Now I will address a very sensitive point in this book, but one I feel very heartfelt about. I am going to make a bold, arguably arrogant assertion: Atheism better reflects the world we live in than theism. Now let me explain.
Let me illustrate what I mean through the use of a potent example. There is a herculean issue looming over all religions, and it looms heavily over atheism: death. What happens to us when our bodies die? Many versions of theism provide an answer to this question as I have pointed out before, mainly, that there is life after death. Atheism does not provide nor entail any such answer. The belief that there is no God in no way makes any indication about the nature and even the existence of an afterlife. I will divide my discussion of this deep issue in half; I will discuss the practical aspect in what follows right now, but I will suspend the more detailed emotional account of death for a later chapter.
First of all, atheism does not preclude the belief that there is no afterlife. An atheist is free to reject God and yet support some form of afterlife or another. Like I said before, this is part of the flexibility atheism provides. But I want to try to defend a more difficult view because it is one that I strongly believe in. To be perfectly honest, I do not know what will happen to me when my body dies, but I am living my life as if there was no afterlife. Why would I do this? It’s because every account of an afterlife has dissatisfied me, or at least struck me as unlikely. Besides having no real evidence for an afterlife, the idea of an afterlife seems far too speculative and vague. I speculate all the time, have no doubt of that; but I’m not dead, and I simply do not know what is going to happen when I die. As far as I can tell, however, when the physical body dies, that is all there is to it: complete death of the person seems to follow. I can’t prove that for sure, but I believe it anyway.
The reason I bring this up is because I am far from being the only atheist who holds this view. The truth is, I think even people who believe in God and in an afterlife have some serious doubts too. We’re all in the same predicament, atheist and theist alike, and we’re all looking at the issue of death from the same angle: the angle of the living.
Theism offers a lot of solace, but sometimes it’s hard to swallow. I would think that if I truly believed in heaven and that good deeds would get me there, I would have little trouble in performing those good deeds, right? If my confidence were truly high, it would surely outweigh any doubts, and then my passage would be easily earned to a secure, pleasant afterlife. Very few us have such confidence, though. Theists surely doubt too, but that doesn’t mean that secretly they somehow believe they’re wrong. We are humans and we fear death. What are we going to do about it? That is what our religion tries to help us deal with.
But speaking only of practicalities, I want to say that the belief that there will not be an afterlife can still make one live a hopeful, productive life. I say this confidently because it has been done so many times before by great people. Let me go deeper; though speculating upon death is natural, the evidence hits its ceiling very quickly. Death, however fearful, really begins to tread water if it is dwelt upon too long. I try to live my life without the fear of death looming behind me, and that is not out of a sense of denial. I do so because that’s all I can do. I don’t know if an afterlife exists or not, and even if it did, I don’t know what kind of afterlife it would be. I would run myself ragged trying to shift my life in order to achieve understanding of afterlife, and in some cases trying to attain it (like Christians need to try to attain heaven). Instead, I live my life for all its worth. I live my life as if there was no afterlife, and that leads to great practical benefits.
First of all, I treasure my life very much. I take cautions to preserve it and to keep it healthy. I hope these will help me live longer, and prevent me from taking unnecessary risks with my life. "You only live once" has been used to condone risky, bold behavior. But I believe that it is true, and that motivates me to be less shy about certain matters, to relish in this life and to act boldly, not rashly. If I do not tell someone something and then they die, I feel that I have really missed out on my opportunity to tell them certain things. This might make someone’s life filled with regret, but at least it is a good motivation for being honest and open with the people you love.
These things all make some sense to us intuitively. We all try to take cautions to preserve our health and survival; we all try to be open with our friends and family, or at least we want to try. Most of us are not relying on the afterlife to tell our friends something important, and we generally try to tell it to them when they are still alive. Why? Maybe because we still doubt that there will be a chance after we die to tell them. To say, "I’ll see them in heaven" or "I’ll tell them in heaven" may be reassuring thoughts, but still, don’t we truly desire to see them now and tell them now while they’re still alive?
We also mourn for our dead. On the deathbeds of our loved ones, we tell them all the intimate things we have been meaning to tell them all along. That is the human condition and that is how we as humans treat death. We are fearful, but we try to maintain our dignity. I feel that this is a good example of what I mean when I say that atheism is more attuned to reality than theism. We are very ignorant of the true metaphysical reality of things, though we speculate upon them all the time. But there is a human reality, however flawed, that most of us still abide by. Theism takes the issue of death and creates a conclusion that goes against so much of our human intuition; it tells us that there is nothing to be afraid of, and the reason for that is because there is another life waiting for us.
