The Atheist’s Key to Salvation

By K.T.

On the front table in many book stores are featured two books with a rather similar theme: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, both of which refute the claim that there is any logical foundation for belief in the God of scripture. They are very well conceived and constructed and their Oxford eloquence endows the message with an undeniable but possibly undeserved credibility.


In these works, the trappings of institutional theism are mercilessly dissected — the improbable mythologies of births, deaths, and miracles, the directives regarding sex, procreation, genital mutilation, prayer, vicarious redemption, and the worship of variously defined and described gods are all subjected to the most relentless vituperation.

In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.

– The Buddha




It may be possible however, using these same arguments and perspectives, to justify to some degree the basic tenets of the major religions and even to make way for the possibility of the existence of a god of sorts. Our problem is that, as human beings, we have the utmost difficulty seeing the cosmos, our earth, our existence, our concept of god, in anything but the severely tainted and very imperfect light of human perception.

Hitchens clearly illustrates the fact that the God of the Abrahamic religions is purely a product of human invention, who differs little in his attributes — compassion, jealousy, peevishness, caprice, etc. — from the monarchs and tribal leaders familiar to people of the time. While we may see quite clearly how anthropic perspectives have distorted the nature of existence and natural phenomena into shapes compatible with human understanding, it is perhaps much more difficult to see how that same flawed human perspective may be coloring our perception of evolution and intelligence, leading us into the hubris of assuming ourselves to be the pinnacle of evolution and some supreme being to exist which is unaccountably very like ourselves.


Understandably, man considers himself to be the most highly evolved species, as no other life form has achieved a commensurate level of “intelligence”. Of course that intelligence is evaluated and measured using the only yardstick at our disposal, namely, human intelligence. That humans demonstrate human intelligence in a higher degree than do other species is hardly to be wondered at, but what other criteria might we use to assess the current human state of evolution relative to that of other entities? One possible measure might be species viability — How well are we Darwinistically adapted for survival? Is the presence of humanity on earth likely to endure? Is man likely to make a significant contribution in a broader sense to the history of life on earth?


Certainly human mentation has provided us with vast and wondrous capabilities: language, technology, art, and the ability to share and store acquired knowledge. With the possible exception of the viral and microbial worlds, man has achieved a position of dominance over other life forms and produced a burgeoning human population, but does this necessarily translate into long-term species viability?


Man’s history is a short one — perhaps a couple of hundred thousand years –- a mere blink of the cosmic eye, and much of that time he has probably spent as a numerically insignificant population generally being the hunted more commonly than the hunter. We don’t usually take duration into perspective when judging the remarkable but ultimately evanescent achievements of man. Is it possible that our concept of man’s intelligence and achievements, when seen in a more universal perspective, is just as anthropomorphically skewed as is our concept of God?

Viewed as a naturalistic phenomenon, the current dominance of humanity on earth can easily be identified as an infestation, a plague — a perfectly common occurrence in nature, but not one that can be sustained indefinitely. While man does not have a long history, it is possible that his future will be even shorter though not, perhaps, through predation. Be it a thermonuclear or a climatic cataclysm by which our planet is deprived of its knife-edged equilibrium of human habitability, it is likely that our species and many others may rapidly cease to be, as a direct result of man’s intervention. Unfortunately, the eschatological beliefs of some religions which inspire their followers to expect, embrace, and even relish the end of days, certainly do not improve our likelihood of long term species viability. Hitchens cites the very real danger of the concomitance of messianic ideology and apocalyptic weaponry — and it does undeniably sound like a really bad move to permit those who believe in a rapturous blissful end to humanity to acquire the means of bringing it about. Theological aberrations aside, in evolutionary terms, perhaps the awakening of mind could be seen as a briefly fruitful success, which then turns out to be a dismal failure and an evolutionary dead end with man causing his own demise, while other phyla and and vertebrate classes pre-dating us by many millions of years may long outlive us.


