The Blessings Of Atheism

Is my disbelief a blessing?
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.
It depends on what is stressing
Me, and how my struggles go.
I have no need for confessing,
“Asking God” is much too slow
Since it’s just the same as guessing
While I bow my head just so
I am glad no god is messing
With my actions just for show
And I think it’s worth expressing
When the time is apropos.

Sorry, that was just a quick little nothing, in order to talk about this opinion piece by Susan Jacoby at the New York Times, “The Blessings of Atheism”. It’s a very pro-atheism piece (as well it should be, with Jacoby a proudly “out” atheist), prompted by the Newtown shootings (or, more precisely, prompted by a conversation that was prompted by the shootings), and the observation that consolation in times of grief is seen as wholly the jurisdiction of those with faith.

I, of course, disagree (and have written about it elsewhere), but agree with Jacoby that this view appears ubiquitous in the media. We are called to renew our faith, perhaps precisely because such events (as they should) shake the belief in a loving god to its very foundation.

IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.

It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.

Mind you, I wouldn’t have written the same piece Jacoby does (for one thing, hers is shockingly lacking in doggerel rhyme, and for another, our personal journeys are of course different), but it is well worth the read, and it is a breath of fresh air to see in the mainstream media (although, of course, it will be dismissed by a great many precisely because it is in that liberal bastion, the NY Times).


  1. otrame says

    On 9/11/01, late in the afternoon, a coworker came by my desk. She knew I am an atheist, and she was curious.

    It just occurred to me. Who do you pray to when something this horrible happens?

    I don’t pray.

    I can’t imagine not having anyone to pray to. How can you find any comfort?

    There isn’t any comfort to be had. Thousands of people were just murdered. It’s a horrible thing. There is no comfort.

    It seems sad to me. To have to face something like this alone.

    Well, at least I don’t have to come up with a reason why God would allow something like this to happen.

    I’ll never forget the look on her face. I think she saw it, then, for just a second (before her mind dealt with the dissonance). I think she saw the blessing you are talking about.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Seems odd to think that facing something like that with the people you know, with family, friends, co-workers, the millions of others who watched it unfold, is facing it “alone”. What is it about all these other people that doesn’t count for your co-worker?

  3. says

    Jacoby writes well, and makes some reasonable points, but overall I think her NYT article did more harm than good. She doesn’t make a case for atheism, portrays it as just another belief system, and appears to want a church-like structure complete with buildings, bylaws, annointed leaders, official spokespersons, and inevitably with official dogma followed by schisms. She wants to compete head on with organized religion by copying the strengths she perceives as well as its odious tactics. That, IMO, is a fool’s errand.

    I realize that Jacoby does speak for many atheists of the sort who read FtB, but she certainly doesn’t speak for me or for the atheists I know in real life.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    jenny, could you maybe quote the bits of Jacoby’s article you see those beliefs in? I don’t see it there, but I know full well that this could be my reading.

  5. says

    OK, Cuttle, here you go.

    Jacoby is in quotes. My comments are in parens.


    “Some of those grieving parents surely *believe*, as I do, that this is our one and only life.”

    “This widespread misapprehension that atheists *believe* in nothing positive …”

    (Jacoby never mentions logic or evidence. To her, at least in this article, atheism is a belief.)

    “… is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield …” (That’s a bald-faced lie. From Pew: “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).” Absence of religious affiliation is not necessarily absence of religion and absence of religion is not necessarily absence of belief in some sort of god thingie. Most of that 20% don’t qualify as ‘secularly inclined.’)

    “One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions.” (Huh? The majority of community institutions are unrelated to religion.) (What she means is, she wants to form church-like institutions that are atheist.)

    “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.” (Is that image really widespread? If so, why do we want to erase that image? Aren’t the religious going to believe whatever they want to believe?)

    “The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize.” (Yeah, we want to make our position known, but we damn well oppose buttonholing and threatening people like THEY do.)

    “Now when students ask how I came to believe what I *believe*, …” (More on atheism as a belief system.)

    “It is a positive blessing, not a negation of *belief*, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.” (More on atheism as a belief system.)

    “The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next.” (As individuals, of course, but do we want atheist priests in hospitals? Do we want American Atheists quoting Ms O’Hare to Senate committees? Oh, boy, that would sure help the gun control cause!)

