The good atheist: Melvin Konner and Belief

The good atheist: Melvin Konner and Belief.  Atheists generally don’t write good books.  Not because they are atheists, but because their goal is to convince others that belief in God is bad.  Most well-known among them are the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as they have been called: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.  The title of Hitchens’ book is not subtle: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

The thing about atheists like this is not that they don’t believe in God; it’s that their disbelief becomes a crusade against religion as the source of most bad things.  I don’t like team sports, and classical music doesn’t do much for me.  But it would never occur to me that those who like, or even love these things shouldn’t do it, even if I think a lot of money is wasted on big sports.  Atheism today has become synonymous with aggressive atheism: belief is bad. 


This is why Melvin Konner’s recent book, Believers: Faith in Human Nature, is so welcome.  Raised an orthodox Jew, Konner became an atheist at 17, the result of several factors, including a college course in philosophy.  But Konner’s book is not an argument for atheism.  It’s an argument for understanding what belief is, where it comes from, and what it does for the believer. 

A neuroscientist as well as an anthropologist, Konner devotes considerable attention to the neurological basis for belief, and its locations in the brain.  I didn’t find that particularly interesting, but he certainly understands the limits of neuroscience.  Even if we find the “God spot,” or more accurately the connections between different parts of the brain that foster belief, this says nothing about the existence of God.  Perhaps God made our brains this way so we could believe in him. 

More interesting is his effort to define belief, for as I argued in another post, the question “Do you believe in God?” is meaningless without further elaboration.  Attempting to define what “belief” means, Konner asked a rabbi friend of his. 

He answered in one word: “Awe — the sense that there is something bigger and more important than we are.”  If the awe includes heightened awareness tinged with fear, you are probably in some sense religious. (pp 21-22)

Most Americans, it turns out, are not atheists, even as an ever-increasing number answer “none” to the question of what religion they belong to.  Many people say they are “spiritual,” whatever that means exactly.  Konner thinks it means that they experience awe.  I think this includes Konner himself, but I was never quite sure.

God as companion

Much of the argument against religious belief sees religion as a childish defense against the fear of death.  Konner points out that religion does other things that may be even more important.  Above all it provides companionship.  William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) remains a classic study of spirituality, quotes a 49 year old man who wrote

God is more real to me than any thought or thing or person . . . . I talk to him as to a companion in prayer and praise, and our communion is delightful.  He answers me again and again, often in words so clearly spoken that it seems my outer ear must have carried the tone . . . . I could give hundreds of instances, in school matters, social problems, financial difficulties, etc.  That he is mine and I am his never leaves me, it is an abiding joy. Without it life would be a blank, a desert, a shoreless, trackless waste. (James, pp 70-71; Konner, p 23)

Not fear of death, but loneliness and the need for a meaningful life, is probably the reason most people are religious, even if by religious we mean no more—and no less–than spiritual.  By the way, it seems that most people who speak of what I’ll call existential loneliness are not lonely in the conventional sense.  They live in families, have friends, and many have meaningful work.  It’s just not enough, and why should it be?  I’ve never quite understood why I pray to a personal God, even as I don’t believe in one.  I think the need for companionship, and above all someone to thank for being alive, must be the main reasons. 

Trance dance and “now I lay me down to sleep”

Konner is an anthropologist, and a number of years ago he witnessed and participated in the trance dance of the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a tribe of hunter-gathers.  From time to time the women of the community would begin to dance, sing, and clap.  The men are drawn into the dance, and the sound of their ankle rattles adds to the enchantment.  Soon, a man will fall to the ground, entering into a deep trance, where his soul can talk with the village of the spirits about people’s illnesses (pp 35-38).

