Why Everyone is Religious, Including Atheists
It can be good to examine our basic assumptions about life (however terrifying it might seem.)
Everyone is religious, including atheists.
This might seem like a strange thing to say.
“Religious” people, we often think, attend certain services, read certain books, believe certain things about what happens after death, and so on. In this sense, some people are religious, and others clearly aren’t. The differences are, at least sometimes, quite stark.
Another idea soon follows on the heels of this: that some people are rational and scientific, and others aren’t. Some believe in reason, in other words, while others live by “faith.” The eventual divide is between the “rational” and the “irrational.”
But these views deserve some scrutiny.
It seems that if we clarify a few terms and examine some relatively straightforward dynamics, the conclusion that everyone is religious – even atheists – can become relatively clear.
In a nutshell:
1) We all face The Big Questions of life, or core existential riddles.
2) Our answers to these Big Questions form the foundation of our core ideas about life (or “life philosophy,” worldview, core belief system, personal narrative, etc.)
3) These core ideas are “axioms,” or basic assumptions about life. (Or more accurately: they’re either axioms themselves, or they depend on prior axioms.) An axiom is essentially “that which cannot be proven.”
4) We live our lives based on these “axioms.”
5) To base one’s life on “that which cannot be proven” is to be “religious.”
Let’s briefly unpack each of these.
We all face “The Big Questions” of life.
Who am I? What is this place, the universe? How should I live? What’s the point? How do I know? What should I give my life to? What the heck is going on?
These aren't questions we only as when we're feeling deep. They're questions that, in a way, we've already been asked, and have already answered - perhaps unconsciously. These questions are like riddles that we’re “asked” by some sort of inner Sphinx. Each of us stands before the “Sphinx” of life itself, and answer the riddles it puts to us. We can’t not answer those riddles. Even deciding not to answer is a form of an answer.
We don’t necessarily answer these existential riddles verbally, or even consciously. We “answer” them with how we live. We might never put our answers into words. But our actions reveal them. We might decide, for example, to spend our lives working to earn billions, feeding the homeless, or partying as hard as possible. These decisions, whatever they might be, reveal our underlying beliefs. These underlying beliefs take positions on what the universe is, why we’re here, what’s worth doing, and so on.
Our answers to these Big Questions are “axioms,” or basic assumptions. (Or more accurately: they’re either axioms themselves, or they rest on top of deeper, underlying axioms.)
Every system – mathematical, philosophical, scientific, or in this case, existential – depends on axioms. (These are also referred to as “first principles,” “basic beliefs,” “premises,” “self-supporting statements,” “a priori beliefs,” “presuppositions,” etc.)
Axioms, in this sense, are starting points.
They’re basic building blocks. They’re foundational. Without them, we can’t get started. So, they’re “assumed” as self-evident.
They aren’t unconscious, necessarily (although sometimes we aren’t aware of them.) They aren’t immune to examination. But they can’t be proven logically. Proofs require prior premises. These premises are pre-logic and pre-rational. An axiom isn’t a result or conclusion from earlier reasoning, but is what’s needed to get the reasoning process going. They can’t be measured with yardsticks. They’re the yardsticks we measure other ideas by.
Even our simplest plans typically rest on piles of prior assumptions. If I want to eat ice cream tonight, this plan assumes several things: that I’ll have money for ice cream, for example, or that I’ll still have a taste for it, or that my mouth will work. Or to push deeper, it assumes that I’ll have a degree of control over my life, that my body will still be functioning, and that I’ll still be alive. And so on.
We can retreat further back to more basic, increasingly “obvious” assumptions. When we trace the trails all the way to a genuine axiom, we eventually arrive at a point where we just can’t go any further. We reach bottom. It’s a place that seems so obvious we can only say it’s “self-evident.” When we reach this point, we can say we’ve reached a personal “axiom.”
Where do these axioms come from?
In a word, they’re assumed.
But where do these assumptions come from? When discussing how we would look for a new scientific law, Richard Feynman said, “First, we guess it.” But where does the “guess” come from? We seem to just “leap to them.” Sometimes they’re based on our concrete experience of life, as in a biographical event. Sometimes not: we “just know” certain things. Either way, this points to a basic intuitive process that takes place before reasoning, experimentation, and analysis kick in. Before we can test a hypothesis, we need to formulate one. Reason can only work when it’s first supplied with materials to reason about.
