Hope and Living as an Atheist

In a recent online discussion, I was asked, “Where do you find hope?…. When someone you love or hold dear is horribly ill or in dire need what do you cling to?”

The last part of this question, “… what do you cling to?” seems to me to be quite at odds with the rest of the question. It paints  a vivid picture of a sailor on the deck of a sailing ship in the midst of a typhoon, holding on to the rigging for dear life. But when someone I love or hold dear is horribly ill or in dire need, that is not how I feel at all.

Let me illustrate this with a brief description of a series of comments I saw on FaceBook recently. Someone posted a set of problems they were facing, and they were dire indeed. A series of Christians posted, “I’ll pray for you,” “You’ll be in my prayers tonight,” and so on. An atheist friend of mine posted something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. What can I do to help?”

Atheists see illness and need as challenges to be faced, and if they are going to be faced, we need to step up to the plate to face them. It is never, “Woe is me.” It is always, “How can I fix this? How can I help?” There is no supernatural father-figure to fix things, so if it’s going to get fixed, we’d better get off our butts and do what we can to make it happen.

And given what I said earlier about meaning coming from meaning-attributing beings, and the assumption as part of the question that we love or hold dear the person in question, can one doubt that we would fight to the death to fix the problem? Or if it isn’t fixable, to make the person know how loved they are, and ensure they are as comfortable as possible?

Now, I am not implying in any way that Christians fall apart, don’t try to fix the problems, or dissolve into, “Woe is me,” kinds of thoughts at the drop of a hat. In fact, I think that the act of praying, the act of calling on a real-to-them supernatural power to help with the problem, is a psychological coping mechanism that helps provide the strength they need to do what needs to be done. Or at least it can be such a mechanism. And for people who need it, I’m happy it’s there, because it can help get the job done. Atheists, at least those of us of the humanist variety, simply don’t need that extra step. We go directly to, “Put us to work; tell us what you need.”

On the other hand, much as I am not implying that Christians fall apart, and so on, the original questioner seem to be suggesting that without Christ she would: “I think without my faith in Christ those “dark” days would be unbearable…. those dark days that all humans have are so hard and there are times that without my faith I would have no hope and can’t fathom how I would hold on…” I’m sorry if that’s the case. But I assure you, without belief in anything supernatural I love as deeply, fear as greatly, and act as selflessly as theists do. There are people, lots of people, that I would die for. There are ideals that I would die for. Yes, days can be dark. But my own resolve, the people I love, and the ethics that drive my life, give me confidence that I can make a difference. I may not beat every challenge that comes my way, but I can at least go down fighting. And I can live a life where, on my deathbed, I can look back on it with satisfaction at how I have lived it.

To take a thought experiment from Friedrich Nietzsche, imagine that, upon your deathbed, a supernatural being came to you and told you that your fate after death was to relive your life, exactly as you had lived it, over and over until the end of time. The question, according to Nietzche, is whether you view this being as an angel or a demon. If you answer a demon, then, according to Nietzsche, you are not living your life up to your own standards. You are doing something wrong in how you are living your life. Of course Nietzsche is not in any way suggesting that such a thing would actually happen; he is instead proposing this as a thought experiment about how one should approach living their life. If you were to die at any moment, how would you view this being? Live your life in a way that would make this being an angel in your eyes, and you will have lived a good life. That’s what many atheists do. That’s how we know what is important. That’s how we find meaning in our lives. That is where we find hope. By doing the best that we can, and by holding ourselves to the impossible standard of doing even better.

So what do I cling to as the world buffets me? I don’t cling. There is no meaning in what happens to me, but there is meaning in how I respond to what happens to me. I don’t grasp at the rigging in the typhoon… I lower my head into the driving rain, make my way step by step to the wheel, and strain at the creaking wood to drag the ship onto a course that will take my shipmates to safety. I may succeed. I may be blown overboard. But either way, I will know that I have done all that I could. And maybe, just maybe, my efforts will inspire another sailor to try, and maybe he will succeed where I failed.

That is where I find hope.

28 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Pages, They Are A-Changin’ | Convert The Atheist

    • At death, my life ends. My physical body does not, which then gets recycled into the ongoing continuation of the universe. More importantly, the impact that I have had on the people that I have interacted with lives on through culture and memory. That is a type of lasting impact that lives on far past my own meager lifespan.

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  2. “Meager lifespan”? Perhaps we might then agree on two things. The first is that our life on this planet, relative to eternity, is unimaginably short. We would both agree here, I think. Divide your lifespan, whatever you think it will be, by a septillion. That’s short but relative to eternity, even that doesn’t describe how short. Regardless of the fact that you think your life will be extinguished upon death, this still remains true. Would you agree?

