Can an Atheist Exist Without a Theist?

by Yak

I was on the Long Now Foundation website and found a talk given by retired NYU professor of History and Literature of Religion, James Carse. The talk is called "Religious War in Light of the Infinite Game." In it he examines the nature of religious thinking and belief and the control they exert. I found it rather interesting. If anyone wants to check it out:

What caught my interest more, however, is a little snippet from his own blog called "Neither Theism nor Atheism," in which he presents the problem of belief and believers that we all regularly bandy about on this site. I found it by turns interesting and illuminating. In his view, due to the nature of belief, theism and atheism cannot truly exist without the other. One must have an opponent, and an active one, in order to survive.

I wanted to pass an excerpt of his ideas along for our collective consideration...

"Serious believers are generally eager to supply you with a catalog of their dearest convictions. They do not just hold positions, they declare them. It is of great importance to them that you know their views. And they are usually presented in a way meant to convince you of their truth, as if your own are variant, if not plainly false. Notice that their beliefs look in two directions at once: every one of them is perfectly matched with a corresponding unbelief. They are as concerned with what they do not believe as with what they do. Belief, in other words, is always belief against.

Because beliefs are so well matched with their opposites, they not only focus on the resistance of others, they are dependent on it. When that opposition fades so does the passion with which one’s own belief is held. To be an atheist you will need to find just the right theist to face off against. How could one deny the existence of God unless someone supplies a God that can be denied? The odd consequence of this is that one cannot be a believer without simultaneously being an unbeliever. Believing is an inherently self-contradictory act.

For this reason, belief can flourish only in situations of collision. And when belief flags, the only way to reanimate it is to provoke hostility in an other. It is a little like the fundamental insight of AA that alcoholics do not drink because circumstances caused it, but cause circumstances that provide an excuse to drink. Belief is a kind of narcotic. It is a state of being inebriated with certainty and reassured by a supporting company of friends—but possible only when an outward excuse can be created. Panslavism, to cite a typical belief system, has been wonderfully strengthened by the military intervention of Americans and western Europeans into the conflict over Kosovo—an issue Serbia worked hard to initiate. There is no thrill for patriots without a dangerous enemy to struggle against. If one doesn’t exist, make one. Iraq, for example?

Notice that no mention has been made of religion. Contrary to popular thinking, religion has very little to do with belief. One could be a believer (a Marxist, a white supremacist, say) without being religious. One could be religious (see Buddhism) without being a believer." *

*excerpted from James Carse's blog at

James Carse - Religious War In Light Of The Infinite Game

Pageviews this week: