Atheism isn't enough - and it isn't very satisfying

I'm an atheist. Have been since I stopped being agnostic when i was a teen. I went through a 2 week existential depression and realized,  nope, don't believe and that was that. I literally cannot imagine what it is like to believe in supernaturalism never having experienced that with the exception of some dabbling with a ouiga board while a tween. 

I'm not shy about my atheism. It's part of who I am and part of my philosophical development. And that's key = it's part of my philosophic development.

We all have philosophy

In order to navigate through life, we need to have some concept of what life is, how things are. We have generalizations that act as mental short cuts to help us avoid danger and respond to danger when we are confronted. For instance, I'm pretty sure palm trees aren't predators. Sure, they occasionally fly down a street during a hurricane (I live in Florida), but in general, they aren't going to try and attack me. Unlike the coyotes in my neighborhood, which very well might.

In order to make decisions, we have to have some sense of what to expect, and what we deem to be good or bad. Those ideas and thoughts about the universe outside of myself and how I relate to it - or rather - how best I might relate to is, is the realm of philosophy. 

Is my philosophy grounded in Atheism or Existentialism? 

The answer to this question is yes. Obviously, as an atheist, my atheism grounds my philosophy. But actually, it was existentialism that led me to atheism and it is existentialism that grounds my Humanism.  

As an atheist, I don't believe we have a transcendent soul. It was actually my realization that I could not conceive of a biological benefit to having a transcendent soul  that made me realize, there is no point to religion or religious belief and when it comes down to it - I am a realist, not a supernaturalist when it comes to religion.  It's more accurate to say, I'm an atheist because I'm an apathetic agnostic who doesn't believe in transcendent souls. The entire concept of theism is a pointless & irrelevant to me. I really don't care if a god exists or not because it's clear to me that it wouldn't change anything for me. In this way - for me - my atheism is a conclusion of existentialism.

But my existentialism had another conclusion.  And that conclusion is Humanism. If this is the only life I have, then what am I going to do with it?  To me that the question of theism is completely irrelevant to the question of how best to live my life because even if there is a god, I still only have this one life to live. 

I could chose to live life nihilistically - and it wouldn't matter to anyone but me and the people who are affected by my nihilism.  Or, I could go on, making random decisions and hope for the best. Or, I could chose to actively embrace this one life and try to do the best I can with it. And it's this last choice, that to me, is Humanism. 

It's a choice that is grounded in my existentialism, not my atheism. And this matters. Because at some point we all have to grapple with the big questions of life. Why are we alive, what is the point, do we ever truly die? 

Atheism & Existential Are Front and Center

Whether you come to existentialism through atheism or whether your existentialism brings you to atheism doesn't really matter. What matters is once you are here, what are you going to do about it?

In order to continue living positively in the face of death, we have to accept our worst fears about the big questions about life. I'm here because of random accident. There is no point to my life and I will die. And that will be final. Atheism and Existentialism don't allow us to hide from these questions. And that's a good thing. We have to answer them. And that's why Humanism is so important and so fulfilling. 

Humanism Provides Satisfying Answers to the Big Existential Questions of Life

All becoming an atheist and/or an existentialist does is it forces you to confront these questions. It doesn't provide you with answers. It only gives you the opportunity to ask them.

How many of you, in your deconversion journeys hesitated because you were afraid of what the answers to these questions were? How many of you clung to your old beliefs out of fear? What if you were made to feel comfortable about these questions? Would that have helped you make progress sooner? Probably.

When it comes to weaning people off supernaturalism, the promotion of atheism isn't enough precisely because it isn't satisfying. All if does is bring up people's fears and doubts about whether or not this is the only life we have. There is a reason why it's called an existential depression. It's depressing. Not just depressing but oppressively so. 

Teaching people about Humanism is important. It acts as a sturdy bridge to disbelief by providing a solid foundation on what appears to be quicksand.  The more we can help people become comfortable with the idea of life being ok without theism and ideas of the afterlife, the easier we make the journey for them.  Knowing there is a solid place to land, makes taking the leap easier.

If we want to create more atheists, we need to promote Humanism. 

Get a free ebook about Humanism at:

And if you have friends who are struggling with these issues - encourage them to get the book as well. 

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Comment by Rich Goss on April 27, 2016 at 5:22pm

Jennifer, I wrote down some thoughts on you intriguing and thought-provoking post. It's just some opinions as we all see the world in different ways, I couldn't post the entire reply so I broke it up; and placed it on my blog. 

Hope you find it interesting as well as relevant.

Comment by Michael Enquist on April 27, 2016 at 12:22pm

This is a good start.

It seems strange to me that a group of people who claim to hold critical thinking in high regard need to be reminded that atheism is not a world view. It is just a small part of many different world views, as Jennifer has noted, including existentialism, secular humanism, rationalism (in the broad sense), naturalism, and materialism. Some religious world views don't feel the need to include god or gods.

Again, as Jennifer well notes, atheism doesn't teach us what to value, or how to treat other people. Atheism doesn't inform us as to which political views are more beneficial for running our government or how to live with other life forms on planet Earth. Atheism isn't even what helps us understand why science is a much better tool for figuring out how the world works than is faith.

