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Part 4: Considering Atheism

4,700 Words

This is part 4 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series is intended to tell you my story from the last few years of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in same way as before.

Part 4 looks at my reflections on Atheism as I found myself without my faith. In so doing, this blog will touch on the relationship between Atheism and Belief in the West and ask the question: how did Atheism in the West become the default?

You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab menu at the top of the screen.

(Credit to Eleanor Vivian and Miki Kwek for their proof-reading and critical feedback)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


“From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching. The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved…I thought that the Church was entirely honest in this and far less pretentious than the Manichees*, who laughed at people who took things on faith, made rash promises of scientific knowledge, and then put forward a whole system of preposterous inventions which they expected their followers to believe on trust because they could not be proved.”

-St. Augustine[1]

I’ve reached the part in my story where my faith is lost. My Christianity continues to exist but only in pretence, heartfelt but nevertheless lost. My mind is in a spin. What am I to think now? Who am I to become? A world of possibility lies before me. Do I forget religion and try to move on with my life? Do I go the whole hog and embrace Atheism? Or do I continue in greyness, sure of nothing but my uncertainty?

It was time for me to consider Atheism. I’d obviously considered the ship of Atheism many times before but that was when I was a sailor with a ship of my own, not now as I was, shipwrecked and thrashing in the water. Lost as I was, I wanted to be found, and this seemed like the obvious default. My very Folly Bridge epiphany had been “I think I’m an Atheist now” and as Part 2 describes, losing my faith had been in part due to coming to believe that the Atheistic view of the afterlife – that there was none – was indeed most likely. However, the more I thought, read, and reflected, the more I sensed that there wasn’t something entirely honest about the way Atheism as it stands in the West was being presented to me. Somewhat like Augustine with Manichaeism, though perhaps less effusively, I began to realise that if I was looking to Atheism to re-establish my certainty about the world, I was mistaken.


What do you need to believe to be an atheist? It’s a thought-provoking question for the simple fact that we’re not used to associating the word belief with atheistic schools of thought. And why should we? After all, the whole mythos surrounding contemporary atheism is that it came to replace belief. As the dawn sun of the Enlightenment cast the light rays of the scientific revolution over a world darkened by centuries of religion, science with its accompanying empiricism, as the story goes, replaced ancient dusty texts – with their talking donkeys, angelic encounters, and strange laws – as our source of knowledge. The old religious ‘certainties’ were revealed for the superstitions they were and could finally be put to bed. Humanity was finally free to realise they didn’t need to invent any God(s) for their morality, happiness, metaphysics or meaning.

The myth is eminently charming and indeed surprisingly unquestioned by contemporary sceptics given how old atheistic schools of thought actually are. Indeed, many of the theories, beliefs and values emanating from Atheists since the Enlightenment can actually be traced back millennia. In the West, Epicurus in the late 4th century BC was a Greek philosopher who was inspired by the philosophical materialism of the 5th century BC Greek thinkers, Leucippus and Democritus. He endorsed their view that the universe was made entirely of tiny atoms and void, and from this, he argued that philosophical hedonism – the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure (sometimes translated as tranquillity) – was the best way to live. He was also one of the earliest philosophers we know of to raise the Problem of Evil – if the gods are good, why is there so much suffering? Though he wasn’t actually an atheist in the strictest sense – he did believe the gods existed – Epicurus believed religion was fundamentally wrong. This was twofold: firstly because events in the natural world are explained by the movement of atoms and not the intervention of gods (who do not intervene), and secondly because the fear of divine punishment leads many people to needlessly live in fear rather than happiness.[2] Thus, Epicurus was what the 17th century essayist, Thomas Fuller, would have described as a ‘practical atheist’: not someone who ‘thinks there is no God’ but someone who ‘thinks not there is a God’ (think about that one for a minute). Indeed, the reflective among us today might recognise how the influence of Epicurus continues in the fact that if either is dying in the West, it is not God but religion – the practical manifestation of God in daily life.

