Atheism Is Not A Worldview
“The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.”
- Sam Harris
Sam Harris, a very vocal atheist, says his atheism isn’t a philosophy or a worldview. Instead, he says it’s an admission of the obvious. Perhaps he is using a different definition of worldview. Most dictionaries describe a worldview as your conception of the world. Instead, Harris says atheism isn’t how he sees the world; it’s how the world actually is.
That’s quite a claim.
What is a worldview?
To put it simply, a worldview it’s how you make sense of the world. It’s based on the things you believe to be true and/or that you value highly. They tend to be foundational views that affect, not just how you see the world, but how you live. Here’s an example.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a respected leader of the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. His worldview of Christian theism caused him to embrace the idea that all people are created by God, are of equal value and, therefore, should be afforded equal rights and liberties. His commitment to Christian morality caused him to pursue justice in a nonviolent manner. And, his belief in life after death helped him to pursue justice in spite of his fear.
MLK’s worldview was foundational to him.
Philosophy as an example
Worldviews tend to be multi-dimensional. They’re not based on just one thing. Most philosophy professors have a good grasp of this and many of them possess substantially different worldviews. Here are a few examples.
- Kai Nielsen – Mr. Nielsen earned his PhD at Duke University and taught in universities across the US and Canada. His worldview includes analytical marxianism, socialism, atheism and humanism. He describes his naturalistic pragmatism as “anti-foundational, anti-rationalist, non-scientistic, historistic and contextualistic.” Now that’s quite a worldview.
- Alex Rosenberg – Mr. Rosenberg earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins University, now teaches at Duke University and is also very intelligent. From his writings, his worldview seems to be founded upon scientism and includes determinism, nihilism, and atheism as its logical conclusions.
- William Lane Craig – Mr. Craig earned a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham in the UK and a Doctorate in Theology at the University of Munich in Germany. Like Mr. Nielsen and Mr. Rosenberg, he is very smart. However, his worldview includes belief in God.
Not all philosophy professors are atheists, nihilists, materialists, determinists, monists, idealists, positivists, or other “ists.” Though their grasp of philosophy, their analytical and teaching skills and even their writing abilities may be substantially equal, they often have very different worldviews.
Welcome to college!
If you’re a college student, you’ve already experienced a clash of worldviews. One you’ve probably experienced is naturalism. It consists of a variety of perspectives that explicitly exclude the existence of God. Though only 10% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, it’s likely that about 25% of your college professors are and travel in one of the three major lanes of the naturalism highway.
- Scientific materialism is a worldview that came into vogue in the late 1800s. It’s the idea that everything is a result of matter, energy and the laws of physics alone. One of the challenges with it is that science is silent on the subjects of value, purpose, meaning, and morality. So, if you see the world through these glasses, you’ll need to look elsewhere for your moral code. Alex Rosenberg espouses this worldview.
- Biological Naturalism builds on materialism and tends to see everything as the result of an evolutionary process operating within nature. So, meaning, purpose, and morality may be seen purely in terms of nature. Friedrich Nietzsche is an extreme example of this. He saw oppression and slavery as good because, to him, they made the species stronger.
- Humanism, as the name suggests, says people are important because people say they are. People invent their own value, meaning, purpose and morality. All of these things are generally seen to be subjective or based on the consensus of a group. And, the preservation of humanity is generally seen as its fundamental goal. Kai Nielsen would feel at home with this group.
Most professors are actually theists or deists. They believe in God or a higher power, but are often not allowed to talk about it.
- Deism and Theism are related worldviews. Deism conveys that an intelligent nonphysical cause started the universe and established the laws of physics. Theism is the view that this intelligent Creator (God) is also actively involved in the on-going affairs of the universe and the people in it.
Pantheism and polytheism are also growing on college campuses.
- Pantheism is the view that everything in the universe is part of an eternal spirit (or an ultimate reality). In this way of thinking, you are essentially your own creator. It’s curious that Sam Harris seems to embrace several mystics who espouse this view.
- Polytheism is the view that there are many gods. It may also include the idea of a Supreme God. Though not as prevalent in America, this worldview is widely embraced in Asia.
In reality, people often pick and choose parts of various worldviews and incorporate them into their own. For example, Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton, seems to embrace ideas from biological naturalism and humanism.
Worldviews in class
If you were to take college courses taught by Kai Nielsen (now retired), Alex Rosenberg, Peter Singer or William Lane Craig, you can expect their worldview to affect how they see truth, value, morality, meaning, purpose. This could also affect how they approach their work as professors and what they teach.
Worldviews don’t just affect philosophy and science. There are competing economic, political, sociological, and historical worldviews too. So, brace yourself. As you’ll see, even PhDs don’t always agree. Many worldviews are mutually exclusive; they can’t all be true.
Is Sam Harris Correct?
Sam Harris is partially correct. Atheism is usually not the sum total of a person’s worldview. However, it’s an inherent part of several of the worldviews resident on campus.
Perhaps a final question for Mr. Harris is, if atheism isn’t a worldview or at least a fundamental part of one, why do you spend so much time writing books advocating it? Were atheism merely a statement of the obvious, wouldn’t more people agree?
About Sam Harris:
Sam Harris was educated at Stanford and UCLA. He is a very vocal advocate of atheism, having written and spoken widely on the subject. He is also an advocate of meditative practices.
Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill
 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 57.  Kai Nielsen, Atheism without anger or tears*, Studies in Religion, 23/2 (1994): 193.  Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2011), 6. Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, The Religiosity of American College and University Professors, Sociology of Religion, 2009, 70:2, 113-114.  Naturalism has many technical definitions in science and philosophy. To keep it simple, we are dividing naturalism into three worldviews – seeing the world either primarily through the eyes of matter, biology or people.  Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, (New York, NY: MacMillan Company, 1907), 226-227.  Sam Harris, The End of Faith, (New York, NY: W.W. Horton & Co., 2005) 215.  Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994) 210-217.