This will be no ordinary skeptical diatribe. The message I mean to convey does not rely on criticizing the flaws of religion. The value of a perspective untethered from divinity can be well attested on its own merits, without any need to denigrate alternative views (of which I’ve done plenty elsewhere). It is crucial to begin by explaining what Atheism is and is not, as I encounter a great deal of confusion on this point.
Atheism is not a declaration of certainty that there is no god. To say that a higher power exists is a positive injunction about reality, and must be informed by substantial evidence. The Atheist simply refrains from asserting this claim. He does this because he does not presume to know things that cannot be known. Atheism in itself does not entail any specific beliefs about the world, it only indicates the failure to be convinced of a supernatural one. This distinction functionally makes Atheism synonymous with what most people mean when they say “Agnostic”, making “Agnostic” an utterly useless word. Atheism itself, as neuroscientist and author Sam Harris has posited, is a useless word on the grounds that no term exists for “non-alchemist” or “non-astrologer”. While I find this logic compelling, I’ll let “Atheist” stand for now.
If you have ever known an Atheist, you may have known someone who insists with absolute conviction or even claims to know that there is no god. Such a view is intellectually dishonest and far beyond the scope of Atheism. The Atheist claiming to know such a thing is as diluted as his fundamentalist Evangelical counterpart. This person very likely aligns with Atheism for poor reasons, and could just as easily have been convinced by the precepts of any faith-based view of reality that is sufficiently distant from the religious tradition to which they were first exposed. Acknowledgment of our mortal limitations compels us to simply say that sufficient evidence for belief in the supernatural has not yet been presented.
The general perception I encounter of Atheism, especially among the faithful, is one of pessimism, cynicism, Nihilism, resentment and rebellion. In truth, it is the firmest foundation upon which to construct an understanding of the natural world, and the best moral scaffolding to recognize good and bad, just and unjust, right and wrong. It provides the strongest basis of compassion for your fellow creatures and the collective environment. It uniquely amplifies the value of life for its own sake and without the need to invoke the concept of eternity.
For many, it is unthinkable that life could possess meaning without an afterlife. We romanticize our ethereal immortality with conscious experience in a place of serenity. We long for a posthumous reunion with lost loved ones. Disillusionment of this possibility may be terrifying and depressing, until you notice that it makes every moment of your current life indefinably precious. It is the very brevity of our awareness that gives it meaning. The challenges we face in life are to be overcome, our disadvantages surmounted; not to be meekly acquiesced in hopes of better luck in another life.
Extend this epiphany to others, and you realize that the only rational way to interact is with dignity and respect. We’re on the same boat together, searching for a path of personal fulfillment in a lifespan that is hopelessly limited while still impossibly rife with experience. When this concept is acted upon by way of charity, the only pure expression of altruism is thereby achieved. A Christian may act generously with those less fortunate even without attempting to persuade anyone of the reality of Christ or the truth of his resurrection, but the ever-present anticipation of reward in the afterlife is impossible to ignore. And why shouldn’t it be? It is, after all, an inalienable aspect of their holy doctrine. The non-believer who acts charitably does so without expectation of eventual recompense and the altruistic impulse is, to that extent, undiminished.
Cruelty and Misfortune
It may bring a modicum of comfort to think that a higher being has a plan to compensate for the ugliness of the world. Terrible tragedies inevitably befall individuals, families and societies; they have for all time and will continue interminably. Natural disasters such as drought, famine, plague and storm disrupt or cancel the lives of people the world over. Much mental fuel throughout the ages has been burnt pondering the meaning of these events. “What did these people do to bring this fate upon themselves?” “How could God allow this to happen?” or “What is He trying to teach us?”
The late Christopher Hitchens quite aptly demystified these events in pointing out that we live upon the surface of a planet whose core, crust and atmosphere are in constant flux and which teems with perpetually evolving microorganisms. Accept this natural conclusion, and the cause of these natural disturbances is easily explained. Belief in the supernatural is often (but not necessarily) accompanied by a distrust of the theory of evolution through natural selection. I will not spend much time here, but I will say that it is possible to believe that a creator deity engineered evolution if you so choose, but to deny its reality entirely prevents you from ever attaining a clear understanding of biology and the natural world.
Sadly, natural disasters are not the only source of misery in the here and now. Human-contrived horrors of war, slavery, genocide, rape and torture bring immeasurable suffering as well but with a key difference; they are guided by intent. To invoke the existence of an omniscient deity in light of these crimes is to attribute His full responsibility for them throughout history. The Atheist simply recognizes them as the depraved acts of selfishness and moral bankruptcy that they are. The charges are to be levied against no one except the individuals responsible. Fortunately, the enlightenment tradition through disciplines like psychology and evolutionary biology provides sophisticated insight as to what motivates these behaviors and how to properly respond to them. What we must not do is accept these crimes as inevitable, merely washing our hands under the assumption that the worst actors will be brought to justice in the afterlife.
I ask no one to abandon their cherished beliefs, whatever those may be. I ask only that we acknowledge our own limitations and not blindly trade clarity and objectivity in pursuit of comfort or reassurance. We must not believe in something simply because we want it to be true. Whichever side you’re on, remain open-minded and allow your view to adapt to new information. Intellectual rigidity is a dead end paved with shame, frustration and confusion. The examined life is the only one worth living, so think deeply of the world and show respect to your fellow creatures. We are, after all, guaranteed nothing but the present.