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What does it feel like to be an atheist? Some would say the question makes no sense. Isn’t atheism the ultimate expression of muscular rationalism—whether rightly guided or hopelessly led astray—totally detached from feeling?

Anti-atheists claim that “Secularism literally and figuratively knocks color out of life.” The technical term for this is “disenchantment,” and the theory goes something like this: Once upon a time, we lived in a place of magic and mystery. Everything from astrology to Zoroastrianism cast its spell over us. Then, by gradual shift or system shock, some of us stopped believing. The old stories withered. The world dried out. Everything was under glass, under the microscope, under our thumb. Now everything is known, or at least knowable. Boredom has stilled our once-shimmering world.

It’s not a new claim. John Keats captured the sentiment 200 years ago in his narrative poem Lamia:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow

It’s a story still told everywhere and by everyone—philosophers, theologians, journalists, novelists, social scientists—and a weapon used to swat down people who believe or disbelieve in certain ways.

But it’s wrong—very wrong. Atheism always has had a rich emotional life. Feeling defines everything atheists do, from the life stories that impel us forward to the thirst to create new ways of living to the passion for asking hard questions. And let’s be real: that is also what far too often creates some of atheism’s more unsavory aspects. There is no shortage of anger to be found among atheists. Some of that is righteous anger at injustice, but much of it is no better than sneering contempt directed at those who see things differently. 

Anger is not bad in itself, but, as I argue in my most recent book, taking a clear-eyed view of the emotions surrounding atheism will help us look again at atheist ways of living and refine the vision of the kind of cultures we want to create.

Atheism, isolation, and community

The autobiography of atheism is often a story of philosophical vision prevailing over superstition, tradition, bias, and unexamined beliefs. This is a hazy view of how atheist life plays out. The contours are not necessarily wrong: Atheist stories often are about a confrontation with existing ideas and the nourishment of new ones. These transformations are driven by powerful arguments and criticisms, exposure to new concepts, encounters with other people, places, and ways of doing things. It’s what philosophers see when they look at atheism. And it’s not wrong. But it only tells part of the story.

Ask any atheist of a previous generation (and many of our own) and you’ll quickly realize that you can’t tell the story of atheism without talking about ruptured relationships, loss, grief, shame, and sometimes even violence and victimization. We all know atheists who were rejected by their family, friends, or the broader community. Seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza may or may not have been the victim of an assassination attempt by a religious fanatic, but there’s no question that his Amsterdam-based Jewish community—including members of his own family—outraged by writings that they perceived as atheistic, expelled him from their ranks. In nineteenth-century England, when secularism was picking up steam (allied with socialist movements fighting for better conditions for workers), the consequences of unbelief were stark: atheists were jailed for blasphemy as late as 1842. In a 2019 survey, atheists were still the most likely group to be rejected as hypothetical presidential candidates—more so even than other targeted and stigmatized groups like American Muslims. As a minority position, atheism has often been dismissed as stupid, immoral, or dangerous.

When we look at the total set of stories about atheists, then, one of the recurring motifs is isolation—even ostracization. This detachment from family, community, and culture is emotionally textured. It can bring sorrow and loneliness (not to mention fear and the real threat of violence); but it can also bring excitement and exhilaration, the ecstasy of being on the run, of starting all over, remaking one’s self according to a brand new set of dreams and desires.

Atheist efforts to form new “churches,” sacred spaces, rituals, and ways of life are sometimes awkward and not always convincing. But the creative energy that fuels them comes along with a powerful emotional charge—a felt urgency behind reimagining our ways of living together. “Community” is a word with many valences—simultaneously cradling and constraining. 

Negotiating that emotional paradox is part of the secular story.

Atheism and moral urgency

It’s often overlooked in today’s stories about atheism, but atheism in the West has frequently been fired by a deep desire for social justice and political transformation. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues—taking his cues from earlier freethinkers like David Hume—morality is not just an abstract weighing up of our ethical decisions. It’s emotional from top to bottom. The moral argument of atheism is also, therefore, an emotional imperative.

“Community” is a word with many valences—simultaneously cradling and constraining.  Negotiating that emotional paradox is part of the secular story.

Christianity in western cultures has long had lockstep relationships with existing hierarchies—monarchies, empires, and aristocracies. In addition to a permanent carousel of military adventures, these ancien régimes locked in entrenched castes of permanently impoverished serfs and urban laborers. In the nineteenth century, as scientific advances and political revolutions shook the trees of old orders, the cleric William Buckland delivered a sermon from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey that reiterated this old conservative-religious stance: “The God of Nature,” he insisted, “has determined that moral and physical inequalities shall not only be inseparable from our humanity, but coextensive with His whole creation.” Nineteenth-century anti-clerical salvos from activists like Holyoake and Huxley were not just intellectual exercises—academic rejoinders to ivory tower apologetics. They were calculated tactical demolitions aimed at collapsing the intellectual edifices propping up unjust systems.

