Faith in Atheism

Nov • 22 • 2014

By Anton Drake

On the Bill Maher show last week comedian Martin Short asked what I thought was a very interesting question: “Don’t atheists have a kind of faith?”

My simple answer to this question is yes. And I’m not talking about faith in the atheist’s “who knows what we may not know about” sense of the word. I’m talking about an actual faith in atheism, which I also think is how the question was intended. That is “don’t atheists also have a kind of faith in the idea that God does not exist?”

Again, yes… and why not?

Leave aside for a moment the irony that the converse seems to be true, that there always appears to be an element of atheism in any subject of strenuous religious faith: if this element of “unbelief” were not present in some form, then what obstacle would there be for the positive force of religious faith to overcome?

Of course, most religions explicitly bolster their claims or demands on faith with historical evidence and with stories of miracles; it’s unnecessary for me to mention here that all the best and most charismatic arguments in favor of religion are invariably in the realm of the miraculous: transubstantiation, resurrection, immateriality, infinite power and omnipresence, etc. And as we all know, science effectively counters such evidence-based claims with its own empirically-minded and logically-coherent view of reality.

However we could go further and say that atheism must, unavoidably, also assume the form of “faith” whenever an individual decides that “I have enough evidence to (not) believe.” That is, “I no longer have to think about this anymore, I have sufficient faith that there is no God and so therefore I am now an atheist.” Which we might also equate to: “I place my faith in atheism.” Note that every additional piece of rational evidence that subsequently comes along, every “miracle” of scientific discovery that directly refutes ancient scriptural worldviews and truth claims (or merely towers over them in complexity of context at a distance of millennia) can of course always add to the foundation of this atheistic faith. And while atheism is, it must be admitted, a singularly easy faith to maintain, the satisfaction offered by such fresh nuggets of scientific validation are undeniably comforting and enjoyable, and can also spice up the occasional friendly debate.

But I would ask you to consider the possibility that atheism’s most intractable component, its most decided and committed “ism,” if you will, is actually its most interesting. Most atheists have neither the time nor the inclination for a continual and uncompromising scientific quest for truth, and we might in any case wonder if atheism really requires a scientific basis at all… much less a rigorously self-critical and scientifically “pure” one. We could, in fact, wonder if the insistence on arraying the vast Space Age armada of scientific reasoning against the tiny paddleboats of ancient desert religions might even betray a need for self-justification that is itself rooted in religious faith: the unconscious notion that religion is so formidable that every tool of science and reason must be deployed in order to refute it.

Meanwhile, in point of fact, anywhere it comes to “spreading the good news” of atheism to those who do not yet quite (un)believe, it is surely the excitement of being freed from religious reasoning and logic that is the most powerful of atheism’s attractants. And make no mistake, one is always free to un-believe, no questions asked; no bedrock of certainty is required for this, no logic, no reason, no evidence, no miracles, no community, no priestly oaths or holy books: ours is always a pure faith. And certainly, if someday you feel you need more evidence, if you want to dig deeper and study further to support your atheism, that is always there for you, the treasure-trove of secular literature, science and philosophy. But today, RIGHT NOW, if you feel it, and if you believe… I ask you, have you made your DECISION for atheism? [Silence]…. [Wait for it]…. “YES!!!! You are healed!!!! Welcome brother [or sister]!” Cheers. Hugs. Water. Wine. Whatever.

Interestingly, what is often seen in debates between the respective proponents of faith and un-faith is a comparison of opposites: the unfaithful are routinely held to strict account for every scientific supposition that exceeds the strictly empirical or requires cross-reference across the dimension of time, while the faithful assert that their own truth claims lie along a separate continuum, one that transcends earthly human knowledge and reason altogether. So it would be interesting if, just as we routinely pull religion into the sphere of science in order to measure it on the scale of rationality, we would also allow atheism to enter naked into the garden of unreason and irrationality, utterly unashamed of itself, existing like nature without requiring any logical justification for itself. And in such a place we might wonder if the meeting between faith and unfaith would perhaps appear to us as the collision between coercive force and the freedom of innocence.

The Marketing of Atheism – Karen Andersen interviews Anton Drake

Feb • 10 • 2014

Karen Andersen: “What did you think of the Four Horsemen?

Anton Drake: “Wow, I mean I always really looked up to those guys [Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens]. They were very influential on me; up until around 2006 or 2007 I still had what I’d describe as a somewhat mystical outlook on life: I’d been hardcore into yoga for more than twenty years with excellent teachers, and I’d actually lived in an ashram for several years in my early twenties, so, even though I considered myself as having a very scientific mindset and as being a very logical computer programmer guy, I definitely had this level of yogic or meditative mysticism in my psyche that I hadn’t fully considered. Listening to Hitchens and Dawkins led me very quickly to explicit atheism, and from there I gradually began to work on the task of unraveling the many overlooked mystical assumptions of my own inner world; I found I had deeply internalized a lot of eastern or mystical concepts and suppositions about reality, about yoga, about enlightenment and gurus, about my inner self, about meditation, about my body and my experiences… and I had to work hard in order to figure things out for myself and to put everything in good mental order, because I had had a lot of experiences in yoga that were very out of the ordinary and I knew from experience how powerfully effective yoga can be. So while I wanted to uproot every bit of faith and irrationality from within myself, in order to be authentic I also had to do the homework and find a way to make sense of my life experiences without just signing on to ‘atheism’ as if it were a new kind of religion. As it happens, from about 2003 forward I had been very obsessed with studying psychology, via the works of primary sources like Freud and Jung, and so that turned out to be a major key that helped me put things together. Eventually my research and inner work crystallized into the Atheist Yoga book, my second, which hopefully can help people simultaneously strengthen their atheism while at the same time picking up some hard won knowledge about high-level yoga practice.”

