Literal Minded Atheism

Yeah, we do it too.

Yesterday, I posted an essay about literal-minded polytheism.  It’s likely to upset some polytheists (especially those who don’t read beyond the title), because they will read it as an attack on their belief.  Actually, what I had intended in the article was to bracket the question of whether or not the gods are “real” and talk about the criteria we use to call something “real.”  My thesis was that some polytheists (not all, by any means) have a very “disenchanted” way of talking about reality.  By “disenchanted,” I mean they define what is real in terms of it’s level of disconnection from everything else.

But of course, the same could–and should–be said about many atheists as well.  Disenchanted discourse is not limited to theists.  In the same way that theists insist that their gods are “really, really real,” atheists insist that the gods are “really, really not real.”  And what both sides seem to have in mind is a very objective–and hence, disenchanted–definition of reality.  The assumption that both theists and atheists make in these arguments is that objective reality–reality in which the observer is separated from the observed–is somehow more real than subjective reality.

Let me give you a couple of examples …

Leave it to the Unitarians to spoil the sunset.

You may have heard this notion we don’t ever really touch anything, because the atoms of our flesh and the atoms of the objects we think we are touching are not actually making contact.  School kids love to show off this particular piece of wisdom, but it’s actually an insidious lie.  The assumption is that atoms, which we cannot see or feel, are more real than the flesh, which we can see and feel.  In one fell swoop, one of the most powerful of human experiences–touch–is reduced to unreality.

At the root of this line of thought is a reductionist assumption that, in order to get “down” to what is real, we need to chop everything up into its smallest components and look at them one by one.  But in doing so, we lose something essential.  We lose the emergent properties of complex systems–properties like consciousness and like the subjective experience of touching something.

Here’s another example: One Sunday morning, in my Unitarian spirituality discussion group, someone brought up the notion that the sun doesn’t really rise or set, because it’s the earth that is moving, not the sun.  After that, one person after another in the group proceeded to concur, each of them saying, in effect, that our immediate experience of the world is not “real.”  Now, these were people who value spiritual experience, to one degree or another, and yet they took it for granted that their subjective experience was less “real” than an objective account of the world.  Leave it to a bunch of Unitarians to spoil a sunset!

What these examples have in common is the denigration of subjective experience and the elevation of objective accounts of the world.  This is so common in our culture, it is just taken for granted.  After all, we would mock anyone who says the sun was revolves around the earth, and yet that is actually our most immediate experience of the world: we experience the sun rising in the east, moving over our heads, and setting in the west.  But we say that, in order to understand what is “really” happening, we need to mentally remove ourselves from our immediate experience, grounded on the earth, and assume a theoretically detached perspective, as if we were some kind of giant eyeball floating in outer space.

“That’s just objective thinking.”

The irony of this is that a heliocentric explanation is actually no more “real” than our geocentric experience.  The heliocentic explanation is more the mathematically parsimonious explanation for the movement of the celestial spheres.  But is it the most “accurate” one?  Accurate to what?  Certainly not accurate to our everyday experience.

Ptolemaic model of retrograde planetary motion

Ptolemaic model of retrograde planetary motion

If you read about the history of astronomy, you will see that the geocentric model of the solar system actually worked!  For 1,500 years, people predicted the movement of the planets with the geocentric model.  But the geocentric model was complicated.  The heliocentric model was better, not because it made better predictions (it didn’t), but because it was simpler. But the trade off was that we had to abstract ourselves out of the equation.

The ideal of the scientific method is to remove the observer from the observation.  And this method has given us incredible predictive power and technological control over our environment.  However, it is a mistake to confuse a methodology with a conclusion about the nature of reality.  The word “objective” has unfortunately come to be equated in our modern parlance with “true,” while the word “subjective” is equated with “untrue.”  But a purely objective account of the world, a world devoid of subjects, is a necessarily an incomplete account of the world, a one-dimensional account of the world.

“The belief in a purely objective comprehension of nature, in a clear and complete understanding of how the world works, is the belief in an entirely flat world seen from above, a world without depth, a nature that we are not a part of but that we look at from outside — like a God, or like a person staring at a computer screen.” — David Abram, “Depth Ecology”

We gain a certain power to control our environment when we attempt to bracket our subjectivity; but we also lose something.  We lose the reality of our own experience, and we lose the sense of our own participation in reality.  Just once I would love to hear someone say, “Oh, that’s just objective thinking,” instead of, “Oh, that’s just their subjective experience.”

Objective reality is alienated reality.

This is not an anti-science rant.  In fact, modern science teaches us about the limits of objectivity.  The theory of relativity, for example, supports the view that the earth doesn’t really revolve around the sun any more than the sun revolves around the earth–it all depends on your perspective.  If I were standing on the moon neither the geocentric nor the heliocentric model would be consistent with my experience.  There is no Archimedean point of objectivity.  Objectivity is a myth.  It is a good myth and it functions well for many things.  But it is a myth nonetheless …

… and–here is the main point of my article yesterday–it is a potentially dangerous myth.  The idea that we can remove ourselves from the natural world methodologically tends to morph into a believe that we are not a part of the natural world ontologically.  And people who believe they are disconnected from the natural world are much more likely to act without regard to the consequences of their actions for that natural world.  In addition, the theoretical objectivity often conceals anthropocentrism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy.