    “Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith.” (But she wants to butt in on religious services like the one at Newtown.)

    “We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held *conviction* that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.” (‘Conviction’! I guess she didn’t want to say ‘belief’ too often. She’s sounding like Falwell.)

    “Robert Green Ingersoll … used his secular pulpit to advocate for social causes like justice for African-Americans, women’s rights, prison reform and the elimination of cruelty to animals.” (He did so as an individual, not as a high priest of atheism.)

    “He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission.” (Again, as an individual.)

    “And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.” (So, are we gonna dress them up in pink and purple robes? Will they need a degree from an accredited institution of atheistic argumentation? Will they be trained to prattle about their beliefs and convictions? What exactly will they be programmed to say? Well, I suppose that would depend on what atheist denomination they adhere to. Will it be the Southern Atheist Convention, the Reformed Southern Atheist Convention, The Harvard Chapter of the Buffalo Atheist Buffoons, or what?)

    “Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but ‘only perfect rest.’” (And I’m sure that all of them were, privately, but not at a religious service held by and for the superstitious. Jacoby says above that “atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith”, but she wants to contradict the beliefs of the faithful at a gathering of the faithful.)


  6. Cuttlefish says

    I wish Jacoby could read that and respond; I can, if I squint a bit, see where you get your interpretation, but it is worlds away from mine, and (from my perspective, obviously) it appears that the things you have the biggest objections to are found in your extrapolations rather than the original content.

    But thanks for unpacking your original comment!

  7. says

    I wish Jacoby could read that and respond;

    So, send it to her.

    I can, if I squint a bit, see where you get your interpretation …

    I don’t think I interpret. Instead, I take what she says to its logical conclusion. For example, when she says, “And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy,” how on earth is she going to accomplish that other than as I suggest?

    it appears that the things you have the biggest objections to are found in your extrapolations rather than the original content.

    See above. Recall also that Jacoby is a professional writer. She appears often in the NYT. If she hasn’t learned by now to bulletproof her prose, if she doesn’t read her own stuff litertally and take each rotund vague phrase to its logical implementation, if she doesn’t then edit to assure that she really says what she means and means what she says, she shouldn’t be writing in behalf of atheism.

    Her article is exactly the kind of crap that mainstream publications love to print. It offends no one, because it contains everyone’s favorite multi-meaning buzzwords. Maybe she was just writing to be published. Hey, it’s the first of the new year when the bills roll in. Maybe she just wanted to collect the fee.

    But thanks for unpacking your original comment!

    Is it now your turn to unpack what you said to me?

  8. blehdude says

    In the face of tragedy, sorrow, or accidents, I really believe most theists realize that afterlife is just a fantasy. They may seek answers on why their god would allow these things to happen, but me thinks that deep down, they know that the will never see their loved ones again. When somebody dies and their destination is heaven, isn’t this reason to celebrate? You should see theists high-fiving in funerals. It would show great conviction.

  9. Don says

    I just didn’t understand her article.

    She seems to say that atheism provides comfort or some other answer to horrible tragedy. Atheism is nonbelief. As nonbelief it has no independent meaning. Beliefs may provide comfort, or increase a person’s pain, it is true. A person can take comfort that the children are in heaven, or reincarnated, or have rage at a non-existent god. Obviously, religion works for many people to provide comfort.

    Once god is eliminated from the equation, one can find comfort elsewhere – in the goodness of humanity, or in our ability to improve our society. But that isn’t hope in atheism. There are plenty of atheist philosophers who are incredible pessimists.

    Atheism eliminates the theodicy problem, but it doesn’t give any answer to the pain from horrible acts. We still feel impotent rage at the injustice. But the universe is benignly indifferent, as Camus said. If anything, our feelings of injustice and despair are simply not warranted. The Sandy Hook shooter doesn’t threaten the species or seriously threaten the larger social fabric. As with every other species, millions of children die every day, most avoidably and, from our perspective, tragically. If anything, we are overpopulated, and a few more dead kids isn’t a setback for the race. I can’t see how nonbelief lends moral gravity to our actions: this is a fairytale.

