Is Atheism Practical?
[[ERRATA]] : My apologies: I mixed two quotes from Martin Luther King in my original blog. It was violence that he described as "immoral." In a paper he wrote in 1950 he described atheism as shown below.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described atheism as both “philosophically unsound and impractical.”
Agnosticism I can relate to, at least on the basis that an
honest (if simplistic) assessment of human realities can find no sensory evidence
of the Deity. To say, therefore, “I don’t know” is to leave open the
possibility rather than to join the ranks of dogmatists, both atheists and religionists
in hotly declaring a belief or nonbelief in a reality that neither can prove
nor disprove to the other.
My impression of at least some self-declared atheists is
that they object to the depiction of a personal and vindictive God foisted on
us by dyed-in-the-wool believers. If you can re-direct the atheist’s attention to
the beauties of nature, the vastness and awe-inspiring complexities and antiquity
of creation, the gift of human love, charity, and self-sacrifice, you will
sometimes find a closet deist who worships the Unseen Hand by another name or
form. I don’t mean to paint all atheists with the same brush, but in my
experience this depiction describes some, perhaps many — those aghast or
traumatized by the atrocities or hypocrisy of orthodox religionists.
Science may be devoid of faith or feeling but scientists are
not. Too many are the Deist reflections of Albert Einstein, for example, for
anyone to insist that the greatest scientists lack feeling, reverence or awe in
contemplation of the mysteries of life and the natural world.
Paramhansa Yogananda, renowned author of “Autobiography of a
Yogi,” came to live in the United States from India in 1920. He admired the material
progress, genius, and good works of western scientists and, as if applying
their methods to solving the riddle of human existence, asked for what purpose
are we impelled to survive? That we seek to survive is far too obvious to
question. But why? What is it we seek? And by what means do we find success and
by what means do we fail? His inquiry into the mystery of our existence
proceeded, like that of men and women of science, from observation and
measurement, not from a priori
declarations of absolute or revealed truth.
The ancient Greek sages averred that man’s highest duty is “To
know thyself.” One such sage, Protagoras, shocked his contemporaries with the
statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” In modern times the well
known Indian sage of Arunachala hill, Ramana Maharshi, advised seekers to ask, “Who
If science teaches us that the universe is both
incomprehensibly vast and yet without any known center or direction, we have
seemingly two choices for humanity: we are either nothing (and life therefore
is without meaning), or, we are, indeed, the “measure of all things.” This
latter direction has, itself, two directions: I can join with the ranks of
twentieth century existentialists in declaring that my ego is the center of the
universe and my desires and impulses are the sole measure of truth for me; or,
I can go in the direction of Jesus Christ and the Yogi-Christs of India when
Jesus declared, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”
At this point in human history we’ve yet to find life forms
such as ourselves from other planets but given the estimate of 200 billion
galaxies, I must supposed that the odds are greater than 100% that they must
But inasmuch as that inquiry must remain, for now, only speculative, let
us turn to the human experience, then, for our inquiry.
The ancient scriptures of India admit that “God cannot be
proved.” So, let us also take from them this admission and follow Jesus’ advice
and Yogananda’s line of inquiry for the Holy Grail.
Yogananda started with the observation that what all men
seek is happiness. Pleasure, yes, too, but that is easily experienced as
fleeting and even counterproductive to lasting happiness as sensory indulgence,
unless held in check, can destroy health and happiness. Held even in check,
pleasure, moreover, is fleeting and even in its midst a reflective person feels
its unreality (because based in perception and anticipation) and its limited
span of fulfillment. Observation of human pleasure reveals that its pursuit can
be addictive and overtake the good judgment, common sense, and human values of
its votaries. Disease, harmful emotions, and premature aging await those who
fall victim to the pursuit of pleasure as the summum bonum of life’s existence.
Human happiness is usually sought and seen in human love, cherished
family ties, financial success and security, prestige, position, fame, talent,
or beauty. But these are like prostitutes: loyal to no one. Observation of the
facts easily discloses that those who achieve one or more such pinnacles of
human happiness too often find the summit to be cold, windy, desolate, dull,
fleeting or elusive. At the top there is nowhere to go but down and furiously
scrambling up the mountain sides just below you are hordes of competitors and unseen
snipers of death, disease, or betrayal lurking
in the shadows below.
None of these easily observable realities and shortcomings of
pleasure or human happiness seem to deter the billions of human beings on this
planet from seeking their elusive gains. Perhaps it is lack of wisdom, lack of
refinement of feeling, lack of the knowledge of a viable alternative or the
hypnosis of the allure of these achievements that blind mankind to our own
greater potential for true happiness.
Never mind the question of how did this all come about and
why. Never mind the fact that the created universe veritably shouts the
existence of an overarching Intelligence and Purpose and that the odds of all
of this coming into existence randomly is patently absurd, or that the question
of the existence of Consciousness belies our very inquiry into it.