This might be part of what Einstein was referring to when he said that “imagination is more important than knowledge." Our most basic ideas that form the premises of our lives, before reasoning or analysis, come from “imagination,” “intuition,” or some “mysterious unknown” within us out of which things seemingly appear out of nowhere.
These aren’t insignificant. They determine what we give our lives to.
What’s another word for this? “Religion.”
Clearly, a lot hinges on the definition of the word “religion.”
While some define it strictly as a matter of certain types of beliefs, behaviors, and so on, others are increasingly using the word differently. In this sense, “religion” can be defined as a set of axioms we use to answer The Big Questions of life.
If we apply this to our lives, then it means we all base our lives on ideas that can’t be proven.
Or, to phrase it in a slightly different way: we’re all religious.
Some, of course, would disagree with this line of thinking. They maintain, for example, that the best course of action is to “have no assumptions.” But the idea that “having no assumptions is a good thing” is itself an assumption. Others might decide that the best route to truth is through a system of radical doubt, or through questioning all assumptions. Both of these are also assumptions. Similar “who’s on first” dynamics can kick in when pursuing these matters.
But does this hold, even for atheists?
We can define “atheism” loosely as “those who want nothing whatsoever to do with conventional religion.” They often see themselves as either rational/scientific, or nihilistic, depending on whether they proceed along the rationalist or irrationalist routes.
Rationalistic atheists often assume that the world is composed of hard, physical, material stuff. The best way to understand it, then, is by way of rigorous empiricism, observation and experimentation – essentially, reason and science. And of course, reason and science can be wonderful things. They’re often the best possible courses for medical treatments or space exploration, for example.
Yet the idea that “truth is empirical” contradicts itself. “Truth can only be discovered empirically” is a philosophical statement. We see clouds and trees, but not “truth.”
It’s also unverifiable.
The idea that “truth is empirical” assumes that the essential knowledge of life comes solely from empirical observation and testing.
In other words, it's the "street level" view of knowledge. We only know what we experience directly. From there, it’s just how carefully we examine it (eg scientifically), or not.)
If we assume this, then we’ll naturally ignore or dismiss anything that doesn’t fit within those parameters. If something important falls beyond the reach of empirical observation and testing, then, we’d wind up ignoring or dismissing it. And if that would happen, we’d probably never know it. It’s like a man who is tone-deaf declaring that there’s no such thing as pitch (because after all, he can’t hear it.) Or perhaps more accurately, it’s like deciding that a certain man is a liar. Anything he says in his defense comes from a “liar,” so we can safely ignore him. At that point, we’ve enclosed ourselves within a circular, self-verifying, closed system. We imagine we’re seeing the whole while only seeing a part. “The important stuff is within this circle. Whatever is outside the circle isn’t important. I can see everything within the circle. Therefore, I know all the important stuff.” Meanwhile, something critical might lie outside the circle, undiscovered. This might include, perhaps, knowledge of better ways to draw circles.
There are plenty of other assumptions baked in to this approach. There’s the idea that it’s possible for a scientist to achieve a completely detached viewpoint from which to observe facts with absolute objectivity (a “view from nowhere,” as Thomas Nagel might say.) There’s an idea that there are “facts” that exist without needing to be “interpreted.” There’s an idea that mere raw facts can be interpreted without a framework of “values.” And so on. All of this underlies one overall approach.
Then there’s the opposite approach.
Opposing the “everything is physical” axiom is this idea: “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (St. Exupery) This perspective rings intuitively true for many of us (or, it seems obvious, or axiomatic), especially in regards to certain “intangibles” that can’t be measured such as “love,” “truth,” and “beauty.” Hollywood gambles millions of dollars on intangibles like “star power.” Economies boom or crash base on sentiments like “confidence.” Companies and boat captains thrive or wither based on “morale.” Governments rise or fall based on “trust.” And so on.
And if this “reign of the essential invisible” is true, anyone who restricts themselves solely to “what the eye can see” will miss the essential.
The above explores just one thread of this approach and ignores scores of others. The general thrust, though, is that there is no “neutral ground” in these matters that’s “above the fray.” The idea that “they base their lives on unproven assumptions, but I don’t,” is mistaken.
