An honest atheist’s reply to Ted Wright – Part Two

(This is – as people can probably figure out – the second part of my reply to a post by Ted Wright. This post, to be exact. The first part should be listed at the ‘previous post’ link at the top and bottom of this post, so I won’t bother to link it separately.)

So, Ted, the last post was my reply to your thoughts on the logical consequences of atheism. This, as promised, is my thoughts on the logical consequences of what, to borrow your term, we can call ‘classical Christianity’ (I do recognise that Christianity covers a wide range of beliefs and that there are many Christians – possibly including yourself, for all I know – who don’t share the beliefs I’m about to discuss below.)

The teaching of classical Christianity regarding the afterlife is that, while Christians spend eternity in a wonderful heaven, everyone else is doomed to go to hell and suffer eternal torment.

As I say, specifics of belief on this vary. (I recall a line I liked in Antonia White’s ‘Frost in May’; a Catholic says to a Protestant who laments the awfulness of this doctrine, “It’s only a dogma that Hell exists; it isn’t a dogma that there’s anybody in it.”.) There are many Christians who don’t believe in hell at all, and, among Christians who do believe it, there are differences of opinion on, for example, which of the following groups would end up there:

  • People who, for reasons of where or when they live, simply never get to hear about Christianity at all.
  • People who reject Christianity because they have, from childhood on, been taught a different religious belief that includes the teaching that Christianity is false and that God would be heartily displeased were they to convert to it, thus meaning that they sincerely believe that they are better pleasing God by avoiding Christianity altogether.
  • People who reject Christianity because, having carefully investigated it, they conclude it to be false.
  • People who never really get as far as accepting or rejecting Christianity because they believe the important thing is to lead good lives and help others, and hence focus their energies on this rather than on investigating the details of religion.

By Christian teachings, at least some of those people are, in return for no very great sin or crime, doomed to be eternally tormented in hell. According to Christian beliefs, good and kind people are facing this fate not for any wrong, but simply for being imperfect humans who either genuinely disbelieved in Christianity, or simply happened to miss out on whatever twist of chance and circumstance might have led them to Christian belief. This is happening as a direct result of the grand plan of the Being supposedly in charge of the universe.

That is a crushing catastrophe. That is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn.

That is also, I recognise, not a point that affects whether the Christian faith is true. I told you in the last post that I’ve striven to form my beliefs as honestly as possible, based on evidence rather than desirability, and that applies here as well; just as I tried my utmost to avoid allowing the desirability of other forms of afterlife to lead me into religious beliefs that I couldn’t honestly back up with evidence, so I tried my utmost to avoid allowing the horror of Christian teachings to put me off. I investigated Christianity in detail, as fairly as I could, and only rejected it once I truly felt I had enough evidence that Christian beliefs were incorrect. I knew that, if the evidence was that the universe really was run by such a monster – that life really was that hopeless – then I wouldn’t be able to change that reality, and would have to do my best to accept it. I tried my best to keep an open mind as I investigated, and I do believe I managed that.

But I hope the above explains why I’ve always found it rather ironic when Christians try to tell me what an awful worldview atheism is.

An honest atheist’s reply to Ted Wright – Part One

There’s a new Christian blogger in town; Ted Wright, founder of a group called Epic Archaeology, who has now set up a blog called Off The Map. He’s started off with a post titled Honest Atheism, of which the summary is basically ‘Excuse me, atheists, could I just point out to you that your worldview really sucks for you? Stay tuned to hear more about the comparative joys of Christianity.’

I thought I’d write a reply, which I’m splitting into two posts due to length. Content warning for talk of death and dying.

This is the first (real) post of my new personal blog, and it will be… to put it bluntly…disturbing and to some, depressing. This is intentional. My goal is simply to get people to really THINK about what it is that they believe, and to see the logical conclusions of what they believe about ultimate reality.


