Why Aren't Atheists More Depressed?

Edward Feser thinks we atheists have overlooked a few things:

The mentality is summed up perfectly in the notorious “Atheist Bus Campaign” of 2009 and its preposterous slogan: “There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” As if atheism promised only sweetness and light. As if the vast majority of human beings would not find the implications of atheism -- that human existence has no purpose, that there is no postmortem reward to counterbalance the sufferings of this life, nor any hope for seeing dead loved ones again, etc. -- far more depressing than any purported deficiencies in traditional religious belief. And as if the metaphysical assumptions underlying atheism would not cast into doubt the liberal and egalitarian values upheld by most atheists no less than the more traditional moral codes of the world religions.

Atheism implies we are free to find our own purposes in life. I find that very uplifting. Depressing, by contrast, is the idea that my every word, thought, and deed is monitored for future judgment by an omnipotent and capricious God.

I like the idea of postmortem rewards and punishments to redress the injustices of life, but Christianity has strange and frightening ideas about how such things get meted out. For example, in many versions of Christianity, simply having the wrong attitude toward God's son earns you eternal damnation, regardless of your experiences or behavior in life. It is unclear what eternal damnation entails, but it is sometimes analogized to swimming in a lake of fire. That seems excessive. Compared to that conception of the afterlife, eternal sleep sounds pretty good.

As for not seeing dead loved ones again, yeah, that's a bummer. Personally, though, I think that it is precisely the finitude of life that gives it meaning and savor. It is the knowledge that it will end that impels you to live life to the fullest and to not take the people in your life for granted.

More could be said, of course, but that's not really the point of this post. It's that part about atheism and liberalism that I want to look at.

Most of the Feser's post is a string of quotations from Nietzsche in which he holds forth on the frightening consequences of atheism. Feser endorses these quotes, and uses them as a cudgel against atheists who, inexplicably in his view, don't seem excessively depressed or nihilistic. Feser writes:

Consequently, a culture that doubts its religion comes to doubt itself and its own legitimacy. And a culture that repudiates that religion is, in effect, committing a kind of cultural suicide. The moral and social order to which the religion gave rise cannot survive its disappearance. The trouble, in Nietzsche's view, is that too few see what this entails:

Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event [the death of God] really means -- and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality. (The Gay Science, p. 279)

The New Atheist, upon hearing this, may shrug, thinking only of the heady prospect of guilt-free porn surfing, transvestite bathroom access, rectal coitus, and the other strange obsessions of the modern liberal mind. But Nietzsche had somewhat higher ends in view. By “the whole of our European morality,” he was not talking merely or even primarily about the rules of traditional sexual ethics against which the modern liberal has such a weird animus (and which are not unique to Christianity or Europe in any event). He was talking about everything that has counted as morality in European culture, including the values modern egalitarian liberals still prize, and which Kant, Mill, and other modern ethicists of whom Nietzsche is harshly critical tried to give a secular foundation.

Charming. First of all, transvestite and transgender are not the same thing. More to the point, however, the modern liberal mind is obsessed with ensuring basic fairness and social justice for people who don't fit some arbitrary religious conception of sex and gender. In this we differ from conservatives, who are instead obsessed with what other folks are doing in their bedrooms. Given the opportunity, they would happily legislate who you can do it with, the positions you are allowed to assume, and the social circumstances under which you can do it.

Liberals have healthier obsessions.

Later, Feser holds forth on egalitarianism:

Now, about this notion of the equal worth of all human beings, Nietzsche makes two main points. First, it loses all intellectual foundation with the demise of Christianity. He writes, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

[T]hus blinks the mob -- “ there are no higher men, we are all equal, man is man; before God we are all equal.”

Before God! But now this god has died. And before the mob we do not want to be equal. (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 398)

And in Twilight of the Idols:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands... Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent... it stands and falls with faith in God. (The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 515-16)

This collapse of any reason to believe in the basic moral equality of all human beings is among the repercussions of the “death” of the Christian God that Nietzsche thinks European civilization has yet to face up to. Modern secular moralists presuppose this egalitarianism but they have no rational grounds for doing so. It is merely a prejudice they have inherited and refuse to question despite their rejection of its traditional basis...

