As atheists, we hear it all the time: how miserable our lives must be, how utterly devoid of meaning and purpose. Without the promise of eternal life, without knowing that our lives are intrinsically important to the machinations of a creator god, we must agonize daily, endlessly, under the weight of crushing despair and pointless suffering. This notion was recently brought into sharp focus in a piece written for The Week magazine by Damon Linker. Asking “Where are the Honest Atheists?” under the guise of reviewing A. C. Grayling’s book The God Argument, Linker articulated what millions of Americans simply take as brute fact:
The style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end. It’s one thing to catalogue the manifest faults within this or that religious tradition, which the new atheists have ably done. It’s quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free—all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
Since atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and the like aren’t popping off by the millions each day and putting bullets in their heads, there is obviously a major disconnect here. Why can a smart and educated man such as Linker believe it to be “quite obviously” the case that an honest appraisal of atheism leads to an “utterly tragic” existence, whereas nonbelievers, almost without exception, find their lives to be anything but? I’ve been watching and writing about the interaction between believers and nonbelievers for a long time, and without question this is what flabbergasts theists the most about atheists: that we can somehow function day-to-day without the certitude of knowing that our lives are cosmically important and will end in an eternity of bliss if only we are good enough, or faithful enough, or strong enough, or obedient enough, or fearful enough, or eat the correct foods, or sleep with the correct people, or practice the correct traditions, or follow the correct rules. Otherwise, they figure, what’s the point?
I have a short response and a long response to Linker and to all wishy-washy believers who believe, like him, that an honest appraisal of atheism must lead to a tragic and pointless existence and that atheists deliberately ignore or distort that fact. Each response is detailed below. Take whichever one you want. They are both honest.
The Short Response
The Long Response
Okay, that short response may have been a bit smart-ass, but if you look hard enough, there’s an undercurrent of brutal honesty in it. Actually, you needn’t look that hard. The brutal honesty is this: “Atheism is most likely true. What difference does it make if it’s tragic?”
Even if you grant Linker’s ridiculous premise, “Yeah, so?” is a perfectly valid rejoinder. Yeah, Mr. Linker, atheism is utterly tragic. So? What, I’m wondering, is the next step in this line of reasoning? That because it’s tragic, we should . . . what, exactly? Ignore it? Pretend it doesn’t exist and hope it will go away? Stick our fingers in our ears and cry “La la la, I can’t hear you” like children? Have faith in its complete opposite and hold fast to that faith despite any evidence—despite, in fact, a ton of contradictory evidence? What exactly is being implied here? That we should only accept truths that make us feel good? That truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder? That it can be tossed aside if it’s inconvenient or troubling?
Those of us on the political Left are more than familiar with the antiscience, anti-evidence, anti-truth know-nothings on the political Right and how their minions have infiltrated every level of every political and educational institution in this country. What we’re sometimes loathe to admit, though, is that this same disease infects a good percentage of the liberal Left. The idea that evidence and facts and truths can be tossed aside merely because they don’t feel right or don’t support the idea that we’re special or cause us to feel uncomfortable is not a conservative, right-wing, Christian-only ailment. This disease can infect anyone in any political, socioeconomic, or religious group. Ignoring inconvenient truths has somehow become the new normal.
Atheists have never been particularly good at following norms or conforming to the will of the majority, so it’s easy to see why we aren’t similarly blinded. For atheists, truth is paramount. Whether or not that truth is warm and fuzzy is irrelevant. We see and accept the world as it truly is, not how we wish it to be. You say we’re alone in the universe? Yeah, so? You say no one hears or answers our prayers? Yeah, so? That we face certain annihilation in death? Yeah, so? What difference does it make, as long as it’s the truth?
Isn’t it better to live in a world where the truths are known and accepted than to live in a make-believe world where truths are tossed aside as too scary or depressing? Look, it’s a big dark empty universe out there. You are a mote of dust suspended in that vast emptiness. Your life is barely a blip in the endless reach of celestial time. When you are gone, the universe won’t care, won’t blink, won’t even notice. As far as the universe is concerned, your existence is no more consequential than that of a turnip. But again: Yeah, so? Just deal with it. Accept it as it is, and get on with your life. Atheists do this without thinking, and it’s an endless source of bafflement to us that educated theists can’t do the same.
Each of Linker’s “quite obvious” points about atheism’s “utterly tragic” conclusions deserves a response in turn. Mine are below. I hope when I’m done that he and similarly minded theists will perhaps consider the notion that atheism, far from being the tragedy they assume it to be, is actually a moral, honest, and even comforting worldview. Oh, and it’s almost certainly true, too. But I’ll be generous and leave that “if” in there.
