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.