I’m telling you this: there may be another life, but there may very well not be another life. Our doubts are as vivid as they are because that’s the best we as humans can do to objectively assess the situation. It’s alright to be afraid, and in fact it’s very natural, but there is no need to dwell upon that fear. We don’t really know what happens to us upon death, but we do know that we are alive now. We must live that life to the best of our ability. The belief that there is no afterlife doesn’t need to lay waste to all hope and optimism, either. Death is a mystery, so worry less about what happens when you die than about what is happening right now while you are living. Enjoy your life; seek to enrich it and make it satisfying. Use the mystery of death as an indication that life may very well be limited, and that it therefore must be valued more and must be led more honorably.
Theism offers people a lot of hope, and for that I am pleased. But I think that one can hold the same amount of hope without denying their true feelings about the matter. Atheism can be very honest about the world, sometimes painfully honest. But it does not necessarily lead to anarchy or despair. Atheism still leads to many of the same beneficial conclusions that theism leads to, except by perhaps a more honest route to some people.
The benefits the atheist can enjoy are not much different than the benefits the theist enjoys. But because the atheist is accepting their honest human emotions, not something other-worldly, they are earning their beliefs and feelings more honestly. Atheism taps directly into the human perspective not only about death, but about God too. Many people honestly feel just as doubtful and confused about God as they do about death. Atheism can thus potentially offer everything good theism can offer in this lifetime, except that the honest route atheism takes might lend itself to a greater stability and satisfaction for many people.
The final pragmatic point I want to raise about atheism is in its drive to improve the condition of humankind. I dare say that most religions strive to make our lives gentler, more peaceful, and better all around. Atheists have done as much for society and the human condition as any other religious group, and may perhaps hold a stronger motivation for doing so.
For example, a large faction of atheists are known as Humanists. Humanism is an ideal shared by some ancient Greeks, reborn in the Renaissance, and which has never truly died out of human thought. The meaning has changed over the centuries, but its sentiment remains basically this: that human potential, achievement, and well-being is worthy of much of our attention and effort. Modern Humanists might even say that it is worthy of all our effort, but one may choose not to commit themselves to that strong an ideal if they choose not to.Humanism is therefore very devoted to the improvement of the human condition, and I almost feel foolish in having to state the obvious practical rewards that an improved society would yield.
Take the capital "H" off of Humanism, and regard Humanism less as a school of thought, but more informally as a general term denoting those basic aims I just defined. In this sense, almost every theistic religion I can think of is humanistic. Most religions promote good deeds, self-improvement, and the appreciation of human life. But my point is that atheism may lead to a more rapid improvement of the human condition than theism, and thus may be more practical to humankind. A Christian, I would think, will be apt to anticipate my line of reasoning: "Don’t make humans out to be gods," some Christian might warn. The truth is, humans are obviously not gods, but neither are they the pitiful creatures we sometimes see described in the Bible. The Bible often call humans worthy of God’s wrath and full of sin, and Christianity sometimes overextends humility into outright debasement.
Many theistic religions are also other-worldly. By this I mean that they seem to emphasize God and his realm as extremely superior to the human realm. That seems to be a logical belief if God is infinitely powerful. But this idea leads a lot of humans headlong into guilt, fear, and general feelings of self-worthlessness. These feelings arise too often in theistic religions to be ignored. I will describe the value of humility in a later chapter, but suffice for me to say here that humility is a wonderful virtue. Still, in order to truly lead to the improvement of humankind, we cannot be entirely guilt-ridden, demeaned figures. We have to have some confidence in ourselves and some pride in our own work. We don’t need to construct towers of Babel, but we can make a caring and confident effort to make things better. Confidence gives us the hope and belief that it can be done, and it doesn’t need to lead into hunger for power or overestimation of human capabilities.
Although most religions are varyingly humanistic, I fear that many versions of theism lead to a stagnation of the human will caused by feelings of low self-esteem. A good example of this is the monastic lifestyle. Here are people who devote themselves to prayer and meditation, and do little else. Though they are certainly free to do as they please, they serve no practical function in society. Some believe that their function is to pray for the world and ask for blessings, but as an atheist, that function may as well mean nothing to me at all.
Atheism praises humankind, and rarely does it take on as other-worldly a stance as theism, although it very well could. This I believe makes atheism a potentially more humanistic belief than theism, again making it potentially more practical.
I hope this seems like no small discussion, because these pragmatic qualities have personally inspired me. I’ve led a very practical and productive life since I became an atheist, more so than when I was Christian. I still want to give theists some benefit of the doubt, and to this end I will try to describe some more legitimate complaints I have heard about atheism. There will be only two, but they are two very large concerns: about the moral instability atheism can lead to, and the absolutism that the statement, "there is no God" implies. I am going to devote a small section to this last concern in order to refine my definition of atheism and also to give agnosticism a serious look.
