That’s the question I posed in a recent Twitter poll. And here are the results:
Can an atheistic worldview support the concept of the holy or sacred?
— Randal Rauser (@RandalRauser) December 29, 2017
Of course, the answers people provide depend on how they define the terms in question. So as I prepare to offer my own answer, I’ll begin there.
Defining Atheism and God
To begin with, what do we mean by “atheism”? I understand atheism to be the denial of God’s existence and thus it requires one accept the belief God does not exist. This contrasts with the agnostic who either lacks belief in God’s existence (weak agnosticism) or who believes that no person can know whether God does or does not exist (strong agnosticism).
And how do I define God? For this discussion, I will define “God” as a personal being who is the ultimate explanation for everything else that exists. Thus we get the following:
Theism: the belief that a personal being is the ultimate explanation for everything else that exists.
Atheism: the belief that a personal being is not the ultimate explanation for everything else that exists.
Now for the second part: defining the sacred.
Defining the Sacred
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll treat the terms “holy” and “sacred” as synonyms. Further, to streamline the discussion, I’ll refer only to sacredness.
By one common definition, sacred is defined as relating to God. Obviously, if one accepts that definition, then the claim that an atheistic worldview cannot support a concept of the sacred would be an analytic truth no different from a bachelor cannot be married. But should one accept that definition?
I would say no. After all, there are various religions that have a concept of the sacred but which lack belief in God as defined.
This brings us to a second common definition of the sacred as that which is religious or transcendent in contrast to the secular or mundane. This is a more general interpretation of the concept, one which allows for expressions that are theistic and others that are non-theistic.
Atheism and the Sacred
At this point the question becomes this: can an atheistic worldview accept a concept of the religious or transcendent? And the answer is yes.
As Exhibit A, I would commend Ronald Dworkin’s 2011 Einstein Lectures which were published in 2013 as the book Religion without God. Dworkin argues as follows:
“religion is deeper than God. Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: it holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order.” (1)
Dworkin’s views are not as idiosyncratic as you might think. See also Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers’ Guide to the Uses of Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012) and Andre Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, trans. Nancy Huston (New York: Viking, 2007).
So it is clear that at least some atheists endorse a concept of the religious, the transcendent, and the sacred. And since actuality entails possibility, it follows that an atheistic worldview can sustain a concept of the sacred.
Thus, both theists and atheists may share that sense of intrinsic value and mystical wonder which is characteristic of the sacred, though they will obviously differ in how they define its nature. Though Dworkin does not adopt the terminology, what he describes looks very much like the classic transcendentals, the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The theist explains these transcendentals in terms of a transcending mind, whilst the atheist appeals to non-personal explanations. But they can at least join hands across the aisle in recognizing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And to that extent, at least, they may share something of the common sense of the sacred.
So what follows from this analysis, practically speaking? I’ll conclude by noting one important point. If atheism is consistent with the concept of the sacred, then the theist-in-dialogue should not try to argue otherwise. He should not focus on arguing that atheism obliges one to deny the sacred. He should not argue that atheism entails nihilism, for example.
Instead, the theist should attempt to discern whether the atheist with whom he is in conversation is open to the concept of the sacred. And if so, the theist may then argue that this shared concept of the sacred is best understood in personal terms.