Hello, The Week? Yes, this is 2009 speaking. Listen, could you give me back your New Atheism bashing from one of your recent articles? It’s sort of my thing. Sure, it’s all fine and dandy for a writer to criticize repetitive The God Blank books because we get it, religion has issues. And it’s fine to point out that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are tough acts to follow anyway. But did we really have to venture into the old, recycled demands that atheists lament the loss of their faiths and mourn the concept of God by quoting random secularists and atheists who said something about how losing one’s religion can be painful to start a flame war in the comments? Come on, I mean some of this commentary is so old, one wonders if it had to be taken from a museum and dusted off before being used, not to mention the fallacious premise that the lack of a conviction in an afterlife, ordinarily a placebo for our conscious minds able to understand a concept as odd and terrifying as death, should somehow reduce us to amoral, depressed nihilists.
After all, how arrogant is it to assume that just because there’s no deity to reward you or eternal life after this one that you’re now free to throw yourself a life-long pity party and act like an emo teen who overdosed on goth poetry? You have a responsibility to others to help make this world at least a little better than you found it, though as an atheist, you’ll have to do it without prayers and expectations that the creator of the entire universe will pause its grand plans to come down and help you. There’s also the problem that atheists can’t simply declare "because God says so and I follow God," and consider it a weighty rebuttal to a criticism or supporting evidence. They’ll actually have to prove their ideas empirically and can’t demand that their critics must prove that something doesn’t exist before they’re allowed to have an opinion. It’s kind of absurd to require proof of a negative and doubly absurd when the burden of proof is on you for invoking the very thing that has to be disproved. And yet that’s what all too many faithful do with their gods.
So yes, if you’re used to delegating all your problems to the supernatural and are content to sit there, dreaming about your eternal life after this one is over, pounding your shoe on the table about the arrogance of atheists and demanding they prove that God doesn’t exist when you call him as the justification to impose your way on others, certainly losing your faith is a huge blow. It means you have to discard things that made your life easier and more convenient. You will also have to face scorn from those who can no longer use a deity as leverage over you because all their invocations of a god now sound like "if you don’t do what I say, Santa won’t being you any presents this Christmas." But again, this doesn’t mean that you’re now free to mope around and lament your godlessness. You have a responsibility to those around you to make your life count and do something noteworthy. Few great inventions and big ideas were born by focusing on the fun stuff the dead get to do in the afterlife. They came from curiosity about the natural world, by asking tough questions with good science, and by thinking about the people around us.
Ironically, while ardent theists talk about atheists trying to shirk their responsibility to a deity no one has ever proved extant, they’re refusing to have a responsibility to their fellow humans once they compare atheism to rebellious nihilism and insist that lack of faith gives people a license to do as they wish and there’s nothing to stop them from killing, pillaging and raping just for fun. If all that holds them back from this sort of destructive behavior is a book and they really believe that should they ever lose faith, they would go out and do unspeakable things just for the fun of it, they’re not sane, stable, or moral people, and they really need to reevaluate their outlook on life rather than excoriate atheists for not thinking like them. It’s as if they no longer have any real obligations to others and no longer inhabit the same world. Don’t they want to fight disease and advance our civilization? Don’t they want to live longer and explore farther? And wouldn’t they want to do this if not for themselves, then for their children and their children’s children?
[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]