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.
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.