What does it mean to be an atheist in today’s America?

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People For The American Way, Beltway Atheists rally in front of the United States Supreme Court on First Street, NE, Washington DC on Tuesday night, 31 January 2017. Photo by by Elvert Barnes (CC BY 2.0).

For some, it is part of the human condition to believe in something other than ourselves — something larger than life and larger than ourselves. But does that need to be supernatural or religious? Does the meaningfulness in our lives depend on accepting the existence of God? KCRW’s  Jonathan Bastian talks to Todd May, professor of ethics and philosophy at Clemson University about what it means to believe that there is no God. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: What does atheism mean to you and how did you come to believe that there is no God?

Todd May: “Atheism is going to be different for different people. For me, I tried to understand the world in religious terms. When I was in college, I took courses in religion and I couldn't find the explanations compelling. And so atheism was more or less a place I drifted to. And I drifted to it, not as a position that I feel like, okay, here's something I need to defend against all comers but it seemed to me that the kinds of ways of thinking about the world and explaining the world to myself, none of them involve a supernatural deity. 

In that sense, my atheism is just that I don't see any compelling reason to believe that there's a supernatural deity and I can explain the world to myself without in the parts that I can't explain to myself, and I don't think that a supernatural deity is going to help. There are people who are more rabid in their atheism; they feel that they need to dismiss folks who are believers and I don’t feel any need to do that and I suppose I'm committed to the idea that people who use supernatural explanations are mistaken but that doesn't seem to me a fairly deep fact about them.”

Do you think that it’s part of the human condition to want to believe in something greater than ourselves? 

May: “This is a deep and important question, and I'm going to do a little fancy footwork, that's ducking the question because you've asked the philosopher, something about an essential characteristic of human nature. 

It's surely a deep fact about us that we want to feel connected to something larger but I don't think that something larger needs to be religious. We can be connected in the sense that we feel connected to humanity, or we feel connected to the natural world, or how traditional Buddhists feel connected to one another in a universe that's one — but there's no deity in that universe. 

There are different ways of wanting a connection with something outside of us, now here's the part I'm going to duck, is that something that is part of human nature or has that been woven into our history in such a way that it just seems natural to all of us? I have no idea what to say about that; is it genetic or is it deeply historical?” 

How have you been able to reckon with death, being an atheist?

May: “It's very difficult to confront but what immortality would be like? What would it be like if our lives just went on forever? If our life just went on forever, I think they'd become shapeless and boring. The image that is sometimes used is of a bird that comes by a desert the size of the Sahara, and picks up a grain of sand, and then flies off. And 10,000 years later comes back, picks up another grain of sand and flies off. In the time it would take to empty the Sahara Desert, not an instant of your mortality will have gone by. 

So I think in that sense, we need death to help give our lives a sense of urgency and shape. If we were never to die, the things that we do, wouldn't be as meaningful to us. So death, on the one hand is frightening and it threatens to set some of the meaning of our lives and yet, on the other hand, death is something that we need in order for our lives to have the kind of meaning and urgency that they do have.”

How would you approach raising children? Should they be exposed to religious or spiritual traditions? 

May: “It's important that kids do get exposed to the various traditions out of which our culture is woven and those deeply evolved religious traditions. People will raise their kids with a belief or without a belief, you don't have a choice there, you're sort of forced to go one way or the other. But exposing kids to different traditions, which we did with our kids, letting them see them and then decide for themselves, knowing that the decisions that we have made are not necessarily decisions that they will make. It's everybody's responsibility to look at the traditions, out of which we are thinking about our lives.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Todd May - Author, Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy, Clemson University

Producer:

Andrea Brody