Does truth matter?


Another chapter of Heathen’s Progress from Julian. The gist is that atheism is currently overcompensating for the stupid idea that atheism is nihilism and despair, by claiming that atheism is chocolates and a stipulated number of either raisins or virgins, and that this is a bad move because life can be shit and godlessness can’t help much with that.

Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn’t the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying everyday as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that’s all there is to it.

Yes, but there’s an extra step there. The parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression may find the belief that god will redeem it all later a comfort…but then again they may find the belief that god allowed it to happen, or worse, deliberately caused it to happen, the opposite of a comfort. You can’t have the first without the ever-present risk of the second. That’s the big trap in theism: it can always turn on you. That can be far worse than thinking life is shit. It’s a nightmare idea, and it’s something atheists don’t have to fear. (Or not much. I suppose there’s always the possibility of a late or deathbed conversion to the belief that there is a god and it enjoys torturing us…but without the wishful thinking motivation, it seems pretty remote. Gnostics do believe that but they also believe that there’s a good god, outside the world with all its badness.)

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced.

Hmmmm.

I’m not sure that’s quite right. Suppose instead of “simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that” we swapped “that there is a malevolent torturing God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that” – would the claim still be true? I have my doubts. I think getting these things right is important, but then in a way that’s relatively easy, because it doesn’t involve “full recognition” that we’re the puppets of a monster. If getting things right meant full recognition that we are to god as fleas are to humans, I’m not a bit sure I would be very keen on getting things right.

Atheism is about getting things right but it’s also about getting free of a bossy demanding god invented by other humans. If it weren’t about that, it would (surely) be less attractive. (Less attractive than what? It’s not all that attractive in the US, is it! No it’s not, but I’m pointing out a way it could be even less attractive, and less attractive even to people who like atheism as commonly understood.)

So I’m not sure it’s really true that to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that. I think that’s part of it, but also that it’s combined with the fact that no-god is vastly less horrible and frightening than evil-god.

It’s a slightly disconcerting thought. If there were an evil god running the show, and if that were an obvious undeniable fact – a properly basic belief, as you might say – then I might well be a big fan of obstinate wishful thinking.

Comments

  1. Gordon says

    The other flip side to “my loved one is in a better place” is “unless they are in hell, oh no…”

    I take great comfort from no longer believing in a hell.

  2. Stacy says

    Well, yes and no.

    I do agree that atheists sometimes forget how awful life can be, and how painful and scary it can be to let go of religion’s comforts. True, religion can be scary in itself–no question. But I’d guess that many people cling to the comforting stuff and ignore or refuse to believe in the scary stuff (many Christians don’t believe in hell, or believe it’s reserved for people like Hitler and Ted Bundy, despite what their pastors or holy books say.)

    As someone who had an awful early life, I can attest that embracing truth can be emotionally difficult. It was ultimately rewarding, but not because my vague theism-later-pantheism had hard edges and atheism offered something better emotionally. Atheism is intellectually more rewarding, and there’s freedom in not having to deal with cognitive dissonance and push away threatening thoughts. But reality can be a cold mutherfucker. All the more reason to stress that we humans should turn to one another and figure out how to make things better, because this is the only life we have.

  3. michaeld says

    Works the other way as well. Before my grandmother’s death she was worried about my mother’s soul and whether she’d ever see her in heaven. Included some taped sermons from her pastor in her will.

  4. sailor1031 says

    I think the real issue is simply do you decide to live being responsible for yourself or not? Or do you surrender your personal sovereignty to some phony doG creature, which really means surrendering it to the rabbis, priests, imams, lamas etc.etc. A big problem with religion is that it has created an enormous, world-wide class of ‘religion bums’ who subsist on the handouts from one religion or another without ever using their own minds. What a fucking waste….

  5. Sastra says

    So I’m not sure it’s really true that to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that. I think that’s part of it, but also that it’s combined with the fact that no-god is vastly less horrible and frightening than evil-god.

