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 every time I start thinking about it. Whenever I visit a big city I always spend at least one day in the museum of natural history—I recently got back from New York, and while I was visiting the natural history museum again I was so blown away because I felt as if the museum had expanded. I kept finding rooms and exhibits that seemed completely new to me and the museum just seemed to go deeper and deeper. I mean the first time I saw the London museum of natural history I was just floored that such a wonderful place could even exist, and I really owe that experience to Richard Dawkins, starting with me watching the ‘Waking up in the Universe’ DVDs and then progressing into reading his books.”

Karen Andersen: “Well what do you think about the Free Will argument between Harris and Dennett?”

Anton Drake: “Well I definitely think that Dennett makes some excellent points, and he effectively picks on some areas where Harris’s reasoning and language is a bit dodgy. Overall, it seems obvious to me that Harris has the more difficult row to hoe, just because of the grand negation he is trying to advance—that free will is just an absolute illusion and a logical impossibility. Dennett’s compatibilism is much more flexible and can easily adjust itself along a spectrum of freedom and unfreedom as science gathers more information. In this instance, Harris seems to fall into the same kind of sinkholes that religion perpetually inhabits, in that he is obliged to create a large complex edifice of reasoning with a lot of assumptions and supporting arguments in order to make his huge categorical negation of free will. And, obviously, such an edifice can be attacked on multiple levels: as I’ve pointed out, the existing definitions for the word ‘will’ are far from perfect, for starters. What we call ‘will’ seems to correspond to something at the core of what we call ‘life’ and therefore saying that all will is unfree or 100% subject to determinism has vast implications; I mean, does ‘will’ even exist? Before we get to ‘free will’ I think that has to be addressed, thoroughly. What is ‘will,’ what is the essence of Schopenhauer’s Wille zum Leben? And consciousness is central to Harris’s argument as well, in a kind of ambivalent way, and consciousness has traditionally been something that has always been notoriously hard to define. On top of that, the whole argument against free will seems to be balanced on the notion of absolute metaphysical determinism, something that might be arguable logically but can’t be proven. The mystery implicit in concepts like Kant’s noumena or ‘being in itself’ or in Heidegger’s notion of ‘Dasein’ is not something that can be simply brushed aside; from the standpoint of our individual experience, there are billions of years of zero visibility both before and after each one of us, and from this Twilight Zone perspective we have no choice but to seriously question metaphysical pronouncements such as absolute determinism. Who knows, perhaps eventually it will be shown that what we call ‘dark matter’ represents some kind of causal ‘dead zones’ in the universe, where the inertia of a first cause reaches zero, or perhaps that is some kind of negative force that sucks causation backward somehow. Perhaps in this way our universe has been split off from all metaphysical certainty, and there are zones of complete randomness either below or above our level of being or organization. And, this in turn points up the problem that systems necessarily ARE always organized at different levels or scales of being: for instance, at the level of hydrogen atoms, there is really not much difference between human beings and rocks or water; but at the level of individuals or societies human beings clearly exist and are vastly different from structures like rocks or water. Wholesale reductionism down to a quantum level in order to prove the idea of determinism, which is then re-exported up to the human level to rule out ‘free will,’ seems philosophically dubious.”

Karen Andersen: “You’ve drawn the connection between the attack on free will and Buddhist or eastern religious concepts.”

Anton Drake: “Yes. I mean speaking for myself, my instinct is to fight for the idea of free will, to fight for my intuitions of self, of personal agency, individuality or ‘ego,’ and so forth. When I see things approached from the opposite side, when I see the argument beginning with the denial of free will, of consciousness, of personal agency, of self or ego, I can instantly recognize what looks to me like a Buddhist or religious impulse to deny life, to deny reality, to deny the self. And I don’t see any logical reason to start from there. From my extensive experiences in meditation I’ve had the exact opposite insights; in yoga and meditation I’ve found powerful affirmations of self and of personal freedom and creativity, and I’ve found the interplay between the various levels of the conscious and the unconscious mind as part and parcel of the extended physical body to be a rich field of contemplation and meditation. This idea of tearing down the self, tearing down the idea of agency or doership with the tiresome trope of ‘oh, I’m thinking but I’m not thinking, I’m just the observer,’ or ‘I’m just the conscious witness and not the doer,’ y’know, all the trite formulations of the ‘my mind and my ego don’t really exist and I’m just along for the ride and witnessing,’ all seem to be drawn directly from Buddhism and eastern religion, or if not from primary sources like that, then from these popularized hybrids of self help and eastern religious seminars, these kind of yoga meditation cliché workshops where all you have to do is say ‘the ego is bad, mmmm’kay’ and everybody goes ‘woooo.’