Trying to look at this from Feser's perspective, it's hard to fathom what he thinks is going on. As he himself admits, we liberal atheist types are generally all in favor of egalitarianism, and, sexual questions aside, mostly have no trouble figuring out right from wrong. How does he think we do it? Isn't it interesting that even after losing all rational foundation (in his view) for morality, somehow we still manage to get it right? What a strange coincidence that is! It's as though we just guessed on every question of a multiple choice test, yet somehow managed to get close to a perfect score. Remarkable!

According to Feser, if you base your morality on fundamental and near-universal intuitions about fairness and decency, coupled with such insight as science can provide, then you have no rational basis for your moral beliefs. You are adrift in a sea of relativism and subjective preference. By contrast, if you arrive at precisely the same conclusions because you believe you have accurately interpreted an infallible revelation from God, then you're on solid ground. You have objective morality, and can now hold forth with confidence on even the thorniest moral questions.

This is not a reasonable way of looking at things.

But this is not the weakest part of Feser's argument. That honor goes to Feser's preference for armchair philosophy. He is constantly telling us (or is quoting Nietzsche telling us) about the dire consequences that ensue when we abandon Christianity as the basis of morality. His long post is just assertion after melodramatic assertion to that effect. He seems not to appreciate, however, that the experiment has been done.

We do not need to speculate about what happens when a society freely loses its religious faith, since we have several modern societies to consider. The Scandinavian countries are majority atheist and agnostic, yet somehow manage to be among the most decent and socially conscious in the world. In several other European countries, the Church has lost most of its power as a social force, yet these countries have likewise managed to avoid the plunge into nihilism and debauchery. I guess it's just dumb luck that they haven't noticed the dire consequences of leaving Christianity behind.

We can look at this from the other side, too. What happens when we hand over the government to, say, the Roman Catholic Church? We've done that experiment too. For more than a thousand years the Church had the chance to show us what a just and moral regime looks like. Did they take advantage of this opportunity? Was their rule marked by a notable concern for egalitarianism, fairness, and justice? Sadly, no. They mostly spent their time justifying the enslavement of non-Christians, torturing and imprisoning heretics, and enforcing the boundaries of acceptable thought.

It was not until the Church started to lose its power, and secular philosophies became common, that governments started to value social equality and justice. In other words, both history and modern society reveal the exact opposite of what Feser (and apparently Nietszche) have told us to expect.

When the dictates of armchair theorizing run afoul of actual facts, it is the theorizing that must yield. In this case, it is not hard to find the error. Religion is not, and never has been, the actual source of people's morality. The reality is that everyone bases their morality on those intuitions that Feser finds so arbitrary. People start out with a strong sense of right and wrong and then look for reasons to justify their beliefs. Some find religion to be a convenient crutch in that regard, but that does not reflect poorly on those of us who don't.


More like this

Can any prospect be more depressing than to be Ed Feser, 5th rate philosopher stuck teaching at 6th rate school?

By Minus Question (not verified) on 13 Jun 2016 #permalink

Ugh. I have tried to read Feser before, on 'classical theism' and Euthyphro. I like to think that reading him is the closest I can get to the feeling of observing bizarre extraterrestrials who use a logic and systems of ethics totally at variance with those humans are used to. The quotes in the above post are no different; it is through the looking glass stuff.

And whoa, Feser's idea that porn, transgender bathroom access and anal intercourse are leftist obsessions would make a superb illustration for the entry on psychological projection in an encyclopedia.

Those Nietzsche quotes seem reasonably accurate to me, its just that the conclusions Feser draws from them are all wrong. For the first, it appears Nietzsche was right when he opined that nobody understood the consequences of losing religion - because they were much less dire than predicted, even by Nietzsche. As you say Jason, we've actually done the experiment - and when the world doesn't match your theory, it is time to change your theory.