    The God I stopped believing in was the Creative Force of Beauty of Transcendentalism, so I can’t really say that I became an atheist partly to avoid the negatives involved in the authoritarian Abrahamic God. The God *I* don’t believe in is universal love and everyone eventually evolving to higher levels of blissful wisdom, with no discernible down side. Had I grown up in a fundamentalist church or in a more traditional religion (I was raised with none), I could see myself switching or changing my view of God to the nice kind to avoid the horrible kind, yes. But atheism is an additional and separate step.

    Maybe that’s why I like Baggini on this. The usual response to your point — at least, the one I encounter all the time — is for the liberal and sophisticated believers to trot out the God of Sweetness and Light and wave it in triumph over the atheist. Baggini cuts to the chase: it’s not that we couldn’t come up with something better than Christianity or Islam. God doesn’t actually exist.

  6. mnb0 says

    “The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us….”
    I very much not sure this is correct; at least this doesn’t apply to me. Yeah, shit happens and atheists have to deal with it. But you know, instead of waiting for some metaphysical entity straightening things out for me now or in some imaginary afterlife I’d prefer to look actively for options to remedy and/or fight misery. I want to do something about it.
    Sure I will fail now and then. Well, as a last resort there is stoicism. Accept and still make the best of it.

  7. GordonWillis says

    Baggini forgets that when there is is no god there is no one who will put you in eternal torment for incomprehensibly trivial causes. Only those faithful who are very sure of heaven can really experience the comfort of their illusions. The rest of us understand only too well how imperfect we are. It also helps a lot to realise that there is a reason why, when your worst fears are realised, there is no answer to your prayers. All the help I have ever had has come from human kindness. One can repay that by passing it on. It’s better that way. No wasting time waiting for god to never turn up.

  8. Daniel Schealler says

    There’s actually two claims built into the theistic claim – one explicit, the other implicit.

    1) God exists (explicit)
    2) God should be worshiped (implicit)

    Accepting 1) does not imply 2).

    It’s important to sate this because ‘fully recognize’ could be interpreted to extend as far as 2). I think that this would be a mistake in how the phrase is interpreted, but as someone who struggles with communication skills I can see that there is a lot of room for ambiguity in that statement.

    But I digress: Suppose it turns out that God exists after all. Accepting the claim doesn’t mean we have to worship him.

    If I am in the grip of such a malevolence deity, I would rather know about it so I could rail against it, however futile.

    If it turned out that God exists but isn’t malevolent? In this case I’d still like to know about it. Doesn’t mean I’m going to worship him/her/it/them either. But I could happily co-exist with a genuinely benign or even just disinterested deity that respected my individual rights and freedoms.

    That would still be better than remaining an ignorant but (mostly) happy pawn in the grip of any God, malevolent or otherwise. Because the happiness would be based on a falsehood.

    Truth matters. ^_^

    If forced to choose between being an unhappy Socrates or a happy pig, I’d choose to be an unhappy Socrates every time.

  9. says

    The whole “God as universal love” thing? Yeah, that’s bogus too. Love is wonderful and brilliant and should be something everyone can share in. But that love has to come from each other not from magic.

    I think the humanist bus ads were perhaps a little bit too optimistic, but humanism isn’t about optimism or pessimism, it’s about realism and activism. Face the world as it really is, with no gods, no satan and no magic to save anyone, but when it doesn’t meet up to our expectations, bloody well fight for justice and love and freedom and all that other good stuff. To do that effectively, we have to face reality as it actually is.

  10. Chris Lawson says

    I’m not sure I quite agree with this either. I don’t see that atheism is nihilistic. The fact that 4,000 children die of poor sanitation is a disgusting state of affairs whether you believe in god or not, and can be improved by the application of social support programs, water filtration systems, and scientific food-handling education, again whether you believe in god or not.

    It makes as much sense to call atheism nihilistic as to call not believing in homeopathy nihilistic.

  11. Bruce Gorton says

    If there were an evil god running the show, and if that were an obvious undeniable fact – a properly basic belief, as you might say – then I might well be a big fan of obstinate wishful thinking.

    I wouldn’t. I would be a Satanist, trying to figure out a way to kill that God (so it stayed dead) so we could be free of its malign influence.

