(Kelly Kiernan)

‘God Is a Question’: An Atheist’s Invitation to Intellectual Humility

Little more than a decade ago, one of the most prominent culture war issues centered around the question of God. Polemical theists and dedicated atheists battled each other in op-eds, New York Times best-sellers, and televised and on-campus debates. The hot-button issues mainstream publications choose to cover have since shifted; yet, the question of God’s existence remains, and its attendant sectarians’ absolutism has barely weakened.

William Irwin, an editor of the beloved Pop Culture and Philosophy series calls for greater humility—on all sides. In his most recent book, God Is a Question, Not an Answer (2018), he seeks to quell the bad faith arguments traded in this public arena and encourage greater acceptance of the uncertainty so endemic to life’s biggest questions.

Jeffrey Howard: What personal experience compelled you to write this book?

William Irwin: God Is a Question takes its title from the New York Times piece of the same name. That article was written out of a sense of frustration I suppose with people being dogmatic on the issue of the existence of God. I think it’s fine to have a definite view—yes or no—or be in the middle for that matter. It’s the dogmatism that rubs me the wrong way. To my mind, uncertainty is just a really valuable intellectual virtue to cultivate, and I see that lacking too much. I wrote the op-ed piece, which is only 1200-1500 words. And it got a really huge response in the comments section. The comments motivated me to write God Is a Question because people had responses to things that I couldn’t really get into with the short op-ed piece. That was the catalyst.

You’ll definitely find a sympathetic ear here in regards to the pushback against dogmatism. Do you have a sense for whether there is a softening up from devoted theists or the more self-satisfied atheists? Have you noticed a trend in either direction?

All I can speak to is from anecdotal evidence. I haven’t studied it in the way a social scientist might. What surprised me about the response I received from the original piece was that the negative responses were almost all from—what I hesitate to call because it’s almost a cliché—militant atheists. They wanted nothing to do with what I was saying. And that disappoints me, both because I identify as an atheist myself, and because I think that most atheists come to their atheism as a result of having thought their way away from something else. It’s not for most people the way in which they were brought up so I tend to think of atheists as more inclined to be thoughtful about subjects, including that subject, the existence of God, so that really surprised and bothered me. That isn’t to say that I didn’t get the kind of responses one might expect to get from folks in the Bible Belt, but much fewer. And I did get in response, lots of nice email and commentary from believers, including rabbis, priests, and ministers, who appreciated the tone of the piece, even if they ultimately didn’t agree with my view.

[Read “As Atheists and Believers, We Need Deeper Reverence for Mystery“]

I would note as well, when I’ve seen similar work from atheists trying to either inject more humility into the discussion or suggest that there’s some utility in religion, that there’s usually strong reaction against it from the more assured atheists. I understand that Alain de Botton, who wrote Religion for Atheists, notes that his biggest pushback has come from undoubting atheists as well.

So much stems from the state of our current political dialogue. Talking heads on television and Twitter exchanges are usually not models of healthy, informed, civil dialogue. There’s no room for compromise with the person who disagrees. There’s no way of seeing why they might think what they think and what value there might be in their positions. So it’s really that kind of frustration that motivated me.

There’s not a lot of reward for intellectual humility, especially on social media.

Yeah, not in the short term anyway.

You review different conceptions of God. What do you find to be the most compelling argument for God?

It boils down to the question of why is there something rather than nothing. In many ways, if you strip down God to being just kind of a first cause, as the Deists thought of God, that God becomes so toothless as to be unobjectionable almost by anyone. Then maybe there is such a God, maybe there isn’t. The origin of the universe itself: while it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a God—and I don’t happen to think that there is—it is something that calls for an explanation. And the explanation and the God that it might deliver really isn’t a God that would have to give anybody too much pause. That God could have created the universe and left it all alone, or even dissipated or dispersed into the universe itself, so you end up getting either a deistic or pantheistic view. Very, very hard to disprove that.

[Read “A Divided World Needs to Make God a Useful Idea, Again“]

While walking through the major conceptions of God you bring up the notion of religious fictionalism. Could you explain that?

Fictionalism, in general, means we accept something without believing it. The term comes from what we usually do with fiction. Whether you are reading a novel or watching a television show, in order to enjoy it, you suspend disbelief, you pretend the characters are real people, you pretend things that really couldn’t happen could happen. There really isn’t any harm in it. In fact, it may do us some real good in terms of intellectual stimulation, in entertaining other points of view, etc.

Religious fictionalism is what we have when someone accepts the teachings of a particular religion but doesn’t really believe them. That might be fine when they toggle in and out of that very easily and rapidly. So someone may got to mass even though they don’t believe because the family expects it or it’s good for the family to be a part of it. Or, someone does the Passover Seder and says all of the prayers that go along with the religion. The qualm I have when we allow ourselves to do that, is that we can end up deceiving ourselves. Maybe or maybe not deceiving others is justifiable—as with the guy going to mass—but when we deceive ourselves, that’s a problem. When you give too much to a view you don’t believe, you may find out that you end up, in some way, believing it. When you immerse yourself so deeply in something and you lose sight of what you actually believe, it becomes dangerous.

