The best book defending atheism isn’t great

The best book defending atheism isn’t great.

I keep looking for a good book defending atheism.  It’s not easy.  Jon Mills’ Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of Secular Spirituality is better than Grayling’s book, about which I posted a while back, but it’s not great.

Mills tries to do three things.  First, to demonstrate that God does not exist.  In this he joins a long line of aggressive atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens (2007), Sam Harris (2004), and Richard Dawkins (2006).  Mills says he is not a “vociferous atheist,” but he could have fooled me with his remarks about “the believing masses [who] cannot accept the fact that we are ultimately alone.” (p 104) 

The third thing Mills tries to do is construct a defense of a humanistic spirituality.  He says a lot of good things about finding “intrinsic worth and meaning in living our lives for the present” (p 228), but the foundation of this claim was laid down by Camus and Sartre, and I don’t see where Mills adds a great deal to this argument.  In Mills’ defense, it should be pointed out that this is not a book aimed at an academic audience, but to an educated public.  Or at least that’s the way I read it.

The second thing Mills tries to do is construct a psychoanalytic argument explaining the need for God.  He begins with Freud (1930), who argued that God is an infantile delusion of an enormously powerful father figure.  I turn to another psychoanalyst to find a different way of thinking about God.  I’ve posted about D. W. Winnicott before. 

In the beginning

God, Mills argues, is only a thought.  Rather than being an ontological subject or supreme being responsible for the coming into being of the universe, God is “merely a psychological creation signifying ultimate ideality.” (p 1)

In response one wants to say of course God is only a thought.  What else could he be as far as humans are concerned?  An experience certainly, but one we help to create.  Wrap a good story around an ultimate ideality and you have both God and a religion.  And does this ultimately ideality exist?  Here we should take a prompt from Winnicott.  Don’t ask.  God, at least for adults, is a transitional object, primarily between being and non-being, life and death.  Religious experience is about resting in this riddle, neither needing nor demanding proof. 

Of the transitional object it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us  . . . that we will never ask the question “Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?”  The important point is that no decision on this point is expected.  The decision is not to be formulated (Winnicott, 1965, p 93).

The most puzzling thing about the new atheists, and Mills has to be considered among them, is their insistence on asking the question in such a way as to assume that there is an answer. 

Mills, like so many new atheists, misunderstands the issue of scientific meaning.  “The God question is not a legitimate scientific topic because it does not meet the basic requisite of falsifiability through testability.”  In support of this claim he cites Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery (Mills, p 50).  But this was never what Popper was up to.  Popper was a critic of the Vienna Circle, a group of logical positivists in the years before World War Two.  Their claim was that a statement had meaning only if it could be verified

Popper was a critic of the logical positivists, arguing that falsifiability is not about the distinction between meaning and non-meaning, but between scientific statements and non-scientific statements.  Lots of statements are meaningful but not scientific.  “That’s a beautiful picture” is a perfectly meaningful statement but not a scientific one.  Statements about God have roughly the same status.  Or should.  (A pat on the back to me: I’ve talked with Popper, and studied with his students; I know what I’m talking about here.)

Mills struggles to uphold a standard something like this, but in the end the need to falsify religion wins the day.  “There is no evidentiary or verifiable proof for believing that God is anything but an idea.” (p 75)  I can say the same thing about goodness, beauty, or love.  Relatively few statements in everyday life are falsifiable, including “I love my children.”  How different is this from “I love my God”?  The question isn’t whether my children exist.  The question is whether and in what way I love them, and is it a way conducive to their growth, and secondarily to my own. 

But your children really exist, the reader might reply.  Yes, but the most important thing about God isn’t his existence (the point of a transitional object) but the way we relate to him.  Mills believes the “God posit” isn’t conducive to human growth.  I’m not so sure, but this is something worth arguing about. 

Evidence is relevant.  Mills cites studies that show that countries with the highest proportion of unbelievers, particularly the Scandinavian countries, are the happiest.  It’s a relevant piece of evidence, but of course it could have less to do with atheism than with living in a wealthy social welfare state.  In any case, this is the way something like this can be argued. 