  12. says

    but then again they may find the belief that god allowed it to happen, or worse, deliberately caused it to happen, the opposite of a comfort.

    Or, as I like to think of it, the Marcus Cole principle:

    I used to think that it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.

    That’s a philosophy I can get behind, since the universe is going to be hostile anyway.

  13. Torquil Macneil says

    ” I don’t see that atheism is nihilistic. The fact that 4,000 children die of poor sanitation is a disgusting state of affairs whether you believe in god or not”

    Yes, but to an atheist it is disgusting only because, as Hume noticed, we choose to jump that way. We could decide that we just don’t care and, in fact, any people have and do. How does an atheist answer those people except with a display of superior force (the Marxist fashion)? It may be that our feelings incline us to jump in a particular direction, but feelings aren’t very reliable. To a religious believer, morality is more substantial, part of the universe, a fact, like atoms, something that is part of the fabric of reality. I realise that (to say the least) that doesn’t answer all the objections to a morality based on religious belief, but I think it goes some way to helping understand what the ‘comfort’ of religion is. It is very rarely (as it seems to me) that people literally imagine that the dead don’t die (or there would be much less grieving for that dead child) but has more to do with the sense that the death is meaningful in a non-arbitrary, non-ephemeral and enduring way.

  14. SAWells says

    When Julian asks “Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life?”, I have no idea what connection this is supposed to have to anything to do with atheism; nothing about atheism suggests that you should do anything like that. I simply do not know what he thinks he is talking about.

  15. Rudi says

    I think Julian’s right, and his message to the religious can be summed up in two words: “Grow up”. Stop infantalising yourself in a desperate attempt to avoid harsh realities. And he’s right, atheism isn’t a panacea. It can be hard, knowing that there is no inherent fairness or moral order to the universe, and tough to accept the moral responsibility on us that flows from this (not to mention disgust at the abject lack of morality and pathetic self-satisfaction of literalist theists).

    Oh, and when you say “but then again they may find the belief that god allowed it to happen, or worse, deliberately caused it to happen, the opposite of a comfort” I think you are making the classic mistake of thinking through the logical consequences of a theological claim and them wondering why theists haven’t made a similar conclusion. You forget, theists don’t think their beliefs through logically – which is why they’re still theists!

  16. Torquil Macneil says

    “I have no idea what connection this is supposed to have to anything to do with atheism”

    It is a reference to the (fairly) famous atheist bus poster. But I agree that it assumes a lot, most people won’t have noticed that campaign.

  17. SAWells says

    @16: I know about the poster, but I don’t see how the bus poster is relevant. I wouldn’t tell the greaving bereaved that “I’m loving it” or “Sure. It won’t let you down” or “0% finance available”, all of which I routinely see on posters.

  18. SAWells says

    - or in other words, it just seems like a variation on the “You wouldn’t say that to your dying grandmother” silencing tactic, which in turn makes it just another variation on the “Atheists are so strident and confrontational” bullshit.

  19. Dave says

    One can over-think this. It might be worth accepting that human beings cannot cope with too much reality, in the mass. I am not sure I can cope with too much reality. My own mortality is a deeply unpleasant thing to contemplate; the mortality of my children more than I care to contemplate at all. One of religion’s great advantages is that it places such things in a context which allows people to feel better about them. Flat-out psychological denial does the same. So, too, I am told, does hard liquor. Very many people use some or all of these mechanisms, and others, to cope; for very many people, life is coping.

    People who have been lucky enough to move on to a different stage, or who cope in other ways, can really come across as assholes to people who have bigger problems, and more needs.

    It does, in fact, require enormous psychological strength to rise above coping, to see beyond coping-mechanisms such as religion, denial and Jack Daniels; it requires even more to both see the world and to try to make it better. Personally, I mostly prefer to just get through the day, which sometimes itself seems a task so arduous as to require obstinate wishful thinking.

