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?

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  1. Profile photo of Roberto Member
    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.

    • #1
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:04 am
  2. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive
    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.

    • #2
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:08 am
  3. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member

    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.

    • #3
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:12 am
  4. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    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?

    • #4
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:13 am
  5. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive

    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.

    • #5
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:22 am
  6. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member

    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.

    • #6
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:28 am
  7. Profile photo of Group Captain Mandrake Inactive

    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.

    • #7
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:30 am
  8. Profile photo of Roberto Member
    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?

    • #8
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:30 am
  9. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    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?

    • #9
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:36 am
  10. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive
    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.

    • #10
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:37 am
  11. Profile photo of JWS Member
    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.

    • #11
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:39 am
  12. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive
    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.

    • #12
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:42 am
  13. Profile photo of Goldgeller Member

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

    • #13
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:49 am
  14. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member
    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.

    • #14
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:51 am
  15. Profile photo of Von Snrub Member

    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.

    • #15
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:52 am
  16. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    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).

    • #16
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:53 am
  17. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    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).

    • #18
    • January 9, 2013 at 1:56 am
  18. Profile photo of Mike H Member
    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?

    • #19
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:05 am
  19. Profile photo of EJHill Member

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

    • #20
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:11 am
  20. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive
    Stuart Creque

    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?

    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). · 9 minutes ago

    I don’t understand your question about sociopathy. The reason for avoiding the intentional infliction of pain seems obvious, as is the reason for cooperating with others rather than trying to destroy them.

    Further, I am a slave to the instinct for self-preservation, as much as I am a slave to hunger and thirst. We are smart apes, after all.

    • #21
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:12 am
  21. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    Michael Hinton
    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).

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

    Why are you asking me? I believe God exists.

    Ask Susan Jacoby what benefit there is in preaching that God does not exist, if one is going to live one’s life as if He does. And ask her further what benefit there would be in living one’s life as if He does not.

    • #22
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:15 am
  22. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    wmartin
     

    I don’t understand your question about sociopathy. The reason for avoiding the intentional infliction of pain seems obvious, as is the reason for cooperating with others rather than trying to destroy them.

    Further, I am a slave to the instinct for self-preservation, as much as I am a slave to hunger and thirst. We are smart apes, after all.

    It seems to me that once you accept that life is a purely transitory phenomenon and that death nullifies existence, there is no obvious reason for avoiding the intentional infliction of pain if one has no personal discomfort in inflicting it. Under the view that existence definitively ends with death, is there an obvious reason that someone who enjoys intentionally inflicting pain ought not do it, if he can get away with it? Is it somehow wrong?

    (I recently watched a documentary on life in the African jungle. In it, a troop of chimpanzees stealthily encircles another troop, attacks it, kills as many of its members as it can catch, and eats the flesh of its kills. We shouldn’t regard humans who behave in this way as cuplable in some way, should we- as smart apes?)

    • #23
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:21 am
  23. Profile photo of Mike H Member
    Stuart Creque
    Michael Hinton
    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).

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

    Why are you asking me? I believe God exists.

    Because I think it’s an important question. I live my life as if the Christian God exists, though I doubt his existence. I live my life as if everything I do is very important, though I know it is temporary. What’s wrong with me?

    Would you live as you do now without your faith, or are there things you would change?

    • #24
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:27 am
  24. Profile photo of Antiphon Inactive
    wmartin
    Roberto

    Why?

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

    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. · 4 minutes ago

    Yet, philosophically speaking, “who do you think you are”?

    What right do you have to tell anyone to supress their “will-to-power”? If, to an atheist, all our emotions, drives, and spiritual “flights of fancy” are simply the glandular secretions of a highly evolved animal we do not have the authority to put “self-preservation” above pleasure, desire for power, or any of our other “secretions” (we don’t have to be speaking about a Napoleonic superman, just one with power over another). 

    Why do you keep appealing to a philosophy built on a notion of “fairness”, even the atheistic fairness?

    • #25
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:29 am
  25. Profile photo of Skyler Member

    Why does anyone read the New York Times? All it seems to do is pose ridiculous questions like this or view the entire globe from a NYC perspective as though only what they do there is important. Others are mere curiosities of primitive bands of similar species.

    Atheism is not a blessing. Atheists don’t generally congregate. Atheists generally just tolerate the silliness of others around them — except when believers become violent, and then they fight, shut up, or die.

    • #26
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:34 am
  26. Profile photo of Dutch Inactive

    I am new to Ricochet. I am also a non-believer. However, I choose not to refer to myself as an atheist because I do not want to be associated with the atheist activists such as freedom from religion. The groups that force communities to remove nativities or old war memorials because of a cross are arrogant, angry bigots. There. I feel better now.

    • #27
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:43 am
  27. Profile photo of Devereaux Inactive

    For atheists I see two problems.

    First, per Carl Sagan, “the cosmos is all there is, ever was, or ever shall be.” That is a concise statement, but it has no explanations for any number of things that can’t be found within the cosmos. Like who created the cosmos. Or what purpose your life has.

    Second, assuming the first, you have to conclude that man is inherently good. Else why do we have love, charity, fondness, etc. But there is more than enough evidence that man is not good by nature. And if he is not good by nature, then what IS good and where did it come from.

    • #28
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:51 am
  28. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive
    Devereaux:

    Second, assuming the first, you have to conclude that man is inherently good. Else why do we have love, charity, fondness, etc. But there is more than enough evidence that man is not good by nature. And if he is not good by nature, then what IS good and where did it come from. · 3 minutes ago

    Huh? Why does it have to be either/or? The entire suite of emotions and drives we possess is a balancing act; we have the capacity for both altruism (reciprocal altruism, anyway) and spite.

    • #29
    • January 9, 2013 at 2:57 am
  29. Profile photo of wmartin Inactive
    Antiphon

    Why do you keep appealing to a philosophy built on a notion of “fairness”, even the atheistic fairness?

    · 27 minutes ago

    What do you mean by “the atheistic fairness?”

    • #30
    • January 9, 2013 at 3:01 am
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