Consider a statement often attributed to Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd.”  It goes too far in another direction, abandoning the transitional space Winnicott claims for God belief.  But I suppose one could argue about this too.

Winnicott, God, and transitional objects

Winnicott seems to have followed his own advice about how best to think about God: by not grasping at either certainty or denial. 

To the child who develops “belief in” can be handed the god of the household or the society . . . But to the child with no “belief in” god is at best a pedagogue’s gimmick, and at worst . . . evidence . . . that the parent-figures are lacking in confidence in the processes of human nature and are frightened of the unknown. (1965, p 93)

On what grounds does Winnicott give this advice?  On grounds that Mills would appreciate, at least in the abstract.  On the grounds of what gives meaning to life: the ability to move around in transitional space between self and world, subject and object (Winnicott, 1971, p 100).

With the term subjective objects, Winnicott refers to those things we believe exist for us, mirroring our needs and wishes, conforming perfectly to our view of the world.  At first, we see the responsive mother in this way.  Subjective objects confirm our sense of being alive.  Objective objects are things that exist external to us, without reference to us and our needs and view of reality.  They exist in their own right, irrelevant to our subjectivity.  They are “not-me-objects,” objectively real, but they don’t necessarily feel real and alive to us.

Our teddy bears, our Mozart arias, our religious rituals contain in themselves both the subjective and objective poles and hence function as true symbols.” (Ulanov, 2001, p 16)

We invest the tradition, the objective object, with something of the subjective object, and thus bring it to life, without reducing the objective to the subjective, which would be mad.   

Mills reads Winnicott differently.  Rather than seeing subjective reality as enlivening objective reality, Mills argues that doing so is a confusion, at least as far as God is concerned. 

Here we may say that the God concept as object representation is a form of inner reality superimposed on externality that is conflated to be an actual, factual extrinsic entity, the experience of which is believed to be objectively real. (p 115)

Mills seems terribly attached to objective reality, what he sometimes calls a “preordained objective fulcrum.” (p 119)  I’m not so sure there is any such thing, or that I want there to be. 


Mills makes that his goal in the third part of the book, what he calls “qualia,” by which he means the qualitative vitality of experience.  Does God-belief contribute to the vitality of experience?  Mills seems to think so, but only for those societies without the economic, social, and political resources to live without belief.  There is, he says, nothing to be gained from taking away God-belief from people whose daily lives are difficult and miserable (pp 39-40).  By God-belief Mills refers primarily to belief in life after death, an eternity in a better world to make up for a hellish earthly existence.

It’s worth remembering that many religions, such as Buddhism, lack a belief in a personal heavenly afterlife.  Most Jews do not believe in a personal afterlife. (  Nor do many of my friends, not just Jews, but some who attend church regularly.    

In any case, the important question seems to be not what beliefs a person holds, but how this person holds them.  For Winnicott, the ideal seems to be hold them truly but hold them lightly—that is without having to question or defend one’s beliefs at every turn.  Certainly, one should not employ one’s beliefs as a battering ram.  Or an objective fulcrum.

There are lots of ways of thinking about God

If one’s definition of God does not include or imply a personal (individualistic or subjective) element as divine agent or agency, then what is the point of calling it God?  Here God merely becomes an abstraction, impersonality, or category of values one aspires to attain or fulfill. (Mills, p 76)

About this issue one should think carefully.  Consider Simone Weil’s line, “an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.”   Weil wants to extend the definition of God and belief in ways to which Mills would presumably object.  But consider Samuelson’s (2014, p 22) retort.  “A wise atheist,” he says, might reply that “a theist is simply one whose sense of justice or power requires a face.” 

There are so many different ways to think about God, from sheer abstraction to personal savior, that tolerance in these matters seems the best position.  There is no need to decide that some ways of thinking about God are not really ways of thinking about God.  One can conclude that what some people call the God experience is entirely explicable in terms of “naturalized psychology.” (p 122)  But why must or should one reach this conclusion?

