Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Consolation of Atheism

 Understandably, atheist and writer, Susan Jacoby, is exasperated:

  • At the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. (NYT Sunday, 1/6/2013, 6)
Newtown seems to expose atheism’s irrelevance and inadequacy in the face of life’s tragedies – death and suffering. However, Jacoby feels that atheism has much to offer the suffering:

  • One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter – ever if the doubter remains a religious believer.
A listening ear is sometimes all we can offer, and it might also be our very best gift to the sufferer. However, there are times when we need something more tangible. If our airplane is leaving in ten minutes, and we frantically ask someone to direct us to the right gate, we need more than a listening ear. We need correct feedback.

Jacoby even insists that the atheist has an advantage over the theist:

  • 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 [life].
For Jacoby, God is an unnecessary encumbrance. He merely gets in the way of solving life’s problems. In contrast, the atheist is “free” and unencumbered.

However, the atheist has become so utterly “free” that she has shed the only sufficient rationale to “concentrate on the fate of this world.” Without a higher transcendent moral truth, the atheist is left with no more than moral relativism – a morality that is arbitrary, temporary and culture-bound. Consequently, the atheist cannot even provide an adequate rationale for moral engagement. Why not instead serve of #1? Why not simply live for maximum gratification? Why even provide a listening ear? The atheist cannot answer any of these questions convincingly.

While we all agree that offering a listening ear is virtuous, the atheist has no reason to do so if it becomes irksome. She might claim that it heightens her self-esteem to do so. However, when it becomes uncomfortable to offer the listening ear, it will detract from her self-esteem, revealing her own inadequacy and selfishness.

Instead, morality requires some degree of accountability. Needing to “square things” with our “unseen overlord” is actually a plus! It’s also a joy to know that we honor our God when we are obedient to His desires.

Without a morality that is God-centered, it inevitably degenerates into what is self-centered – performing for reasons of self-gratification. This makes the moral appeal of the atheist sound hollow. Jacobi issues her call to a higher cause:

  • We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for…We need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy. 
Clearly, Jacoby is an evangelist, but for what cause? She is adamant that atheism is not a religion. However, she writes as if it is!

Christians are willing to sacrifice their welfare in favor of a higher cause. Jacoby also calls us to something higher than our own immediate comforts but fails to provide a rationale for this sacrifice. She appeals to the need to outdo the clergy. But why bother!

Without an adequate rationale, atheism has vigorously plunged into the fray but has soon lost its idealism, as the communist experience has amply demonstrated.

Jacoby concludes:

  • 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.”
Since when is non-existence “perfect rest?” Rest requires a rester. However, the rester is no longer – a fearful prospect to any rational mourner!

What kind of “meaning” is this? Instead, this represents the lack of meaning – the repudiation of all meaning in a world that is essentially meaningless.

It is therefore puzzling – the comfort to which Jacoby alludes. Nevertheless, many atheists talk about a “comfort” – a “conversion experience” – when they throw off the shackles of God. Alas, they are free to live as they so desire without anyone to judge them. The atheist Bertrand Russell talked in terms of a new gospel. However, the glow was only temporary – one of reality’s many fatalities:

  • "I wrote with passion and force because I really thought I had a gospel [creating his own meaning]. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life." (Os Guinness, The Journey, 106)

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