Twice this week I’ve come across the same sentiment from two different people: “Atheists (and the non-religious) feel empty without God.”
One was from a Twitter account responding to a prominent lawyer who interacts on the mini-blogging service. It was blunt and to the point, which is how I’ve usually seen this sentiment made. To be fair to that “Tweep”, as the old identification goes, one of my more militant fellows had decided that it was just the moment to be snarky in response to one of the lawyer’s anecdotes. It was a cute, wholesome story, not requiring anti-religious pompousness in reply, but he just had to be edgy. I think the response from the Tweep was sharing a common belief that such “hallowed out” people are angry at the world and their fellow man and have no problem showing it.
The other was from the writer Andrew Sullivan, who had a column last week in NY Mag where he spent a great deal of time on the corollary that I’ve seen usually accompany the Tweep’s assertion, that the non-religious try to replace this supposed emptiness with another form of religion.
He maintains that the non-religious (or less religious) on both the political left and right replace this with something else. For the left, that thing is social justice, or a set of diagnoses about and policy prescriptions for society. On the right, it is devotion to a wannabe strongman political figure like President Donald Trump, someone who will encourage their nationalist tendencies and xenophobia and the anger behind these things. Andrew’s words were not blunt like the Tweep’s but ultimately carried a similar line of thought, that the non-religious, lacking a clear purpose, will try to find it in all the wrong places. That they will ultimately be driven by their emotions into the arms of people and ideologies that are toxic.
I’ve always felt that in order to be able to effectively join the debate on religion (no matter which side you support), you must at least try understand both sides. It makes you appear more credible if you know what they’re talking about. One atheist, Cambridge professor Matthew Kramer, has spent a better part of his life studying the Bible (and, I infer from the text, the Old Testament and the Koran), trying to make sense of it all. He feels it gives him a better understanding of not just these texts, but Western society as a whole:
My original aim of improving my understanding of Western philosophy has been realized. Though I don’t write on theology or the philosophy of religion, my study of the Bible has significantly shaped my thinking about a number of issues in the areas of philosophy on which I do write. Over the years, however, that original aim has come to be supplemented by other reasons for my avocation as a Biblical scholar. Such an avocation not only improves one’s understanding of Western philosophy, but also greatly enhances one’s understanding of Western culture more broadly. While the Bible has heavily influenced many philosophers, it has likewise heavily influenced countless artists and writers and composers (among others). Some of the richness of Western art and literature and music is lost on anyone who does not possess a good knowledge of the Bible.
Kramer makes a good point. One of my history professors in college would often say that the history of Western society is the history of religion, and largely framed his class that way. And when you consider the influence of the Christian church on Western society, you can see it to be true. Even the more secular developments coming on after the Reformation can be seen as influenced by religion. Basically, Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas ended up leading to people thinking about governing themselves rather than being the subject of a monarch.
There are a few things in the speech (this post was transposed from it) that believers may cringe at, but it’s well worth the read.