Set forth to watch, unschooled, alone
‘Twixt hostile earth and sky
The mottled lizard ‘neath the stone
Is wiser here than I.
— Kipling



Are we likely to succeed in playing more than a transient role in the evolution of life on earth? Is it possible for cognition to develop to a high degree without bringing about its own destruction? What attribute might be required for a noetic, self-conscious species to survive?

Perhaps the answer is “compassion.” Perhaps self-conscious, sentient, technology-capable beings who do not place their own selfish desires above the welfare of their fellows, their ecosystems, other species, the earth itself, could sustain a viability which our own species appears to be lacking.

Though often severely distorted and occluded by ritual, tradition, and mythology, “compassion” nonetheless underlies nearly all religious traditions. Some initial teacher or teachers presented some very fine ideas, which, often much later, were recorded, monetized, institutionalized, commercialized, monopolized, into unrecognizable forms. It would be a pity to abandon that core of universal empathy, however sullied it may have become by sectarian agendas, or however many people, cultures, and species have been eradicated as a result of rancor among adherents to differing flavors of piety.

Though it may have been done a devastating disservice by institutionalized theology, compassion — that common thread, the inchoate spark that ignites religion — could well be the key to man’s evolutionary salvation.

We exist and function within a self-adjusting environment, a collage of ecosystems which seek balance and viability according to some set of laws, of which mutation and natural selection are presumably at least a subset. Who is to say that this environment itself is not an intelligence? After all, it did produce man -– and (having learnt its lesson from that catastrophe) may go on to create other sublimely beautiful beings and thinkers of another sort, perhaps even some compassionate enough to avoid self-destruction.

Is it wrong to think of such a creator as a god even though it does not fit the criteria of intelligence and self-consciousness attributed to the God which man has created in his own image? Does our inability to imagine anything but an anthropomorphic God cause us to miss or misinterpret the obvious divinity of existence?

My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests. — George Santayana

Just as we are not competent to concoct a deity based on our own limited and idiosyncratic intellect and perspective, we are perhaps equally unqualified to define what intelligence is, and indeed, what a god is, confined as we are behind the glass of human experience and cognition. Of course, whether or not one chooses to believe in, or recognize the existence of an impersonal pantheistic divinity is of no great consequence once the jealous petulant personal God of scripture has been abandoned.

Perhaps there is a god. Certainly there is justification for compassion, and to the extent that religion promotes compassion, there may even be a justification for religion. The question is simply: Is it possible for technologically-mature man to acquire the compassion and circumspection necessary to regulate his selfish narcissistic and megalomaniacal tendencies without the institution of a belief system which promises punishments and rewards? The jury is still out on whether this is possible with or without religious establishment.

Religious doctrines dealing with sin, atonement, and particularly, formal absolution may have little to offer, and might well discredit, in the eyes of some, the underlying concepts of compassion, altruism, and nobility themselves. But there does nonetheless seem to be a perennially recognized value to these qualities. From the Buddhist path to happiness to the Epicurean bases of pleasure, there is evident a universal recognition of the fact that selfishness, hatred, attachment, excess are all extremely deleterious to those who harbor and foster those qualities.

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

– The Buddha

Whether viewed in terms of the immediate cause and effect of one’s actions on one’s health and state of mind, the long term cause and effect of karma over many lives, or the impact of our actions upon our ecosystem and fellow species, there does seem to exist a tangible and ineluctable principle of action and reaction, a justification for empathy which has no need for a mythology, ritual, tradition, or any kind of theological endorsement, though it has certainly inspired many of these. Compassion may be the salvation of the individual as well as that of our species and perhaps our earth.

Hitchens and Dawkins have given us many things to think about, but it is not clear whether vicious deprecation of the religious process will improve or erode man’s well-being or the likelihood of his continued existence. We can but hope that, together with technology, man will acquire the circumspection and sagacity requisite to ensuring his continued survival.


Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

– The Buddha