My suspicion

Mills, like the majority of social theorists, believes that ideas initiate behavior. (Recall that It was not so many years ago that many social theorists believed in the material basis of ideas.  Often, they were called Marxists.)  Mills believes in the motivating power of an idea.

To this day and in most parts of the world, including developing democratic countries, religion (either explicitly or implicitly) dictates the way we think and largely determines the social roles people play in human interactions and communal life. (p 121)

This just isn’t true anymore, if it ever was.  People may still act in the name of their god, but if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, then religion was never so important as people made out.  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, written during the last third of the fifth-century BCE, explains men’s motives in terms of fear, honor, and interest.  For Thucydides, evidently an atheist, belief in the sacred is always a sign of weakness and fear.  Much has changed since then, but to think that religion dictates behavior is almost always to confuse the justification with the cause.  Men may say they go to war in the name of their god.  In reality they still fight out of fear, honor, and interest. 

Conclusion: “True Religion”

On a trip to my local shopping mall I found a store called “True Religion.” At first, I thought it was some sort of pop-up store selling its brand of religion.  Not so.  “True religion” turns out to be the brand of blue jeans sold by the store. 

My point?  The true believers to whom Mills addresses his book (or at least they are one addressee), those with the leisure to consider possible alternatives, exist in smaller and smaller numbers in Western Europe and North America.  When a line of clothing is called “True Religion,” are not the days of real religion numbered?  It puzzles me that the rise of the “new atheism” occurs at just that point where true belief is an endangered species, at least in Western Europe and North America (

If religion is a necessary panacea in the less developed world, but bad in the Western European and North American democracies, then Mills has carved out an area for critique that is rapidly shrinking.  If atheism should be wisdom, then once again Minerva’s owl flies at dusk.  


Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.  New York: Mariner Books, 2006.

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961. [original 1930] 

Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: Norton, 2004.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  New York: Twelve Books, 2007.

Jon Mills, Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of Secular Spirituality.  New York: Routledge, 2017. 

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery.  Martino Fine Books, 2014.  [original 1959]

Scott Samuelson, The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 

Ann Belford Ulanov, Finding Space: Winnicott, God, and Psychic Reality.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.  

D. W. Winnicott, Morals and education. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, 93-107. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1965.

D. W. Winnicott, Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. In: Playing and Reality, 1-25. New York: Routledge, 1971.

4 thoughts on “The best book defending atheism isn’t great”

  1. I have read this post several times and I admit that a number of your thoughts are far beyond my education and understanding. But at one point you refer to some atheists who justify their conviction that God doesn’t exist because the presence of God can’t be “scientifically” proven. I spent 40 years practicing medicine, and I have seen many treatments that were supposedly correct and “scientifically verifiable,” (these days it’s referred to as “evidence-based medicine “) that have later proven to be utter nonsense. The existence of God can’t be “scientifically” proven, but scientific proof is not necessarily a high standard. In my opinion, the absence of scientific “proof” of the existence of God is not a defense of atheism.

  2. I find your conclusion that the question of God’s existence cannot be answered scientifically interesting. I like your reference to love and beauty. Having said that, I must point out that the personal God defined in the Bible, the Koran, and other Abrahamic religions cannot exist even if we spent our entire lives trying to defend him and his actions. Omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence are not only logically exclusive properties, they are also impossible. An all-powerful god which allows evil cannot be all-good, and an all-knowing god which gives free will to its creatures cannot be all-powerful. What then, is God, if he is not all-loving, all-merciful, all-powerful and all-knowing?

    1. James, the answer that works for me is that God has stepped back since the creation of the universe. Christ taught us a good way to live, one that makes ourselves and others more fulfilled. I don’t worry about whether God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful because I don’t think he is involved in the day to day running of the world. I do think the trinity is a pretty good idea, for it allows for for traces of God’s presence even without his personal involvement. Fred

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