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Atheism and Dreaming

Reasons why atheists might consider dreams more favorably.

Key points

  • Dreaming is a natural and healthy outgrowth of the evolutionary history of sleep.
  • Dreams are a legitimate and valuable source of self-knowledge.
  • Dreams provide resources for cultural critique and social change.
Kelly Bulkeley
Kelly Bulkeley

Compared to other demographic groups, atheists tend to be especially negative and dismissive about dreams, according to a survey I recently analyzed with a colleague. I find this puzzling. Why should atheism correlate with an unfavorable attitude toward dreaming?

The 2018 survey asked 5,255 U.S. adults whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about dreams. Atheists were the most likely to disagree with the positive statements (e.g., “dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings”) and agree with the negative statements (e.g., “dreams are random nonsense from the brain”) compared to people from all other religious perspectives.

The explanation for these correlations might seem obvious. First, atheism is by definition anti-religion, while dreaming and religion have a long historical connection. If you reject religion, maybe you should reject dreams, too. Second, atheism emphasizes the power and dignity of individual reason, while dreams appear as nothing more than distracting eruptions of bizarre irrationality. And third, atheism tries to focus our ethical attention on the urgent problems of this world, while “dreaming” is often used pejoratively as a metaphor for vain, other-worldly fantasies.

There are many versions of atheism, of course, and I have already generalized about it perhaps more than I should. But I wonder if contemporary atheists of all stripes might shift their dream attitudes in a more positive direction if they set aside common misconceptions about dreams and learned more about current psychological research into the nature and functions of dreaming.

Sleep, Dreams, and Evolution

What we experience subjectively as a dream is the outgrowth of a complex, rhythmic, and highly energetic process in the brain during sleep. This high level of brain activation, while the body lays motionless for hours at a time, is a clear sign that something neurologically vital is happening while we sleep. The foundations of the sleep cycle are shared not only by all humans but by nearly all mammals, birds, amphibians, and many species of fish. This is not to say all these species are necessarily dreaming; the point is to highlight the long evolutionary history of the sleep cycle, which in humans is regularly associated with dreaming. If you believe strongly in Darwinian evolution, as many atheists do, then surely some respect is due for such a deeply rooted feature of healthy brain-mind functioning, even if it is not part of your personal conscious experience.

Self-Knowledge and Self-Overcoming

Empirical research over several decades has demonstrated that dream content accurately reflects the primary concerns of the dreamer’s waking life. These concerns include personal relationships, work activities, cultural interests, and mental and physical health. Abundant scientific evidence indicates that dreams have genuine, objectively verifiable psychological meaning for the dreamer. In short, dreams are a legitimate source of self-knowledge. For atheists who prize the powers of individuality and seek to cultivate these powers as much as possible, dreams can be a valuable source of greater awareness of how one’s own mind actually works.

Yes, dreams can be incredibly bizarre and weirdly disturbing. Yes, they appear like the absolute antithesis of logic and clarity, and thus something a person committed to a life of reason should avoid at all costs. But it is no courageous or confident rationality that quails before the strangeness of dreaming. A more robust atheism might look at dreams as an opportunity for practices of self-overcoming—facing fear, embracing instinct, and transforming the energies of the unconscious. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a fervent atheist who (in)famously proclaimed that “God is dead,” was fascinated by dreams and found them to be valuable windows into the deeper realities of human nature. To explore irrationality is not to succumb to irrationality. Rather, it is to learn more fully and honestly who we really are and what we can potentially become.

Social Critique

Dreams provide a source of critical self-awareness not only for individuals but for communities, too. According to anthropologists and historians, dreams have long served as a resource for collective reflection and decision-making. The reasons dreams have social value is the same reason they have individual value: dreaming challenges the status quo, raises questions about waking-world assumptions, and goes beyond what is to imagine what might be.

This is why dreams should appeal to atheists with a strong ethical commitment to social change. For instance, from the critical perspective of Karl Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Marx, another notable atheist, dreams can be seen as inner revolutionaries that relentlessly attack conventional thinking, liberate us from bourgeoise morality, and radically stretch our minds beyond the ideological confines of modern capitalist society.

If such a proposal sounds implausible, take a moment to consider the possibility that your doubt is itself a symptom of modern alienation. The fact that we find it difficult even to think of dreams in these terms is a measure of how much we have lost. And whose interests are served by this? Who benefits from persuading the general population not to listen to the critical insights of their own creative imaginations? It’s not the people at the lower end of the social hierarchy, that’s for sure.

Instead of accepting anti-dream biases, a free-thinking atheist might actively criticize them as having no basis in current science, as contrary to human health, and as serving the oppressive interests of those most invested in the social status quo. It would not be an irrational thing to do.


Bulkeley, K., and Schredl, M. (2019.) Attitudes towards Dreaming: Effects of socio-demographic and religious variables in an American sample. International Journal of Dream Research 12 (1), 75-81.

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