Let’s say for a moment that atheism really was as depressing a worldview as you believe. (I disagree, but set that aside for a moment.) What good do you feel it would do you to rub that in? Reality isn’t going to change for our benefit regardless of how depressing it is, and I assume (I hope correctly) that you wouldn’t advise anyone to choose their beliefs based on what feels good.

But, OK, let’s go for it – let’s both look at the logical conclusions of what we believe about ultimate reality. I’ll go first, since you wrote the blog post.

First, though, we have this:

Sproul taught that when all of the various worldviews are boiled down to their basic components, there are only two in the end for us to choose from – two views of reality in which all people must put their ultimate hope and trust: full orbed Classical Christian Theism or Atheistic-Nihilism.  I fully agree with this assessment. Like Sproul, I am also fully aware how how this understanding appears to commit either/or fallacy in logic. I don’t think it does. Either there is a God and all that Christian Theism implies (including miracles, the afterlife, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead); or there is NO GOD, no afterlife, and life is completely and utterly absurd.

Whoa, there. Are you planning a follow-up post to justify that claim? I hope so, because I think that anyone who’s going to dismiss polytheism, deism, agnosticism, Judaic theism, Islamic theism, and probably a few other -isms I’m not thinking of into the bargain as being so incorrect as to become somehow functionally nonexistent for purposes of consideration should darned well justify that attitude beyond a mere handwave.

(Also – yes, I have spotted you slipping in your opinion about atheism at the end of that as though it could be stated as objective fact. I get that you believe that if atheism is correct then ‘life is completely and utterly absurd’, and you’re welcome to that opinion, but do be aware that it is an opinion and that there are many people who don’t share it.)

Anyway, on to Ted’s thoughts on how awful atheism must be as a worldview and on how bizarre he finds it that atheists don’t seem to feel that way:

What I find quite interesting is that many atheists, as well as those who are a-religious, or hard agnostics, ACT as if life has meaning, significance & value

Because to us, it does.

They conduct their affairs and live their lives as if there REALLY IS ultimate meaning and significance.

No – just as though there’s meaning and significance. Because, as you point out a couple of sentences later, there is. Meaning and significance are not things which have to be ‘ultimate’ or eternal or God-ordained to exist.

Where does the meaning come from? What exactly gives it [sic] meaning?

Very likely from most of the same places yours does. I’d be surprised if the only thing you found meaningful in your life was your worship practices; it’s far more likely that your life contains at least some out of family, friends, some kind of meaningful work, enjoyable hobbies, and the chance to make a positive impact on others, all of which are very important potential sources of meaning.

Are they brutally honest with the implications of their atheism – of there being no God? Do they look down the road to see where it leads – so to speak?

I can only speak for myself here – and I’ll be interested to hear what any other atheists weighing in on this have to say – but, yes. I’ve always been well aware that, if there’s no god, then that means that a) there’s no higher power to help out in times of crisis, and b) it’s extremely unlikely that there is any form of afterlife.

(I put ‘extremely unlikely’ because it’s technically possible to believe in a godless universe where an afterlife still exists; after all, Buddhists manage it. It’s not what an atheist would typically believe, however, and it’s not what I believe.)

Unless I’m wrong about my beliefs, the ‘me’ part of me is going to wink out completely when I die. No reincarnation, no living on in a blissful afterlife, no nothing. And the same is going to happen to everyone else, meaning that, when I lose loved ones, I have no chance of ever meeting them again. Honestly, Ted… as much as these things might suck, they aren’t deep dark secrets about atheism, or obscure points that might have escaped our attention. They’re well-known, obvious facts. I’m going to be pretty surprised if you can find many atheists who, prior to you bringing this to their attention, were blithely unaware of the fact that no god = almost certainly no afterlife = when we’re dead, we’re gone with no do-overs.