If atheism is true, we’re alone in the universe. If atheism is true, that says absolutely nothing about whether or not we’re alone in the universe, unless you equate being alone with being without God or gods. It’s unclear what Linker means by it. If he somehow thinks that atheism leads to believing that the only life in the entire universe exists on this one planet, then he’s simply—and spectacularly—mistaken. If he means that no God implies we’re alone, then he’s just suffering from some muddled thinking.
Here’s a thought experiment: picture a universe full of deities. Gods everywhere. Or, if you prefer, picture a universe with just one deity who’s omnipresent. There’s just one catch: these gods (or god) cannot be visible. They must remain hidden, outside the realm of human inquiry. You can’t touch them, feel them, talk to them (in a two-way conversation, anyway), analyze them, investigate them, or verify that they exist in any manner. They take no interest in human affairs and, even if they did, you’d have no way of knowing. Now, picture another universe with no gods, but populated with beings who pretend that gods exi
st. Tell me: What’s the difference? Do you feel alone in one and not the other?
If atheism is true, there are no gods. The universe, on the other hand, may be teeming with life, perhaps intelligent life like us. Given the vast distances involved, though, it’s highly unlikely we’d ever meet that life or interact with it in any way. Does the fact that alien life is out there, or not out there, have any effect on whether or not I feel lonely? Not one bit. Does the fact that there are no gods out there, or countless gods that don’t reveal themselves, have any effect on whether or not I feel lonely? Not one bit. Nor should any of this affect you, unless, that is, the only reason you don’t feel empty and lonely is because you assume there is a God out there who takes a direct interest in your well-being and who created you for a special purpose—in which case, it is your life that is utterly tragic.
There’s only one certainty here: We’re here and we have each other. Why isn’t that enough?
If atheism is true, no one hears or answers our prayers. If atheism is true, it is certainly true that no god hears or answers our prayers. Is this utterly tragic? Many liberal theologians will fully admit that the purpose of prayer isn’t literal. If you pin them down, they’ll say that “no one” really expects a god or gods to actually hear those wishes and alter the natural course of the universe for them. Prayer, they say, is more internal and more for the psychological benefit of the person doing the praying, so it’s difficult to see how this can be utterly tragic. Those people who pray and expect real answers from real gods are either seriously deluded or, one would think, seriously depressed, since deafening silence is all they ever get in return. Billions of people on this planet know exactly what it’s like to have no god hear or answer their prayers, because they experience it daily. I guess you’d have to ask them if they think this is utterly tragic.
And let’s not forget how uncommonly arrogant prayers can be before we bemoan the fact that no one hears them. For what is prayer if not an appeal to the Grand Mover to move things around in precisely the right way to benefit you and not the poor schmuck down the street? “Please, God, heal my sick husband, or wife, or child—oh, and by the way, if you could move that to the top of the list and ignore the hundreds of thousands of children being raped by pedophiles or dying of starvation or needlessly suffering from all those natural disasters and diseases that you created, well, that would be swell!” That fact that no “one” out there hears and answers arrogant rot like that seems to me indicative of a perfectly just and moral universe. A universe where people suffer and die, or thrive and prosper, based on the whims of a capricious deity who’s influenced by the quality or quantity of the pleas to him/her/it would be the true definition of an utterly tragic world.
If atheism is true, humanity is entirely the product of random events. This is simply incorrect. If atheism is true, there was no Designer or Creator and humanity is the product of both random events and nonrandom natural processes such as biological selection, gravitational attraction, chemical reactions, nuclear fusion, and so on. That Linker thinks this is utterly tragic is baffling. In effect, he’s saying that our lives and the myriad aspects of those lives—the birth of our children, marriage, sex, friends, music, poetry, books, compassion, love, forgiveness, charity, baseball games, theater, good food, good wine, good conversation—are rendered utterly meaningless unless they were the product of a deliberate creation by an unknowable deity. Linker cannot seem to find beauty or purpose or meaning in the world unless our lives are deemed cosmically important by virtue of the fact that they were created with a special purpose by an all-powerful being. And yet, laughably, he accuses atheism of leading to a tragic existence.