I’m not at all suggesting we should do away with methodological objectivity.  Striving for objectivity, even if it is not entirely attainable, is an important part of the scientific method.  But purely objective accounts of the world can contribute to the disenchantment of the world if we treat them as the only valid way of seeing the world.  Theodore Roszak wrote that a completely objective consciousness is an alienated consciousness.  The objectivist myth raises alienation to its apotheosis by treating it as our only means of achieving a valid relationship to reality.  This myth has decimated both our natural and our psychological landscapes.  As a consequence of the wholesale adoption of the objectivist myth, our culture is dying of alienation–alienation from the planet, alienation from other species, alienation from each other, and alienation from our own bodies.

Speaking of gods

So what does all of this mean for the belief in gods?  Now, I’m addressing this to my humanistic, naturalistic, and atheistic friends.  How should you respond when someone tells you they felt a presence or heard a voice or saw a personage which they interpret as a deity?

My advice is to remember what makes something real is not its disconnection from everything else, but its connectedness, its embeddedness in a web of relations and signficance.  So resist the automatic urge to objectify.  Don’t try to abstract the human being out of the experience.  Was their experience real?  Of course it was real!  It was a real human experience.  It only becomes unreal when you try to take the human subject out of it.  So leave the human in it.

Don’t vivisect the experience.  Don’t try to reduce it to the lowest common denominator or tear it down to its base pairs. You’re right, when you’re looking at the experience through that lens, there’s no gods there.  There are no gods hiding between the atoms or strands of DNA.  But neither will you find anything there that makes life worth living.  On that level, there is no joy, no love, no passion, no nuance–nothing human.

I’m not just talking about prettying things up with poetry.  Subjectivity is not just about aesthetics.  It’s about an entire dimension that is overlooked by purely objective accounts of the world.  This dimension is not imaginary–it’s an emergent property of complex physical systems.  And (to paraphrase William James) no account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these experiences disregarded.

Does the fact that people experience gods mean that gods are objectively real?  No.  But really that’s the least interesting question you can ask.  Looking at the world objectively is like looking at the world with one eye closed–you lose all depth perception.  Much more interesting is the subjective reality of their experience.  What was the experience was like for the person?  And what does it mean to them in the context of their life?  Religious experience helps teach us what it means to be a human being.  It most likely not going to help us put a person on Mars or cure cancer, but it can help us understand why we want to put a person on Mars or why should try to cure cancer.

So the next time you go into the forest or up the mountain or wherever your sacred place is, let me suggest that, at least sometimes, you leave behind your mental microscope and your slide rule.  Instead, bring a friend–preferably a polytheist.  You might just discover that Thales was right, the world is indeed full of gods.  Or maybe not.  But I wouldn’t rule it out from the start.

About the Author

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at You can also find his writing at (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.

To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.

3 Comments on “Literal Minded Atheism

  1. Pingback: Literal Minded Atheism – The Allergic Pagan

  2. I live in a three generation household that’s quite unique. My mother is Christian, my daughter is Wiccan, and I am an atheist. Yet we’re able to coexist in peace. We’ve learned that discussions of each person’s views do not have to demean or challenge the views of the other. Granted, it helps that mom is rather progressive, so even our political leanings are very similar. If she was a fundamentalist, I doubt we’d all be under the same roof as my daughter and I would be viewed as satan worshipers (it would not matter that neither atheists nor Wiccans believe in a satan).
    Mom can discuss her literal belief in god and I can listen because I realized long ago that is what gives her comfort. I can put it into that perspective even though I go about daily life differently (no fear of death or dealing with challenges solo – human hands alone). For her, the sunset or sunrise is like a gift from god – his daily artwork.
    My daughter’s beliefs are more along the lines of symbolism. Her gods are symbols rather than actual gods, but for her, the whole concept and Wiccan belief is a comfort and earth-centered way of living her life. A sunrise or sunset will be a part of the natural but amazing rhythm of our universe, where everything is connected. It is also that magical element that is a wondrous part of life.
    Like Mom, her beliefs make her happy, offering a “road map” on daily living and how they fit in the universe and see it.
    For me, there are no gods, period. I’m in the driver’s seat on the road trip of my choosing and anything else would feel constricting. I’m a rebel, always have been. I think of the universe as a serendipitous evolutionary marvel (no creator needed) and can be intrigued by what we’ve learned about it. And although I can understand the dynamics behind a sunset or sunrise (as my mother and daughter can), I am also able to partially agree, it is like seeing daily artwork in the sky. And it appears magical too (I never lost touch of my inner child or inner eccentric aunt). There are some things I’ll look at analytically, and other things I will simply enjoy.
    The last time the three of us were together at the beach, we each simply soaked in the views. I think the only discussion revolved around what new colors we saw or did this evening sky outdo the one before it. I even mentioned getting a sangria because there was a streak of red during our final sunset that reminded me of the drink.
    I think each of us are correct in our views because they work for us – they fit who we are. Objective and Subjective can also coexist because there are so many areas where science and beauty meet. “Reality” depends on the lens that a person views the world around them. Science provides how things work, but our hearts determine how they make us feel.

  3. Pingback: What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy – The Allergic Pagan

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