Wrestling With Foam-Pillow Atheism

COMMENTARY: You can play a kind of theological whack-a-mole with the hard atheists, but you can’t with the “Yeah, whatever” atheists.

A candle separates dark from light.
A candle separates dark from light. (photo: Yuliya Yesina / Shutterstock)

I admit that I don’t know anything about the popularity of brothels. They may well be as old-fashioned as Blake Morrison thinks. “His theologising and preoccupation with sainthood now look as old-fashioned as his fondness for brothels,” he writes in The Guardian. He’s reviewing a new biography of the writer Graham Greene, who was a Catholic, but let’s say a peculiar one. 

Morrison may be right about brothels. I don’t know anyone who goes to them or even where you’d find one, but maybe he has a wider experience of life than I do. But I do know he’s wrong about theologizing and sainthood. People will always think about the deepest things and always pursue deep goodness, because that’s part of being human.

His is what I think of as “Yeah, whatever” atheism. It’s a lot more common than we realize and a lot harder to deal with.

Christian apologists love jumping on the “new atheists” and for that matter the old atheists. Those guys say with great certainty and clarity, “No one can believe that religious stuff,” and we can respond with “Yes we can, and for very good reasons.” They make arguing for the faith easy. 

Even in my secular youth, atheists annoyed me, because they were so triumphantly confident about things they couldn’t know. For all they knew, God could be working behind the scenes for reasons of his own. Or he might be working right in front of them and they either refuse or are unable to see him at work. I grew up in an academic world and knew a number of atheist academics who would find God really annoying, and their disbelief seemed self-interested.

But the “yeah, whatever” atheists, they’re a problem. You can play a kind of theological whack-a-mole with the hard atheists. You can’t with the “Yeah, whatever” atheists. All you can do is play whack-a-fog.

The English newspaper The Guardian is like our Washington Post, though farther to the left and more secular. It’s produced by people and read by people for whom Christianity is as relevant to real life as the kind of conversation you had with your favorite stuffed toy when you were 3. 

Morrison’s a good example. He seems not to believe anything religious. He doesn’t seem to see the point. He believes you can think about the deepest things if you want to, as long as you don’t expect to find anything there. 

In another review, he approves the definition of religion as wrestling “with the mystery of existence.” But he doesn’t really mean wrestle. When you wrestle, you either pin the other guy or you get pinned. 

Morrison doesn’t believe this. He believes that when you wrestle with the mystery of existence, you won’t find “any conclusive answers, because the universe remains unfathomable.” The universe, he says, is “ungetbehindable.” You can’t pin the universe, and it can’t pin you.

But like many such people, he also insists “that doesn’t invalidate the struggle to make sense of how we began, why we’re here and what (if anything) happens next.” Why struggle to do something he says we can’t do? He doesn’t really believe we should. We should, he declares, “live with uncertainty without any irritable reaching after fact.”

It’s all a mess. Wrestle and struggle, he says. But there’s no point in doing that, he says. Wrestle and struggle anyway, he says. Well, okay, don’t wrestle and struggle, he says. If I were him, I wouldn’t bother. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die. That would be my motto, were I him. All that time pointlessly wrestling and struggling is time you could be spending eating a steak, drinking a beer, and having a good time with your friends. 

That’s what “Yeah, whatever” atheism is. There’s no God to be found, but you can think about him if you want. There’s no meaning to your life that you can find, but if you feel like it, you can ponder this too. You can do either of those as long as you don’t find God or the meaning of life. Because it’s relaxed atheism, a casual unconcerned atheism, even genial atheism, but it’s still atheism.

It’s the most common kind of atheism you’re likely to run into. In your secular friends, for example. Maybe without realizing it, because it’s not obvious, like the kind of direct attacks on Christianity and religion you see in the Richard Dawkinses and Christopher Hitchenses of the world. You can argue with those guys. But arguing with the “Yeah, whatever” atheist is like boxing with a big foam pillow or a giant marshmallow. Every time you land a punch it dimples a little, but then in a few seconds the dimple pops out.

What do you do when you see that you’re engaging a “Yeah, whatever” atheist? In my experience, you don’t bother arguing, the same way you don’t box a big foam pillow. There’s no point. But the “Yeah, whatever” atheist very often has a weak spot. He cares for real goods. As Morrison’s struggle/don’t struggle confusion suggests, he’s not always very clear about what he wants. His desires can be better than his beliefs. Try to find those desires, desires only God can satisfy.

Morrison himself is an example. In the review’s very last sentence, he calls Greene’s book The End of the Affair “his masterpiece.” It tells the story of a writer who falls in love with a married woman who gives up their affair for God, and after some miracles, the writer himself becomes a believer. 

Remember that Morrison patronizes Greene’s “theologising and preoccupation with sainthood.” They’re as old-fashioned as brothels! But what is The End of the Affair, the book he acknowledges as a masterpiece, about? It’s a theologically informed story that reflects on the love of God above worldly loves, which is one way of saying sainthood.

If you find yourself talking with a “Yeah, whatever” atheist, ask him what he wants from life and what he respects and admires. Perhaps ask who his heroes are and what he thinks makes a good man, who he wants to be like. You should find, eventually, that he believes more than his atheism supports. That only gives you a starting place, but he may be open to looking for God when he realizes his casually waving God away keeps him from something he truly wants.