I got an email recently from Allan of New Zealand, who writes:
Hi Greta. Read your site, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God. Very interesting. I believe a life well lived is a comfort too because loved ones who are left. Have great memories to reflect on, and of course right living means a good model is left for future generations.
But as a Christian I also believe there is nothing that beats knowing one day you will see your loved ones again, that it’s not actually the end. After all we are are born… we grow… we marry… we work… we die… and have joy and sorrow along the way but is that it?? The same cycle for our children and our children’s children… if that’s it what’s the point. One of the reason I became a Christian is because I always believed, even as a near atheist, there to be a greater purpose in life.
I have two responses to this. One is more comforting, offering meaning and hope in a world with God or an afterlife. The other is a whole lot more hard-assed… but in some ways, I think it’s a lot more important.
The more comforting answer is: Yes, I believe that in a world without God or an afterlife, both life and death can have meaning and hope. I’ve written about this at length: not just in the Comforting Thoughts piece, but elsewhere. I’ve written that permanence isn’t a very good measure of meaning or importance, and that brief, transitory experiences can be every bit as valuable as stone monuments. I’ve written that sometimes the most seemingly silly and trivial experiences can create the greatest meaning and joy. I’ve written that the entirely physical nature of our being doesn’t make us drown or disappear in the vastness of the universe — it connects us intimately with it. I’ve written about how even death can be seen as connecting us intimately with the universe, part of the cycle of the physical and natural world. I’ve written that thinking of death as a deadline — a serious, non- negotiable, drop- dead deadline — can give our lives motivation and focus, inspiring us to do the things that matter to us now instead of putting them off indefinitely. I’ve written that there’s no reason to think that any particular scale of size or time is more important than any other, and that the human scale has every bit as much value as the universal scale.
That’s just a sampling. And other atheists have written similar things as well. A life without God or an afterlife can still have meaning, purpose, and an intimate connection with the arc of human history and with the vastness of time and space.
So that’s my “There is so comfort and purpose in an atheist life” answer.
Now here’s my hard-assed answer.
Since when is, “I really, really want X to be true” an argument for why X is true?
“Nothing beats knowing that X is true” is not an argument for why X is true. “If X isn’t true, then what’s the point?” is not an argument for why X is true. “X gives me a sense of a greater purpose in life” is not an argument for why X is true.
Or at least, it’s not a good argument.
This is what Ingrid calls “the argument from wishful thinking.” And if it were made about anything else in the world, our response would either be pity or an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. If I were to argue that ice cream doesn’t have any calories, that the California economy is flourishing, that I have a six-figure book contract, that I’m going to live for a thousand years, that the Middle East is a utopia of peace and harmony, that Alan Rickman and Rachel Maddow are waiting outside my front door right now to ravish me for hours — simply because I really, really want these things to be true — nobody would consider that a good argument. Nobody would take it seriously, even for a second.
So why do people consider it a valid argument when it comes to God and religion?
Let’s take a hypothetical. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the most extreme version of this argument is true. Let’s suppose that a world without God or an afterlife really is a shallow, joyless, hopeless, isolated void. Let’s suppose that atheists really do have nothing to offer, no tidings of comfort and joy, and that the only way to view life as having meaning and purpose is to view it through the lens of religion. (I don’t think that, obviously; but hypothetically, let’s suppose.)
That’s still not an argument for why God and the afterlife are real. It’s just adding more “really”s to the “I really, really want X to be true” argument. It just turns the argument into, “I really, really, really, REALLY want X to be true. No, you don’t understand — really. If X isn’t true, that completely blows.” And that doesn’t make the argument any more convincing.
The argument from wishful thinking is completely backwards. It picks a pleasant philosophy first… and then crams reality into it, whether it fits or not. And that’s backwards. Reality comes first. Reality is more important than our opinions or wishes. It makes much more sense to look at reality first… and then find a philosophy consistent with it that we find useful and meaningful. (And then, of course, to modify that philosophy as needed when our understanding of reality changes.)
And the reality is that a belief in God, the soul, and the afterlife are just not consistent with the evidence.
Believe it or not, despite my “WTF?” tone here, I’m more sympathetic to this argument than you might imagine. I held on to spiritual beliefs for a long time, not because I thought the best evidence supported them, but because I found the idea of permanent death to be dreadfully painful. I wasn’t doing this consciously… but I was definitely doing it.
But as I wrote in Atheism and the Argument from Comfort: This 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 try to imagine living without it. Other people have. And it works. Atheists around the world have found ways to see life — this life, just this short one that we have right now — as profoundly joyful and meaningful. Many of us even find it vastly preferable to a life with religion, offering more hope, more consistency, more empowerment, and more genuine meaning. And it offers the extra comfort of knowing that our life is built on the solid rock of reality… and not on the unstable sands of wishful thinking.
Atheism and the Argument from Comfort