We have to give our lives to something. Our existential allegiance might be to art, science, a love of family, various causes, various pleasures, and so on – things that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with traditional religions such as Christianity or Buddhism. But a clear dividing line between “faith” defined as “my worldview is based on unprovable assumptions” and “reason” defined as “my worldview isn’t based on unprovable assumptions,” seems illusory.
So, where does this leave us?
Does it mean we’re all “irrational”? Is each of isolated in our own private Matrix pods, spinning in a relativistic whirlwind?
Hardly. While this line of thinking can be abused, the result can also lead us in exactly the opposite direction. Nothing here negates reason or science. It merely clarifies their roles. This can help us tune in more to reality as opposed to distancing ourselves farther from it. It can also help us understand each other more instead of dividing us further.
Our personal axioms are sometimes unconscious. In some cases, we’re hardly aware of them ourselves. Someone might be a dogmatic materialist without knowing it. Sometimes there’s a “curse of knowledge,” where we’re so close to something that we can’t see it clearly.
As we journey through life, we typically assume certain ideas and proceed from there, without ever stopping to examine those initial starting points.
Life comes fast, and thinking is hard.
As a result, we can spend entire chapters of our lives based on false assumptions that we’ve never paused to examine. This means we can easily spend decades of our lives based on the decisions of a teenager.
Of course, subjecting our beliefs to even mild scrutiny can be a terrifying experience. Our very selves seem to be at stake. That’s why many of us avoid it whenever possible. A worldview being questioned – or destroyed – is the stuff existential crises are made of.
Yet scary or not, sometimes our personal axioms truly are either mistaken or toxic. Many of our dumbest moments can be traced not to faulty reasoning, but to bad ideas that never passed the inspection of reason at all. They hardly even got a glance.
But questioning unexamined assumptions can prevent a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
In some cases, hard thinking isn’t even necessary. Basic, rudimentary awareness is all the medicine we need.
Here is where our axioms - our most basic assumptions about life - can - and often should - be examined.
This can be done in a way that looks like a demolition, or in a way respectful, constructive, and with full awareness of the fragility of the process. If my fundamental axiom of life is that “heroin is the easy road to happiness,” there might be an immense benefit in uncovering it, questioning it, and upgrading it. This basic method resembles a form of self-help that we’ve practiced for thousands of years, because it works.
This approach can also help us communicate more clearly, to a profound degree. If I secretly harbor an axiom that “everyone is out to get me,” my paranoid behavior suddenly becomes entirely reasonable, and understandable. If I’m granted that initial assumption, I can transform from seemingly nonsensical to sympathetic. When my behavior seems entirely incomprehensible, we often resort to our fallback explanations: that someone is irrational, dumb, or evil.
Similarly, two individuals sometimes enter a conversation with wildly different networks of axioms, or worldviews. They might agree on the same set of facts, but disagree starkly on how to interpret those facts.
The different interpretations reflect different underlying worldviews. It’s easy to come away from conversations like these having decided that the other is either irrational, dumb, or evil. Yet the discussion often takes place on the most superficial level: it’s about the facts. But the real disagreement lies much deeper, within the level of worldviews. Avoiding those deeper levels - sticking to the safer shallows - leaves little hope for genuinely resolving those that are more superficial. These misunderstandings get amplified exponentially when underlying axioms are unspoken and unconscious.
Discussing “religion" way shouldn't be an afterthought.
It's not a late-night bull session that goes nowhere.
It's a necessity.
Genuine “religious tolerance” along these lines, then, involves effort in two directions.
One is toward a degree of respect for the axioms that lie at the foundation of others’ belief systems. The other is an openness toward a good-faith effort to uncover these axioms, question them, examine them, and in some cases, upgrade them. Just because they appear self-evident to one person doesn’t mean they’re true. Similarly, just because they’re “religious” in a way doesn’t mean they’re necessarily sacred, and therefore entirely off-limits.
All of this can be a profoundly fruitful endeavor. It points toward a new frontier of exploration – a “study of the obvious,” or “assumptionology.” This matter is often ignored as it hides in plain sight. Perhaps, it seems, too plain.
There’s a vast and rich terrain to explore in all this. We often assume that the answers we’re seeking are “out there” somewhere. But we might discover that, in fact, they’re hidden in the ground we’re standing on. And they can be found by digging.