Theism has at least one thing going for it that atheism does not. When you accept a theistic religion, there is great assistance from other believers in helping you become acquainted with that belief. Not only is literature available to assist you, but usually a whole community is prepared to accept you and help you. That makes the religious transition into Christianity very smooth. Also, following the belief in a God comes a whole network of new beliefs that help provide a complete world-view. In an earlier section, I tried to diffuse the completeness of this picture by noting some of the possible gaps and ambiguities theistic beliefs can leave. But nevertheless, there is at least some kind of general network provided for with the belief in God, and this is very useful.
Atheism really doesn’t work that way. When you choose to believe that there is not a God, a network of beliefs does not follow, nor is there a community to enter who will help you, nor even very much literature to help you with your religious life. It is a personal decision often met by a silent reply. Atheism, unlike theism, does not really provide solid guideposts as to what to do next. Indoctrination into a theistic religion usually involves specific processes and guided steps, but with atheism, there is no one there to greet you at the door. You are usually left to you own devices.
Why is this? First of all, this fact further illustrates that atheism is not a religion. An organized religion usually has a firm grip on its own organization. Atheists are not really as structured as organized theists. Some atheistic groups like Humanists meet quite often all across the country, but however popular and well- known, they are only one specific form of atheism available. Sometimes it may seem that God provides so many positive philosophical implications, and yet atheism provides so little. Who will answer your questions? Theists can say that God can help you, or even offer you some advice themselves. But atheists might shrug, or provide a new and different answer for every atheist you talk to.
Let me sum up this concern, then: when you decide to be an atheist, there is a general lack of support and assistance, and that can be discouraging. There are also less stable answers to base your morality upon, and that too can be frustrating. I agree with and understand this complaint. When I became an atheist, I really was one of maybe two atheists I knew. I had to be discreet about my belief, and it seemed as if I had to struggle with moral issues more than my Christian friends. Let me offer you two answers I can give to this concern that I know many people must have.
First of all, I offer you my optimistic impression on the matter. Being an atheist is tougher sometimes than being a theist, especially in the beginning. There are many doubts and unanswered questions. But these yielded great rewards for me, and can for anyone else too. This struggling was good for me because it was one of my first truly independent philosophical decisions. It gave me great satisfaction to be able to break free from social barriers to pursue my goal of truth, and that gave me much more confidence in myself. More importantly however, struggling over morality and other such philosophical issues is really getting to the heart of philosophy. The struggle and agony of philosophy brings out the deepest emotions in us as humans, and it challenges us to be better than we were. Simple answers tend to make simple minds, I have found. Struggling in those early years over atheism made me stronger and more attuned to human philosophy than I think I would have been otherwise.
Let me offer a less optimistic opinion, and one I am wary to reveal. This philosophical struggle is sometimes too much for some people, and I have seen it happen to some good friends of mine. It has led people to postpone philosophical considerations altogether, probably as a form of denial. It has also led some people right back into the arms of God. This point illustrates something I feel very strongly about: that not everyone is capable of handling being an atheist. Atheism is not for everyone. When I say that, I do not mean atheism is some advanced, elite belief that only the intellectually strongest can survive under. What I mean is that atheism, for all of the benefits and joys I may personally find with it, sometimes is too disruptive a belief for some people to hold.
Maybe this results because someone is living in a community where the persecution would be too great a price to pay. Or maybe it results from an internal confusion over how so many of our deepest questions cannot be answered. Atheism can make some people very unhappy, and I admit that. I only feel lucky that I am not one of them. That is one reason why I do not try to convert people into becoming atheists. I certainly don’t remain silent if the issue of God is raised in conversation, but still, I don’t shout atheism on the mountain as if it were the finest belief someone could ever hold. I don’t do this because I don’t believe that atheism is the best belief for everyone. We must look at God and Godlessness on a personal, individual level and weigh honestly for ourselves what we can and cannot handle. I think for some people any aspect of philosophy is too much to handle, perhaps because they lead such busy lives with no time and luxury to stop and think about it.
I feel strongly that society should give atheists more respect and I would definitely support any of my friends if they became atheists; but I don’t feel that this world is too small for theism and atheism combined. Some people need to believe in God just as some others need to disbelieve in God. I am perfectly willing to accept that fact, because I want people to be satisfied with the religious beliefs they hold. Though most beliefs require discipline, they should not be a source of constant pain and conflict.
So if one thinks that atheism is too silent on the fundamental issues of life, and if that person cannot handle the philosophical struggle that ensues, for whatever reasons, I would recommend that that person not become an atheist at this time. Wait a while, and then come back to it if you want to, but don’t kill yourself over the consideration of an idea. That is my practical advice to this person, and I wish them well.