I find atheism extremely puzzling, like persistent attempts to square the circle or construct a perpetual motion machine.
To me it seems that our way of understanding the world will be usable—will actually function as an understanding—only if it is coherent, hierarchical and ethically directed. “Coherent” seems self-explanatory. “Hierarchical” means we must be able to distinguish principles that are more and less fundamental. “Ethically directed” means that our understanding must advise us what to do. There must be something about the world that makes things worth doing or not worth doing.
Our way of understanding the world must also be true, or at least we must accept it as such for it to be our actual understanding. That means that we must believe the world resembles our understanding in some basic ways. In particular, we must believe that the world is also coherent, hierarchical and directed. If the world is incoherent we won’t be able to understand it at all. If it’s non-hierarchical then we won’t be able to apply general principles and will get hopelessly lost in the details. And if it is not directed ethically then our understanding can tell us nothing about what to do. Actions, including the actions generally thought to constitute thought and communication, will become a matter of whim or blind will.
So it seems the world must be coherent, hierarchical and directed if we are to understand anything and act rationally. If that’s what the world is like, though, how much space is left for atheism? It seems to me that to try to be an atheist is to try to live in one of Samuel Beckett’s late novels. Can anyone really do that? Isn’t atheism really just a pose, rhetorical maneuver, or theoretical conceit? Why is that something a well-intentioned adult would want to bother with?
I would go farther. An ethical hierarchy in a coherent world implies objects of reverence and ultimately worship. Reverence and worship are thus basic to our grasp of things, and therefore to knowledge and reason. Cult is the basis of culture, culture of coherent, flexible and comprehensive thought. If that’s so, then godlessness means you become a crook, crank, drunk or airhead, at least on the whole and in tendency, as the implications of your basic position work themselves out. What you don’t become is a well-balanced personality who acts rationally and says reasonable things.
UPDATE: There’s some to-and-fro on this entry at Thrasymachus’s place.