Do We Need A God?

Nonbelief creates a vacuum, but not all higher principles are supernatural

It’s okay to be an atheist these days. And in some circles it’s even trendy. My subjective perception after 20 years of atheism is that despite negative attitudes toward atheists, things are slowly changing.

Recently I watched Dave Rubin moderate a conversation between Dennis Prager—a conservative and a religious Jew—and libertarian atheist Michael Shermer. At one point Prager says science can describe things but not meaning, and without God objective meaning doesn’t exist. This claim is debatable, but it underscores one reason why atheism is unappealing to many people.

Of course, just because we want something to be true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is a question about reality. To test things, however, science must quantify them. But if God is infinite—not a being but being itself—then God cannot be quantified. That is, God can neither be proven nor disproven—a point Shermer makes when Prager asks how atheists can be certain that there is no God.

Shermer also notes that atheism is not a worldview because it is disbelief in someone else’s worldview. But I would add that atheists often adhere to other principles that provide a worldview which moves them from the mundane to the universal. We seem to need something to keep us focused on the bigger picture.

Marxism, of course, has long been associated with atheism. Karl Marx’s view that history progresses through various stages—capitalism must run its course for socialism and then communism to develop—is a prediction rather than a prophecy because Marx portrayed his theory as scientific. And it is scientific in the sense that the failure of his ideas—as history has proven—provides scientific falsifiability.

The icons of Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin reminded communist believers of the dreamed of utopia—a plagiarizing of the Holy Trinity lost on no one. Kim Jong-il was a cult figure in North Korea—a mystique his son has tried to acquire since his father’s death—with some even describing Kim Jong-il as a god.

Russian-American Ayn Rand rejected communism in favor of free market capitalism, but kept the atheism. Michael Shermer, who edits Skeptic magazine, has described Rand’s Objectivism as “the unlikeliest cult in history.” Shermer quotes writer Barbara Branden—who had a falling out with Rand—as saying that despite valuing individualism and rejecting collectivism, Rand thought that followers who disagreed with things as trivial as her musical tastes were “morally and psychologically reprehensible.”

Shermer also accuses Rand of dogmatism, claiming that

for Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True [sic], that is the end of the discussion. … Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics.

A small number of modern day atheists such as magician Penn Jillette promote libertarianism, even anarcho-capitalism. Eighteenth-century philosopher and economist Adam Smith first articulated the unseen force behind the markets. In his book “The Wealth of Nations” he wrote that everyone tries to “employ his capital” to “be of the greatest value.” When millions of individuals do this the economic output of the entire nation increases, benefiting society overall—even if that wasn’t the intention of most people. It’s as if they were “led by an invisible hand.”

The invisible hand is a metaphor. But anarcho-capitalists want to abolish the state, which has echoes of communism’s promise that the state will wither away. In place of the state an anarcho-capitalist society would self-regulate through self-interest and free enterprise. In this context the invisible hand almost seems providential.

Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists are fringe groups, however. The Pew Research Center found that almost three-fourths of American atheists are Democrats or lean Democratic. But are Democrats as scientifically minded as is often portrayed?

Social justice activism—with its postmodernist and Marxist influences—has a notable impact on Democratic voters.

Atheism+, which combines atheism with social justice activism, burst onto the scene in 2012, though by 2016 their website was defunct. It contributed to what could dramatically be described as a civil war among nonbelievers. As one activist put it, atheists who think atheist organizations shouldn’t engage in social justice activism are “shitlords” because campaigning against the abuses of religion is social justice activism. So not engaging other social justice issues is like saying, “Those people don’t matter.”

Postmodernism, however, denies the validity of scientific objectivity. As a result many atheists find themselves in opposition to the postmodernist leanings of social justice activism. But in the end it may have been social justice activists who rejected “new atheism” because prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris criticize Islam as vigorously as Christianity. This is a problem because social justice activists believe Muslims are a marginalized group in the West, and criticizing Islam is tantamount to Islamophobia.

But none of these things—the inevitability of communism, the providence of the invisible hand, or the sanctity of social justice activism—are gods. However, each represent a search for meaning, for a universal principle that explains why the world is the way it is combined with the moral imperative to create an ideal society.

Do we need a god? We at least seem to need a comprehensive ideal that gives us a sense of moral order. Whether that moral order was consciously preordained before the beginning of time, or whether it is accident of human evolution, is a question of belief in the supernatural.