For the second and third, yes its clear that if your (or society's) basis for morality is theology and the theology disappears, your basis for morality is gone. Fortunately, philosophers and ethicists have been coming up with non-theological bases for morality for, oh, 2-3,000 years now. And "the mob doesn't want to be equal" is exactly why we, as a society, pay for things like police forces and government. They wouldn't be necessary if a lignting bolt hit you every time you sinned. But that doesn't happen, so we have to regulate each other. And we do. The existence of people with no moral foundation doesn't bring about the collapse of society, its something human societies have grappled with since we started having societies.

Feser: "...the liberal activist who glibly appeals to the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as if it were something other than a set of sheer assertions floating in midair,..."

And how is this different from appeals to scripture, or whatever other source of supposed moral truth that a theist may appeal to? What Feser fails to see is that theist moral realists are in the same untenable position as atheist moral realists. The main difference is that atheists are rather more likely to question their intuitions, and abandon moral realism.

By Richard Wein (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

How anybody can find consolation in the idea of being reunited with deceased loved ones after one's own death is a complete mystery to me. Some years ago, the fellow who had been my best friend for 28 years--pretty much my entire adult life--died of brain cancer. I still feel the loss of him every day. I cannot conceive how I am supposed to find consolation in the fantasy of finding him again when we are both leading some disembodied post-mortem existence, even setting aside the question of how any adult of normal intelligence take such a fantasy seriously. I grieve the loss of my friend because I no longer have him *in my life*. The thought of getting him back when my life has run out is to me about as paltry a false consolation as I can think of.

By Miles Rind (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

I base equality on the fact that we are all equally the result of a blind material process - the irrational exuberance of the universe.
This undermines any metaphysical basis for justifying inequality other than might makes right. Thankfully, we've evolved to value cooperation...some of us.

I found it interesting that Feser left out Nietzsche's view that Christianity's obsession with truth would someday be the very thing that would undermine Christianity because human's would one day discover through their quest for truth that Christianity is not true.

"I base equality on the fact that we are all equally the result of a blind material process – the irrational exuberance of the universe."

I'm gonna have to borrow that; it's quite good.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

Well, except that that reasoning applies to cockroaches and kittens as much as humans. So it doesn't really answer the question as to why we don't accord kittens or cockroaches the same legal rights as humans.

That's easy: because we're not perfect and we are mortal.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

This gets so tedious it's hard to summon the energy to review this nonsense for the hundredth time. So here's another tack: after Quite and Wittgenstein it's hard to imagine why anyone would use "foundation" as a tenable epistemological metaphor. It smuggles in all kinds of assumptions about what depends on what and why without having to argue them. Beliefs form mutually reinforcing and heterarchic networks, and the loss of one or two nodes in the network does not always have predictable logical results, even if those nodes seemed central and indispensable before.

By Another Matt (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

It depends on the society. Jainists would be an example of a group who does. There is a move in some western countries to accord primates legal rights. We also have laws protecting animals ( E.g., in the Hebrew bible ). We are omnivores after all. At some point in social & technological evolution - once we can grow edible tasty proteins in labs - we may be able to accord animals legal rights...maybe even plants :-)

"The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must."

The worst predictions of Nietzsche, based on what human nature is like, come true on occasion (tyrants), but it doesn't need to be that way. I think the reason is partly empathy, but also perhaps a utilitarian calculation: sure it's great to have lots of power and wealth, but that requires keeping some of the people underprivileged, which is actually a constant hassle, and you gotta watch your back, and wonder why they aren't killing you. Nietzsche never seems to think about that part of the loss function (you may call it the objective function).

I must admit that when people quote Nietzsche (or any other philosopher) at me, my response is usually something like, “Yeah, so?” Nietzsche was a mere mortal; nothing is true because Nietzsche said so; and much that he said can be disputed. Rational people do not accept Proof from Authority, correct?

