The loneliness of the long distance atheist?


The rise of a more assertive and public brand of atheism is a phenomenon of the last couple of decades. One feature of the so-called “new atheism” is its strong anti-religion stance.

Not content to live and let live, many high profile atheists, and their internet followers, vehemently oppose religion, believing it is responsible for many, perhaps most, of the world’s ills, and we would all be better off without it. And many believe that day is coming.

But what if they are fooling themselves, and doing harm?

A new book arguing the case against religion

Damon Linker is an academic and journalist who recently published a piece titled Where are the honest atheists? I cannot find out what Linker’s own views are, but he seems to be an atheist and a humanist, which gives his comments extra interest.

Linker’s article starts with a reference to a forthcoming book, The God Argument, by British philosopher and atheist, AC Grayling. Linker argues that this is one anti-religion book too many. He says: “The style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end.” It’s not that he disputes the atheist claim that God doesn’t exist. But, he says:

That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain

Blind pitiless indifference?

Linker’s argument is summed up in this stark paragraph:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free โ€” all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

He says that “Honest atheists understand this”, and goes on to mention some who he regards as honest atheists: Friedrich Nietzsche (philosopher), Albert Camus (novelist), Steven Weinberg (physicist), Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett (playwrights) and Woody Allen (filmmaker).

Perhaps most poignant is poet Philip Larkin, who he quotes as saying that religion is: “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”. Atheism leaves Larkin dreading the void:

This is what we fear: no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.

“To reject religion does not merely entail facing our finitude without comforting illusions. It also involves the denial of something noble.” Linker writes.

Not lone voices

Existential writers and hard-headed scientists alike draw the conclusion that, without God, we must draw new, and unattractive, conclusions about life:

“Judging whether life is, or is not, worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” (Albert Camus)

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves …?” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (Richard Dawkins)

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (Francis Crick)

“Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.” (William Provine)

Physical truth and emotional truth

Of course none of this necessarily says anything about the truth or otherwise of either religious belief or atheism. But it tends to contradict the view that religion is evil, for clearly religion offers something that many people need to live satisfied and emotionally stable lives.

And surely the logical consequences of atheism, which are contrary to much of our common sense 2, as well as our emotions, must provide a hint that it may not be true?


1. The title of this post is an allusion to a 1959 book by Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and a 1962 film of the same name.

2. I am thinking hereof the following logical conclusions of atheism that don’t “feel” right, or are counterintuitive:

  • that a universe could arise from nothing for no apparent reason;
  • that a universe which is amazingly ‘finely tuned’ for life should appear against impossible odds;
  • that right and wrong could be arbitrary rather than objectively true;
  • that our consciousness, free will and sense of worth as human beings are illusory, because we are no more than “robots made of meat”.

Photo Credit: zokete via Compfight cc


  1. This is all such familiar territory to me; a diehard atheist who one day realised that ‘ I refuse to acknowledge that this is all that there is; I will not go gently, dammit!’.

    But the atheist worldview is still the most natural one to me and the one that I continually fall back on even without meaning to, and even though I no longer consider myself to be an atheist.
    Everything’s just too grim to be anything othe than a believer, I fear.

  2. You sound very ambivalent but I think all thoughtful people must doubt their beliefs (or lack of them) sometimes. I hope you find some more positive reasons to believe too. Best wishes.

  3. Great article. I agree with most of what you’ve written here. I don’t believe in any gods, but there’s a part of me that wishes they existed — that anything existed beyond this life. Who wouldn’t want to see loved ones again, have questions answered, or even just keep your memories? But those wishes aren’t enough to make me believe.

    And when I was a Christian, I actually felt more depressed about the state of things than I do as an atheist, since I believed in a literal Hell. It’s too bad most religions don’t do a very good job of painting a happier picture.

  4. Thanks for reading Nate, and I’m glad I didn’t offend you. I think the article merits a reference, and the matters merit discussion, but getting the right balance between impersonal reporting and emotional response isn’t always easy.

    Contrary to you, I feel many religions, and many versions of christianity paint a reasonably happy picture for the in-group, but it is the out-group who suffer. Like you, I am surprised that more christians aren’t broken in two by the traditional view of hell, but somehow they aren’t, and yet I don’t think it’s out of callousness.

    Best wishes.

  5. 1. The title of this post is an allusion to a 1959 book by Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and a 1962 film of the same name.

    And here I was thinking it alluded to the song! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. And here I was thinking it alluded to the song!

    Would you believe I had never heard of the song? But then, I was never a fan of Iron Maiden, or of heavy metal. Is it well-known? (Or are you a great fan?)

  7. Is it well-known? (Or are you a great fan?)

    Actually, neither. But it’s an album track so it isn’t really well-known.

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