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.