Yesterday (March 8, 2013), Damon Linker published an article entitled "Where are the honest atheists?" His opinion piece was that many of the atheist books out there are just more of the same repeated over and over, but that if godlessness is true, that it is also terrible and that we are unwilling to even consider that thought. Is that true? I don't think so. I for one have considered the possibilities and favorability if 'religion A' were true, if 'religion B' were true, if 'religion C were true' and if atheism were true. But the important thing is that none of that matters to what is true. Would I find it to be awesome if it was true that I'd be reincarnated after my death? Absolutely I would! But me liking the idea holds no bearing on if it is the truth or not. The simple fact is that as far as we know thus far, all signs point to death being it for us. Do not pass go, don't collect $100. But even then, I don't think that spells out the terrible world that Linker thinks it would.
His story goes on to say this:
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.I must say that I quite disagree with Linker's assertion that us being alone in the universe or not being the center of everything diminishes life to a lowly pointless and worthless state. Actually, I think it makes life all the more grand! Am I being dishonest with myself as Damon would argue? I don't think so.
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.
First of all, atheism does not tell us we're alone in the universe. Atheism does opine that there is no ever-present deity watching over us, but as for life in the universe, there's no 'party line' stance on that subject. Actually, I'd say that the major religions are the ones that would say we are alone in the universe, save their favored invisible book keep and guidance counselor. Christianity places the Earth and humanity at the center of creation and leaves it assumed the we are it. Atheism on the other hand, wouldn't denounce the idea that there could be other life far out in the cosmos. Actually, I'd be one of those that thinks that it's pretty likely that we are not the only life among the stars. Do I think that extra-terrestrials ever visited Earth or abducted anyone? No, no I don't. But given the vast numbers of galaxies, starts and planets out there, I find it hard to believe that life would only happen once. Actually, if there is other life out there, I bet they are also asking the question of if they are alone in the universe.
Next, lets look at the statement that atheism means that no one listens to or answers prayers... Well, you got us on this one. But no one is answering you prayers anyway, so why fight reality? Plus, if you are Christian and opine that your god is omniscient, then prayer is pointless anyway. But would it be a good thing if prayers were answered? Well... that depends. Perhaps you pray for good things for others, and get what you want. Okay, that's fine. But what of people praying for selfish things, or even ill will on others? If these people got their way, how could you sat that was a good thing? I don't think that prayer actually working would be all that great. But since we know that prayer does not work, lets look at the fact that the concept diminishes the hard work and effort of real people. So you pray for that promotion, but then work hard and get it. Then you give all the credit to your prayers being answered and your god. The sad fact being is that you are selling yourself short, since it was your effort that got you the promotion, and not murmuring to your bedroom ceiling at night. Your god is not great, you are simple capable of so much more than you give yourself credit for. And in my opinion, that is far more sad than the prospect of prayer being pointless.
Linker also states that 'humanity is entirely the product of random events'... Sounds like someone missed the class on evolution back in his school days. At least, I'm assuming he's referring to the old apologist canard that evolution reduces humanity to a product of random chance, and thus reduces the meaning of humanity. The trouble is that evolution is not random chance. Sure, mutations may be random, but natural selection is certainly NOT random. Evolution by natural selection selects for traits that are best fitted for the environment that these individuals find themselves in. These slightly better fitted individuals are more likely to survive and reproduce. This passes on their genes with greater success than those that are less fitted, and don't survive or reproduce at as great a pace. Over time, there is a shifting in the population as the available gene pool becomes more and more concentrated with the more favorable genes. Then consider that this process never stops and you can easily see that the path that eventually led to humanity is very possible, and far from the result of just some random chance.Furthermore, the fact that we evolved as far as we have and weren't 'created' in no way takes any grandeur away from life. I see it as a spectacular gift that didn't have to happen, rather than the whim of some deity.
Then there's the grand-daddy statement 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'. This is certainly a statement that I couldn't disagree with much more. Yes, we face annihilation in death. But is that so terrible? To me, eternity would be far more maddening (as I have covered in this earlier post). The only favorable version of afterlife to me would be reincarnation. But is death being the end so bad? If what I think about death is true, than death will be just like before I was ever born. Did my non-existence cause me any troubles twenty years before I was ever conceived? No, of course not! So why should my non-existence after I die be any different than that? Sure, the idea of no longer being may be saddening or unsettling to a degree, but does that make it a terrible fate? I'd argue that it doesn't.
