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Atheism and the Argument from Comfort

Comforter“But religion offers people comfort. It makes people’s lives easier. Why is it so important to you to convince people that it’s wrong? Why are you trying to take that comfort away?”

Today — inspired by a comment from Kim — I want to take on what I call “the argument from comfort.” Or what Ingrid, who at times is a bit more of a hard-ass than me, tends to refer to as “the argument from wishful thinking.”

It’s an argument that tends to drive atheists batty… since it’s not, in fact, an argument. It’s an emotional defense for hanging onto an argument that’s already been lost.

But more on that in a moment.

Woman submitMy first response to the argument from comfort would be: Religion doesn’t universally offer comfort. In fact, it very often doesn’t offer comfort. How much comfort does religion give to abused wives who are instructed by their religious leaders that it’s their duty to stay in their abusive marriage? To girls who’ve had their clitorises cut off because their religion requires it? To twelve year old rape victims being stoned to death for adultery? To people with AIDS in Africa who were denied access to condoms because the churches think condoms are sinful? To people being driven out of their villages, and even killed, because some preacher decided they were a witch? (No, I don’t mean in the 17th century — I mean today.)

HellYou don’t even have to go to those extremes. How much comfort does religion offer to young children who are raised in terror of being burned and tortured in Hell? To older children who are taught that their schoolmates will burn in Hell because they belong to the wrong religion? To teenagers who hate themselves because they’re gay, and they’ve been taught that God despises them for it? To troubled married couples being counseled by priests and ministers and rabbis… who have no training in counseling or therapy, and who base their advice on religious dogma? To sick people being taught that God will heal them if they pray hard enough and have enough faith… and thus, by implication, that if they don’t get better, it’s their fault? To old people near death, who live in terror that their children and grandchildren are going to burn in Hell because they left the faith? To anybody at all, of any age or situation, who’s asking hard questions about their faith and gets told by their religious leaders simply to stop asking?

But maybe I’m being too hard-assed. If someone is defending their religion by saying how much comfort they get from it, blasting its horrors is certainly fair… but it may not be the most effective rhetorical gambit in the world. It’s likely to just put the believer on the defensive, and entrench them even further in their beliefs.

So that brings me to Argument #2: Atheism has its own comforts to offer.

Read some stories of deconversion. Many atheists do go through a dark night of the soul (or rather, a dark night of the soul-less) when they’re giving up their religion. I certainly did. But they generally come through on the other side. And they generally come through happier, feeling like a burden has been lifted.

PotterAtheism offers us the comfort of knowing that we can shape our own lives, and don’t have to rest our fate in the hands of a god whose ways can at best be describes as “mysterious.” It offers the comfort of not having to wonder what we did wrong, or why we’re being punished/ tested, every time something bad happens. It offers the comfort of experiencing the world as shaped by a stable and potentially comprehensible set of physical laws, rather than by the capricious whim of a creator who’s theoretically loving but in practice is moody, short- tempered, and wildly unpredictable. It offers the comfort of being intimately connected with the rest of the universe, rather than somehow set apart from it. It offers the comfort of being able to make our own moral judgments, based on our own instincts and experiences, rather than trying to reconcile the outdated and self- contradictory teachings of a centuries- old religious text… or trying to second- guess the wishes of an invisible and imprecise deity.

And it offers the comfort of being able to see the world as it is, to the best of our abilities, without having to ignore or rationalize every experience that contradicts our faith.

Fault_types.svgSpeaking from personal experience: The comfort I once got from my belief in an afterlife always felt a little shaky… since there was always a part of me that knew I was basing my belief on wishful thinking. Letting go of that self- deception has been a tremendous comfort. In the face of hardship and death, the comfort I get from my humanist philosophy isn’t as easy or simple as the comfort I once got from my belief in a world-soul and an afterlife… but it’s a whole lot more solid.

And I will also point, as I have so many times in this blog, to the example of Europe. Many countries in Europe — France, England, Holland, the Scandinavian countries — have very high rates of atheism and agnosticism… and they’re not all walking around in the depths of despair. They’re doing pretty well, actually (or as well as anybody is doing in the current lousy economy). They seem to have found a way to find comfort in the world, even in the face of death and other hardships, without needing to believe in God or an afterlife.