Karen Andersen: “So which of the Four Horsemen did you like best?”

Anton Drake: “I mean it’s gotta be Hitchens, just because of the influence he had on my writing and my overall mental development. But Richard Dawkins was also tremendously influential on me, and I really enjoy learning about evolution. I think the concept of evolution is still, even in 2014 amongst the scientifically literate, highly underestimated… and I find an endless array of astonishing implications (more…)

On the polarizing effect of The Moral Landscape

Sept • 09 • 2013

By Anton Drake

Ross Douthat’s September 5th 2013 New York Times editorial piece ( Sam Harris and Scientism ) underlines the real reasons for religion’s zero-tolerance policy on the mixing of science and morality.

Just what is it about the central idea of Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape—that Science has proven itself to be mankind’s best hope for minimizing human suffering and maximizing human wellbeing and might eventually become the core of an enlightened compass of human morality—that is so difficult for its opponents to swallow? Paradoxically, the frontline arguments against Harris’s thinking on this matter often emphasize the amoral nature of science—essentially arguing that science must not be allowed to enter into morality because traditional religious morality has not been permitted to enter into science. It is of course customary to also point out the various failures of outmoded scientific paradigms and to highlight the most unscientific of what has been labeled as “science” in the past, quickly throwing as much sand as possible into people’s eyes as a way of communicating a broad emotional distrust of science and “unbridled scientific hubris.” Rinsing our eyes for a moment in the cool water of reason and patience, however, we can still rightly ask ourselves the same question: just what, exactly, is so intolerable about the idea that science might help to delineate the fundamental values of human wellbeing and morality? After all, most people over forty would not even be alive today if not for scientific advancements made in the last 200 years.

1. Pure science is impartial and objective.
Paradoxically, what we could call the religious objection to scientifically based morality is rooted in the instinct toward selfishness. Since pure science is objective and impartial, it does not play favorites; any scientific discussion of morality or human wellbeing, therefore, runs the risk of looking beyond the immediate concerns of the individual (more…)

Part two of the discussion between Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Anton Drake about yoga and religion.

JUL • 16 • 2013

This is part two of a discussion between Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Anton Drake about yoga and religion. Dr. Brown is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University and is the author of several books, most recently The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (Oxford University, August 1, 2013). She recently played a central role in the Encinitas public-school yoga trial; brought in as an expert witness by the plaintiffs, she testified for a full day on the connection between yoga and religion.

[Anton Drake]: “By itself, the practice of yoga differs substantially from religion. One of the main reasons for this is that, unless it is taught within explicitly religious boundaries, yoga is a very introspective activity that over time tends to bring an individual’s inner character to the foreground; this can happen because yoga tends to increase self-awareness, unearthing more genuine and central aspirations and drawing together disparate or disjointed aspects of the personality into a more centralized whole. Keep in mind that yoga has continued to evolve into many different forms and systems right up to this day—this occurs, and can occur, because the art of yoga itself is mutable and practiced correctly can tap in to the creative instincts of the individual practitioner. In fact none of this requires any ritual or verbal explication whatsoever; something as simple and natural as closing one’s eyes and breathing and allowing the mind to observe itself can, over time, begin to have these effects. (more…)

A discussion about yoga with Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, part 1

JUL • 04 • 2013

This is part one of a discussion between Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Anton Drake about yoga and religion. Dr. Brown is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University and is the author of several books, most recently The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (Oxford University, August 1, 2013). She recently played a central role in the Encinitas public-school yoga trial; brought in as an expert witness by the plaintiffs, she testified for a full day on the connection between yoga and religion.


[Anton Drake]: “Dr. Brown, what do you think about the verdict in the Encinitas yoga trial?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “The judge’s ruling surprised me. The really amazing part is that the judge found that yoga is religious, having its basis in Hinduism. That should have been enough reason for him to stop the EUSD yoga program. Prayer and Bible reading programs aren’t allowed in public schools because they are religious; the same reasoning should logically apply here.

“The judge even admitted to finding it ‘troublesome’ that EUSD got funding (not to mention ‘trained’ and ‘certified’ teachers and help with curriculum development) for an ‘Ashtanga yoga’ program from a religious organization, the Jois Foundation, whose leaders teach that just doing yoga poses is enough to lead practitioners to the eighth limb of Ashtanga—Samadhi, or union with God.

“But the judge was convinced that EUSD taught such a watered-down version of yoga that kids would not recognize it as religious. One problem with this reasoning is that in America’s cultural context, yoga is closely associated with religious ideas that don’t disappear simply because teachers stop talking about them in the public-school classroom. The district’s witnesses admitted that many EUSD kids had already learned religious associations (such as chanting Om) before arriving in P.E. class. Psychology research (on ‘extinction and relearning’) shows that once a person learns an association, the memory of that association doesn’t go away, even if one tries to extinguish it or replace it with new (e.g. ‘secular’) associations. Even if the old association is temporarily suppressed, it doesn’t become extinct. It’s still there and can be reactivated, or relearned, very quickly. Retrieval cues (such as familiar yoga postures) bring former associations to mind. This is actually how advertisements work–by creating associations that you can’t forget even if you try. (more…)