Is Atheism a “Blessing”?

Last Sunday, the New York Times featured a piece by Susan Jacoby on “The Blessings of Atheism.”  It marks yet another milestone in what seems like a concerted effort by non-believers to publicize and validate their beliefs. Yet (like most such pieces) especially in two particulars, I found it far from convincing.

First, like many atheists, Jacoby dates the advent of her rejection of God to experiencing a terribly sad tragedy befalling a good, innocent person. But isn’t basing disbelief in the divine on such a circumstance really insisting on a pretty narrow, circumscribed view of God as some sort of cosmic Superman — who must prove His existence by acting in conformity with Susan Jacoby’s view of how He should behave? And by insisting that a real God would act in accordance with her standards, isn’t Jacoby sort of setting herself up as God? (This last is a problem with any attempt to establish a non-religious “moral code.” Whose morals or standards are to prevail and why?)

Second, Jacoby argues that secular humanists can and should offer a meaningful alternative to religion, by showing up to offer comfort at times of deepest human suffering. She notes that at the death of a child, an atheist could observe that the child is at rest and will never suffer again. But it strikes me this is actually cold comfort to grieving parents. After all, presumably the child was not suffering in their care — and at the core of their grief is the loss of their child’s companionship. Belief in an afterlife and reunion with loved ones therefore provides a sense of hope and solace that atheism simply cannot.

Atheists are certainly entitled to their beliefs. But it seems to strain a notch to characterize those beliefs as a “blessing.” Am I missing something?

  1. Roberto
    Stuart Creque

    Carol Platt Liebau:  She notes that at the death of a child, an atheist could observe that the child is at rest and will never suffer again. But it strikes me this is actually cold comfort to grieving parents.  After all, presumably the child was not suffering in their care — and at the core of their grief is the loss of their child’s companionship.  Belief in an afterlife and reunion with loved ones therefore provides a sense of hope and solace that atheism simply cannot.

    It goes deeper.  The atheist tells the grieving parents, “It’s the status quo ante that existed before your child was born: your child no longer exists, and once you and your other children are gone, it will be as though your child never existed.  And eventually, when the Sun reaches the red giant phase and the Earth is vaporized, it will be as though humankind and all life on Earth never existed.”

    Doesn’t give much comfort or hope for the future. · 1 minute ago

    Nonsense. Just throw in something about a reduced carbon footprint and it’s practically a psalm.

  2. wmartin
    Stuart Creque

    It goes deeper.  The atheist tells the grieving parents, “It’s the status quo ante that existed before your child was born: your child no longer exists, and once you and your other children are gone, it will be as though your child never existed.  And eventually, when the Sun reaches the red giant phase and the Earth is vaporized, it will be as though humankind and all life on Earth never existed.”

    Doesn’t give much comfort or hope for the future. · 7 minutes ago

    But it has the virtue of being true.

  3. Crow

    Let us suppose that there is someone who proclaims atheism, but who takes conventional morality at face value, finds it completely unproblematic, and lives in accordance with it.

    It is quite difficult to tell today whether this compliance is the result of careful consideration of history and nature or whether it is something of a ghostly trace left behind in society by religion. Attachment to it certainly appears to become more tenuous through time as societies decline.

    Evangelical atheism–and I define that term to mean anyone who claims atheism in a public forum; example itself is a kind of advocacy–runs the risk of attributing what is latest in time in a society in decline (i.e. a public philosophy of atheism) to what is so always and everywhere. This view tends to take society and its roots for granted.

    But, let us suppose for the sake of argument that the theological instinct which is apparent from the most cursory glance at history and nearly universal in all cultures in all times and places, is simply the result of evolution. In that case, arguing against it and advocating for atheism makes as much sense as arguing against adrenaline.

  4. Stuart Creque
    wmartin

    Stuart Creque

    It goes deeper.  The atheist tells the grieving parents, “It’s the status quo ante that existed before your child was born: your child no longer exists, and once you and your other children are gone, it will be as though your child never existed.  And eventually, when the Sun reaches the red giant phase and the Earth is vaporized, it will be as though humankind and all life on Earth never existed.”

    Doesn’t give much comfort or hope for the future.

    But it has the virtue of being true.