Yes, I’d certainly have preferred it if all the searching I’d done on the matter (which was a lot, in case you’re wondering, and the posts at that link don’t even include all the considerable amount of investigating I did of Christianity specifically) had led me to the belief that the world was in the charge of some kind of benevolent higher power. I’d certainly have preferred to believe that I’d get the chance to live on in some pleasant and enjoyable type of existence after my death (my personal preference would be for reincarnation, but I’d have happily settled for some kind of merit-based afterlife). Concluding that neither of the above appeared to be the case wasn’t the sort of devastating abandon-all-hope experience you seem to think it would be, but it wasn’t something I was wildly thrilled about. But… that isn’t a good reason to choose a belief. I couldn’t in all honesty convince myself that the evidence supported belief in a god or an afterlife, and I didn’t want to be someone who based her beliefs on wishful thinking.

“[…]Yes, for the thoughtful atheist death must loom as a crushing catastrophe. Everything good, noble, beautiful experienced throughout life is about to vanish…

not simply for a week or two,

not for a century,

…but forever.

On the atheist’s premise death is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn” [Quoted from Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet]

Now, that strikes me as hyperbole. Yes, it sucks to know that we may well not get to do everything we want before we die. It sucks worse to know that, if a loved one dies before us, that’s it – we will never see them again outside our memories and imaginations. But‘crushing catastrophe’? ‘[N]ightmare unbroken by a dawn’? Death, from our perspective, is nonexistence. What Dubay seems to be saying here is that death itself will be a terrible experience to be endured, when, in fact, the very nature of it means that we won’t experience it (beyond, possibly, the seconds of actually slipping into death) at all. It’s not as though we’re going to be spending eternity lamenting the loss of all those good and noble and beautiful things we wanted to experience; we won’t be experiencing anything at all, and that’s that.

I also have to say that what you’re saying does seem to me to be a bit contradictory here. You’re saying (via Dubay’s quote) that the loss of existence is ‘a crushing catastrophe’ and ‘a nightmare unbroken by a dawn’. Surely, the implication of that is that existence is a good thing that is worth having. I’m… puzzled as to how someone can feel that way, value existence that way, and yet only feel able to enjoy existence if it’s going to be permanent rather than temporary.

Ted, you seem to be just as puzzled about the fact that I, and others, do feel able to enjoy existence even in the expectation that it’s temporary. (To the point where, in the comments, you’re accusing everyone who feels this way of not being ‘honest’. That, seriously, is out of order. There are people in the world who don’t share your views. That doesn’t make them dishonest; it makes them people who feel differently from you.) So, maybe, try this; think about things that we all know are temporary, but that we enjoy anyway.

What about the experience of bringing up children? While I’ll always be a parent to my two children, their time as children is not going to be permanent. The baby cuddles and the early words and the school days and all those wonderful stages of growth and development they go through… some of those have already passed forever, and all of the rest will as well. And I knew that would happen when I chose to have children. Do you find it absurd or incomprehensible that I and millions of other people choose to have children, knowing the experience of parenting children will, although wonderful and fulfilling, be temporary?

What about careers? I love my work as a doctor with a passion, to the point where I plan to go back part-time even after I retire; but, eventually, either death or sheer decrepitude will put an end to it. (And that’s true even on your worldview, by the way; I’m assuming you don’t believe that people who get into heaven or hell go on working at their careers there.) From what I’ve seen, I believe you feel the same way about your work in archaeology, which is also something you’re probably not expecting to keep doing in heaven. Do you find it strange that we both love and enjoy our work even in the knowledge that it will someday come to an end for us?

I hope that helps to give you some insight into why people who don’t believe in an afterlife can still find their lives purposeful, meaningful and enjoyable. If not… well, I’m afraid it’s simply a case of ‘agree to differ’. (In which case, I repeat; the fact that some people feel differently from you on this subject does not make them dishonest. It makes them people who feel differently from you. I hope you will, in future, be able to do others the courtesy of respecting this fact.)

I think that exhausts the logical conclusions of what I believe about ultimate reality. I’ll therefore end the post here and move on to a second post to discuss the logical conclusions of Christian beliefs about the afterlife.