I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. I’ve been on this earth for nearly 38 years and I’ve never for a second believed there is a God. As such, I rarely presume to comment on others’ faith. I accept it as something I cannot understand. It’s time for people of faith to extend that same courtesy to us atheists.
It’s all too common for people of faith to treat those without as inferior. The best of them will champion interfaith dialogue, bringing the world’s religious believers together in common cause. But the atheists are another tribe, somewhere underneath, not invited to the interfaith party. We don’t even get a slot on Thought for the Day.
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Here at UnHerd, Giles Fraser recently wrote a lengthy vicar-splaining article explaining how atheists think. He had the brass neck to dismiss atheism – and its billion adherents – as “an illiberal creed that does little to advance the cause of human flourishing”. If he’d said the same about Judaism, Islam, or even Zoroastrianism, there would have been outrage. But it seems we atheists don’t mind being insulted.
Radio 4’s Sunday programme recently described us as “people with no beliefs” – suggesting they’ve never met an atheist, let alone had a conversation with one.
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As a confirmed, even devout, atheist I have more beliefs than you can shake a stick at. Central to them is my belief that there is no God. And it’s that central, overwhelming conviction that human existence is without intrinsic purpose or meaning that motivates my life. I believe the idea of ‘No God’ is as powerful as the idea of ‘God’.
With No God, it is clear that this is all we have. There is no after, or before. We have not earned it at its best any more than we deserve it at its worst. We exist, and we live out every day our lives on what the astrologist Carl Sagan called “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”.1
Like him, I see the fragility of our lives and the extraordinary circumstance of our even existing in the vast nothingness of space, as a reminder of “our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”.
With No God, there is no meaning to attach to suffering, just a sharp imperative to stop it wherever and whenever possible. There is no palliative assurance that it is part of God’s plan for millions to die in pain and poverty, just an obligation to act before they do. There is no hope of an afterlife to bring peace to the kind or punishment to the cruel, just the urgency of justice in the here and now. And there is no surrendering to a higher power to resolve my faults or failings, only my own agency, and my own responsibility.
When there is only the human, it is only the human that can change our lives.
One of the greatest articulations of a moment of apostasy was written by the Victorian poet Arthur Clough. Easter Day, Naples, 1849 chronicles an overwhelming, catastrophic loss of faith, as it suddenly dawned on Clough that “Christ is not risen”. Bereft of his God, Clough enjoins us to “eat, drink and die, for we are souls bereaved”.
Like Fraser, he sees life with no God as an essentially narcissistic experience, medicating the loss of meaning with the hedonism of gluttony. But the poem then gives advice to the readers it constructs. To the women: “Go to your homes, your living children tend / Your earthly spouses love.” To the fishermen: “Mend the old nets ye left to roam / Tie the split oar, patch the torn sail”.
These are not, in fact, the pursuits of narcissistic hedonists. Caring for family; feeding the village: these are noble pursuits in the service of our community. They are the only way to satisfy our human desire for purpose, in the absence of a God. Whereas those motivated by faith can find meaning in prayer, or perpetual contemplation of the divine, we atheists have no such channels open, and must find purpose in our actions.
Fraser is wrong. Atheists contribute in their millions, every day, to “human flourishing”. And unlike those with religious motivations, they do so without a hope of eternal reward. Of course, there are plenty of selfish and cruel atheists, just as there are those who use religion for immoral purposes. But even those whose religion motivates them to do great works of charity, are not better than the atheists who do good. It is surely more impressive to help others in a world with No God, than it is to help others in a world with God on hand to give out the reward of eternal life.
Faith tells us there is something beyond the here and now that matters, and matters more. It is perhaps the most successful technique humans have developed for tolerating the horrors of human existence, which atheism leaves intolerable. No wonder religion seems to be good for our mental health: it alleviates the guilt if God is in charge. That’s why religion can, and has been used, to make the case against progress, the case for accepting horror instead of challenging it.
For billions of people, faith adds meaning to their lives. But the assumption that there is no meaning in atheism needs to end. Pew Research Trust has shown that, even in the deeply religious US, atheists are the most likely to feel “a deep sense of wonder about the world”. We’re the ones most overwhelmed by our transcendent luck in being here: no one put us here to serve their purpose. With No God, there is no-one to blame, and no one to hide how close we are, in every moment, to oblivion.
With No God this fragile little world of ours is all we have. Let those with faith live in faith, but don’t ever tell me atheism is a moral vacuum. As Clough said, religion means “setting affection on things above”. Atheism, by contrast, is a way to set affection on the things below, the things around us every day, the human rather than the ineffable. There is no next world: just this one. So let’s stop screwing it up.