Writing in The Week, Damon Linker has a strange essay arguing that atheists who are honest about the consequences of their beliefs ought to be sad and mopey. The subtitle of his essay is, “That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain.”
This is a trope that arises from time to time in anti-atheist rhetoric, but it is one I find incomprehensible. Partly this is because I contrast atheism with the alternatives on offer, and find it fares well in the comparison. The most common forms of Christianity, for example, tell me that human beings are hopelessly vile and sinful, that our Earthly lives have meaning only insofar as they determine our disposition in the afterlife, and that we can be condemned to an eternity of suffering merely for thinking the wrong thoughts. If that’s the other option, then perhaps I can be forgiven for preferring that the universe simply ignore us.
It is also because it has never occurred to me, outside of discussions of religion, to find meaning and dignity in my life by looking for cosmic significance. Seems a bit melodramatic to me. I don’t understand the mentality of someone who says that if you do what you do simply because you find it satisfying to do so, then your life is meaningless and empty and without purpose. But if you do those same things because you think it is what God wants from you, now suddenly your life has meaning.
At any rate, most atheists don’t seem to have noticed that honesty requires them to be very sad. Let us recall that the sociological experiment has been done, and we now have several examples of societies in which free nonbelievers predominate. They are not marked by nihilism and existential angst. Nor are they marked by heartlessness and social isolation. Quite the contrary, in fact. They are among the most contented and socially conscious societies on Earth. The situation in heavily religious countries tends to be considerably less happy. So, yes, I do think we have some basis for thinking that people would be much happier if religion were forced into retreat.
So let’s have a look at how Linker defends his dubious thesis:
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
What a strange paragraph! I am happy to agree that a universe that caters to humanity’s every existential whim is preferable to one that doesn’t, but it is a very childish view of religion that Linker is offering here. Let’s take his checklist in order. The God of Christianity created and presides over a world of stunning cruelty, suffering and evil. Forgive me for preferring loneliness to His company. A supernatural being that can answer my prayers can also inflict draconian punishments for trivial crimes (and according to Christianity, that’s precisely what He does). Linker’s next two items are especially strange. Why should my view of humanity be affected in the slightest by the manner in which we appeared, and how does atheism imply that we have no more intrinsic dignity than inanimate matter? Likewise, I don’t see why atheists should require the universe to ratify our lives and loves. They seem so inherently meaningful, that I don’t know what higher sense I should be looking for. Finally, I agree that it’s tragic that in an atheist framework, villains who escape human justice are never called to account. The trouble is that the major world religions seem equally unable to satiate this need. Christianity, for example, holds that eternal punishment is reserved only for those people who die without having accepted Jesus as their savior. That’s not the sort of eternal justice I had in mind.
This was actually the high point of Linker’s essay. The rest devolves into the usual pseudointellectual references to Nietzsche and Camus. He seems especially obsessed with a poet named Philip Larkin. There’s some pabulum about how humans were created to love and religion caters to that need. Whatever.
I could understand why an atheist who once had religious faith might feel a sense of loss. But for many of us, religious faith has never been a viable option. In my own case, I have been an atheist for as long as I have been old enough to think about such things. Sure, I can imagine metaphysical frameworks that are more comforting than atheism, but since none of them have ever seemed remotely plausible to me I feel no sense of loss for rejecting them. Moreover, when I see how effective religion is at promoting xenophobia, tribalism and anti-intellectualism, I feel no urge to participate. I’m afraid it’s nobility is lost on me.
In short, I’m too busy living my life to worry too much about its cosmic significance. If that makes me dishonest, then so be it.