The fantasy of atheist discomfort and doubt

There is this odd fantasy that some religious people indulge in that they think that atheists secretly feel some void in their lives and that they try to suppress but that emerges into the open when they approach death, and manifests itself in deathbed remorse and conversions. We saw how religious people looked eagerly for such signs in David Hume and were infuriated when he showed none.

Some religious people even go so far as to manufacture out of whole cloth such fantasies, as we saw with Charles Darwin. Although he was not an outspoken atheist like Hume, Darwin had clearly lost his faith in middle age and died without giving any indication that he had changed. That did not prevent someone by the name of Lady Hope from manufacturing an elaborate story about his regrets about his theory and his late conversion to Jesus.

Shortly after his death, Lady Hope addressed a gathering of young men and women at the educational establishment founded by the evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody at Northfield, Massachusetts. She had, she maintained, visited Darwin on his deathbed. He had been reading the Epistle to the Hebrews, had asked for the local Sunday school to sing in a summerhouse on the grounds, and had confessed: “How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done.” He went on, she said, to say that he would like her to gather a congregation since he “would like to speak to them of Christ Jesus and His salvation, being in a state where he was eagerly savouring the heavenly anticipation of bliss.”

This story has been thoroughly debunked, including by Darwin’s daughter, who said that Hope had not visited her father at all during his periods of illness and she thought he had never even met her. Even Answers in Genesis says that this story is probably false.

But what is interesting is why religious people feel the need to manufacture such stories. After all, atheists do not make up stories of religious people converting to atheism on their deathbeds. There seems to be this pervasive sense among believers that atheists are plagued with doubts that they try to suppress. For example, in the interminable thread about Feser’s proofs of his god’s existence, one commenter wrote taking me to task for my closed-mindedness in not reading Feser’s book and speculating that the reason might be my fear of what I might find in it.

It’s odd how one can simultaneously claim to be open to the evidence (even demanding evidence) while simultaneously settling on the comfortable ignorance of not cracking open the book.

I know, I know: It’s all nonsense anyway, so you have a reason not to want to read it.

But during moments of solitude, perhaps tucked in your bed at night as you think about the ways of the world, your gaze tracking the light and shadow on the ceiling, perhaps in such moments, don’t you wonder if maybe you really are just closed to the evidence, no different from a creationist who dismisses the evidence because it requires him to step outside his comfort zone?

Shouldn’t it bother the atheist (the rational, freethinking, skeptical, agnostic, atheist) that for all the dismissing of the book’s contents, no real refutation of the book is on hand?

These are cracks in the psychology of many atheists. And what’s peeking through is a little uncomfortable for atheism.

I found this highly amusing because I tend to be a sound sleeper, falling asleep almost at once. On those few occasions when I awake at night and cannot go back to sleep, what I think about are things that are real in my life. My thoughts never tend towards whether gods exist and the prospects for my soul because I long ago left those absurdities behind. I suspect that most atheists are like that. I no more worry about the possibility of god’s existence than of Santa Claus’s existence. Just like I left belief in Santa Claus behind, so did I leave the idea of any god. The latter just occurred much later in life but now has the same level of certainty.

It is religious people who tend to think about these things, as I did when I was a believer, because it is they who think gods are real and worry about their souls. When they think atheists are like that, they are likely projecting their own doubts and fears onto them. Hume himself felt that religion tends to increase people’s fears and anxieties. In his book The Infidel and the Professor, (p. 82) Dennis C. Rasmussen explains Hume’s reasoning:

Once the gods enter the picture, after all, we have to worry not just about the ills of the natural world – storms, droughts, floods, and the like – but also about propitiating powerful but potentially fickle beings, about the state of our souls, and about the possibility of everlasting punishment.

I still recall the immense sense of relief I felt what I realized that everything made sense once you abandoned the notion of there being any gods. I have never looked back.

To be quite honest, I now think that the idea of gods is utterly silly. What astounds me is that I took it seriously for so long. How could I have been so obtuse? Of course many people do believe in gods, including people who are close to me. I never tell them to their faces that the whole thing is too silly for words since I do not wish to hurt their feelings and, if the topic of god does come up, I express my skepticism about god’s existence in more sophisticated terms. But the brute fact is that I think the idea is absurd and lose no more sleep worrying that I might be wrong than worrying about whether fairies and Santa Claus and leprechauns and mermaids may exist.


  1. Holms says

    Most apologetics is not about convincing atheists so much as it is about satisfying the already converted. Just look at the cliche-ridden christian fantasy movies.

  2. Jean says

    I like your comparison of god with Santa Claus because that’s also how I see it. They are both fictional characters that are used to control the behaviour of kids or people by promising them gifts or eternal life. It’s just that one is more believable because you at least can see the gifts.

  3. jrkrideau says

    What do you mean, Santa Claus does’t exist? Of course he does, he even has his own postal code.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    One of the funny parts of that Feser thread was the references to “atheist apologetics”.

    Apparently if you refuse to carefully consider the latest “proofs” that the Earth is flat, you are a spherist apologist.

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