If atheism is true, we have no more intrinsic dignity than nonhuman and even non-animate clumps of matter. If atheism is true, there was no Designer or Creator to bestow special status on humans. We live and die just like every creature on the planet. We don’t have souls, but unlike most other life-forms, we have a higher consciousness that allows us to fully experience our lives and our surroundings. That may not mean we have an intrinsic dignity that separates us from jellyfish or rocks, but we certainly have intelligence and consciousness that do so. How, exactly, is this utterly tragic?
What does it even mean to have intrinsic dignity? Dignity is earned; it’s not magically imparted by a unique string of DNA or a big bogeyman in the sky. Of course, a human has no more intrinsic dignity than an artichoke. So what? What we have as conscious beings is the potential to earn a modicum of dignity in our lives as a result of our choices and actions. An artichoke can’t do that. A mealworm can’t do that. If you have to look to the universe to find a reason for living, or if your life must have some intrinsic worth in order for you to find it worthy, then I pity your sad and miserable existence.
If atheism is true, our sufferings are ultimately pointless and our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense. If atheism is true, everything is ultimately pointless. Nothing matters in a larger sense. Time will wipe all of us from existence. Indeed, it will probably wipe the universe from existence. Unless we’re part of some lab experiment by an advanced race of alien beings in which our actions are being recorded and used as the basis for another round of experiments, of course nothing matters “ultimately” or “in a larger sense.” You’d have to be a complete fool, though, to think that this means your life is pointless or doesn’t matter. Our lives matter simply because they matter to us and to those who love us. Our lives have meaning and purpose every time we strive toward a worthy goal. This theistic notion that we have to have ultimate purpose in order to find local purpose, or that our lives must mean something to the universe in order for them to mean something to us, is certifiable nonsense to an atheist. And once again I find myself saying that if purpose and meaning come to you only as the result of believing that your existence is integral to the workings of the universe, or that a better life awaits you beyond the grave, then you are either (1) an arrogant jerk or (2) sadly devoid of self-worth, in which case it is your life that is empty and meaningless. And that is utterly tragic.
If atheism is true, those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot-free. This is where the short answer is the best answer: Yeah, so?
I’m wondering what the alternative is here. What exactly does a theistic worldview buy you? Hell? Eternal damnation? Really, Mr. Linker? Eternal punishment is the answer that avoids utter tragedy? Wow. Personally, I can’t think of anything more tragic than a universe lorded over by some unknowable deity who would damn to hell for all eternity those who he/she/it deems to have violated some unknown and unknowable law. What person in his or her right mind would think this was a just universe or actually believe in—let alone worship—the deity responsible for that universe? Can anyone not in the grip of religious insanity seriously think that an appropriate punishment for even the most heinous of human crimes is eternal torture with no hope of salvation?
Sorry, Mr. Linker, but I’ll pass. I’ll take the “utter tragedy” of criminals getting away “scot-free.” (Other than the fact that they’re dead, of course.) The alternative is just too hideous to contemplate.
If atheism is true, we face certain annihilation in death. I’ve saved this one for last because this is crux of it. All of the other stuff is window dressing. Religions owe their existence to our fears of death and the unknown. lf we were not aware of our own mortality, or if we were immortal, we would have no gods and no religions and the world, presumably, would be a better place. There is no other reason for intelligent, educated people in the twenty-first century to literally believe in, or claim to believe in, preposterous notions such as resurrections, virgin births, transubstantiation, immaculate conceptions, and so on unless they think these beliefs will buy them a one-way ticket to life eternal. So this is what it boils down to. Because if atheism is true, we do indeed face certain annihilation in death. Or . . . wait a minute. Do we?
There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that anything else is true. Religious musings about heaven and hell are little more than gibberish, and there’s no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the notion of consciousness after brain death. On the other hand, the universe is about 13.6 billion years old, which means all of us were not among the living for 13.6 billion years before somehow popping into being. Every day, just on this planet, millions of life-forms are coming into existence, and some of these will hit the cosmic jackpot in that they’ll not only experience life but consciousness as well. “Certain annihilation,” in other words, is being annihilated all around us, every day. When we return to that state of nonexistence in a few hours or days or years or decades . . . well, who knows? Our consciousness will certainly cease with the death of our brains. Our lives will certainly come to an end. But certain annihilation? Forever? Your guess is as good as mine.