GravestoneNow, as Ingrid points out: Death is something of a special case. The case for hard-nosed realism over comforting self-deception generally relies on the assumption that it’s better to know the truth, because then you can act more effectively to solve the problem at hand. Death, however, is a problem that can’t be solved. Death is not a problem that can be fixed or alleviated if we just have the courage to deal with its challenges head-on. Death is a problem that simply has to be faced, and accepted.

But even so, I would still argue for hard-nosed realism over comforting self-deception.

I would argue it because the way you face the unsolvable problem of death makes a difference in how you live your life. If you live according to the assumption that the single most important thing you can do in this life is to please God so you can go to Heaven when you die… you’re going to live your life differently than if you think this life is the only life we have, and we therefore have to make the most of our opportunities and create as much joy as we can for ourselves and one another while we’re here.

PrayAnd if atheists are right, and there is no God and no afterlife, then all the time spent trying to appease a non-existent God and reach a non-existent blissful afterlife is just wasted time. Unless it’s time spent doing something that you’d find moral and valuable anyway, even if you didn’t believe in God… then the comfort found in religion doesn’t come free. It has a cost: the cost of wasted lives, bad decisions based on a false premise.

And if a believer is making the argument from comfort… then they are essentially admitting that the premise they’re basing their comfort on is false.

Which brings me to Number Three. Or rather, it brings me back around to where I started.

And that’s this:

The argument from comfort is not an argument.

Frayed_steel_cableIt is a sign of desperation.

It is a last- ditch effort to hang on to an argument that the believer knows in their heart — and that they even know in their head — has already been lost.

I mean, if your big argument for religion is, “Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? Doesn’t it make our lives easier to believe that it’s true?”… then you have essentially conceded the argument. It’s not an argument for why religion is correct. It’s not even trying to be an argument for why religion is correct. It’s an argument for why it’s okay to believe something that you know is almost certainly not true, but that you can’t imagine living without.

So, from a rhetorical point of view: If someone is making the argument from comfort? IMO, that’s the time to stop making arguments for why atheism is more plausible than religion. They already know that. They’ve admitted as much.

Safety netThat’s the time, instead, to start softening the landing. That’s the time to start pointing out the comforts that atheism does have to offer (like the ones I talked about in #2 above). That’s the time to start pointing out positive atheist and humanist philosophies. That’s the time to start pointing out all the atheists, in history and living today, who have led happy, productive, meaningful lives. That’s the time to start talking about the different ways that atheists find meaning and joy and peace in their lives, without a belief in God or an afterlife. That’s the time to start talking, not about why religion is incorrect, but about why it’s unnecessary.

That’s the time to stop making arguments, and to start offering comfort.

Other pieces you may want to read:
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions
Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason
“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
The Sameness of Imagination, The Astonishingness of Reality: Thoughts on Science and Religion
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Atheism and Hope
The Human Animal: An Atheist’s View of People and Nature
A Safe Place to Land: Making Atheism Friendly for The Deconverting

Comments

  1. Patricia Champ says

    It would seem to me that you have chosen to see the cup half empty, and others have chosen to see it half full.Your point is you have chosen to see what is not there, and others have chosen to see what is… or visa versa…either way it’s a choice we all make, as you have, and I. to each their own decisions , so why all the preaching? you seem just as driven to make unbelievers as those who try to convience others to believe. Both camps sounds so much alike to me.
    for what it is worth

  2. says

    Sometimes I derive comfort from the thought that I’m the creator and ruler of the universe. Of course, it seems like that’s not the case, but it’s only because I like it that way. It’s nice to know that if I really wanted to change something, I could do so easily …
    (Or to make my point in another way: when there seems to be an empty cup in front of us, some people just see an empty cup, while others choose to believe the cup contains all sorts of fantastic invisible stuff.)

  3. Maria says

    “Both camps sounds so much alike to me.”
    I think it could be that if both camps seem alike, then maybe you don’t know one of them (or both) very well.

  4. says

    Re Patricia Champ: We seem to have Anatomy of a Troll, Lesson One. Whatever you do, don’t make your comment relevant to the actual topic being posted. Just spew generic anti- atheist canards, to shanghai the conversation away from the topic and onto your own issues.
    Please don’t feed this troll.

