Saturday, March 22, 2014

On Atheism and Existential Insecurity

Bolles Harbor, Monroe

When Linda and I were in Cancun I picked up a copy of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.  It's a massive, 650 page book cataloguing the following: given the non-existence of God, how shall we then live? I managed to read one-fourth of it, and took some notes. 

Watson is a good writer. The Introduction alone is worth reading - "Is There Something Missing In Our Lives? Is Nietzsche to Blame?" Watson is mostly preaching to the atheistic choir. Which is OK. I like being an outsider looking in. The book is an attempt to answer the question: If one is an atheist what is there to live for? Can an atheist existentially flourish? (Note: I found myself being concerned about a lack of primary source material in his interpretation of various atheists. Has Watson actually read the primary sources? It's not entirely clear.)

Here's one of my thoughts so far.

Watson takes on the research that claims human flourishing is most possible for religious people (Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, e.g.). "
Human flourishing, Taylor maintains— a fulfilled life— can be achieved only via religion (Christianity, in his case). Otherwise, the world is “disenchanted,” life is a “subtraction story” with important parts missing. With no sense of “transcendence,” no sense of the “cosmic sacred,” we are left with “merely human values,” which he finds “woefully inadequate.”" (Kindle Locations 203-205) 

Watson replaces the "transcendence thesis" with the existential insecurity" thesis: human flourishing is a function of "existential security." Existential insecurity breeds religious responses to the world out of neediness; existentially secure people tend to be irreligious since they are not so needy. (Watson here draws mostly on Norris and Inglehart's Sacred and Secular.) "'Transcendence' is not the most important explanatory factor of religion - poverty and existential insecurity are." (K 2%) Watson writes: "Rich people are becoming more secular, but the world as a whole is becoming more religious." 

OK. I don't have much of a problem with that idea, since Jesus predicted this, right? It's hard for a rich man to come under the reign of God. But perhaps the rich are irreligious not because of existential security, but because their riches lead to material stockpiling that clutters and complicates their practical existence so that they have little time for religion. My experience over many years of teaching Christians and Christian leaders about prayer is that the more stuff a person has, the less they pray. Their prayerlessness is not because of existential security, but because of stockpiled stuff that needs to be attended to, cleaned, mowed, stored, maintained, etc. etc. Material stockpiling wealth quenches the need for transcendence within because of inattention.

Further, I have met many, many rich irreligious people who are as existentially insecure as poor people. I don't think wealth ultimately overrules existential insecurity. I do think many in America today live under the illusion that material wealth is the answer to their existential insecurity. I think they mostly discover that idea to be false, which tends to be disillusioning. (But they keep going back to the wealth-and-materialism option in the midst of bouts of existential insecurity and fail to get free of of this illusion.)

Watson writes: "Once existential insecurity is relieved, faith disappears." Again, if existential security and insecurity are mostly or only a function of material wealth then, following Jesus, OK. But does anything more follow from this; viz., that religious people are wrong? Of course not. To begin to think like that (which Watson comes perilously close to) is to commit the genetic fallacy, which cuts both ways. Atheism would then be merely a function of material-inspired existential security, and not a belief that was true. (I now think Watson's entire book may be grounded in one massive genetic fallacy. His Introduction lays a foundation built on intellectual sand.)

So, after reading the book's Introduction:

  • I remain unconvinced that rich people are existentially secure and poor people are not.
  • I am unconvinced that the "need for transcendence" thesis of Charles Taylor and many others is false.
  • I have no doubt that material wealth contributes to irreligion. Again, Jesus said the same. But here I have met many materially wealthy people (most Americans, comparatively?) who are existentially insecure. 
  • I've met many for whom an increase in material provision contributes to religious behavior such as, e.g., giving thanks to God.
  • I think of NYU psychologist Paul Vitz's explanatory thesis of atheism; viz., existential fatherlessness breeds irreligion.