    Nonbelief can avoid the ill effects of religion. It can lead to more realistic assessments of our problems and more efficient solutions. It doesn’t provide “blessings” as religion can.

    Is there something I missed in the article?

  10. Cuttlefish says

    Don, I have to disagree with a number of assertions you make. My own experience, both with believers losing loved ones and with atheists (including myself) losing loved ones, is far from what you describe.

    With a good many believers, the loss of a loved one is not just the loss of a loved one, but also a seismic event that shakes the foundations of their faith. If their loved one is going to heaven, why am I so sad? Do I think he might be going to hell? Do I lack the faith I claim? Is god testing me, or not on my side, or impotent or nonexistent? The theodicy problem is not an abstract for some people; rather, it is a very personal wound at a time of mourning. As a believer, my sister struggled (both immediately and in the longer term) with my brother’s death, asking why god would do this, feeling guilty that her prayers (and those of hundreds more in her prayer circles) were not enough. I was not asking “why?”; I was spared much of the pain that my sister’s doubts heaped upon her understandable mourning. In a sense, of course this is a blessing (though not given by anything or anyone–we use “blessing” in many more senses than that).

    So I did not have feelings of injustice or rage. Despair, sure, and sadness. And of course those were warranted. “A few more dead kids” need not be a setback for the race in order to warrant mourning; as a parent, I would find it difficult not to imagine myself in the place of the parents of those few kids. When my brother died, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the species or the larger social fabric, nor about the overpopulation of the planet. My brother was dead, and I would never again get to laugh with him, or canoe with him, or argue, or tell stupid jokes. The moral gravity Jacoby speaks of is in that view; knowing that there will be no afterlife, no reunion, no second shot. Atheism does not mean we think in terms of populations and biology (although we could); in practice, it means we cherish the here and now. Or rather, that has been my experience; it appears we may not share that.

    Losing a loved one is a complex experience. The individual variations in belief within and between faith (and lack therof) communities is tremendous. Lacking a belief in some higher purpose, some afterlife, some eternal plan, both gives comfort and adds gravity, in turns and simultaneously. Believing there is some vast, eternal plan may well give comfort (if one’s faith can stand up to the challenge), and drive one to feelings of injustice, rage, and despair (if it cannot). So far, in my own personal experience, the closer you are to the loved one you lose, the less comfort religion gives. Those who make the public claims that we all need faith in times like these, I notice, tend to be professionals, and not actually close to those who have died.

  11. Don says


    Thank you for the thoughtful response. I have no doubt that for some believers, the theodicy problem that compounds pain. But not for others – or it is unlikely that religion would be invoked by so many people in times of tragedy. So, as I think I said, a belief can be a source of pain, or a source of comfort, depending on the person and the situation.

    “So I did not have feelings of injustice or rage” –

    Not everyone does, but such feelings are natural and not unusual. Feelings differ from person to person.

    “A few more dead kids” need not be a setback for the race in order to warrant mourning”

    I think we disagree about the word “warrant.” Obviously, it causes morning. But it does no good, and in fact, death isn’t a loss for the species, or the society. If you are talking about a close relative, it is a loss for you. But, assuming you aren’t close to the children killed, these feelings may be evolutionary programmed, in some way useful to the social fabric, but not “warranted” by an objective look at the circumstances.

    “Lacking a belief in some higher purpose, some afterlife, some eternal plan, both gives comfort and adds gravity,”

    I think my main point/question (and I did leave it open that I didn’t “get it) was that nonbelief, by its nature, cannot do this. You have to have a belief, in something. I’m not saying you need to have a belief in something supernatural or illogical. You have to have a belief, for example, that the grief will promote some positive social action, bring people closer together, etc. Nonbelief is a negative, and hence empty of content. I also have a hard time accepting that belief in an afterlife really does have a psychological effect on people cherishing their lives. I don’t think that a religious person somehow doesn’t feel things acutely, because they believe that they may see their loved one when they die in thirty years, instead of never. Death isn’t grave (no pun intended) and it certainly can’t add gravity. Death is a commonplace fact of life. Objectively, there is nothing particularly important about what happened in Sandy Hook. If you think otherwise, you have a belief of some sort. Maybe not a supernatural or unjustified or illogical belief, but a belief.

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