Each person can experiment as scientifically as the armies
of white lab-coated technicians and their test tubes on what brings them true,
lasting and satisfying happiness and contentment. Never mind the cosmos, for
now. It seems to get along fine without us.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the
brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of
physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law — to the
strength of the spirit.”
It is not difficult
to discover for oneself that a selfish life is shortsighted and brings
unhappiness and pain. An unselfish life, applied with common sense and balance,
brings harmony and satisfaction. Heroes show themselves willing to give their
lives that others may live free. Humanitarians, great leaders and reformers,
and saints in all lands show that the way to inner peace and contentment is to
live for high ideals and for the greatest good of all. The calm, inward gaze away
from material objects and toward the intangible but life sustaining gifts of
wisdom, compassion, creativity, selflessness, and devotion to the Creator are
proof positive against the ceaseless flux of changing customs, conquerors,
disease, war, and hatred.
Life goes on, as
Gandhi and King would often put it, and proves that death, disease, and
destruction cannot prevail.
How do these
self-discoveries relate, then, to the existence of God? Take the journey and
see for yourself.
But along the way consider those whose lives you are
following in your experiments with truth (living an unselfish life). What do
these heroes and heroines say?
If what the great
ones teach us is so obvious, why do so few take the higher path? The higher
path requires climbing the mountain and going through the brambles of habit,
upbringing, and the ego’s insistence that the body and personality must be
satisfied first lest by unselfishness they suffer. And suffer they will, if we listen
selfish life also calls to us, both from our dark past and from the sheer
magnetism and allure of its fleeting or dark satisfactions. The great scourge
of human happiness is addiction to sense satisfactions, enabled and empowered
especially by the power of wealth, possessions, and influence.
The take up of the
high road requires the give up of the easy, but descending path, toward the
jungle of survival of the fittest ego and towards the swamp of mortal death,
disease, and old age. To one whose gaze is fixed upon the greater reality and
good of all life, the mortality and frailty of the human body and insecure ego
are but universal realities that we are
challenged to “get over it.”
To paraphrase Paramhansa
Yogananda and a vision he had of Divine Mother, “Dance of life and dance of
death, know that these come from Me.” Fear not for they have no lasting reality
for Spirit to Spirit goes, unfettered by matter’s ceaseless flux from form to
energy and energy back to form.
Let us return then
to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his labeling of atheism as unsound and
impractical. I cannot claim to know his thoughts in this statement, but I
believe his thoughts derive from the loss of the polestar of higher Self
from which to guide one’s life. During his brief life (‘50’s and ‘60’s)
post-war materialism and atheism (and the power and threat of communism based
upon both), existentialism, together with amateurish interpretations of
scientific discoveries and speculations such as chaos theory and relativity, were
associated with what would be seen as the breakdown of morality and the rise of
atheism and belief in the meaninglessness of life.
Atheism as a
rejection of religious dogmas was not yet widely understood. King lived in a
time of rebellion, both positive and negative. Thus Martin Luther King, Jr.
both devout and deeply religious (in a nonsectarian way) and a deep thinker
concerned with the trends of modern culture, would describe atheism as unsound.
Atheism would be seen as impractical in contrast to how he saw his crusades for
social justice as eminently practical in their methods but as justified in the
perception of all men as children of God. That an agnostic or atheist might be
a humanist, a proponent of an enlightened self-interest, or a pragmatist taking
his cue from the scientific establishment of the interdependency of all living
things and upon what might be called traditional Stoicism (a morality based on
human values including moderation and self-sacrifice) would not have occurred
to King or his religious contemporaries. (A Stoic sees that life brings both
pleasure and pain, life and death, and taking the long view steps back from the
pursuit of false and fleeting experiences to remain calm, dignified, and
self-sacrificing, following what we might call the Golden Rule.)
It may well be that
an atheist turns to the enlightenment of reason but as there are “no atheists
in fox holes,” an atheist who holds fast and true to humanist ideals in the
face of personal suffering, conflict, betrayal, humiliation or self-sacrifice is
something much more than a mere atheist. Such virtue would not, in my opinion,
derive from atheism but from a deeper and intuitive sense of justice and
righteousness that no mere non-belief in a deity could suffice to sustain. Well,
that’s my opinion. Taking this further, then, loss of moral judgment would not
be a far step from one whose only anchor was this lack of a belief.
As studies have
shown that those with a strong and abiding faith heal from surgery or illness faster,
and cope with dying with greater aplomb, faith in God is already showing itself
(using scientific methods of observation) to be practical. Faith-based
communities, too, often show themselves effectively serving the ideals and good
of society in ways no legislation or taxation could possibly achieve.
None of this is for
the purpose of convincing a self-described atheist or agnostic to “come over to
the other side.” Such a journey is like a river that runs silent and runs deep.
But the impracticality of such a position, and its potential to lead to selfish behavior, productive of unhappiness, is surely
worthy of consideration. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are certainly
P.S. For an inspired and insightful explanation for Yogananda's "thesis" and modern thought, I direct your attention to two works by J. Donald Walters (aka Swami Kriyananda): "Out of the Labyrinth" and "Hope for a Better World." (Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA)