This essay at the New York Times by Susan Jacoby, The Blessings of Atheism, got me thinking. Some excerpts:
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.
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.
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.
Practically, I can see a huge benefit to having some friends who are of such a mind as this. For example, when I’m having a bad neuro day, such a caring atheist friend could hypothetically swoop in and volunteer to go grocery shopping or run errands. Maybe she’d help me do research on medical treatments available or keep Z busy for a few hours while I napped. Of course, so could my Christian or Muslim friends. But then, being brutally honest here, I’d not get the promises of prayer and speeches about pain being no more in the next life.
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.”
The dead do not suffer, but the living sure do. I know firsthand. So what then? What can atheism offer the living that religion can’t? Also, I find it interesting that in the discussion of evil, both atheists and theists have a way of zoning in on death. For the atheist, the halt of pain. For the theist, the start of paradise. Interesting that most people no matter their religious flavor want to remain on the actual subject of suffering.
So here again, is my question: when it comes to tragedy and suffering, what does atheism offer over theism? This is a sincere question, with no snark. I’d love an open and honest discussion. However, if anyone starts bashing others, I will delete comments. You’ve been warned. 😉