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Jan 06 2013

The blessings of atheism

Excellent op-ed by Susan Jacoby in the NYT. The gist of it we need to step out of the shadows and come out not just as atheists, but as fellow travelers who grieve, and who can provide comfort to the grieving:

NYT– This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.

The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize. When giving talks on college campuses, I used to avoid personal discussions of my atheism. But over the years, I have changed my mind because such diffidence contributes to the false image of the atheist as someone whose convictions are removed from ordinary experience. It is vital to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.

I’d add that atheism is the doctrine of personal responsibility, the kind so often preached and rarely practiced by the elite when they need a bailout, writ large. You want cosmic answers? Better bookmark science blogs, and if those answers aren’t good enough, vote for politicians who prioritize more science, not less. You want peace? Be responsible, learn the positions of candidates and vote for the ones who aren’t saber rattling chicken-hawks.

You want longer lifespans in a paradise? A hundred billion prayers for that made to various deities over millennia have gone unanswered. But every advance in medicine buys some of us more time, and every war, epidemic and environmental disaster averted or mitigated reduces suffering. Extrapolate that forward and there is at least hope for much longer and happier lives.

Unlike most of the helpless people who lived and died before us, those of us in a modern democracy have the power in our hands to create the society we want to live in and the growing tools of science at our disposal to bring it about. The less we count on magical invisible beings and the more we use the tools at hand, the sooner we will harvest the fruits of that proven method. Religious clerics will rail against anything that diminishes their power. But for the rest of us, the way forward is crystal clear and has been for generations.

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