Since the Newtown tragedy atheists have written essays defending their responses to such tragedies. They want to show that atheists too can console those who mourn without resorting to faith in God or a future life. Susan Jacoby has entered the lists with a recent New York Times article (1/6/13) entitled “The blessings of atheism.”

Jacoby claims that atheists are superior to religious believers because they are freed from struggling with questions of how God can allow evil and suffering in the world. No God, no problem. This means that atheists are “free to concentrate on the fate of this world” and can spend their energy working for good causes like gun control. Since the dead are non existent, mourners should take comfort in knowing that they no longer suffer.

As the prominent atheist philosopher Quentin Smith proclaims the negative news: “the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing.” However, atheists can be just as morally upright and virtuous as believers; morality does not depend upon faith in God..

My Christian response to these atheist manifestos is one of ironic acceptance. I am more than willing to grant that morality does not require an explicit faith in God. Proof can be found in the valid uses of reasoning and the good lives of many atheists.

I even can play with the conceit that Catholics might adopt a patron atheist, as with a patron saint. David Hume? Or Spinoza perhaps ? No fair choosing a self-identified “Catholic atheist” like Santayana.

Another message to atheists may help them relax. Christians understand unbelief all too well. Faith can be afflicted by dreadful feelings of doubt. “I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” The greatest of saints have had to overcome dark nights of the soul. Christian faith says ‘yes’ to God’s Yes, but ‘No’ and ‘Maybe not’also can erupt at moments.

When atheists realize they are accepted and understood they can take on some heavy lifting for the culture. They can work on ways to help people without faith to progress to moral understanding through reasoning and accrued human wisdom. Our society needs to be convinced of the value of the common good. Tasks of building caring communities outside of churches also await. Many people are so alienated from religious institutions that faith based moral appeals are no longer viable.

And surely atheists can do better than to offer the solace(?) that death signals nothingness. Why not at least turn to the unsolved scientific mysteries of human consciousness or potential mult-verses? Appeals to the creative wonder of art, music and poetry would be helpful. When Dosteovsky said that the world would be saved by beauty, perhaps he foresaw future debates over reductive materialism..

When I debate at home with my beloved Catholic atheists, I finally end with the remark that the only outcome for our argument is that they will be surprised on dying. If they are right and nothingness prevails, then none of us will exist to continue the conversation. Thank God I can’t believe that for more than a minute.

Comments

rick fetters | 1/20/2013 - 6:52pm

Religion: A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable. ~Ambrose Biercer

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/21/2013 - 12:44pm

Mr. Graham – No, you don’t get to choose post-mortem oblivion or eternal life. If there is no eternal life you enter into the oblivion of eternal death and a period (.) is place on the utter futiltity of life, of having been born. From the pit of oblivion comes an imaginary voice wailing, “Is that all there was to life, a little happiness, lots of pain and sweat, only to end up in a box in a hole in the ground, soon a pile of bones and forgotten? How stupid it was to be born!”

However, if there is eternal life, heaven, soon discover is how right it was to believe Jesus who said that when one finds the “Pearl of Great Price” essentially GOD, one sells everything and buys that “Pearl.” True, Faith is (can be) a “dark light” a “Black Pearl” if you wish, exquisite, rare and priceless, a “dark light” casting shadows of fright on the jagged walls of the tunnel of life, but fortunately it is a LIGHT, nonetheless! In that “light” life punctuates with an explanation point (!) and there is no wailing, only singing to realize how wonderful it was to be born, despite some hardships common to all.

Simplistic? Or SIMPLY TRUE? By the way, eternal life is in the final analysis a mater of CHOICE, as God "offers" never "forces." this as best as I understand it.

Simon Graham | 1/21/2013 - 1:49pm

Simplistic. Definitely simplistic. By a very very very long way indeed.

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/21/2013 - 3:32pm

Sorry Mr. Graham, as the Jewish playwrite Franz Werfel said of Lourdes, "For those who believe no explanation is necessary, for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible." I wish you HAPPINESS a human experience dependent on material success, a job, good food, asdquate lodging, clothing, friends, etc. I wish I could wish you JOY but that's an experience unique to God, a human experience possible even when the prerequisites of HAPPIINESS are absent. But of course unfortunately that's too non-erudite for you, too simple. O.K.! May GOD (if there is a God) Bless you! No response necessary and none forthcoming from me. Bye!

Bill Collier | 1/18/2013 - 1:52pm

What many atheists I know often fail to realize is that being a committed atheist also requires large doses of belief and faith--faith that God does not exist, to be sure, but faith nonetheless. Quentin Smith cannot say that it is a certainty that "we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing." Likewise, we who believe in God cannot state with absolute certainty, though we may feel God's presence in us, that there is a Supreme Being. I agree with Kierkegaard that reason alone cannot discern the existence of God, and that we need a "leap to faith" (his phrase) to know God's presence. Atheists must make the same leap beyond rational thought in the other direction. So I guess in one respect that it comes down to which leap is the better wager.

George Grim | 1/20/2013 - 4:11pm

" Atheists must make the same leap beyond rational thought in the other direction. So I guess in one respect that it comes down to which leap is the better wager."

Bill, the misunderstanding comes in thinking that a leap is necessary. Most atheists realize that a Kierkegaardian leap of faith is not warranted in any direction. The position that this entails is not one of absolute certainty, absolute certainty is a red herring. There is no requirement to have faith that a god doesn't exist. There is not need to accept any given definition of 'god' as being accurate (which is a prerequisite for a belief that god doesn't exist). Being a atheist only requires that one not be convinced by theistic claims. Being a rationally committed one means remaining unconvinced after a reasonable amount of study of these claims.

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/20/2013 - 6:30pm

Mr. Grim, It’s not perfectly clear to me if you are an atheist, or something other. However, respectfully, If you do find solace in Atheism then hang in there, for the human heart is restless until it rests in something, in your case “Nothing” in Augustine’s case, “God.” One of us is right, one of us is wrong. Many already have the answer. For everyone death will solve the problem, either Oblivion, or Everlasting Life! I choose the latter.

Simon Graham | 1/21/2013 - 10:11am

"For everyone death will solve the problem, either Oblivion, or Everlasting Life! I choose the latter."

You get to choose whether, post-mortem, there's oblivion or eternal life?

Thomas Rooney OFS | 1/21/2013 - 1:04pm

I think the point was we get to choose what we believe.

Simon Graham | 1/21/2013 - 1:51pm

Indeed we do. But then there's the acceptance of what seems most likely to be true - provisionally true at that - based on our best and most up-to-date knowledge in tandem with critical, sceptical and rational thought and then there's ... not.

Thomas Rooney OFS | 1/23/2013 - 8:44am

@ Simon - and you're welcome to all the best and up-to-date knowledge, in tandem with critical, skeptical and rational thought. I make use of all those as well, and I'd venture to say most people here do as well; we simply add faith, hope, and love to that mix.

Simon Graham | 1/23/2013 - 8:59am

Critical/sceptical/rational thought and faith don't mix. If you think critically, sceptically and rationally about something you see a perceived need to have faith in, that's the end of faith (if you're doing it right). Conversely, if you see a perceived need to have faith in something or other, you're not thinking critically, sceptically and rationally. You can't square this circle.

J Cosgrove | 1/23/2013 - 10:06am

"Critical/sceptical/rational thought and faith don't mix. "

It is interesting how you defend your position. I suggest you google "Provine Johnson Stanford debate" and see who in this debate uses the concept of faith and who uses critical skeptical rational thought. It was a real eye openers for me when I first started to investigate the evolution debate. My background academically is science and research so I was not unfamiliar with rational argument based on evidence. If you do not want to watch the debate there is a transcript of it but it is spotty in places.

I am traveling today and tomorrow and haven't got time to answer all the questions and this is really not the place to have such a discussion. For another discussion on this issue on this site especially evolution go to

http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/marilynne-robinson-science...

The sequence of the comments on this thread are a little out of sync due to the new web organization on America. And somehow I am listed as anonymous.

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/18/2013 - 5:46pm

Atheism puzzles me in that it denies what it says doesn’t exist, God. If something truly doesn’t exist, it doesn’t need denial. This is atheism’s central weakness. Evidence of a non-existent God is not obvious. In fact there are many more reasons to believe in God, than to deny his existence. Take for example the NYC transit with which I’m familiar! What?

A handicapped person in a wheelchair is waiting to board a bus. The bus arrives and a wheelchair- friendly mechanical devise goes into action controlled by the bus driver. I watch the wheelchair lift begin its work, all its mechanized parts working together, wonderfully systematized simultaneously performing different tasks one dependent on the next, all at the same time, allowing the lift to extend itself perfectly, assisting the wheelchair rider. Once the rider is securely on the bus the systemized mechanisms proceed to reverse themselves in harmonious order and the bus moved on.

As I watched, I was greatly impressed at the human ingenuity needed to successfully effect that device using existing mechanical and systematic linkage know-how, allowing the handicapped lift to work so predictably well! I thought to myself, “This devise could not have accidentally put itself together. It needed intelligence behind it!
Then I thought about God and natural creation, how for billions of years materiality has successfully followed systematic and mechanical linkages in the hand of an evolutionary developmental Creator, a God, who according to Jesuit priest, T.P. de Chardin, “makes things make themselves!” Freedom! The Godhead is eminently free and loves it!

Yes, Creation does have freedom to make and remake itself, changing the face of the earth often violently. That’s one of the reasons I think why natural disasters happen, natural outcomes beneficial in sustaining life, yet capable of destroying life too happen, gravity for example which allows things to “stay put” promotional to productive and predictable life, can also pull avalanches of snow, water, mud and rocks downward destructively! Indeed, fire too, not only gives light and warmth, but can also kill. Even that horrific thing called “pain” is not altogether bad, as feeling it can prevent something worse! If one could not feel pain one would be ever at risk of injury or death. So pain can actually be protective of life!

All materiality has positive, along with negative potential, “creation untamed” as Terrence Fretheim calls it. It’s the job of humanity to “subdue the earth” (untamed creation) becoming environmentally sensitive, taming the earth if you wish. And while we’re at it, let’s pay very close attention to the Capital Sins of Greed and Avarice, both of them very much connected to environmental abuse, involving gross Corporate and personal indifference to necessary human contributions to environmental balance and well-being.

There is so much more that needs to be said that would require pages of posts including discussion of the interweaving of MYSTERY throughout creation. If atheism factored in the reality of permeated mystery throughout materiality, maybe some might say, “Hmmm, maybe there is a God.” After all God is a Mystery and of necessity wherever his fingerprints touch, cosmic mystery spins! At least so it seems to me, simply and plainly.

Simon Graham | 1/21/2013 - 4:47am

"Evidence of a non-existent God is not obvious."

Speak for yourself - it seems blindingly obvious to me.

J Cosgrove | 1/21/2013 - 6:21pm

"Speak for yourself - it seems blindingly obvious to me."

Yes, the answer is obvious. All the scientific evidence points to a creator of immense intelligence. It does not point to the Judeo Christian God but definitely to a creator. Yes, the answer is obvious.

Simon Graham | 1/22/2013 - 8:48am

"All the scientific evidence points to a creator of immense intelligence."

Name some. Not all of it, just some of it will do.

J Cosgrove | 1/22/2013 - 10:09am

"just some of it will do."

The incredibly fine tuning of the universe. There are hundreds of adjustments (fundamental constants) to the basic physical laws and only very small differences would make the universe a completely different place and not fit for any organization let alone life. This fact is embarrassing to the atheists so they have dreamt up the concept of an infinite number of universes of which we belong to the lucky one where Goldilocks' porridge is just right.

life itself is the result of extremely complex combination of proteins and RNA molecules, each of which is very complex of itself. There are 10's of thousands of these in each cell which work together with extreme precision. None of this could have arisen by chance in a zillion universes.

There is no know mechanism that can explain the changes that have happened to life since it first arose on earth over 3 billion years ago. Every species has unique proteins which are very complex that regulate its life and very few of them could have arisen by natural process especially the so called evolutionary synthesis or Darwinian processes.

Then there is consciousness and free will or the unusual circumstances of the earth.

And nothing can explain why anything exists to begin with.

Science has real problems with origins. It does very well when once something is set in motion. It can explain the operation of the clock but not the presence of the clock itself.

Simon Graham | 1/23/2013 - 4:45am

“The incredibly fine tuning of the universe. There are hundreds of adjustments (fundamental constants) to the basic physical laws and only very small differences would make the universe a completely different place and not fit for any organization let alone life.”

Exactly so. Which simply means that if the constants had been any different, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Still absolutely no evidence of any kind of creative intelligence. Douglas Adams came up with the puddle analogy to expose this kind of muddled thinking: if you’re not already familiar with it, a quick Google of ‘Douglas Adams puddle’ will make all clear.

“This fact is embarrassing to the atheists so they have dreamt up the concept of an infinite number of universes of which we belong to the lucky one where Goldilocks' porridge is just right.”

Not all atheists accept the concept of multiverses; those who accept the concept of a multiverse are not all atheists.

“life itself is the result of extremely complex combination of proteins and RNA molecules, each of which is very complex of itself. There are 10's of thousands of these in each cell which work together with extreme precision. None of this could have arisen by chance in a zillion universes.”

Says who?

“There is no know mechanism that can explain the changes that have happened to life since it first arose on earth over 3 billion years ago.”

You seem to be about 150-odd years behind the times. The mechanism is well known and well understood. It’s called evolution by natural selection.

“Then there is consciousness and free will”

Consciousness isn’t understood, but ignorance is no evidence for a creative intelligence. Since when was it decided that we actually have free will and by whom?

“or the unusual circumstances of the earth.”

What unusual circumstances of the earth?

K Anderson | 1/22/2013 - 12:58pm

None of this is proof of God.

J Cosgrove | 1/22/2013 - 3:27pm

"None of this is proof of God."

It is extremely good evidence that there was a creator of immense intelligence. It says nothing about the nature of the intelligence other than it's incredible ability. It makes a naturalistic explanation of the universe and life decidedly untenable.

George Grim | 1/20/2013 - 4:25pm

"Atheism puzzles me in that it denies what it says doesn’t exist, God. If something truly doesn’t exist, it doesn’t need denial. This is atheism’s central weakness."

I'd like to a lawyer make that argument in a court case. "Your honor, I know I am the one who claimed it existed, and cannot produce it as evidence. However, if there wasn't a video tape incriminating the defendant of this crime, then he wouldn't have had to need to deny it. Therefore the tape must exist proving his guilt. This is his case's central weakness."

You're missing the elephant in the room here, which is the massive amount of people who live their lives based on the belief that a god exists. If this belief is false, the decisions made based on it can cause significant harm and it is this harm that causes atheists to speak out against it.