property; but it could be done.

It is not at all impossible, since presumably that is precisely what many/ most/ all animals do; it is just not human.

It could not consistently be done by a human.

A human might decide to irreversibly turn himself into an animal - by a brain operation perhaps - and lose self-awareness/ consciousness, reason etc.

And then he might simply exist, simply *be*, simply respond to the stimuli he encounters in whatever way he is instinctively equipped. He would suffer, he might also experience pleasure, but would not be aware of either - would just behave differently according to whether a stimulus was aversive or gratifying.

All that kind of thing is certainly possible (i.e. from a secular materialist conception of the human condition).

Some of Samuel Beckett's characters pretty much do this; but of course writing a play or novel *about* such characters is distinctively human. Trying to 'prove' nihilism by convincing depictions of nihilists is self-refuting. But it can be, often is, very damaging.

But it makes no sense to adopt hedonism as a *strategy*; and even less sense to advocate it as a strategy. The only strategic response to convinced nihilism is immediate and permanent annihiliation of self-consciousness.

But how could the truly convinced nihilist ever know anything such as to have any kind of strategy?

As you know, the arguments against nihilism and in favour of God are very simple and watertight. Yet our culture has evolved to confuse us. We are trained to feel things must be more complex than these arguments, yet we are suspicious and impatient of complex arguments.

We are not pagans, nor do we lack belief; rather we inhabit a culture far advanced in Christian apostasy - we swim in a sea of Christian apostasy.

The first and built-in cultural assumption is that Christianity is untrue - we then try to make sense of things on this assumption, by adopting bits of Christianity and devising substitutes but leaving-out God - but no sense can be made on that assumption. The last 300 years is proof enough, surely?

Either the universe cares about us and our salvation, or it doesn't. If the universe doesn't care about us *as individuals*, then nothing is real and nothing matters; and consciousness is just an unfortunate accident - and we would be better-off without it; better-off not being humans at all.

We come into the world with much knowledge built-into us - humans are natural and spontaneous animists and pagans. From *that* point the Christian truth is comprehensible and compelling.

But our culture dismantles and destroys our natural animistic paganism - by the time they become adults, Westerners have been through this process.

(We have had much of our factory-installed software deleted, and cannot function but just 'crash' or consume all our processing capacity in futile cycles.)

TheWaters said...

The point at which this post ends is the exact point at which I currently find myself. Your words are inspiring and have helped me to elucidate my own psychological instinct and past. Thank-you

Bruce Charlton said...

@TW - maybe its time for Blaise Pascal's Pensees (perhaps in the editrion Christianity for Modern Pagans editoed by Peter Kreeft).

I didn't read it at the point you are at, but I wish I had!

One key message from Pascal is the promise of Christ that He who seeks WILL find (will find salvation) - so keep seeking!

HenryOrientJnr said...

Very interesting discussion. I had to look up several of the jargon terms on Wikipedia.

However, unlike some of the others who have commented, I do not accept the dichotomy of either nihilism or God, nor do I accept that non-theistic implies hedonistic.

Is Stephen Hawking a hedonist?

Is Christopher Hitchens a nihilist? (He may well have been a hedonist in his earlier days, I grant you.)

I have always been struck by the biblical quotation, attributed to Yahweh, of "I am that I am." That is exactly how I feel about the universe. Somehow, to me it makes morality, truth and beauty more real than they would be if they were merely the creations, or whims, of a deity.

The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is PI. It just is. God didn't come up with that (transcendental) number - mathematical reality did.

I believe that truth IS and beauty IS. The human race perceives a rose as beautiful because it really is beautiful. We evolved to appreciate that fact. The rose evolved to be beautiful.

The difference between my philosophy and religion is that instead of a sentient being creating the universe I believe its creation was inevitable, the result of an ultimate mathematical reality which we do not as yet understand. Like God, this ultimate reality is transcendental. The only difference is that it is not sentient.

In one of his essays, C.S. Lewis talks of the Tao as being "the great generating force of all religions". I have no problem identifying what I call 'the ultimate reality' with the Tao. Maybe I am religious after all.

I just don't believe in God.

Bruce Charlton said...

If Hawkins does not leave for pleasure (a very refined pleasure in exercise of his mind) what does he live for?

Hitchins is just plain confused - and covers it with vehemence.

And you, my dear HOJ, are a nihilist - by your description. You should use your reason to escape your delusions and develop your faith!

MnMark said...

I've evolved from Christian to atheist to...I'm not sure what to label my beliefs now. In the depths of my atheism I had enough curiousity about the reported spiritual experiences of others that I'd read about to get started in a practice of meditation and yoga and dream awareness. This led to the most important moment of my life, which occurred during a moment of deep relaxation when a light exploded in the middle of my head and I *remembered* in an instant that I had lived many, many lives and was so very very "old" that it was astounding...and in the same instant realized how to travel out of my body, and did so for the first time. When I returned to my body, I was changed forever, having now experienced firsthand that I am a soul living a physical life here and not just a bundle of chemicals that accidentally evolved into an advanced sort of ape.

What label applies to that belief? I suppose there is some Buddhism and Taoism and "New Age" in there...but I don't care about the label. I've experienced a taste of the incredible potential we have, and now I feel kind of sorry for people who really believe that life is a meaningless accident. I don't know how they deal with that.

I think there is no conflict between science and spirituality at all. Our science has simply not grown enough yet in the understanding of consciousness and the nature of the universe. The best books on this that I have read are by a highly-talented engineer who began meditating and brought his scientific mind to understanding the nature of reality: Itzhak Bentov. If you are of a scientific, religiously skeptical mindset, read his "Stalking the Wild Pendulum" and "A Cosmic Book".

The gist of it is that God - "All That Is" - is everything. We are God, a part of God that He set apart to grow and thus for Him to know Himself. When people have transcendent experiences where they feel at one with everything, they are tapping into this reality that we really ARE all One. "I Am That I Am" and similar truths begin to make sense when you understand this. And it is tremendously comforting truth...we are all one, and everything that happens here is part of our growth towards ultimate enlightment where we realize again our Oneness with All That Is.

Bruce Charlton said...

MnMark - Thanks for that account.

It sounds to me like a shamanic experience, that you had.

And as for a label for what you are - pagan probably covers it: natural, spontaneous religion based on experience, without an essential role for divine revelation.

David said...

And you say I ask too many questions? Haha just found this older post of yours...The thinking processes of having an internal 'arguement' with oneself are exactly how I experience everyday life. Truely exhausting at times unless one deliberately switches that overactive mind down a gear and focus on something wholesome and meaningful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Maybe - to me it seems more like One Big Question.

David said...

Yes, it all comes down to one big question really. It is interesting to observe that the various 'milestones' in your thinking were the same I have traced, which makes me feel confident those 'milestones' are not accidental but are a tried and tested route to a realisation that the transcendent is an underpinning reality. Of this I am most certain. It seems this is a path of progression we must all walk alone and the lessons that there are 'stepping stones' or 'milestones' towards growth cannot simply be passed along completely by those who have gone before. The journey must be made by each individual soul towards a fuller understanding of the greater meaning and significance of their existence and the potential of it. Others can only point the way but the perils of progress must be gained by self - reliance and self - discovery. I sometimes question so much not because I am thoughtless (although sometimes that may be true), but like a climber, I check my footing is secure before I am confident to leap and reach the next section of climb on the rock face. Eventually, one feels that there is a safety net, a wise parent who has ensured that whilst their is some risk of injury, the process of developing independence and self-autonomy (necessarily founded on a few scary falls now and again) is overall a great education towards a fullness of joy :-)