So what are some characteristics of an effective world view? Is there any way to create one without giving in to one's preconceived notions? Do all world views just boil down to the preferences of their adherents? Is there an objective way we can judge a world view as good or bad? Is there any philosopher we can point to and say, "She/he had the best world view"?

I have a world view, of course. It includes most elements of rational materialism. But, again, is my world view just the way that it is because I preference for what goes into it? i.e., logical thinking, peaceful coexistence, a planet we can live on, minimizing coercion from government agencies and big businesses, allowing every person to do what they want so long as they don't willfully or negligently harm other innocent people, mutually agreed upon exchange of value for value, testing of my beliefs against reality, trying to figure out what reality >is<, creating meaning for myself, and helping anyone who asks for it to earn more money, get better work and improve their relationships.

Can I point to any of my ideas and explain perfectly why they are the best for me? No. I just know from trial and error and learning from others that if I want certain outcomes, I need to believe certain things and act on those beliefs. As to >why< I want the outcomes, I can't lay out a chain of reasoning that starts from the fact of my existence (is it really a fact?) to the objective moral claim that I should get the things I want in life.

Can you? Can anyone?

But nothing I want or believe starts with atheism. Atheism is a consequence of world views, not the cause of them. 

Comment by Jennifer Hancock on April 27, 2016 at 7:12am

Ruth - that's a very wise fear to have and I think it's probably the thing I worry about the most. Not knowing if what I think I know is actually so. 

My transition from agnostic to atheist was very smooth. But I've been told multiple times that some people suffer from existential depression for years!  I think I didn't because I never really believed in the first place, so for me, it was just admitting that I didn't. It wasn't a "conversion" in the normal sense.

Comment by Loren Miller on April 27, 2016 at 6:20am

Ruth, the kind of fear you describe may indeed be the beginning of wisdom.  Being conscious of that and willing to admit that YOU DON'T KNOW is far better than committing to a pat answer based in dogma which may or may not have anything to do with fact or truth.

It is our skepticism which remains the most important tool in the box.  We should never be afraid to use it.

Comment by Joan Denoo on April 26, 2016 at 11:33pm

"I learned that my deepest fear is not being able to distinguish what's real from what is not."

I share your fear, Ruth. From what did you convert? 

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on April 26, 2016 at 10:49pm

I never needed to be weaned from supernaturalism or fears there wouldn't be a spare life (after death). Working out the nature of reality was my deconversion process. Humanism was always there, because caring for people was, long before I'd formally learned of humanism. During deconversion I never faced a moral or existential vacuum. Reality has always been my grounding. Decades later I learned that my deepest fear is not being able to distinguish what's real from what is not.

Perhaps my deconversion was different from most.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 26, 2016 at 9:51pm

Excellent discussion of issues that we all face and have to work out.  Every principled atheist has to find some satisfying, realistic substitute for religion's false comforts, bogus promises, and Imaginary Friends.  

I made an early exit from my parents' Judaism Lite, I later connected with Humanistic Judaism in Suburban Detroit (was privileged to study with the movement's founder Rabbi Sherwin Wine), then more recently abandoned HJ as a failed compromise, the Jewish thing no longer any interest for me whatsoever. But I do love Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song" (versions 1-4).  Humanism has been my (probably) final destination.  For day-to-day psychology, I like Zen.

Comment by Bertold Brautigan on April 26, 2016 at 6:39pm

I agree with you, Loren - our species needs a lot more humility as to it's place in nature.

Comment by Jennifer Hancock on April 26, 2016 at 6:38pm

Joan - The rage about the harm of religion is totally valid. The challenge is how to help people stop enabling that by helping them understand that the value they think they get from religion isn't really coming from religion. That's how I think of it anyway.

Loren - I don't think of it as anthropcentric. My awareness of myself as a human animal is not heirarchical. Religion tends to promote a very heirarchical view of nature with humans at the pinnacle. But for me, humans are an animal and are part of nature. We are no better or worse than any other animal. Evolution is a tree, not a ladder and the species currently alive are like the leaves of the tree. It would be ridiculous to elevate one leaf as superior to the others. That being said, I would make a very bad alligator. So - my job - as a Humanist - is to be the best human I can be. At least, that's how I view it.

I think the larger question I'm trying to pose is that given how important it is to move people away from irrationality - how best can we do that? How do we encourage people to make the switch?  How do we get them to understand the importance of critical thinking?  And I think we do a disservice to the cause by linking critical thinking with a rejection of religion.  Certainly, that's something that critical thinking can cause, but if that's the only place we apply critical thinking, we are doing it wrong. It also applies to medical care and which shampoo we buy and what politician to vote for.  By encouraging critical thinking in areas people are willing to think critically about (we at least teach and popularize the skill). That makes it easier to help them expand the ideas they think critically about.

Comment by Loren Miller on April 26, 2016 at 6:14pm

Certainly, atheism is not enough by itself, but it is essential in an environment where irrationality is an accepted practice which has the cover of a large portion of the population.  We deny the legitimacy of that belief system with reason, and as a result, it is at least beginning to lose the kind of popularity and support which it has enjoyed up until recently.

But no, atheism isn't sufficient by itself.  Certainly humanism as an operational philosophy can provide a foundation similar to that of religion, though personally, I dislike its tendency toward an anthropocentric attitude.  I do not call myself a humanist for that reason.



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