So I guess I don’t know why anyone spends much time defending or explaining Nietzsche. I only care about what is true or not, and that is independent of Nietzsche’s standing; he is/was no Authority.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

Mr. Rosenhouse,

While I agree with just about every sentiment and point you make, there is one that is simply NOT true... at least not entirely,

"First of all, transvestite and transgender are not the same thing."

Before I get my head chewed off, I should share that I am myself transsexual, having transistioned MTF as a teenager over 40 years ago. I know what I'm talking about.

"transvestite" in the sense of a heterosexual cross-dresser is a manifestation of a larger phenomena called "autogynephilia". Autogynephilia is also the core driving force, the etiology of most MTF "transgender" people in the Western nations. Most MTF transsexuals would have at one point in their past have been accurately described as "transvestites", heterosexual cross-dressers who experience sexual arousal upon wearing clothing socially prescribed for women.

This is in stark contrast to another, completely unrelated, group that is popularly conflated with such autogynephilic "transgendered" MTF folks. This other group is exclusively androphilic and gender atypical since birth. In the Western Nations, they are a minority, but in the non-Western nations they are THE majority of "transgendered" people.

In FtM folk, the vast majority are also exclusively gynephilic and gender atypical since birth, in both Western and non-Western societies.

I hope this has cleared up any confusion. For further explication please refer to my own science blog, "On the Science of Changing Sex", most especially, my FAQ:


By Kay Brown (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

"We’ve done that experiment too."
We look at the far past? Why not look at the 20st Century? Ireland, Poland, Italy, Spain when dictator Franco was in charge (until 1975) and Portugal lead by Salazar and Caetano (until 1974) all enjoyed the RCC strongly participating in government. The latter two shook it off when they became democracies; the first three still face the problem of catholic intervention.
Me: rather not.

#1 MQ: Yes - sharing eternitiy in the company of guys like Feser after I die is even more depressing.

It would be nice to meet grandma again and tell her how much I loved her as a child. But after that, we probably wouldn't have much to talk about. For eternity. In a place where nothing really happens. Strangely enough, nobody returns from near-death experiences with tales of awkward, mind-numbing family reunions that will last forever.

@19: well, there are many ghost stories where the ghost warns the living of some doom and tries to get them to avoid it. Maybe now we know why they don't want us to join them.

Personally, I wonder why more Christians aren't depressed at the thought of all their nonbeliever friends and loved ones going to hell. I would be. But then again, maybe there is a form of self-selection going on here: everyone weighs the psychological stress of their own non-existence vs. other people in hell. If the former depresses you more, you stay/become theist, if the latter depresses you more, you stay/become a nonbeliever. Thus whichever group you end up in, the other group seems weirdly irrational to you, because you selected for the belief that left you more psychologically comfortable.

@20: The question to ask devoted theistic friends isn't why do you fear death (your own or a loved one) or why do you wear a seatbelt, or just generally avoid death, considering it's supposed to bring eternal bliss? Those questions are all dodgeable. (While death may not be fearsome, the process of dying certainly is).

The correct question to ask is: why do you cry at funerals? Why wear black if it isn't a sad occation? Shouldn't you feel happy as f*ck that your loved one is dead?

@21: that's just as dodgeable. Parents cry when their kids go off to college, it doesn't mean they think Universities are horrible places. A loved one can be going to a wonderful place and you may still cry about it, if it means you'll be parted from them in a way you don't want to be. Though in today's generation of instant messaging and Skype and Facetime, that argument may not make much sense to young folk. :).

@17: You can add Russia to the list with the Russian Orthodox Church becoming the sanctioned as the state religion. There are a litany of abuses already.

