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.
My 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.)
You 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.
Atheism 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.
Speaking 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.
Now, 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.
And 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.
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.
That’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