I was recently asked what atheism has to offer the world in place of religion (in this case Christianity). That’s a very good question. If some atheists would like to see religion go the way of the dinosaur, and I am one of them, what are we offering in return? Religion offers, at least on the surface, some of the following “benefits”:
- Purpose and meaning in life. What greater purpose is there than doing the will of God? It is also hard to see anything more meaningful than believing that God created the world for a purpose and, by extension, you were created for a specific purpose by an all loving God.
- A feeling of being cared for and loved. No matter how bad things get, you have the assurance that there is a loving God that cares for you and loves you. Any trials and pains you are suffering are momentary. They are for a purpose and God will help you get through them
- The hope of an afterlife of eternal bliss to those who serve Him and eternal punishment for those who don’t. So good is ultimately rewarded and evil punished. In addition, you will ultimately be reunited with all your believing loved ones. Death is not the end.
- A way to make sense of suffering. You have the assurance that there is a purpose to suffering, even if you don’t understand it. God has a grand plan after all.
- A moral framework. God provides a black and white moral framework from which to operate. Do this and live. Do that and be punished. No thinking is needed. Your feelings and those of society are irrelevant. Only what God thinks is meaningful.
In light of these benefits, what does atheism have to offer? Ultimately, the answer is that atheism offers a reality based view of the world, not one based on wishful thinking. Even so, that may not be a very satisfying answer to many, so let’s look at each of the supposed benefits that religion offers.
- I grant that if the universe is random and was not created for some divine purpose then there is ultimately no grand purpose or meaning to our life. There is no master plan. However, just because there is no master plan or master purpose, does not mean there is no purpose or meaning to our lives. Richard Dawkins has said:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here…But we as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever…After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it? (To Live at All Is Miracle Enough.)
In other words, our purpose and meaning is what we make it. You are alive – I am alive – in spite of overwhelming odds. In addition, this fact alone is greater than any possible miracle and this fact alone should humble us and give us more than enough purpose and meaning in life. That purpose is to live fully and while, with very few exceptions, all of us will be forgotten within just a few generations, we all have an impact within our present time – make that impact count. What better motivation can there be to live?
- While it would be nice if there were an afterlife, the is no evidence that it exists. Chances are very great that once we are dead, it all ends for us. It’s a sobering truth and one that should have an impact in our every day life. We will not see loved ones, family or friends after death. This is all there is. Rather than fill us with despair, it should make us appreciate each day we have with those we care for. Relish the time spent. Say “I love you” now, not later. Forgive. Make peace. Tuck the kids in. See these things and more as urgent, because there will be no “afterlife” to make things right. This fact also shows the importance of justice in the here and now. Good isn’t eternally rewarded and evil isn’t eternally punished. We need to get it right now.
- Can you really feel loved and cared for by an invisible entity? It’s a poor substitute for a mother’s soothing words or a lover’s embrace. Can you really feel loved when a sovereign entity throws a ton of crap into your life and then says he loves you and it’s for your best? Can you really feel loved when God takes your infant child for “the best”? This “love” and “care” is an illusion at best and a horrible joke at worst. Few would put up with “love” like this if it came from a fellow person. Better is the love of family and friends and the warm embrace of a significant other.
- Frankly, there is no making sense of suffering. There is nothing noble about it. There is no divine plan that rewards it. Bad stuff happens, mostly randomly, but sometimes as a result of our actions. If we can get rid of this notion of God ordained suffering, we can more quickly come to the conclusion that it is OUR responsible to minimize it and attempt to eliminate it. Think about how much less suffering there would be in the world if everyone thought this?
- Morality definitely doesn’t come from god. Almost no one attempts to keep the moral precepts supposedly given by God in the Old Testament. Even the most hardened fundamentalist would think twice about killing their child for an act of disobedience or imposing the death penalty for working on the sabbath. So if morality comes from God, His morality is evolving too since it is very different from the rules imposed in an earlier time. Our morality has evolved as we have evolved as humans and as a society. We find certain morally acceptable practices of the past (e.g. slavery, racism, genocide, etc.) as unacceptable and I’m sure the future generations will find some of our practices abhorant. What this means is that things may not be black and white, there are shades of grey that we need to learn to live with. We need to think. It’s not as comfortable as being told what is right and wrong, but is is more satisfying.
An atheistic, reality based world view ultimately has a lot to offer as a replacement for a mythical, magic based religious world view.