However, before even Epicurus, Leucippus or Democritus, as early as perhaps the 7th century BC philosophers of Carvaka – an ancient Indian school of thought also known as ‘Lokoyata’ – had said many of the same things. Like with Epicureanism, most of their early texts have been lost to history, but with the help of quotations given in the texts of the philosophical writings of their rivals, we can piece together their thoughts. For instance, the 14th century AD scholar, Madhavacarya, recounts in the Sarvadarshansamgraha (the ‘Collection of All Philosophies’) how the name ‘Lokoyata’ signified their belief that only the material world – the ‘loka’ – exists.[3] Indeed, they believed the only ‘Heaven’ that existed was in this life on this planet and was a state where a man could live as he chose, free from the control of another (conversely ‘Hell’ was to live subject to another’s control). They also held that there was no afterlife, and that sense perception was the only source of knowledge. Like with Epicureanism, the ethical focus of Carvaka was fundamentally centred on enjoying this life while it lasts; as one saying went: “While life remains, let a man live happily; nothing is beyond death.” Finally, Carvaka taught its followers to hold religion – with its beliefs in reincarnation, karma and rituals – in suspicion, as it was nothing more than a fraudulent system devised by cunning priests to ensure their livelihood.[4]

Clearly then key elements of contemporary Atheism – philosophical materialism, disbelief in any sense of afterlife, suspicion of religious practice, and tendency for its ethics to centre on achieving happiness in this life – have long been in circulation. So why the secrecy? Well, that’s not entirely fair of me; after all, according to the Humanists UK’s website, it is common for the Epicurean refrain, “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind” to be spoken at humanist funerals. Clearly then, there are Atheistic Humanists today who rightly embrace their long and sophisticated tradition. Nevertheless, there appears – to me at least – to be a general reluctance amongst the areligious West to embrace its pre-Enlightenment forerunners. No doubt this in part due to the unfortunate historical circumstance that, as I pointed out earlier, many of these ancient texts have not survived in their original form to the present day. Furthermore, I suspect that the deeply embedded cultural myth of Progress that also came in the Enlightenment has made us moderns unwilling to recognise how little ‘progress’ there has actually been in our views about the world. However, ultimately, I think that this present amnesia is mostly because a phenomenon that prides itself on abolishing Belief does not like to dwell on times when its central axioms and tenets were exposed for what they really were – beliefs. For there is nothing factual regarding Atheism’s preeminent metaphysical claims that all that exists is material reality and that death is the end of ‘life’ in any real sense of the word. They are beliefs, and like all good beliefs, they have faded in and out of popularity in various guises over the centuries and millennia.

Now, please note that something can still be true without being factual. So please do not mistake my statements for disparagement; to state as fact that Atheistic premises are beliefs is neither to commend nor to disparage – it is simply to state what is. Those premises may be true; they may be false. But that material reality is all that exists can no more be a fact than that there is more to reality than the material.

Yet, I have heard and read many bright minds over the years speak of philosophical materialism (often known as ‘naturalism’) – the belief that only matter exists – as though it were fact. Always the reason for this is the same: science shows it to be so. And thus we discover how the West mistook its beliefs for facts. It is science, or rather a misunderstanding of science, that is to blame.

The Epistemological Revolution

“Perception indeed is the means of right knowledge. Since the means of right knowledge is to be non-secondary, it is difficult to ascertain an object by means of inference. There is no means of knowledge for determining the other world.”


The quote above is by Brihaspati, the legendary founder of the Carvaka school, and lays out in simple terms the school’s epistemology. Now, for those unfamiliar with the word, epistemology comes from the Greek word episteme which simply means ‘knowledge’, and epistemology is simply the philosophical study of how we know what we know. Like the vast majority of Atheistic philosophers that would come after, Brihaspati rooted his epistemology in empiricism, which simply means we can only know those things which we can perceive through our senses. Moreover, as you can also see from the quote, Brihaspati argued that inference – meaning ‘to make a conclusion based on reasoning or evidence’ – was a problematic source of knowledge. Later Carvaka thinkers explained what Brihaspati meant with the help of a parable. The story goes like this:

There once was a husband and wife. The husband was a materialist while the wife was a devout believer in the teachings of Brahman. The husband, frustrated that he could not convince his wife by argument of the falsity of her beliefs, came up with a ploy. When no one was watching, he went to the village crossroads and used his fingers to make markings in the dust mimicking the footprint of a wolf. When the marks were discovered, the local scholars agreed there must be a wolf. The husband then triumphantly told his wife to consider carefully the case of the Wolf’s Footprint.