Yes, it would be nice if we had some wise authority to define right and wrong, and to pray to for 'traveling mercies' before long trips and to cure our cancers, and who not only made this whole universe on our behalf, but two others as well to reward and punish us (the Christian multiverse). But once you understand how big the universe is, how unresponsive it is to our wills and wishes, and how much people tend to lie and exaggerate, then all that seems rather ridiculous; and once you have gone there, you aren't going back, barring some mental malfunction or actual miracle. Show me the miracle. (Better yet, show the Amazing Randi and win his million dollar prize--warning, it will have to be done under rigorous, controlled conditions, to eliminate random chance and chicanery.)

Well Eric, I've never had any kids to send to college (46 and infertile; genetic sperm shit), but I assume it's quite different from sending someone to the grave. But perhaps we're getting off-topic.

P.S. As to how we manage to go on, without a Sky Father, the answer, as usual, probably involves evolution. Our genes want us to survive as long as possible on the off-chance that we might have another chance to pass them along, or to help a descendant copy of them have that opportunity (for poetic-licensed usage of 'want').

seam samis @15:

Ah, but you don't understand Feser's kind of reasoning. His modus operandi is always "Aquinas said X, thus X", or "the scholastics argued X, thus X", or "I wrote X in one of my books, which you should buy, thus X", QED. This is just another instance of the same kind of argumentation.

... the implications of atheism — that human existence has no purpose...

The implication that we all exist to follow orders and obey Higher Powers in turn implies a deep difference in the respective psychologies of believers and freethinkers - one that, if rigorously confirmed, would lead me to propose that all freedom-loving nations should deny believers the right to vote.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink


According to Aquinas and some of the other 'fathers', one of the joys of heaven is seeing unbelievers frying their asses off in hell. Good times.

All of you here know Brownian motion and no matter how small the interval, a line is crossed an infinite amount of time...which leads to this thought. Think about eternity.
It means eventually doing the same things over and over again an infinite number of times, having the same conversations with the same people an infinite number of times, having sex with everyone who ever lived or ever will live an infinite number of times. It sounds a bit boring. As Jason pointed out, give me finitude. It makes things worthwhile.

Re. #27; I do understand. I guess I don't understand why folks on this thread defend or explain Nietzsche; it does not matter if Nietzsche was right or wrong. Considering how long ago he wrote, it should not be surprising if his ideas have been overtaken by events.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 15 Jun 2016 #permalink

that there is no postmortem reward to counterbalance the sufferings of this life

Maybe Feser would find Buddhism to his liking, as most sects attempt to deal directly with the problem of suffering in this life. (Reincarnation is a rationalization on the same level as his "postmortem reward".)

sean samis,

Ha, I was mostly taking an opportunity to complain about Feser's style of argumentation. But what you write brings to my mind a more general observation. It feels to me as if many of the philosophers I have read a bit have an older philosopher or a school that they follow: Pigliucci has Stoicism, Dan Fincke has Nietzsche, Feser has Aquinas...

There is some authoritarian logic going on here that I as a scientist find a bit weird. (That being said, I have also read contributions from a small minority school of systematists who like to do a lot of argumentum ad Darwin exegesis, as if his views on systematics are what counts in the 21st century.)

Alex SL;

Yeah, I was considering graduate work in philosophy until I started reading contemporary philosophy. It appears to be mostly arguing about what some other philosopher said or meant. As if physics were nothing more than parsing the words of Newton. A waste.

I wanted to work on tangible topics, not to kvetch about what some other person may have meant; so I gave up on it.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

@33: In fairness, early year grad students in the sciences often resent or get tired of hearing their professor utter the 'did you look up what else has been published on this?' mantra. Its kind of the same concept - we argue about what past experts said too. With one big difference, of course; in this analogy, "what they said" for the young scientist means "in the experiment they did" not "in the words they opined."

eric @34

That one big difference (“ ‘what they said’ for the young scientist means ‘in the experiment they did’ ”) is the whole game. In philosophy it seems “what they said” is all about their opinion, often treated as Gospel by adherents and Heresy by others.

