IN a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.”It is not about being offered something. It is about something ringing true. There is something deeply wrong with death. We know it. When a child dies we feel it strongly. Atheists just dismiss it. Nothing right or wrong about anything. It just is. Someone is delusional. Either death has the final word and religion is just trying to deny it or there is more to the story. There really is hope. All 20 families chose hope. Is that because grief made them stupid or is it because grief made them see clearer?
This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize. When giving talks on college campuses, I used to avoid personal discussions of my atheism. But over the years, I have changed my mind because such diffidence contributes to the false image of the atheist as someone whose convictions are removed from ordinary experience. It is vital to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.
Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”
So her atheism is not really a rejection of true Christianity but a rejection of some sort of Christian heresy where faith prohibits reason. She was given a false choice between faith and reason and chose reason.
God allowed Jonas Salk the dignity of finding a polio vaccine that eliminated much suffering and death. If there was no suffering no human could ever do anything of the sort. If God solved all our problems before we knew they existed then the Jonas Salk's of the world would have no meaningful work. The problem of pain is complex but one reason for pain is so we can participate in the drama of good conquering evil. Any time we do we can always ask why was this pain not relieved earlier?Just two years later, in 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine began the process of eradicating polio, and my mother took the opportunity to suggest that God may have guided his research. I remember replying, “Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.” (He was to die only eight years later, by which time I was a committed atheist.)
Again we have the assumption that questions imply doubt. They don't. Questions often are based on faith. We expect there to be answers. Even if we don't find a full answer right away we don't expect our faith to collapse when we ask our hardest questions. We expect our honesty and our effort to strengthen our faith.The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.
IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
Human free will does destroy the logical force of the problem of pain and evil. An infinitely good God could allow man the freedom to choose good or evil. So it is no longer a logical objection. It is more an emotional objection. Why so much pain? Why me? Why do some people get off easier than others?It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
Why should an atheist care about the fate of the world? Many do. But does that caring flow from their atheism or perhaps does it come from her Catholic upbringing? It makes a difference because if it is a leftover from her Catholicism then it will disappear in future generations if Catholicism disappears. So the question is important. Why should an atheists care about the world and not just care about themselves?The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
Again, the fact that an atheist or agnostic does what we view as good is missing the point. Where did he get his concept of good from? Is there any reason to believe other atheists will get it from the same place? The answer to the second question is always going to be No because atheism has no foundation for morality. So Ingersoll's morality was just his. It did not flow from his atheism and we should not be surprised if future atheists don't share it.Today’s atheists would do well to emulate some of the great 19th-century American freethinkers, who insisted that reason and emotion were not opposed but complementary.Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899 and was one of the most famous orators of his generation, personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll insisted that there was no difference between atheism and agnosticism because it was impossible for anyone to “know” whether God existed or not. He used his secular pulpit to advocate for social causes like justice for African-Americans, women’s rights, prison reform and the elimination of cruelty to animals.
He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest ... The dead do not suffer.”