  20. says

    I’m with Sastra. The God I first believed in — the fundy one — is a right bastard. But the United Church of Canada God — the last one I believed in — is a nice fuzzy-wuzzy guy (unless she’s a gal — it’s a bit unclear) who ordains gays, and wants everyone to be maximally nice and vote NDP. But in the end, he/she/it/they/whatever just doesn’t exist, any more than the fundy psychopath does.

    Not that I didn’t get a fair amount of comfort over the years from believing in a God who cared about me — like when I was unemployed, and dealing with concomitant loss of self-esteem and identity (not to mention moderate financial worries). But it was still the case that I was still a husband and a father, and I still enrolled in a Masters program that was the eventual ticket to restarting my career. IOW: the answer was in concrete, real-world connections and remedies. God was just an elaborate form of Valium.

    Is denial sometimes better? I can think of hypothetical medical conditions about which I might rationally prefer to be oblivious until the moment it strikes me dead (say, if the available therapy was unpleasant, and would delay the inevitable by only a little while). But as to whether I would prefer to be in denial of an actually-existing malevolent god, I can happily defer that question until the day someone makes a serious argument that Cthulhu exists.

  21. anat says

    My secular grandmother faced her death with more calm and acceptance than my religious one. They were the same age and grew up in the same general area. I know, another anecdote.

  22. says

    As an aside, Ophelia said: Less attractive than what? It’s not all that attractive in the US, is it!

    But of course, according to the fundagelicals (even in the US), *they* are the ones who have taken the unattractive and difficult path, while we atheists have forsaken God in order than we can enjoy our profligate wanton hedonistic existence (for which we will pay dearly in the hereafter). It reminds me of the smug story which has been told by numberous church leaders of the college student who comes home for vacation and explains to his pastor why he no longer believes in God. The pastor listens patiently, then responds: “And how long have you been sleeping with your girlfriend?”

  23. says

    In my opinion, there are a lot of different reasons why people are atheists. Some, who were raised by non-religious parents, may never have really fought through the hold that religions can have on us. Others, I am sure, came to atheism after an examination of the rationality of a god or the supernatural. Others may have arrived at atheism by being turned off by the deity’s lack of compassion.

    Like belief, there are different ‘types’ of atheism, or different degrees of certainty in the non-existence of the supernatural.

    These, plus whatever personal sense of morality we have, will shape what unbelief means to us, and the lens through which we see the world. Some people, no doubt, struggle with ‘nihilism and despair’, others follow different philosophies, such as existentialism, absurdism, or objectivism.

    There is no ‘once size fits all’ for atheism.

  24. says

    If getting things right meant full recognition that we are to god as fleas are to humans, I’m not a bit sure I would be very keen on getting things right.

    However, if a monotheist omnipotent god existed, that’s exactly the sort of relationship we would have. Indeed, fleas is a little too generous. Bacteria would be a closer analogy.

    Non-belief in gods must always be about the absence of evidence. If an evil god existed and there was sufficient demonstration of this, that would be reason to try to oppose it. However, all is moot in the case of an omnipotent, omniscient God anyway. With those requirements, determinism and perfect fatalism are ensured. Ultimately, it would be useless even to talk about it.

    The crucial aspect of driving non-belief through empiricism instead of reasoning against the particular elements of particular gods is pretty simple: it rules out all gods of all kinds, and many other things besides.

  25. satanaugustine says

    My initial response to Julian’s post was “Speak for yourself, Julian!” In fact I’m pretty sure that there exists data which contradicts his entire premise in this piece, which seems to be “Atheists are, in general, less happy than theists and/or that we should be less happy.” I wish I could provide a link to this data, but I don’t remember where I read it. Julian’s opinion, though, means nothing if he doesn’t have any evidence to back it up. He certainly presented none in his article so I have no problem with dismissing his argument (such as it is) completely.

    Many people do report feeling better and having a more rewarding life post-religion. Given that “I’m a no-good, lowly sinner and have been since birth” is a basic premise of at least Christianity, this is not surprising. Discovering that one is a person deserving of good things and not a lowly sinner who can never live up to the absurd expectations of hir religion is certainly reason to feel better and enjoy a more rewarding life.

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