You note that when you press religious fictionalists hard enough, they admit not believing in God. It’s an act in a way. How do you differentiate that from those who don’t believe in God but view God as a metaphor or a series of archetypes to inform how one lives?

There’s certainly a difference there, although there’s not necessarily a difference. For some people who study God or religion as metaphor or archetype, who study it as something foreign to them, it’s unlikely that they’re going to fall into the fictionalist trap that I worry about. If you’re simply accepting it as metaphor, then there is certainly a lot of wisdom to be gathered from the world’s religions. I think it’s easier to mine religions other than those of one’s upbringing or culture because there’s a distance from it and you’re less likely to fall into the religious fictionalist trap.

What are the real concerns with falling into this trap? Embracing bad ideas? Dangerous ideas? Being inauthentic?

It’s potentially any and all of those. Some of those ideas might actually be beneficial in the sense that you might end up with a moral code that helps you to live a good and happy life. So what’s the problem there? You might even realize that that’s what it’s doing and say, “Well, I’m okay with that.” For myself it doesn’t sit well for the reason that you alluded to there: authenticity. Now, I can’t tell anybody why they should prize authenticity, being genuine, or in terms of what they really believe. But for me, it’s important. And I think for a lot of people it really is. There are certainly some core, fundamental things that they want to endorse from a deep place. They don’t just want some surface-level agreements.

[Read “Cult, New Religious Movement, or Minority Religion?“]

I want to talk about mysticism, which you don’t touch on. God Is a Question is a call to intellectual humility, and it seems to me to be an embrace of uncertainty. What benefits do you see in living toward a sense of mystery?

It pushes me to think about what the word “mystery” really means because there are different senses of it that don’t fully coincide. I love a good mystery in the sense of a novel or a movie, a detective story where there really is an answer to be found, a problem that can be solved. Even if at the end of it there’s some nagging doubt as to whether or not that was the correct answer or not, there is, in principle, a correct answer. And at least, in principle, it could be found.

But then there’s another sense of mystery used where it suggests that the question or the problem is fundamentally unsolvable, maybe because human intellect isn’t up to the task. It’s limited for whatever reason. This is the way that some religions speak of mysteries. I’m skeptical of that kind of mystery. I much prefer the sort of mystery of a detective story where I’m willing to admit that I don’t know the answer and maybe I’ll never find it. I’m just on the trail, looking for clues. I couldn’t say with any certainty that the other kind of mystery isn’t a real thing, that there aren’t such mysteries, but I’m skeptical of them. It seems to me that lots of what past ages might have regarded as mystery are no longer seen as such. With the advance of knowledge and science, more and more things fall by the wayside. My hope, maybe my naïve rationalist and enlightenment hope, is that eventually everything falls by the wayside. Nonetheless, there is, as you suggest, the possibility of genuine mystery in the other sense, that it’s fundamentally unsolvable.

Why do you have skepticism around that latter type of mysticism?

I find mysticism fascinating. I think people who have had mystical experiences—mystics—when they write about them the air comes out of the balloon. I can get the sense that they’re writing about some genuine experience that they’ve had, but there’s no way to communicate that experience to someone who hasn’t had it, particularly through the written word. Then people who haven’t had mystical experiences who try to write about mysticism do even worse. I stayed away from the topic in God Is a Question, partly, for that reason. I can’t speak with any kind of first-person authority on it. I do mention at the end of the book that I’m open to the possibility of mystical experience myself. I like not to close the door on anything, so who knows, but I haven’t had a mystical experience myself.

[Read “Ecstatic Experience: How the West Can Find Itself by Losing Control“]

You speak to Roman Catholicism’s appeal for having a more rational approach to religion. You identify now as culturally Catholic. What other faiths did you consider when you transitioned away from Catholicism?

No other religious traditions appealed to me very much, as religions, but I’ve put a fair amount of time and interest into studying Buddhism, which appeals to me more as a practical philosophy than as a religion. You strip away reincarnation and just a couple of other things, and I think you have a really profound and workable life philosophy.

Some people like to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and sometimes people want to put that description on me. I always come back to them and say, “I’m philosophical but not spiritual.” I know what they mean and I don’t take offense at that description. To the extent that I’m skeptical of things non-physical, and spiritual seems to connote that, I prefer to say that “I’m philosophical and not spiritual.” And Buddhism has a lot of appeal to me in that way.

Speaking of utility in different aspects in religion, you happen to advocate prayer. Can you elaborate on why an atheist would advocate prayer?

When I first say it, people think I’m talking about meditation—like Sam Harris, an atheist, who has a whole book on meditation called Waking Up (2014). Plenty of atheists have availed themselves of the benefits of mediation. That’s actually not what I’m talking about.

