Last week the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by Susan Jacoby called The Blessings of Atheism. In it, Ms. Jacoby attempts to rebut a colleague’s remark, apropos of Newtown, that atheism has no consolation to offer when people are suffering.
I’m an atheist myself, and I think Ms. Jacoby is on a fool’s errand.
Yes, there are various positive reasons for unbelief, and for many a Godless world is preferable to one in which we exist at the pleasure, and under the continuous judgment and supervision, of an omnipotent sovereign who can read our very thoughts.
But the atheist’s Weltanschauung is hardly consoling: we are born, willy-nilly, into a world devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose, a place in which pleasure and pain are dispensed with remorseless indifference. We live briefly, snatching for ourselves a little happiness along the way if we are lucky, and all too soon are utterly annihilated. Those we love, and everything to which we form our most comforting attachments, will die, or crumble to dust. Ultimately, if the boffins are right, the expanding and ever-attenuating Universe itself will fade out into cold, eternal blackness. Those precious abstracta we call Good and Love and Beauty have no existence beyond our intuitions of them, which in turn are grounded in nothing more than a sequence of antecedent evolutionary contingencies. Because belief in an afterlife extends one’s timeframe indefinitely, and because salvation must be earned, religious belief trains the mind to look to the future; it encourages what the psychologists call “low time preference”. This attitude in turn carries over into our worldly affairs, and encourages responsibility, thrift, industriousness, and various other salutary habits. In its absence, and in the belief that this life is all we get, we incline instead toward maximizing the pleasures of the here and now.
(I could go on, and would probably warm nicely to the job of fleshing out this description at some length, but you get the idea.)
Yes, we atheists are spared, as Ms. Jacoby points out, the intellectual contortions of theodicy, but that’s pretty small beer compared to immortality. It bothers me no end that our prominent atheists refuse to swallow this pill, and insist instead that all we need is a few secular churches and a catchy slogan or two and we’ll have everything the faithful get, at an enviable discount. Yet they persist.
Dennis Prager, unsurprisingly, agrees, and in a brief essay sharply rebuts Ms. Jacoby’s comforting delusion. You can read it here.