This is hardly our idea of religion; one reason is because it is not institutionalized; it just seems to happen from time to time.  But, Konner argues, there is not really much difference between a Western child who together with a parent prays the child’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep . . . .” at bedtime,* and a child of the trance dance tribe who watches the dance unfold while on her mother’s lap.  Both, he says, “will have the essence of faith: the belief in things unseen, and the emotions that go with it.” (p 110)

At first, I thought Konner was mocking Western religion, but he wasn’t.  He was talking about the origin of all religion in the beliefs and emotions associated with faith in a world beyond the material world.  Spirituality represents the raw material from which religion arises, but the form of one’s religion is determined by specific historical, social and cultural factors (p 114).  This seems about right.  More and more, I believe, the important question will be not “do you believe in God,” but something much harder to answer and quantify, something like “do you have it within you to experience the world in a spiritual way?” 

A world without religion

Though he is one of the staunchest atheists on the planet, according to Dawkins, the Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg understands that the loss of religion would come at a price.  The Four Horsemen don’t.  Tragic humanism, as Konner characterizes Weinberg’s view, understands that the scientific worldview can never take the place of religion.  Our lives are brief, often painful, and filled with separation from the people we love.  Our search for beauty and meaning in our lives frequently fails against the forces of desolation and isolation (Konner, p 165).

A world without religion, that is a world without spirituality, would be a rationalized world of icy polar darkness and night, as the sociologist Max Weber put it, the world of isolated individuals and giant bureaucracies.  Will family and community, art and music, be enough to meet our spiritual needs?  I don’t know.  The case is still open; probably the answer will depend on the individuals and communities involved.  No matter, a world without religion would come at a price.


 *  The prayer continues “and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul shall take.”  I’ve always thought this was a pretty scary prayer to teach a child.  More than a few children, I wager, have lost sleep over their fear of dying before they wake.  But that’s another story.


Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, The Four Horsemen: The Conversation that Sparked an Atheist Revolution.  Random House, 2004.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Amazon Kindle, 2020 [original 1902]

Melvin Konner, Believers: Faith in Human Nature.  Norton, 2019.

3 thoughts on “The good atheist: Melvin Konner and Belief”

  1. I am glad to find someone else who does not like the approach of those “four horsemen” Why are they filled with hate? Why are so self assured? Is it because of 9/11? Scientists are narrowly educated but some do manage to broaden their minds.If they read your thoughts and reflecftions it might help but people don’t always wish to change their minds or be open to other dimensions

  2. How about if atheists, Pagans, Native Americans, Africans, lgbts and many others start doing unto Christians as Christians have done unto us? How about if LGBTS demanded the brutal execution of all adulterers, especially Christian adulterers, like Christians demand brutal death penalty punishments for lgbts? Or how about atheists truly treat Christians and Muslims as you all have treated us? Deny you all your rights to vote, to hold public office, to be sworn to testify or be part of a jury? Or have all your kids taken from you and given to atheist families to raise, like Christians want to do to us atheists? Or how about we atheists demand a death penalty for you Christians like Christians demand a death penalty for us, or all the times you Christians did put us atheists to brutal deaths?

    Funny how Christians can be oh so fascist and taliban to others, but hate reaping what they have sown and having done unto them as they have done unto atheists, or Pagans, or Native Americans or many others huh?

    And this just proves how much of a bunch of hypocrites and how much worse Christians actually are to the Muslims.

  3. I agree with you.That’s why I can’t go to church.I do believe there is something good and loving beyond our natural world and yet it is in the world.It’s what makes flowers and trees grow.Why human beings can be so evil puzzles me when most animals kill only to eat
    Humans kill for pleasure,honour, trivial reasons
    I think Jesus was a special person like some of the prophets who I believe Muslims also like.But most people here are not religious and that includes people who go to church frequently
    Why anyone thinks God wants them to kill unbelievers is hard to know.If he did he would be Satan.I think when I was a child I was terrified of God watching me and noting all my sins.It has had a negative effect on my life
    I suppose we can accept with sadness when people die in accidents or natural disasters.But not the killing for political,religious or other ends
    I believe Hindhuism is more peaceful.But I am not certain and will check.I think we need to know we are less important than we think.If there is a god, he probably prefers animals.
    I feel so sad when I see the unneeded horrors you describe.I suspect atheists may be more spiritual than many religious folk.I do not like to destroy what may help other people.I think some types of monkey are aggressive and unfortunately we are descended from them

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