  5. Maria says

    “But the point is that it’s never been about being comfortable to me – I’m not interested in feeling good, I’m interested in being right.”
    I think you have a good point here! I think that, yeah, it is important to stress that living like an atheist does not mean that you must be miserable (as so many believers seem to think must be the inevitable result) and that it is fully possible to live a fully satisfying life as an atheist. BUT… that doesn’t necessarily follow automatically either.
    I have never been a believer so I have nothing else to compare with. I can’t say that my life improved when I stopped believing in god, because I never started to believe in a god in the first place. My life has been rather normal, I guess. It has had its ups and downs, and sometimes it has been really shitty! Atheism didn’t cause that, and theism doesn’t help against it! Neither is a fullproof cure against the downsides of living – it just gives you different ways of dealing with things.
    I sure prefer dealing with things the atheist way, with open eyes about reality, and I have no need for gods or any suparnatural things. But I didn’t choose that way to feel good. I just can’t choose to close my eyes to that which the evidence shows me is most likely closest to the truth.
    You do get rid of many unnecessary pains you had as a believer when you turn atheist, as one of my best friends who have gone through that very process have described to me (and that I have read many accounts of). Most notably she felt immensely free from all the guilt that she felt religion had wrapped her in. And that she saw now way out of until she simply realized that the premises presented to her of why she should feel this guilt was simply false. So of course she feels better now. But she didn’t become an atheist to feel better either, she simply could no longer ignore the logic conclusions that followed from her questioning her religion.
    Getting rid of stuff like that guilt she described to me, and other things was a great bonus. But her life isn’t really that much different. She has the same every day problems as before, same as mine and most other peoples’.
    The satisfaction of life does not lie in getting completely rid of problems, sadness, blue periods and bad things happening… it lies in how you deal with it, and in the support you have in other people.

  6. says

    I come from an almost fundamentalist and certainly conservative background. I continue to feel guilty on a daily basis, but I stopped really listening to my conscience before I even stopped believing in God. It just was not a good indicator of an actual need to feel guilty – instead, it’s an aspect of my innate personality that I would rather live without, but I have to live with it anyway.
    As a result, the only reason why I’m less happy as an atheist is because of a guilty conscience and a need to fit into my family’s expectations that I’ve had all my life. Not as a result of Christianity or atheism. Just me.
    I always try to clarify that to those who might point at me and say, “Look, this atheist over here is unhappy.”
    And I know you weren’t, Maria. Just explaining a little bit more.

  7. says

    Looking over that, I didn’t explain it right – I mean that my guilty conscience is out of control. It’s oversensitive. So if I feel guilty, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should. Hence why I don’t give my conscience much credence.

  8. Maria says

    I think you have a good point too, Lunalelle. Guilt in itself is a human feeling that of course won’t go away if one becomes an atheist. And there’s different kinds of guilt. I of course feel a lot of guilt when I, for example, really have done a bad thing, or been mean to someone, let my bad mood out on a loved one… things like that. That’s good guilt, I should feel bad then. At other times, I am just like you, I feel guilt about things that I really shouldn’t feel guilty about. And so it still is for my friend too, of course.
    But she described a whole slew of rather specific situations and things that was constantly at the back of her mind, that she constantly felt quilty about, that was directly originating from her beliefs and had been taught to her. Things of which most have never bothered me the least in my life, and that I sometimes had problems in understanding why she lost any sleep because of.
    The process was made a bit easier for her though since her family and many of her best friends is not religious and do not have any expectations on her in that direction.
    I hope things will work out well for you Lunalelle!

  9. says

    For the life of me, I don’t understand how threats of everlasting torment and damnation could ever be comfortable.

  10. sav says

    On the certainty of death and dealing with it, I, too have felt a lot of fear about it–something totally normal. But I realized recently what freaks me out so much about it. Besides not knowing when or how it will happen (two things we should never waste our time on but that I’m sure we all have), I was freaked out about the whole death business.
    For instance, I don’t want to be embalmed or put in a casket and then inside a concrete casing in the ground. I don’t want a morbid funeral service. I don’t want a stranger to deal with my body. I want my family to.
    I know this may seem self-evident, but there are ways in which we can control what happens to us after we die. I happen to have a living trust, and in that trust I am going to write out in detail how I want my body to be handled after I die. I don’t know why, but realizing that I do have a choice in the whole death business gives great comfort to me.

