Thursday, January 17, 2013

Life is nowhere near as meaningful

On the naturalistic view of life, when we die, that is it. Ours is a tiny speck of time in terms of the universe's history, and on the long view every one of us -- even human civilization itself -- probably will vanish without a trace. I've written often that secular humanists and other atheists need to be far more forthright about admitting that we view reality this way. Yes, it is a colder, less satisfying view of eternity than those advanced by various religions. Yes, it is less congruent with the way we thinking, feeling mammals are wired to wish the universe was. In many ways, it is undeniable: the best thing you can say for this flinty view of life is that it is almost certainly true.

What can atheists and other freethinkers say in the face of death? Yes, life is short and nowhere near as meaningful as many Americans are raised to believe. Yes, death is forever. No, the bereaved will never see their loved ones again. I wouldn't recommend shouting these truths in anyone's face at a funeral, but they provide the unspoken backdrop for the fact that Susan Jacoby got exactly right. If we view life and the world the way it really is -- as best we can determine at our current level of knowledge -- then it is the greatest consolation we can offer to observe that the dead do not suffer. It is in fact the only consolation we can offer sincerely.

I appreciate Flynn’s candor.

Everyone suffers! Children get taunted on the playground, they fall and skin their knees. Their dogs bite them. When they get older, they'll probably have their hearts broken a few times. Maybe they'll lose a valued job, maybe they'll go through a bitter divorce. Some of them will die too young of terrible diseases, whether in childhood, young adulthood, or middle age. And some will know truly terrible suffering from chronic disease, injury, or violence. That's just life. Fortunately life also has times of happiness, and if we are fortunate we can look forward to lives with more happiness than suffering. But some suffering awaits us all; it's a lottery of pain we have no choice but to play. The children who died at Sandy Hook were playing it too, and it's outrageous for Prager to suggest that saying so is in any way insulting to their parents. So yes, there is some consolation in knowing that the dead are no longer taking their chances with agony.

Notice how atheism dovetails with antinatalism. We’d be better off not existing in the first place than risk suffering.

If atheism is true, then Jacoby's consolation -- thin gruel as it is, admittedly, compared to the hope of eternal felicity in heaven -- is the best anyone can do. If there are no souls, no eternal life, and no heaven, then the false conviction that these things exist is a cruel and empty consolation indeed.

As a Christian, I don’t think we’re offering the lost false consolation when we present the gospel. However, let’s play along with Flynn’s objection. If atheism is true, to whom is the hope of heaven a cruel consolation? Not to the dead. They may believe in it up to the moment they die, but by Flynn’s lights, they never find out the hard way that it’s false. They don’t die, only to be rudely surprised by the awful discovery that there’s no heaven after all. By Flynn’s lights, they never know any better. They don’t know what they’re not missing. Not only is there nothing to miss, but at that point they’re in no position to miss it.

Does he mean it’s cruel to the living? Well, either the living believe it or they don’t. If they die believing it, they won’t find out that it was an empty consolation. They never knew what hit them. It’s too late for them to be disappointed. They don’t feel let down because they don’t feel anything.

And if they don’t believe it, then it’s not a “cruel” or “empty” consolation for them, for them were never taken in by the empty consolation. They already know it’s an empty consolation, right?

We should probably devote some attention to another inconvenient fact. As many Christians still view the afterlife, it isn't all bliss. There's supposedly that place that isn't heaven, and more conservative believers think it's very real… So the atheist view offers an additional consolation. Not only are the dead not suffering the inescapable pains of living, they are exempt from any threat of eternal hellfire. Hmm, the atheist view is looking better!

How is that an inconvenient fact? Should we want the afterlife to be blissful for everyone? What about a man who cheats the elderly out of their life savings to fund his lavish lifestyle, and always manages to stay one step ahead of the law. If, when he dies, that’s it, then he got away with it. Doesn’t that make the atheist view look worse rather than better? 

Some still believe that even young children can wind up in hell, or perhaps in some celestial holding area that spares their souls the pains of hell but denies them also the joys of heaven. (The Catholic Church no longer teaches that the souls of children younger than seven are warehoused in Limbo, but millions of Catholics around the world still believe that. And some evangelicals who set great store by adult baptism still teach that young children's souls can wind up in that lake of fire.)

i) Many Christians believe in universal infant salvation.

ii) But let’s tackle the tougher alternative. What if all children don’t go to heaven when they die? Of course, since they died as children, that’s how we remember them. We don’t get to see what they became had they grown up.

What if Ted Bundy died at the age of five? It might sound outrageous to say he didn’t go to heaven when he died. But what if we knew how he was going to turn out? Wouldn’t we view him differently? Shouldn’t we view him differently?

iii) Suppose we can’t give grieving parents an ironclad guarantee about their child’s heavenly destination? Still, we can give them hope. The walk of faith is a mix of hope and promise. We don’t have guarantees for everything we wish for. If we did, there’d be no room for faith. But you don’t have to have everything nailed down. However, you do need hope. You can get by with hope. That’s something to live for. Hope keeps you going. Hope keeps you faithful. Hope keeps you prayerful. Just enough encouragement to persevere, but not so much encouragement, that you become presumptuous. You can live with some uncertainty as long as you have a flickering flame of hope to light the way ahead.


  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post (and all-around blog). However, I was wondering about the following paragraph (with which I don't necessarily disagree):
    "Should we want the afterlife to be blissful for everyone? What about a man who cheats the elderly out of their life savings to fund his lavish lifestyle, and always manages to stay one step ahead of the law. If, when he dies, that’s it, then he got away with it. Doesn’t that make the atheist view look worse rather than better?"
    How does this square with the orthodox view of sola fide, on which a man may live wickedly all his life, but sincerely repent on his death bed and thus end up in Heaven, whereas an unbeliever who lived his entire life in love for his neighbour ends up in Hell? This doesn't seem to agree with our intuitions of justice, which your example appeals to.

    1. According to sola fide, justice is exacted on Christ in the sinner's stead. Conversely, virtuous unbelievers are virtuous due to God's common grace. It's not their personal achievement.

    2. As well, although deathbed conversions might make for some interesting hypotheticals, the case for them might be overstated. I remember reading Spurgeon; how he recalled a number of people having deathbed conversions who seemed very sincere, but if they did continue to live, they often lived just as wickedly as before.

  2. You speak of deathbed conversions as if a man knows when he is going to die. Do we owe God a death at our timing?