The moral of the story is thus be wary of supposed ‘knowledge’ derived from inference. Yet, the story can be a little bit misleading. After all, it does seem perfectly reasonable for the local scholars, given their empirical knowledge that there are wolves in the area, to assume that the wolf print means there really is a wolf in the village! Indeed, Carvaka’s scepticism regarding inference was reserved solely for the supernatural, and the school was willing to accept that inferences drawn from empirical experience were valid. As one Carvaka verse reads, “Who will deny the validity of inference when one infers fire from smoke” – essentially, since at some earlier time we have observed for ourselves that fire produces smoke, when we see smoke it is reasonable to say we ‘know’ there is fire. Rather, Carvaka’s suspicion of inference was applied to those who inferred from sense-perception things which we could never hope to verify with those same senses – the supernatural. In Carvaka, to infer from the world of sense-perception something that is beyond our senses’ ability to detect is a gross error, whether that be an immortal soul, a life after death, or God(s). Indeed, the primary point of the Parable of the Wolf’s Footprint is that it is the ‘local scholars’, who represent the Brahmanical priests of Classical India, who are to blame for passing off their otherworldly inferences as truth. They convince the local people that they should let their lives be directed by a ‘truth’ which they can in fact only dubiously infer, and thus their misleading promises leave people squandering their lives on meaningless ritual and superstition when they could in fact just focus on enjoying their life here and now.

It’s a persuasive argument and has much to credit it. Why live your life as if there is a God or gods when you can never know – in an empirical sense – that they exist? Considering the tendency religions have to demand a substantial amount of commitment from their followers, it seems fair to suggest that too much is demanded for the sake of something we cannot empirically know. Indeed, as an example of this, look no further than the approximately 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide currently fasting for Ramadan. True religion demands your life and will not be undersold. Meanwhile, irreligiosity demands nothing.

However, Carvaka, along with Epicureanism, both ultimately failed to make significant headway in either of their respective regions. Though they both enjoyed historically brief periods of popularity and continued to occasionally pick up admirers and followers down the centuries, neither anywhere ever came to dominate the philosophical mainstream on a large scale, that is until comparatively recently. It is beyond the scope of this blog to look into the reasons why, but suffice it to say that for the most part the mainstream of philosophy in either region didn’t ever come to fully buy either their metaphysics – naturalism – or their epistemology – empiricism; that is, in the West at least, until the advent of ‘Science’.

‘Science’ is one of those terms that everyone thinks they know the meaning of until they really start thinking about it. However, it seems fair to say that in the general modern consciousness the primary characteristic people associate with ‘science’ or the ‘scientific method’ is that it is empirical. William Whewell, an early writer on the history of science in the 19th century, described the Scientific Revolution as “the transition from an implicit trust in the internal powers of man’s mind to a professed dependence upon external observation”.[5] Knowledge was no longer looked for primarily in abstract, conceptual argument, but was rather sought ‘out there’ through the observation of the physical world.

After the Scientific Revolution, empiricism finally claimed the epistemological heart of Western philosophy. Indeed, the scientific method became so firmly rooted in our epistemological consciousness that by the 19th century, it had completely rebranded. What we now call ‘science’ had always been known up until this point as ‘natural philosophy’. Prior to the 19th century, the word ‘science’, coming as it did from the Latin root scientia (meaning simply ‘knowledge’), had always been used as a synonym for knowledge or study. Yet, times had changed, and the Method which had uncovered so much in the natural world that was previously hidden, became equated with knowledge – scientia – in its totality. Why language and words change is a complex business, but for my part, I suspect that to label as mere ‘philosophy’ that which was shining such light on our enormous universe seemed an injustice to those who increasingly relied on science for their certainty and knowledge.