  11. Donna Gore says

    I once heard it said (where, I can’t remember) – “I’d rather live in an ugly reality than a beautiful fantasy.”

  12. Bruce Gorton says

    sav
    Here is my plan for death:
    My body is to be harvested for organ transplants, with my brain to go to someone who is young, fit and rich.

  13. says

    I’d like my unprocessed dead body to be buried at the root of a tree, so that over time, my remains would become part of it.
    Until someone chopped it down, that it.

  14. says

    There was an interesting story on the news on my way to work this morning (unfortunately I can’t quickly find a link): Apparently University students who believe they have strong religious beliefs suffer from lower levels of anxiety when exposed to questions they can’t answer on an academic exam.
    Either the study organizers or the commentator added that anxiety can be a good thing.

  15. says

    I recently watched The Case For Faith and there was a point where one of the commentators, quoting someone else, said (with a highly vicious tone in his voice) to an imagined atheist “What would you tell a dying child? You have nothing to offer! Nothing!” I laughed. We have so much more to offer than prayers and wishful thinking. We have a desire to get to the root of the problem through scientific methods and hopefully prevent another death; we have reassurances that their death will not be in vain; we have promises to remember them. For the theist, death has a reason–”God Wants YOU to die. Go enjoy heaven. Why are you crying? Don’t you believe God is sending you to heaven? Why don’t you think you’re going to heaven? Don’t worry about what you did to that puppy. I’m sure God forgives you now, on your death bed. I’ll see you in heaven. What? I might not be there? But I only hit mommy once, and I asked for forgiveness, surely God will forgive me too.” The only real comfort any of us can offer a dying person is “I’ll remember you. I’ll miss you.” and possibly “I’ll continue the good work you started.” Those would be of great comfort to me.

  16. Rose says

    I remember the day that I thought “life is pointless”… and how happy that made me. It was, as you said, like a burden had been lifted. Only a few months earlier, it had dawned on me for the first time that I really would die some day, and it had kind of been haunting me, until I thought that life was pointless in the best of ways — if there isn’t a specific purpose, how can you lose? It’s yours to do with what you like and you define your own purpose.

  17. Jordan says

    It has been a while since anyone has posted here, but I stumbled across this and was curious. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:19 – “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” The choices I make to suffer now on this earth as a Christian, will prove to be pointless if God does not exist. If there is no God, then the choices I make to “die daily” and glorify Christ’s name, will have been meaningless. My life as a Christian is much harder now than what my life was like before Christ. But, with that difficulty comes perseverance, and perseverance develops character, and character yields to hope. When I became a Christian, it wasn’t because I was fearful that I would spend an eternity in Hell if I didn’t get everything together, but it was because of the irresistible joy I found in knowing who Christ actually is. The reason I said my life was much harder as a christian than it was before Christ is because without Christ, I can do whatever I want and nothing could stop me, I could enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, drugs, sex, partying, the desire to be the center of attention all the time. No one besides myself could tell me what to do. But in the end, where does it get me? After I have experienced all that there is for this world to offer, what will come next, we will always want bigger and better and more and eventually there is an end. I believe through faith that when death comes, I don’t have to partake, because the reason Jesus Christ died an a cross over 2000 years ago was so that I don’t have to die eternally, but that I may live, in the presence of the creator, which is why we were created in the first place (before sin took its hold on us). My point is that for me, life would be much more exhilarating if I were not a Christian. But my hope is not of the things of this world, so in essence, my hope is that Christ was telling the truth when he told me that he would die on a cross for my disgusting issue with pornography, and alcohol, and drugs, and sex, and my fierce problem with anger. My hope is not in things that will fail on earth, but on things that will last forever.
    I never do these sorts of things, I rarely share my opinion with others, but I felt driven. I don’t mean this in any sort of disrespect, this is just my opinion and obviously my opinion ultimately might be wrong. Thanks

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