    If so, it makes one wonder why we worry so much about crime and punishment.  So what if a child is murdered — or even sexually tortured and then murdered?  The child’s death erases any traces of the pain it experienced, and thus we should be indifferent.  Yes?

  5. wmartin

    Well, in the cosmic sense – no, the child’s death and suffering do not matter. Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa both went to the same place when they died.  But we don’t live cosmically, so even though morality does not actually exist, we still have to live as though it does, for self-protection if nothing else.

  6. Crow

    So, once again, if we proceed on our way by fully thinking through this argument in the manner that a wise atheist might do, instead of the way a bumbler might, we are forced to conclude that under this argument’s own premises and logic that the wise course of action would be for our atheist never to admit his atheism, and to be completely indistinguishable from the believer.

    But, you object, what if you live at a time where religion is being used to oppress or persecute? Again, even if we adopt the logic of atheism as it has been explained (i.e. if we take on your view that “God is false but morality is indispensable for _____”[choose your own adventure/reason]), then we cannot help but note the impossibility of convincing the believer through atheistic arguments to abandon his belief without causing further damage to your goal: a moral society. In which case, the wise course would instead be for the atheist to be a master of interpretation so as to cull from the scriptures of this religion itself a teaching contrary to the prevailing view that oppression was God’s will.

  7. Group Captain Mandrake

    I agree that the word “blessing” is not the most comfortable choice.  It seems to me that it’s being used in the article simply to mean “benefit”.  However, the title of the article wouldn’t be quite as catchy.

  8. Roberto
    wmartin: Well, in the cosmic sense – no, the child’s death and suffering do not matter. Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa both went to the same place when they died.  But we don’t live cosmically, so even though morality does not actually exist, we still have to live as though it does, for self-protection if nothing else. · 1 minute ago

    Why?

    If morality is empty and cosmically all is meaningless then why would any philosophy beyond Will to Power be required?

  9. Stuart Creque
    wmartin: Well, in the cosmic sense – no, the child’s death and suffering do not matter. Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa both went to the same place when they died.  But we don’t live cosmically, so even though morality does not actually exist, we still have to live as though it does, for self-protection if nothing else.

    Why?

    What in the self is worth protecting?  The self is nothing more than a series of electrical impulses generated by chemical reactions.  What “you” perceive as consciousness is an artifact of that physical phenomenon – it is no more permanent nor significant than a rain shower, and a good deal less important than that rain shower to the greater illusion that is the biosphere.

    Ted Bundy knew how to enjoy this illusion of life: he manipulated women into his grasp and then used them to gratify his desires.  Nothing wrong with that, given the transitory nature of existence.

    Except Ted Bundy oddly was not a perfect atheist.  He struggled desperately to wrangle stays of execution, terrified of what lay on the other side of the veil.  Sort of ironic, eh?

  10. wmartin
    Roberto

    wmartin: Well, in the cosmic sense – no, the child’s death and suffering do not matter. Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa both went to the same place when they died.  But we don’t live cosmically, so even though morality does not actually exist, we still have to live as though it does, for self-protection if nothing else. · 1 minute ago

    Why?

    If morality is empty and cosmically all is meaningless then why would any philosophy beyond Will to Power be required? · 0 minutes ago

    Self-protection. And the fact that our brains evolved with a suite of emotions and drives. These emotions and drives are often nasty but are also often nice.

    And…well, most of us are not formidable enough for “will-to-power”  to play a preeminent part in our psyche. People with Napoleon’s precise combination of traits are fairly rare. Most of us would just end up like Raskolnikov.

  11. JWS

    Please don’t assume all atheists treat atheism as a religion. I have never had religion in my life and don’t feel a need for it (but I do understand the need for religion in the lives of most human beings…..and I’m not trying to be sarcastic). My parents raised me with essentially religious ideals (treat others as you would want them to treat you, etc.) so I tend to follow them religiously (sarc). I think that the world be probably be a bigger mess without some sort of religion religion,  but not all religions are created equally.

    Eric Hoffer;s “The True Believer” had a big impact on my thinking (read it in high school) so I’m wary of all true believers, be they religious or political (for many their specific -ism has replaced religion in their lives).

    This should be a far more complex conversation than can be conveyed in a simple response to a blog post anyway.

  12. wmartin
    Stuart Creque

    Why?