Thus, it was in this environment that the marriage between Atheism and Science took place. In the Western philosophical tradition, only the practical Atheism of Epicurean indifference to the god(s) had previously been possible. Yet now, the astonishing accumulation of discoveries from the Scientific Revolution onwards enabled us to doubt whether God was even required at all for our universe to function. Theoretical Atheism had finally become possible in the West. Indeed, the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 was the cherry on the cake as even the last great mystery of human life had been explained. The puzzle of the universe and existence was now solved and God was not needed for the equation. Thus, Religion became the primitive precursor to Science – the attempt of premodern humanity to try to explain the mysteries of the natural world. This superstition could now be discarded; Science, not God, explained the universe.

It was in this atmosphere that the notorious War of Science and Religion was born in the Western world. Yet this apparent War has always been a cover for something much deeper. Place two prodigious minds (or even two fairly average minds) in a debating chamber to discuss this question, and it will quickly be resolved that to speak of Science and Religion being at war is nonsensical, for they are not of the same category and exist on different plains. It is only dogmatic Fundamentalist Christians who try to turn their religion into a science, and likewise equally dogmatic New Atheists who try to turn their science into a religion. The rest of us accept that you can embrace both Science and Religion without losing either.

And yet even after this question is essentially resolved, the debate so often continues. But what in fact continues is not actually a debate between the compatibility of Science and Religion – this is already resolved. No, what actually emerges is the debate that was always taking place, just in disguise – the question of whether our worldviews should be grounded in Fact or Belief. Unlike Science and Religion, Fact and Belief do exist within the same plain. They are mutually exclusive and something cannot be both a Fact and a Belief. And in our modern world, Science is code for Fact – certainty, truth, knowledge – whilst Religion is code for Belief – uncertainty, debate, opinion. To have a worldview based on Science is to argue for a life based only on Facts – that the world is purely and simply explained by the matter we can perceive, observe and know. A Religious worldview on the other hand is to argue for the permissibility of Belief in our lives – that the world might be more than just the matter we see. And so the debaters continue their debate, finally discussing something of true substance.

It is a world divided between Fact and Belief that makes Atheism the default position of the Western mind. Because ultimately, as much as they try to avoid the crude, unpopular terminology, the Theist must always persuade the Atheist to take a leap of faith – to live a life of believing and not simply of just knowing. The Theist must persuade their Atheist counterpart that there really is more than just the material world they can see, taste and feel. And to this plea, the Non-Religious are well-versed in their reply – “where is your evidence?” The Theist sighs. It is a refrain they have often heard, and they know the argument is being lost. They present the case of miracles; the response is the placebo effect and scientific studies on the inconclusive effects of prayer. They try morality; they are met by the existence of the noble, admirable Irreligious. They give religious experience a go; emotional manipulation and chemicals on the brain. Finally, they try the cosmos itself; how quaint – don’t they realise the universe was long ago lost to Theism? Always the Theist must infer from the material something more than the material, and always the Atheist can reply that the material itself is sufficient. Thus, the Theist leaves the conversation, deflated and niggled by doubt; meanwhile the Atheist remains, comfortably assured of the certainty of their convictions.

However, as I have already said, the convictions and certainties of Atheism are in themselves no more certain or sure than their Theistic counterparts. For Atheism is a philosophy built on wilful blindness and that its adherents are blind is no more or less legitimate than that its rivals claim to be able to see.

The Epistemological Sleight of Hand

“Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding.”

-Andrew Ferguson [6]

For those unfamiliar with the classical magic trick, ‘Sleight of Hand’ is where a magician, by the skilful and speedy movement of her hands, convinces her audience that something has happened which has in fact not. It comes from the Old Norse meaning ‘to use dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive.’ In the case of contemporary Western Atheism, the sleight is all the more cunning for the fact that most, friend or foe alike, don’t even realise it has been done.

So what is the trick? To paraphrase the quote by the journalist Andrew Ferguson above, what is in fact a premise of science has been presented as a finding.