In the US, this same impetus has tracked—in complex ways—the struggle for racial justice. Scholars like Christopher Cameron, Sikivu Hutchinson, Anthony Pinn, and Daniel Swann have written about the history of Black freethought as an important driver of antiracism. Sometimes setting doctrinal differences aside, Black Americans have developed humanist ideas to fight white supremacy. Shantá R. Robinson has shown that at the time of the Scopes Trial, for instance, many Black Americans probably held religious views that would have aligned them with the anti-evolutionist alliance. But this same alliance, in their eyes, was deeply in hock to white southern traditionalism and Jim Crow racial terrorism. Therefore, they threw their support behind Scopes’ agnostic attorney, Clarence Darrow. As Robinson writes, in 1925, “The solution to the ills of the South, at least for the African American journalists, included the scholarly pursuit of scientific knowledge regarding the origins of man.”

Rethinking “Disenchantment”

Political motives are by no means the only emotional driver of atheist criticisms of religion. The passion for truth is itself something we feel—and feel deeply. This brings us back to the myth of “disenchantment.” The problem is that our understanding of this word is flawed. The term “disenchantment” is a translation of the German Entzauberung, literally something like “demagification.” It was popularized by the German sociologist Max Weber in his lecture “Science as a Vocation,” delivered over a century ago in the waning months of World War I.

Reappraisals of disenchantment by scholars are now frequent, with many arguing that it never happened. But even these scholars miss something fundamental about what Weber was actually saying: he never intended disenchantment to be about the loss of feeling. Instead, he saw disenchantment as a new, intensely exciting way of living in the world—as an adventure driven by our passion to learn.

“Vocation” literally means “calling”—and that’s how Weber understood all forms of science, including the social and human sciences. “Whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders,” he wrote,

“and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one may call the ‘personal experience’ of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outside; without this passion, this ‘thousands of years must pass before you enter into life and thousands more wait in silence’—according to whether or not you succeed in making this conjecture; without this, you have no calling for science and you should do something else.’”

Weber didn’t think disenchantment was about extinguishing feeling at all. In fact, he directly challenged the idea that thinking and feeling were ever separate, writing that both science and art were driven by a common dynamic of inspiration and “mania.”

Asking questions, striving for better and more refined understanding, struggling for truth—these are not just abstract commitments, but emotional imperatives. Disenchantment is about the adventure of inquiry, not the dead weight of boredom. This idea has clear precedents in the history of atheism and freethought. David Hume, mentioned above, wrote that philosophy was “the ruling passion of my life, and the great source of my enjoyments.” Other freethinkers like Spinoza, Nicolas de Condorcet, Mariann Evans (George Eliot), Friedrich Nietzsche, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Richard Dawkins have made similar claims. Psychologists like Antonio Damasio, Rami Gabriel, Luiz Pessoa, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Jonathan Haidt have also stressed the need to see thinking as defined by emotional parameters.

(It’s worth mentioning, as an aside, that the notion that thinking and feeling should be separated is arguably a religious idea, or at least an idea that was artificially enshrined and embalmed by religion as Christian thought assimilated the philosophical frameworks of Plato and Aristotle.)

Angry atheism

We can’t draw a map of atheism’s rich emotional landscape without also talking about anger. Alec Ryrie’s writings on the emotional dimension of doubt make anger central—the anger of frustration with corrupt priests, but also anger with the failure of God to live up to the promises of theology. Charles Darwin, usually reserved when talking about religion, revealed the cold fire of his disdain for religion in the final years of his life, writing in his autobiography: “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (This passage was suppressed by Darwin’s own family until his granddaughter published an unabridged edition of the text in 1958.)

This righteous anger is matched by another kind of anger—a bitter anger, sometimes even a self-indulgent anger, which has come to be powerfully associated with the New Atheist movement of the 2000s. Christopher Hitchens’ notorious interview during the invasion of Afghanistan, in which he insisted that the war should have been even more “ruthlessly” prosecuted, is a case in point. Asked if it was right for the invading alliance to use cluster bombs he responded:

If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.

This intentional flirtation with violent hatred for religion and religious symbols, often with a special fixation on Islam, came to be the hallmark of New Atheist writings in the years that followed. Some have suggested that this affinity with anti-religious rage has led to the troubling emergence of major figures of the far-right from atheist subcultures.

The future of atheism is bright. Far from being emotionally barren, it’s a richly textured—and varied—culture where feelings and ideas are explored and nurtured. But this is also where atheists need to apply self-scrutiny. Building atheism means not only refining its thoughts and arguments, but cultivating its emotional landscape. Anger is not necessarily to be avoided. It’s the right response to injustice and oppression. But it’s a volatile compound—all the more so when we’re not really aware how much it’s defining the emotional horizon of the worlds we’re creating.

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Donovan Schaefer

Donovan Schaefer is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He works on the intersection of religion, nonreligion, science, material culture, and...