Part of my reason for this has to do with why I disagree with his assertion that our lives and sufferings are pointless and our lives without meaning if what I believe is correct. Problem is, I am far too full of gratitude to entertain the thought of being dealt a bad hand simply because I will one day die. This is because I am alive and have been living the gift of life! When we look at the number of people in the world and the complexities of genetics, the number of 'potential people' is staggering. Had the genes been different there could have been someone smarter than Einstein, a playwright more brilliant than Shakespeare, or even an Olympian that could have shattered all records with ease. But instead of those possibilities, it is I that won what Richard Dawkins has referred to as the 'lottery of life'.
I could just as easily not been born as well. Had my parents not met as they did and when they did, had their parents not met as they did... back, generation after generation, I simply wouldn't be here. Or I would be a different 'me' than the 'me' that I am today. I am too preoccupied with the overwhelming gratitude of my own existence to feel that I'm facing a disservice to on day die and simply be no more. One day I will die, but before that day, I get to live. I get to live love and experience this life to the fullest while there are those other 'potential people' who were never even conceived, let alone get the chance to experience life. As I see it, death is the price I will eventually have to pay for living this amazing and fulfilling gift we call life. If you ask me, that's a small price to pay, and far from what Linker calls a 'terrible reality'.
Then there is his thought that our lives and sufferings do not matter because we don't have some grand predestined purpose for our lives. Such a self centric view of reality is quite arrogant. So what if we aren't the center of everything? So what if there's not some grand plan that you're here for? In what way does 'it all' not being about you take away from the meaning of life. True, there's no predetermined meaning, but a finite godless life can still have plenty of meaning. I get to live my life. I get to love my wife. Our cats will make us laugh, and also upset when they break something. There may be bumps in the road of life that we have to get past, but ultimately make the good time feel all the better. How does this life have no meaning when I wake up every morning, look in my wife's eyes, tell her that I love her, and have her say that she loves me back. How can you argue that a creator-less life makes this experience meaningless? Sure, one day we will both be dead and gone. In the vast expanse of history we may be forgotten. But so what if we aren't remembered. Here and now, we are living a wonderful and meaningful life. To me, now is what matter, and exemplifies that this non-theistic life truly is a meaningful one.
Now, one thing that I will give him is that he says that if there is no afterlife, than if someone breaks the law and is never caught, they will get away with it and never be punished. For the sake of argument, we are going to assume that the offender is not faced with crushing guilt. So he would be right that the 'bad guy' would end up going unpunished, since he would just die like everyone else, and wouldn't find himself in Hell. But then again, there is no Hell anyway, so it's a moot point really... The simple fact is that though he is right, that's the truth of the matter. Life isn't always fair, and justice isn't always done. But this certainly doesn't mean that we should just give up and make up a story to make us feel better about the problem. Rather, we should work to improve our justice system so that fewer and fewer offenders go unpunished.
I must find it odd that those that follow the Abrahamic tradition will argue that the nonbeliever's view on life is the 'sad' or 'tragic' one. Yet Christianity teaches that everyone is born a disgusting, dirty, sinful creatures that are deserving of eternal fiery torrent. Meanwhile, I try to to see the best in everyone. Sure, it is tougher with some people. But I'm not condemning all to eternity in Hell for the 'crime' of simply being born. So you tell me, who really thinks less of life? Also, the more I think about it, I can't even grant Linker his conclusion that a godless universe is less just. With his previous proposal of someone committing a crime and getting away with it, he claims that justice is not done if there is no afterlife. He makes the mistake of simply assuming that this person would end up in Hell to pay for his deed(s). But it's not so cut and dry. Christianity teaches the sins can be forgiven. So, if this criminal goes uncaught and later on is genuinely repentant, then Jesus is supposedly able to forgive this person of their sins and end up in Heaven. So under this theistic worldview, the criminal could conceivably be rewarded, rather than punished. Where is the justice in that?
Somehow Mr. Linker goes as far to call this godless view of life 'utterly tragic'. As I hope I have illustrated above, this bleak view of a non-theistic life is far from justified. He says that the 'honest atheist' will admit that this kind of existence is a sad, cold, pitiful one. However, I feel as though I am being honest and painting a far more positive picture that the one Linker was painting. Sure, this life isn't the picture perfect fantasy we may want it to be. But this doesn't make any other view of life 'tragic'. I'd wager that this life rooted in reality is an amazingly magical and positive one, despite the sad conclusions of our poorly reasoned columnist. So I say, embrace the reality of life and death, and seize the gift of life while you still can.
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