As we’ve seen, Carvaka and Epicureanism had always sought to base their worldviews in naturalism, and they found they could do so quite comfortably without the instruments of modern science. Humanity has not required any enlightenment to recognise that it can be argued we can be more certain about the existence of matter than of any invisible God(s). St. Augustine, writing not more than a couple centuries after Epicureanism had reached its height in the Roman West, remembers how he thought of God as a child: “as some great person who could listen to us and help us, even though we could not see you or hear you or touch you.” The child Augustine was no fool and later in the same passage he isn’t afraid to imply how belief in this invisible Being was weakened when so many of his prayers to avoid a beating went unanswered.[7]

However, historically, any such scepticism about the supernatural had always been tempered by a stronger scepticism about the limits of empirical perception. For instance, Plato, the very ‘Founder of Western Philosophy’, is most famous for his Theory of the Forms. The Forms have been debated and discussed ever since Plato first proposed them – indeed he himself debates their validity within the very Dialogues in which he proposes them. Nevertheless, a crucial element of what Plato seems to be proposing in the Theory of the Forms is that what is most true, valuable and precious in this life must be from beyond the world of the senses and inferred through reason. For sense perception is deceitful and limited, and only reason and inference will allow us to see that to which we are otherwise blind. Building on this, Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave posits that those who rely on their experiences of the world alone are like prisoners trapped in a cave. They observe the shadows of puppets cast by a fire on the wall of the cave, and they spend their lives trying to find patterns and guess which puppet will appear next. Little do they know that beyond the Cave their lies a green, good and pleasant world lit by sunlight. Yet, the prisoner who escapes the confines of the Cave and discovers this world, then returns to share the good news with his former prison-mates only to be laughed away – the Cave is all that exists; anyone can see that.[8]

As with the Parable of the Wolf’s footprint, the Allegory of the Cave is imperfect. After all, the freed prisoner in Plato’s analogy witnesses both the Cave and the World of the Forms beyond the Cave with the very same senses. There is nothing immaterial about the new world the prisoner discovers. However, the point of the analogy is not that we can perceive this immaterial world of the Forms with our senses – Plato is clear that the World of the Forms is known only through reason – but rather that there is reason to be doubtful about the totality of the ‘world’ revealed by the senses alone. For all we know, the certainty’s conveyed by our senses are nothing more than shadows on a Cave wall, and our certainty blinds us to the possibility of a richer world beyond.

In many ways then, the history of philosophy has been shaped by the bounds within which philosophers have allowed themselves to be sceptical. Philosophers have chosen to be sceptical about reason, religion, our sense perceptions, and indeed about existence in its entirety. Two philosophers of the 2nd century A.D. demonstrate well the different routes such scepticism might take. In the case of Sextus Empiricus, the problem of scepticism meant we could neither affirm nor deny any belief as true or false. On the other end of the spectrum was Tertullian for whom the problem of scepticism meant we must accept that true living is found by transcending the limits of knowledge and accepting belief in faith; and so he famously exclaimed about the death and resurrection of Christ: “It is certain, because it is impossible”.[9]

Modern Atheism is thus the latest fashion in a long history of scepticism, only now the scepticism is reserved for the immaterial alone. However, while the empirical Atheists of Epicureanism and Carvaka were required to make the case for empiricism in a world where Atoms could be hypothesised but never demonstrated, modern Atheists have had the trappings of modern science to boost their case. There has been no better time to make the case for a materialist universe than when the primary method for determining what we know and don’t know about reality relies on empiricism in order to do so.

