The Comfort of Atheism

Promenade Sept 14 006

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 #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. Jacoby 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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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has been an instructor of theology and apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 20 years. He is also the author of several books, one published: "Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God's Way." He also gives seminars on marriage, depression and "Reasons to Believe in the Christian Faith."

  • http://www.facebook.com/r.talmadge.lacy R. Talmadge Lacy

    Some people do good things to others because it’s the way they want to be treated. Most people do good things for the selfish reason of wanting to feel good about doing good things. Both cases are fine rationales, and in any case the behavior is more important than the belief

    • Daniel Mann

      RTL, I too applaud good behavior, whatever the motive. However, our thought-life and motivations are of utmost significance. More harm has been done by self-sacrificing idealists – communists, national socialists – then by all of the common criminals.

      I’ve also seen this on the job. Do-gooders often morph into the most arrogant and abusive people. In their mind, their do-gooding entitles them to condescend to those they regard as lesser.

      What’s the answer? Doing good with the right understanding! Our Lord shows us that, more than anything, our good deeds are a privilege He extends to us rather than a way to earn self-righteous superiority. And what a privilege it is to love others!

      • An Onymous

        It is good to recognize your personal biases. Even better to disallow them the privilege of directing your reasoning.

    • Lion_IRC

      Where in your post are the people whose definition of doing ”good” is…

      “I killed a lot of those nasty XYZ people today”
      “I defeated my enemy today”
      “I got a great price pawning those stolen TV’s”
      “To the victor go the spoils”
      “Do it to them before they do it to you”
      “There is no such thing as absolute objective morality, it’s all relative”
      “Dont tell me how to live my life.”
      “You only live once”

    • Daniel Mann

      RTL, Belief is essential and foundational. If people do good for selfish reasons, the good will not remain good. There is a verse that says, “Out of the abundance of the heart (belief) speaks the mouth.” Inevitably, our outer behavior will resemble our beliefs.

      Besides, if we do good for the wrong reasons, we become insufferable proud and even dangerous. It promotes an entitlement mentality. And far more people have been killed by do-gooders who convinced themselves that they were creating a better world – communists and national socialists.

  • tildeb

    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.

    This trope seems to be a favourite amongst those who are determined to vilify rather than understand.

    If you applied the same reasoning to traveling by plane, you’d be standing on the tarmac insisting that flying with precision cannot be possible because without a transcendent elevation truth, elevation relativism is merely arbitrary, temporary, and culture-bound… and assume incorrectly that this really matters in comparative elevation. The same is the case for comparative morality, but you just don’t see it because you are already convinced that relativism automatically means useless.

    The paucity of sound reasoning regarding morality as evidence for a moral code existing somewhere out there and then transferred to people by some mysterious mechanism apparently exempt from how physics and chemistry work is astounding outside of this religious reference to morality. Almost all of our measurements are ‘relative’ but I don’t hear of christian trades people throwing down their tools in disgust because these scales by which they produce accurate work are so ‘arbitrary, temporary, and culture-bound’. But the very sad fact of the matter is that every single christian including you, Daniel, practices your version of relative morality deciphering which bits of scripture you will call metaphor (and interpret to suit your current moral code) and which bits you will insist are literal (and hold fast as informing your current moral code) to suit only what you assume is a ‘higher transcendent moral truth’. You then attribute your moral certainty in the righteousness of your remarkable ability to differentiate metaphorical from literal to your conclusions and then have the colossal arrogance to attribute that personal decision to your god! Yet by anyone who can observe, we see that christians today like you – unlike your theological ancestors – do not support slavery… yet appear unable to argue that this ‘transcendent moral truth’ just so happens to have evolved! It is both disheartening and sad that there are still people being duped into thinking that the trope still has value, yet has been so discredited so often by so many that for some entrenched believers none of this appears to have had any effect. But you’ll still get on a plane, still call a plumber when needed, still believe the gauges on your car, and still feel perfectly justified maintaining this two-faced hypocrisy to serve you in your condemnation of non believers for their ‘lack’ of having a transcendent moral truth.

    Good grief.

    • Daniel Mann

      Tildeb,

      Thanks for your response. I’ll try to respond as best I can.
      However, even after rereading, I’m still not sure of your points. (Regarding
      your challenge about biblical interpretation – I’ll let that one go since it
      isn’t the subject of this essay.)

      You liken my insistence on the necessity of moral absolutes
      to an insistence on scientific absolutes in regards to flying a plane. While I
      think that the parallel is apropos, I can’t figure out why you would resort to
      an equation that supports the theistic position.

      As life requires moral absolutes, so too, flying a plane
      requires physical absolutes! I’m wondering whether you are misunderstanding the theistic position. Although we believe in moral absolutes, this in no way represents a denial of the many relative aspects of morality – the people involved, the situations, and the motivations… Likewise, we find the same thing in the study and the navigation of the physical world – both absolutes and aspects that are relative to our culture.

      If I am talking past you, then you have to clarify your
      position so that I can respond more appropriately.

  • An Onymous

    “…the atheist cannot even provide an adequate rationale for moral engagement. Why not instead serve #1? Why not simply live for maximum gratification? Why even provide a listening ear? The atheist cannot answer any of these questions convincingly.”

    For an atheist, “driven by empathy” is an adequate rationale for moral engagement. Have I answered your question convincingly?