The next response that I often get is: “Well, if you’re talking about prayer for an atheist, you really don’t mean an atheist, you mean an agnostic.” For sure, prayer can make sense for an agnostic. It’s like when we get home from a vacation and the plants are dead and we try to water them anyways. Maybe they’ll come back to life or maybe they won’t. It’s worth trying. That seems to be like agnostic prayer, and it makes sense.

The metaphor I prefer for atheist prayer is singing in the shower, because nobody is listening and that’s actually a good thing and part of the point, because I can’t carry a tune and nobody would want to hear me sing and I would be too self-conscious if they were. What atheists deprive themselves of is a valuable way of expressing humility and gratitude, or even a sense of desire, a wish or longing. We see this kind of expression in Christmas songs. Plenty of atheists have said they feel comfortable singing Christmas songs, even the religious ones. There is something beautiful about the expressive quality of it.

The other part I get pushback on from atheists is that a prayer by definition seems to be directed to a God. And if you don’t believe in a God, well, then game over. You can’t have a prayer. I think it’s true that lots of prayer, traditionally speaking, has been directed toward a God but it need not be.

In God Is a Question, I include a Buddhist prayer called the “Prayer for the Four Immeasurables.” It’s not directed at a God. Maybe an easier way to think about it: lots of people are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. Instead of saying “God, grant me the serenity,” one can simply say, “May I have the serenity,” and continue the prayer from there. It’s a kind of wish. It’s a kind of expression of humility. And potentially, it can be an expression of gratitude. Those are all things that atheists are at a disadvantage, as compared to believers who, in a way, have it more readily available to them.

We hear a lot about the rise of “religious nones” and the secularization of Western developed countries. Where does society go after religion? What needs historically met by religion, broadly, will need to be filled?

I don’t have a sociologist’s answer to that, so I’m just shooting from the hip. One important thing that seems to be lacking for a lot of people is a sense of community and belonging.

That’s something that religion has done very well across times and places. It’s really, in some ways, the reason some atheists keep going to church and singing in the choir. There’s something transcendent to experience in being part of a group and in doing something together, like singing a song or engaging in some other kind of project. It can be done in playing on an intramural soccer team. You can get your transcendence that way.

There are too many people who are isolated and not feeling a part of a group or not having any kind of group activity that they do in concert.

[Read “Building a Faith Community Without Belief in God“]

Toward the end of God Is a Question, you talk about your faith transition. What advice would you give to somebody going through a faith transition or having a crisis of faith?

Everyone’s experience is unique, so I hesitate to speak with any authority or give general advice, but I’ll go ahead and do that anyway, I suppose. The most important thing as with any crisis is to find someone or some people with whom you can speak openly and honestly. We need other people that way.

The other thing that I would say, in particular, regarding a faith crisis, is that a person should realize a loss of faith doesn’t have to be forever. We can come back and forth. You can lose your faith and regain it. I think of the model of the Prodigal Son. If there’s a loving God, He’ll always take you back and forgive you. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. And hopefully, that’s all a loving God could ask of you anyways.

The message I would have is to be kind to yourself. It’s difficult to go through any crisis. A faith crisis is maybe among the most difficult. And we need the support of other people, not necessarily the kind of people who disagree with us or agree with us. We need people we can speak openly and honestly with. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Wherever we end up on the issue, it doesn’t need to be permanent.

Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He also hosts and produces the philosophy-centric podcast Damn the Absolute! He is a journalist and writer whose research interests center around bioregionalism, philosophical pragmatism, pluralism, and resilient communities. He lives in Southern Appalachia.

6 thoughts on “‘God Is a Question’: An Atheist’s Invitation to Intellectual Humility

  • Very insightful I liked your Comment on militant atheists but did you know that there is a new brand of militant apologetics?

    Your comment on prayer was particularly insightful, as a Buddhist myself I find your use here of the four immeasurables to be perfect these beyond personal and altruistic wishes are an amazing tool because of the compassion one can develop.

    Thank you for a great read.


    • When you mention “a new brand of militant apologetics,” to whom are you referring?

      • Good question, i understand that there is a new apologetic movement about. In apologetics a believer is tasked to defend the faith rationally and as logically as possible. With christianity this is difficult as I find christianity is rife with circular logic. Here the defense of the faith is the key factor. This new brand are still calling themselves apologetics but they are rather offensive particularly in reference to buddhism. Recently I found several apologetics propagating the “fact” that buddhists do not practice or teach love. This deviates from the original course of the apologetic movement and therefore I have labeled it as a militant apologetics. Of course my terminology is open to self interpretation, but that is what I mean.


  • As an entity “God” is hard to place IN the universe . . . as a “state of being” God is easy to place AS the universe.

    • I, for one, appreciate this more “God as experience” approach to the question. One is able to avoid getting bogged down by metaphysics and can reap many of the benefits which come from living the “religious life.”

      • I like both perspectives here, how about God is our experience of the universe?


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