The Blessings of Atheism
By SUSAN JACOBY
Let’s assume that atheism is a blessing in the here and now. How is that a blessing to murdered children who, by Jacoby’s admission, have no here and now? Their here and now is lost and gone.
IN a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.”This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
Let’s see how well she dispels this alleged “misapprehension.”
The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize.
That’s news to me. As one observer recently noted:
It seems like everywhere I go lately, I've been confronted with evidence of gross anti-Christian bias in public high school and colleges. I've run into professors who mock Christian students publicly (but don't want to be challenged by other scholars), or assume that their job is to deprogram the children under their command. I've run into grade school textbooks that brainwash 12 or 15 year olds to think of Mohammed as a true prophet of God, and Jesus as an iffy historical also-ran.
Continuing with Jacoby:
Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”
Christian theodicy does have general answers for questions like that.
IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s…
How does atheism help in that situation? Can atheism reverse senility? Can atheism restore lost memories? No. And even if we discover a cure for Alzheimer’s, what about losing your mind when you die?
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next.
Notice how self-centered Jacoby is. Atheism is a blessing for atheists of sound mind and body. But even if that were true, how is that a blessing for those who don’t enjoy mental or physical wellbeing? How is that a blessing for those ravaged by Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. How is that a blessing for murdered children?
Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899 and was one of the most famous orators of his generation, personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll insisted that there was no difference between atheism and agnosticism because it was impossible for anyone to “know” whether God existed or not. He used his secular pulpit to advocate for social causes like justice for African-Americans, women’s rights, prison reform and the elimination of cruelty to animals.
And how does that benefit African-Americans who lived and died in slavery?
He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest ... The dead do not suffer.”
It’s true that dead children don’t suffer. It’s also true that dead children don’t laugh, love, or play.
Only the living can suffer. Likewise, only the living can enjoy what life has to offer. Both happiness and suffering are contingent on consciousness.
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools.
What’s the connection between atheism and social responsibility? I thought atheists keep telling us that atheism is not a positive philosophy or worldview. Atheism is just a negative thesis: disbelief in God or gods.
Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.
And what consolation would that be?
Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but “only perfect rest.”
This misses the point. Fact is, the feelings of survivors is secondary. It’s not just a question of whether I feel the loss of a loved one. Not just a question of what their death means to me.
It’s also, and more importantly, what death means to them. What did they have to lose? Not just how much I miss a dead loved one, but what are they missing out on?
I’m concerned, first and foremost, with the wellbeing of the decedent, not my own wellbeing. And my consolation comes in knowing that they are better off.
It’s not primarily a case of whether their death is a loss to me, but whether their death is a loss to them. I care about what happened to them. If I know they are happy, then that makes me happy. Jacoby severs this connection.
I’m not suggesting that every death has a happy ending. Indeed, I don’t think everyone ought to have a happy ending. But according to atheism, nobody’s death is beneficial to the decedent.