I struggle with this, simply because I can somewhat appreciate and grasp the utter improbability of my own existence in the first place. It is natural, therefore, to wonder: Why me? Why now? Why, when there are infinitely more ways of being dead than alive, am I alive? Why, when there are millions more ways of being alive and unconscious—as an ant, or a wasp, or a sea snake, or a slug—am I alive and conscious? Why, when there are so many more ways of being alive and conscious and miserable—starving to death, dying of pitiless disease, being raped and tortured, enslaved to a lunatic, and so on—am I anything but miserable? Why, when there were so many other times to be alive, and so many other places, did I happen to pop into existence in 1963 in the richest country on the planet? Why am I alive at all, now, as a human, in the twenty-first century: white, male, upper middle class, wanting for nothing, never having experienced poverty, sickness, discrimination, or physical impairment or mental, physical, or sexual abuse? Not only am I a cosmic freak in the sense that the universe is virtually 100 percent nothingness and intelligent life is exceedingly rare, but I am also a freak of earthly nature, where virtually all life has no idea it’s alive and the small fraction that does is far more likely to suffer a miserable existence than to enjoy a life of ease. If this life is truly it, forever, end of story, “certain annihilation” and all that, then I hit the mother of all Powerball jackpots. I’m talking a planet-sized celestial wheel with a hell of a lot more than fifty-nine numbered balls inside. And that is a source of endless bafflement to me. It just doesn’t compute.
I see two options. One, I’m suffering from a run-of-the-mill anthropic conceit, and I really did hit the big lotto in the sky. I’m here; I’m lucky; I get to enjoy it for a few years, and then it’s over. End of story. Thanks for playing. That’s certainly the most rational choice. There’s nothing—not one shred of evidence, anywhere—to suggest anything otherwise.
Two, I was simply lucky this time, there is an endless stream of times behind me and in front of me, and the wheels on the bus go round and round. Not saying necessarily that “I” will get to experience life again, only that life will continue, and consciousness will continue, and what do any of us know about what that means? If I’m fortunate enough to die in relative calm and peace and with some modicum of my common sense still intact, I’m probably going to be thinking something along the lines of “See you in the next life.” That doesn’t mean I believe in reincarnation (I don’t) or I believe there will be an “I” or a “you” in a “next life” (I don’t). It’s simply my way of acknowledging that my mind cannot fully surmount the vast improbability hurdle of my own existence without at least a small tip of the hat to the possibility of something else.
Just writing the above paragraph has made me a little uneasy. I keep expecting a horde of “real” atheists to come barging through my door at any minute to confiscate my atheist membership card and beat some sense into me. If there’s one thing atheists seem to take pride in, it’s their ability to shrug off, with zero equivocation, that “certain annihilation” brick wall they’re speeding toward: “Look how strong I am, how confident, how utterly without care that I will someday die and be gone forever!” Or too often they think the corollary: “Look at those weak-minded theists over there cowering in the face of death and the unknown and making up their sad little fairy tales. How pathetic!” I do it, too, I admit. We all do. But here’s the thing, and it’s the only thing Linker has valid point about: atheists will never win the war with theists with only “certain annihilation” in their back pockets. It may not be an utter tragedy that our lives will be forever extinguished (we’d have to be pretty arrogant to believe that), but it can be utterly terrifying if you think about it too long. And that’s not going to win any converts to atheism. Most people would rather believe in absurd fantasies told by con artists and liars than believe that their existence will be permanently annihilated.
So where does that leave an honest atheist? It’s simple, I think. Admit that you don’t know squat about what happens after we die. None of us do. “If atheism is true, we face certain annihilation in death” turns out to be spectacularly untrue, because nothing in this realm is certain. Atheists and theists alike have no idea what they face. Annihilation is no more guaranteed than the gibberish spouted by the Pat Robertsons of the world. We just don’t know. That doesn’t mean we have to take seriously every crackpot invention of the afterlife dreamt up by every lunatic who ever walked the earth; in fact, we can dismiss them all and be on solid footing. What we can’t do, though, is subscribe to unproven suppositions such as certain annihilation is all that awaits us, because then we’re falling into the same faith-based trap. If atheists were united in that sentiment and wrote about it more commonly, more forcefully, more truthfully, people like Linker would, I think, come around. As I hope I’ve shown above, all of his other objections to atheism were little more than ill-informed speculation wrapped up in human-centered arrogance, which I suspect he already knows. So the only thing that really matters is, can honest atheists offer anything in place of certain annihilation? And the answer is, we can. We can offer total ignorance. Utter cluelessness. A shrug of the shoulders and an honest “I have no friggin’ idea.”
In other words, exactly what honest theists can offer—honesty.
D. Cameron Webb is the author of Despicable Meme: The Absurdity and Immorality of Modern Religion (2013, available for iBooks, Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers). He lives with his wife and children in Colorado.