    What in the self is worth protecting?  The self is nothing more than a series of electrical impulses generated by chemical reactions.  What “you” perceive as consciousness is an artifact of that physical phenomenon – it is no more permanent nor significant than a rain shower, and a good deal less important than that rain shower to the greater illusion that is the biosphere.

    Ted Bundy knew how to enjoy this illusion of life: he manipulated women into his grasp and then used them to gratify his desires.  Nothing wrong with that, given the transitory nature of existence.

    Except Ted Bundy oddly was not a perfect atheist.  He struggled desperately to wrangle stays of execution, terrified of what lay on the other side of the veil.  Sort of ironic, eh? · 1 minute ago

    Ted Bundy had the human instinct for self-preservation, so I am not surprised that he tried to wrangle stays of execution, just as I am not surprised that the devout Christian undergoes a last-ditch chemotherapy regimen after the terminal cancer diagnosis.

    Just for the record: “Atheist” and “Sociopath” are not synonyms.

  13. Goldgeller

    It seems to me that the desire for transcendence can never truly go away. 

  14. Crow
    wmartin: But it has the virtue of being true….

    …so even though morality does not actually exist, we still have to live as though it does, for self-protection if nothing else.

    On the one hand, you praise public atheism for is Truthfulness, which you regard as better than the falsehood of God, however comforting that is. It is too intolerable to you to bear falsehood.

    And yet, in the next post you say that: to live, we must live not in accordance with Truth but with morality, which you call a fiction and a lie to anyone in earshot.

    Even if we bought all of this for the sake of the argument, why do you suppose that morality will be upheld by everyone who must uphold it to live once they have your “insight” that it is a lie? Why would it not break down and fail as soon as everyone realized that everything was permitted?

    If we buy your logic and then think it through to the end, taking into account these likely consequences, then one should never publicly proclaim atheism and should instead appear in every circumstance a completely conventional believer and moralist. And yet you do.

  15. Von Snrub

                    Man, wmartin. I’m loving your sophisticated excrement.

    You’re inserting words that assert value through out those which express none.

    This is too sweet. Continue….

    Why, I don’t know. I guess my own meaningless enjoyment. Which doesn’t matter.

  16. Stuart Creque
    wmartin

     

    Ted Bundy had the human instinct for self-preservation, so I am not surprised that he tried to wrangle stays of execution, just as I am not surprised that the devout Christian undergoes a last-ditch chemotherapy regimen after the terminal cancer diagnosis.

    Just for the record: “Atheist” and “Sociopath” are not synonyms.

    How is it sociopathic to disregard the lives and feelings of others who are, after all, only transitory phenomena, and whose existence (including all memories) cease upon death?  What working definition can one assign to sociopathy when society consists of such transitory phenomena?  Either one uses other beings for one’s own purposes or one gives into the fiction that those other beings have some intrinsic value.

    If one gives into that fiction simply for the reason that one is a slave to the instinct of self-preservation, then one is at the same level as the lower animals.  An enlightened individual, confident in the true nature of the universe, ought to be indifferent to existence (I understand that some Eastern philosophies hold that to be the highest standard of enlightenment – but applied only to the existence of oneself, not to the dispensibility of others).

  17. Mike H

    For whatever it’s worth, there is a 200+ comment thread that hashes out many of the points being presented here.

    http://ricochet.com/member-feed/Morality-Is-Arbitrary-But-That-Does-Not-Make-All-Forms-Equivalent/

  18. Stuart Creque
    Crow’s Nest

     

    If we buy your logic and then think it through to the end, taking into account these likely consequences, then one should never publicly proclaim atheism and should instead appear in every circumstance a completely conventional believer and moralist.

    Pascal’s Wager applied in the temporal realm: if God does not exist, I lose little by behaving if he does, but if I behave as if he does not, everyone loses much (perhaps all).

  19. Mike H
    Stuart Creque

    Pascal’s Wager applied in the temporal realm: if God does not exist, I lose little by behaving if he does, but if I behave as if he does not, everyone loses much (perhaps all). · 7 minutes ago

    Are you only capable of behaving like God exists if you believe he does?

  20. EJHill

    Achieving a state of bliss would be considered a blessing. Ignorance, goes the old saying, is bliss. Ergo…

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