I think this is the reason that in times of crisis these days, we look to the news-comedians for words of wisdom and consolation, not to philosophers. I’d rather hear the opinions of the average uber-driver about Orlando than most philosophers.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

It's always what they reveal about themselves that is the most interesting (their "philosophy" is nonsense and completely uninteresting).
Apparently, their urge to do immoral things is so strong they have to cling to an irrational belief in supernatural punishment in order to avoid their urges.
They are so self-centred that they cannot accept the thought of their existence being temporally finite and so have to cling to an irrational belief in order to deny reality.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

Apparently, their urge to do immoral things is so strong they have to cling to an irrational belief in supernatural punishment in order to avoid their urges.

I really dislike this generalization. In point of fact nearly all of us, regardless of religious belief have an attribution bias where we think coercion is needed to keep other people behaving well, but not ourselves. A religious person expressing that they don't need God's judgment to say moral but other people do is no different from an atheist saying they don't need a police force to prevent them from raping people but other people do.

So let's stop using this whole 'the only people who think a [religious or secular; doesn't matter] justice system is necessary are those who would break it' meme, mmkay?

I’ve known a lot of religious people in my life, I’ve never met one who said that they didn’t need God’s judgement to stay moral.

So I think those who make such claims are not representative if the religious people I know; I doubt they are more than a minority.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 17 Jun 2016 #permalink


#1 MQ: Yes – sharing eternitiy in the company of guys like Feser after I die is even more depressing.

I've always admired Hatuey, a cacique of the Taino people of Hispaniola, who in the early 16th century led a rebellion against the Spanish invaders of his land. Eventually he was captured and burned at the stake. Before he was burned, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. According to Bartolomé de Las Casas:

[Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes... The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people.
By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 17 Jun 2016 #permalink

"I really dislike this generalization. In point of fact nearly all of us, regardless of religious belief have an attribution bias where we think coercion is needed to keep other people behaving well, but not ourselves."

Irrelevant. Knowledge of a secular authority is entirely separate to a belief in a sky-fairy.

Believing that a secular authority will punish you if you do bad things is rational.
Believing that other people need to share your sky-fairy beliefs in order to avoid doing bad things is laughably irrational.

Somehow - atheists are a vanishingly small minority of the prison population.


Could it be that a belief in what is real is more effective at guranteeing morality than a belief in what is unreal?

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 19 Jun 2016 #permalink

@40: my comment was completely relevant to your claim (that religious people cling to God to stop themselves from behaving badly). Correct, it is not relevant to the factual question of whether God exists, but that wasn't the comment of yours I think is wrong.

Feser should be very depressed that invisible pink unicorns don't exist. Because unicorns are cool! But Feser doesn't, and never has, taken the possibility of unicorns seriously, so if I told him I was going to take away his invisible pink unicorn I don't think he would get very upset about it at all.

Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps Feser would cling tightly to his invisible pink unicorn, and tell me that I could pry it from his cold dead hands... but i doubt it.

By Bayesian Bouff… (not verified) on 20 Jun 2016 #permalink

Writing like this makes me wonder why there are some atheists who regard Feser as someone to be reckoned with.

By musical beef (not verified) on 21 Jun 2016 #permalink

"Why Aren’t Atheists More Depressed?"

Because ignorance is bliss.

Ah, ignorance of what, though? Ignorance of the depths of depravity that faith justifies in otherwise decent human beings?

Because if it's "ignorance of the One True God", then why aren't 99-100% of the earth's population likewise no more depressed?

"Feser should be very depressed that invisible pink unicorns don’t exist. "

Heck, how depressed must he be that there is no Santa Clause???

But maybe it's just that such people HATE Santa and therefore refuse to believe He exists and wish to force children to stop believing in Santa, therefore refuse to let there be a classroom class for Santa Clause studies.

After all, if they really didn't believe that there WAS a Santa, why are they so dead set against there being a Santa Studies course???

"You’re simply begging the question"

Yes, begging the question "What hypothesis of supernatural are you talking about" be answered.

Try answering it.