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  3. Now the second item of agreement: that upon death, we take nothing with us. Every penny we have ever earned, every item we have created, even our own body will remain on this side of eternity. Now, don’t misunderstand. I know you don’t think there is any other side to eternity. But nevertheless, as you stated previously I think, you would agree that not only is life momentarily short but that we take nothing with us upon death from this earthly existence.

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  4. I understand. I have a friend in South Africa who is fairly wealthy and in the the process of renovating his home. He hired a contractor to do the work. The contractor has about 15 South African men who are working 12 hours a day, every day at one dollar an hour. (And a dollar does not go much farther in S. Africa than it does in the states.) The contractor uses manual labor because it’s much cheaper than renting a large earth moving machine. My friend Chris observes these men doing back breaking work for almost nothing and it really bothers him. However, at this point, he can’t go around the contractor and pay the men more directly – that simply isn’t done there. (We are discussing a way around this but nothing yet.)

    Here’s the point: these men must work because otherwise their families won’t eat. They have almost nothing. In that culture, they will always have nothing and will work for this “nothing” day after 12 hour day, year after year. It’s their life which as we’ve discussed before is incomprehensibly short and brutal.

    It is a horribly unjust system and this injustice is systemic to the culture as a whole.

    Question: what answer does atheism offer those trapped in suffering from injustice? Please don’t reply that Christianity doesn’t offer an answer either because even if that were true, I’m asking you about atheism. Thanks.

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    • This is an excellent question, and thank you for it.

      I’m going to start by noting that atheism isn’t a monolithic belief structure or worldview. It is simply the answer, “No,” to the question, “Do you actively believe that a theistic god exists.” No more, no less. As such, the label atheism says one thing about what one does not believe, and nothing about what one does believe.

      You are certainly aware of the wide range of beliefs that self-professed Christians hold. Southern Baptists hold beliefs and values quite different from Catholics, whose views in turn are quite different from Pentecostals, Mormons, and Unitarian Universalists (some of whom explicitly consider themselves Christian, despite what any other denomination thinks of that claim). And that wide range of views are all inside the Venn diagram circle labeled, “self-professed Christian.” Expand that circle slightly and you get, “self-professed theists,” and you as a consequence have an even larger range of views.

      But the entire area outside of that circle? That is “atheism.” Not a unified worldview at all. Some atheists are nihilists. Some are spiritualists (e.g., some forms of Wicca). Some are deists (believers in a watchmaker god that set the universe in motion but has been hands off ever since). Some are naturalistic materialists (i.e., believing that the physical world is all there is, has been, and will be). Some are antirealists (i.e., believing that there is no external reality beyond our own experiences).

      So your question, about what answer atheism has for those trapped in suffering from injustice, is kind of like asking what answer do people who don’t believe in flying reindeer have for those trapped in suffering from injustice. There is no one answer, because there are a huge range of world views represented by people who don’t believe in flying reindeer.

      Please note… I am emphatically not dismissing the import of the problem you have raised. I am saying that thinking of that problem through a theist/atheist lens is not particularly helpful.

      So, given all of that, I cannot give an overarching answer for the “atheist response.” But, I can give you my personal response, and can provide some labels for my positive beliefs (as opposed to the negative belief of “atheism”) that can help you contextualize my response. I hope that is responsive enough to your question to further the discussion, and will be happy to expand on any of this of it isn’t responsive enough.

      First: I am a naturalistic materialist. This means that I believe that the physical world is all there is.

      Second: I am an ethical culturalist. This is a subset of ethical humanism, and it functions much like a secular church, whose individual “congregations” are known as Ethical Societies. This label entails a belief (however it is arrived at, and that route to the belief is considered secondary to the belief itself) that humans have intrinsic worth and dignity, and that we as humans have a moral imperative to further human flourishing and reduce human suffering.

      There are also other labels I could include, such as Ethical Pragmatist, existentialist (note: this is an often misunderstood term… I mean it as in opposition to essentialist), scientist, and so on.

      I could go into detailed discussions about why I have decided to apply those labels to myself, but that is probably a separate conversation. What matters, from the perspective of your question, is how those labels guide my thinking about the best responses.

      Ok, I am sure you are thinking, enough stalling! And yes, you are right. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

      There are multiple levels at which the injustice could be identified. The laborers are receiving a pittance. The contractor is paying the laborers a pittance. The culture is such that laborers can expect no more than a pittance. The culture is such that a class system enables employers to view laborers as being not worth more than a pittance. The culture is such that it enforces unacceptable social norms concerning this class system. Or we could go to the legal system, or the political system.