Indeed, through the sciences, empiricism has yielded results for humanity that the Ancients could only dream of. Unfortunately, as Ferguson writes, “the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist”.[10] So we see how science has been used to disprove God and indeed anything immaterial, for how can something exist which we cannot quantify? Much like a Prospector using a metal-detector to prove that nothing other than metal exists in the ground, those who use the scientific method, designed as it is to discover through empirical observation material and mechanistic causes for reality, will only ever find those material and mechanistic causes. As Dr. Jordan Peterson remarks, if we ever come to a place where we can explain everything including consciousness and other realities that currently elude the scientific method, it will only be because our understanding of the ‘material’ will have significantly changed.[11]


“Only when a method is conscious of what it cannot explain, can it maintain a clear distinction between the knowledge it secures and the ideology it obeys.”[12]

-David Bentley Hart

These words by theologian, David Bentley Hart, highlight well the current sleight of hand so prominent in the West. Too many (though not all) contemporary Atheists have been unwilling to admit the limits of their method, and thus have been unable to see the ideology which makes them wilfully blind. Their desire to ground themselves in certainty and fact has made them blind to the fact that their certainty is a shadow in a Cave, and their facts are beliefs in disguise.

Yet, if Atheists are wilfully blind, then Theists wilfully see. We cannot escape the fact that our Western obsession with proving our religion or irreligion the most ‘rational’, the most ‘evidence-based’, and the most ‘logical’ is ultimately resting on whichever side the flipped coin of ‘dubious inference’ lands. For the Atheist asserts he is right in inferring from matter that there is nothing more, whilst the Theist asserts she is right in being sceptical about the claim that matter is all there is. Ultimately, neither of them can know, and where the coin lands has just as much to do with all that is gloriously irrational about ourselves as just what is rational. It is why no worldview remains simply philosophy. A worldview is always as much art, poetry, architecture and song as it is thought-through prose and argument. Worldviews attract more than they prove, and I for one found it quite beautiful recently hearing Atheist comedian, Ricky Gervais, paint a picture of the meaning that his Atheism gives him in the face of death (from 4min20sec). There is much that can be beautiful in Atheistic belief as well as in Theistic religion, and evangelism at its best in both Christianity and Atheism is not a point-scoring contest born out of insecurity but an invitation to a greater beauty.

So, I do not say all this because I want to argue for some free-for-all post-modernism where nothing is true. In my view at least, simply because we cannot know something does not mean there is no knowledge to be had about it. Truth remains true in the absence of certainty. I merely wish to inject some humility, honesty and understanding into the debate. Indeed, this is less a debate; more a glorious flower show. Amongst all the flora displayed for us to see and smell, there is a flower whose very beauty and essence is all-surpassing truth, but to say we know the flower we pick is the most true and beautiful is to somewhat miss the point.

Nonetheless, this spiritual quest for certainty and fact is nothing new. In fact, were it not for Western Christianity’s own ambitions for those very qualities, contemporary Western Atheism might never have been born.


*Manicheanism was a gnostic religion that once spanned from Rome to China. You can learn more about it here:


  1. St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, circa, 397 A.D., Translated from Latin by R.S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961

  2. Seth Eislund, ‘Was Ancient Greek Philosopher Epicurus Really an Atheist?’ in, February 25, 2018. URL:

  3. - Adapted from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translated by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough. Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner, London, 1914.

  4. Prof. Peter Adamson, Podcast: Episode 39: Indian Naturalism – the Wolf’s Footprint in ‘The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps – Indian Philosophy’, April 2, 2017. URL:

  5. Whewell, William, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 1840

  6. Andrew Ferguson, ‘The Heretic’ in The Washington Examiner, March 25, 2013. URL:

  7. St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, circa, 397 A.D., Translated from Latin by R.S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961

  8. Prof. Peter Adamson, Podcast: Episode 26: Ain’t No Sunshine – The Cave Allegory of Plato’s Republic in ‘The History of Philosophy without any Gaps’, March 27, 2011. URL:

  9. Tertullian, De Carne Christi (On the Flesh of Christ), Ch. 5 Vs. 4, Translated from Latin by Evans, 1956. URL:

  10. Andrew Ferguson, ‘The Heretic’

  11. Dr. Jordan Peterson, Podcast: Episode 4: Religion, Myth, Science, Truth in ‘The Jordan Peterson Podcast’, December 30, 2016. URL:

  12. David Bentley Hart, Lupinity, Felinity and the Limits of Method in ‘Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays’, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016

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