“I mean think about it: We are 100% sure that biological evolution is something real. If you follow that thought through and do the math, that means that we are also 100% sure that all this reincarnation, karma, transcendent consciousness stuff is utterly false. That means that a guy like the Dalai Lama is just an ordinary guy walking around with these flowing saffron capes… and while everybody around him is praying to him constantly in their minds, policing themselves with his omnipresence at every moment because they are convinced he represents the cosmic Buddha consciousness or whatever, again, he’s just an ordinary dude. Think about that for a second. And sure, who knows, maybe he has great meditation skills, but there is probably somebody taking a yoga class in a Mississippi ghetto right now who is just as good for all we know. And so, what is left besides absolute cynicism? Ourselves. And I feel strongly that we have to start from that point. If it could be shown definitively (which it can’t) that there is no such thing as free will, then the first task I think on Day One is to start working out a way to GET free will, to attain it. Right? I just don’t understand this impulse to try to give up and define everything out of existence right off the bat.”

Karen Andersen: “You’ve mentioned the marketing of atheism.”

Anton Drake: “Yes, and I think that is really key. Because for instance let’s assume that eliminating religion could go a long way toward extricating us from the tribal gridlock that has such negative affects all over the world, which perhaps even threatens humanity with world war or complete annihilation. Ok, so from that perspective the proper emphasis is that we should advance atheism in order to break the grip of irrationality that religion has exerted over the world for the past two thousand years and that has created all these intractable problems.

“But the problem is, if right at the point where religion is in full retreat and atheism is on the rise, if we insist on packaging atheism with the absence of ‘free will,’ with the absence of the self, the absence of the mind, etc, and with the kind of implicit or de facto collectivism that can be derived from these positions, then I think you’re alienating a lot of excellent potential allies right out of the box for no good reason. Consider the various stakeholders in the question of whether we are a religious society or world going forward or an atheistic society or world; let’s start with lower to upper middle class Americans. Many of these folks are what I’d call implicitly religious—they’ve been told they are religious and they consider it too risky or unsociable to become overtly unreligious or anti-religious, and they aren’t generally inclined to think too hard about it. Now, to appeal to these people, instead of making atheism resemble some kind of weird selfless Maoist collectivism, how about marketing atheism as a competitive advantage. So for instance, if most people are religious, hey, great for me, that just means there’s more for me of what I want, because I’m an atheist and see the world more clearly. And, so here’s a big clue as to how to market atheism to the masses, make it a competitive advantage. Atheism is a Fendi bag or a pair of Jimmy Choos or a brand new Porsche SUV in the driveway: you WISH you were an atheist, sucker. Right? Hold atheism back from people, make people chase after it, make it something for the cool people that has tremendous social and survival value, and then try and stop it. Look at how hard oppressive theocracies have to work just to maintain disgruntled outward religious compliance; in a semi-free society atheism should rightly spread like wildfire, challenged only by the most fun and charismatic religious experiences.

“So in terms of what the new atheists are trying to achieve, to get this horrifying insect of religion off of humanity’s collective medulla oblongata before it essentially self destructs out of rage and self-loathing, everything starts with promoting it to large population groups of ordinary folks, at least in areas of the world where language and cultural barriers do not make attempts at communication utterly futile. And the way you do that is to sexy it up: atheism gives you a competitive advantage, atheism can help you get what you want, have more fun in your life, live the American dream, etc.

“And then if we consider another kind of stakeholder in the religion vs atheism dogfight, the very high class ‘elites’ of world society, the so-called one percent of the one percent of the one percent… convincing them about the merits of atheism is even more important because they have such a disproportionate amount of influence on media and politics—a factor that can be decisive in this battle. So, you certainly don’t want to paint a picture for them of atheism leading to the downfall of western civilization and to the rise of an egoless futuristic hive mind or something; rather, you want to show unequivocally that atheism can not only help foster peace, harmony, capitalism and technological advancement, but that it ultimately strengthens the ideal of the self and reinforces what is most quintessentially western in the western conception of the individual and his relation to society. You want to make the case that, given the candy of atheism, the large population groups of the world will become increasingly more practical and reasonable about their self-interests, more peaceful, and more focused on enjoying life, more inclined to work and be industrious and to promote stability. It’s crucial to make the case that installing atheism as the dominant popular worldview can solve the problems of racism, tribalism, war and political gridlock that afflict society right now, and that it is therefore the best move from a capitalist viewpoint and the most likely form of thought to promote the status quo in terms of our existing societal systems. It also has the advantage of being objectively right, and therefore will ultimately be a better foundation (perhaps the only possible foundation) for society going forward that people can actually believe in, which will again foster long term stability.”