      Responses to the problem depend on how you formulate the problem. If you say the problem is the poor wages of these particular laborers, then finding a way to pay them more under the table solves that problem, but utterly fails to address the higher level problems. If you say the problem is political or cultural, then trying to fight that problem runs the risk of putting these specific laborers in danger of reprisal in service of larger social change. Is that a cost your friend is willing to pay? Is it a cost the laborers are willing to pay?

      In short, there is no easy answer that addresses the problems at all levels. Certainly not an answer within the means of an individual, albeit wealthy, person. Depending on the means of the individual, there are certainly possibilities. Firing the contractor and starting one’s own contracting company would be one way. But that costs more (in both time and money) than simply paying the workers under the table. It becomes a question of evaluating, quantitatively, the leverage one has to implement any given change.

      Analogy: slavery in the United States. Imagine being a land-owner in the south in the early 1800s. Imagine you are ethically ahead of your time, and recognize that slavery is evil. And yet, freeing all of your slaves naturally will result in your own financial ruin. You have to ask yourself, in that scenario, if taking a hard line moral stance against slavery, implying that you will become financially destitute yourself and will end up having limited impact on the entire institution of slavery, is the best route, or whether it might be better to work within the system to make the situation better and try through your influence to slowly move the entire institution of slavery towards a state where it will phase itself out in the long run. This is the kind of complicated question that does not have a clear-cut answer. There are lots of ways to try to make a difference, and many of them are laudable, and all of them are open to criticism that it’s not enough, or that it is, from a certain perspective, applying pressure in the wrong places. Your friend’s situation in South Africa is very similar to this.

      In the end, the moral calculus in finding the best path forward in such complicated situations is clearly very complicated, very perspective based, and extremely nuanced. But from the perspective of improving the situation of these laborers, the starting point is acknowledging and working towards the rights and worth of the laborers themselves. This is the essence of humanism. However you arrived at that humanism. Many Christians are humanists, though they tend to eschew that label in favor of Christian. Many atheists are also humanists. I am one such atheist. And my decision-making process is not so different from that of many Christians.

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  5. I do appreciate the level of detail and logical thought you put into your answer. It demonstrates that you have thought about many of these issues and that’s certainly uncommon in today’s world. I especially liked the illustration from slavery in the 1800s.

    But it seems that you focused on the question from my friend Chris’ point of view, rather than the laborers themselves.

    And perhaps my question, “what answer does atheism offer those trapped in suffering from injustice?” should rather be “what hope does your atheism offer those trapped in grinding, prolonged suffering from injustice?” Could you take a stab at that? Thanks.

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  6. Are you okay? My last question is still awaiting moderation. Makes me think that you might be sicker than you indicated. I’m concerned – could you just let me know if you’re okay? i want to tell you that I’m praying for you but don’t want to offend or sound condescending. So I am but I didn’t tell you that!

    Or, you might have given up on the website. That’s fine just would like to know. Hope you’re well.

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  7. I can’t help but wonder whether there might be another reason for the non-response. I’m not trying to be offensive or provocative but I do think I should ask you directly. We agreed on two universal truths: 1) that our life on earth relative to all future time is but the briefest split second; and 2) that upon death, we take absolutely nothing with us from this physical existence, not even our own body.

    So far so good. And when I asked you about the laborers in South Africa who would live their entire lives under grinding, systemic oppression, you provided a long, very thoughtful response, which I appreciated. But when I asked you to narrow your response to what hope your atheism provides to these laborers, there was nothing except responses about events that are delaying you.

    Now, life events can certainly get in the way, no doubt. But I wonder whether it’s simply that there is no good answer at all and there might be some desire to avoid addressing this. Am I wrong?

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    • Again, I am sorry about the delay.

      I have just gone through a year-long ordeal with my wife that is heading squarely for divorce. I am a professor who is up for tenure. I have been diagnosed with PTSD. And my daughter has had three life-threatening medical conditions over the last two years, and we are still dealing with the fallout from them. So while I will not discount that you are asking good questions, I really view my nonresponsiveness as being a result of me prioritizing other aspects of my life over this blog. It is, of course, possible that I am deluding myself in that regard.

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  8. Thank you. Discussing questions of a philosophical nature can be quite interesting when engaged with thoughtful, self-reflective and intelligent people like yourself. But the relative importance of all of this comes into sharp focus when understanding the genuine life struggles that you have shared. I cannot tell you how sorry I am that you are facing these monumental issues right now. Please know that I meant no offense by my previous post and I can only tell you that I empathize with the pain and loss you must be feeling.

    While we can have a respectful and intellectually reasoned disagreement about God’s existence and his personal engagement in our lives (meaning I respect your reasons as well), I do believe this and will pray for you, your daughter and your family every day from now on.

    I really wish this was not a public conversation. Please feel free to email me at any time. Again, so sorry for your pain.

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