Is Atheism a choice or a belief?


Picture this: a beautiful summer day, the sun shining bright, and three childhood friends engaged in a riveting discussion that could rival the intensity of a WWE wrestling match. In the saffron corner, we have the devout and orthodox Hindu, a true believer in the Sanatan Hindu Dharma (Classical Hinduism). In the red corner, we have the lefty Atheist, a staunch non-believer who scoffs at the mere mention of religion. And in the middle, trying to play referee, is yours truly.

As the heated debate raged on, with the Hindu friend passionately defending the virtues of his faith and the Atheist friend vehemently dismissing the very notion of religion, I found myself caught in the crossfire. In a moment of sheer brilliance (or perhaps foolishness), I decided to interject with a profound statement that would surely bring this intellectual battle to a screeching halt.

“Atheism is a belief!” I proclaimed, feeling quite proud of myself for throwing a philosophical curveball into the mix.

The Atheist friend, with a look of utter disbelief (pun intended), retorted, “No, no, no! Atheism is a choice, my dear friend. It’s a conscious decision to reject the existence of any divine entity.”

And there I was, caught between two extremes, wondering if I had just opened a can of worms that would rival the likes of Pandora’s box. As the debate intensified, with both friends passionately defending their positions, I found myself questioning my own claim. Was Atheism truly a belief, or was it a choice? Or perhaps, like most things in life, it lay somewhere in the murky middle of the belief-choice continuum.

In a desperate attempt to find some clarity amidst the chaos, I decided to turn to my trusty companions: my favorite Western Philosophers and Scientists. I figured if anyone could shed light on this philosophical conundrum, it would be the likes of Dawkins, Dennet, Russell, Freud, and Camus, among many others. After all, nothing says “light reading,” like a bunch of existentialist thinkers pondering the meaning of life and the nature of belief. I have actually been reading these five along with Rovelli and Schrodinger for the last few months for my #booktok videos.

As I delved deeper into their works, I realized that the answer to this question was about as clear as mud. Each author seemed to have their own unique perspective on the matter, leaving me more confused than ever. But hey, at least I could now impress my friends with my newfound knowledge of not-so-obscure philosophical concepts, right?

The question of whether atheism is a choice or a belief involves complex philosophical and psychological considerations. Here are several perspectives from my favorite five prominent philosophers and scientists:

1. Daniel Dennett

As a philosopher and cognitive scientist, Dennett views atheism primarily as a natural consequence of scientific inquiry and rational skepticism. He argues that atheistic beliefs are often the result of critical thinking and empirical understanding rather than a simple choice or mere disbelief.

2. Sigmund Freud

Freud saw religious belief itself as an illusion, a kind of wish-fulfillment, and suggested atheism might arise from a more realistic acceptance of the universe’s indifference to human concerns. For Freud, atheism might be seen less as a choice and more as a recognition of a psychological reality.

3. Bertrand Russell

This British philosopher viewed religious beliefs, and by extension atheism, as deeply connected to societal and cultural influences, suggesting that atheism can be a philosophical stance or belief system arising from critical examination of these influences.

4. Richard Dawkins

An evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, Dawkins treats atheism as a logical position based on scientific scrutiny of religious claims. He often frames atheism as a conscientious response to a lack of evidence for any deities rather than simply a choice.

5. Albert Camus

Although more of an absurdist than a traditional atheist, Camus dealt with the absurdity of life without inherent meaning. His philosophy suggests that one’s stance on god’s existence — atheistic or otherwise — can arise from personal confrontation with life’s inherent meaninglessness.

From these perspectives, atheism can be viewed both as a belief system and a choice. It’s a belief system insofar as it often rests on specific philosophical or empirical views about the nature of reality, truth, and evidence. It’s a choice in that individuals choose to accept or reject theistic claims based on their personal, philosophical, or empirical conclusions. Thus, the answer might depend significantly on individual experiences and the intellectual paths that lead one to consider theistic claims critically.

Here are references to their works, which elaborate on their views regarding atheism, religion, and belief systems:

1. Daniel Dennett
”Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (2006) — In this book, Dennett explores how religious faith and belief might have evolved by natural selection. This work can provide insights into his views on atheism as a product of evolutionary and cognitive processes.

2. Sigmund Freud
”The Future of an Illusion” (1927) — Freud discusses the origins of religion and its ties to psychological needs in this book. He presents a critical view of religious beliefs and indirectly touches on atheism from a psychoanalytic perspective.

3. Bertrand Russell
”Why I Am Not a Christian” (1957) — This essay is a compilation of lectures Russell gave, explaining his objections to Christianity and theism in general. It effectively captures his philosophical rationale for atheism.

4. Richard Dawkins
”The God Delusion” (2006) — Dawkins articulates a clear and detailed case for atheism, arguing against the existence of a supernatural creator and criticizing religion’s role in society.

5. Albert Camus
”The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942) — Camus discusses the absurdity of life and explores how individuals might find meaning without relying on the divine. This work provides context for his existential approach to atheism and the human condition.

These works are seminal in understanding each thinker’s approach to the topics of religion, atheism, and belief, providing a foundation for interpreting their views on whether atheism is more a choice or a belief.

I also like to take this opportunity to explore the ancient Hindu School of Materialism and any connection to modern atheism. The Cārvāka school, also known as Lokāyata, is an ancient Indian philosophical system that broadly embraced materialism and skepticism, particularly about supernatural phenomena and the afterlife. This school of thought is relevant to discussions of modern atheism because of its radical views on rejecting religious and spiritual elements, focusing instead on direct perception and empirical evidence as the basis for knowledge.

Here’s how the Cārvāka philosophy might be related to or influenced modern atheism (within the Hindu or Buddhist context):

Empirical Skepticism The Cārvāka school advocated for a form of empirical inquiry, relying solely on what can be perceived directly. This rigorous empirical approach resonates with the modern scientific method, which underpins much of atheist critique against religious and supernatural claims.

Materialism Cārvākas denied the existence of anything beyond the natural and material world. They rejected the notion of an afterlife, gods, and the soul, akin to the views held by many modern atheists who argue that beliefs should be grounded in observable, material reality.

Ethical Consequences Unlike many religious doctrines that prescribe moral codes based on divine commandments or the promise of an afterlife, Cārvāka ethics were based on the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain in the here and now. This focus on human well-being and observable consequences aligns with some secular humanist aspects of modern atheism, which often emphasize moral values derived from human needs and experiences rather than divine authority.

Critique of Authority The Cārvākas were critical of the Vedas (sacred texts in Hinduism) and the authority of priests, which can be seen as an early form of anti-clericalism. This skepticism towards religious authority and scriptural texts is a common theme in modern atheistic thought, where questioning and challenging religious and traditional norms is encouraged.

The influence of Cārvāka on modern atheism can be seen as part of a larger tradition of skepticism and materialism that questions religious orthodoxy and supernatural beliefs. By focusing on the tangible and observable, both Cārvāka and modern atheism challenge individuals to scrutinize beliefs traditionally accepted without empirical evidence. Cārvāka, as a philosophical school, did not survive in a direct lineage to influence contemporary thought, yet its core ideas echo the principles that guide much of modern secular and atheistic thinking.

So, in the end, my belief is that the path to Atheism can be an outcome of either belief or choice or both. Maybe for someone like me, it is based on my neurophysiology. This is a topic for another day. Till then, Ciao!!


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