Should Atheists be More Evangelical?

Atheists have good news to tell. There are no gods, ghosts or fairies. There is no incomprehensible sin. There is no judgemental super-being monitoring your mind for thought crime. There is a whole world of reality out there that is more beautiful, more mysterious and more worthy of your awe than any story religion has ever told.

But advocates for atheism more often see their cause in terms of combat. Atheists fight irrationality, atheists dismantle spurious claims, atheists oppose the influence of faith in civic life.

Regardless of whether atheists are correct, it doesn’t sound very appealing.

Perhaps we shouldn’t care. “It doesn’t matter whether it is appealing or not, it is true!” Okay, sure, the horrible truth is better than a beautiful lie. But when did we decide that the truth is horrible?

Somewhere, the popular online atheist movement forgot the difference between connection and accommodation. So, on atheist blogs such as “Pharyngula” or “Why Evolution is True”, I struggle to find more than token common ground with non-atheists. Sympathy and empathy have been purged in pogroms of doctrinal purity.

I’ve been guilty of this as much as anyone. There are some things that make me angry. There are many religiously motivated injustices that need to be fought. Religion often abuses financially, emotionally and intellectually. Many believers bring the fight to us. I gain pleasure from a feeling of intellectual superiority and am tempted to try and engender it whenever I’m given the opportunity. I often fall into the kinds of patronizing language some believers routinely use on non-believers, until the pastiche is indistinguishable from my actual character.

But there are also massive numbers of people online who would be attracted to a more positive message of what atheism could do for them. I think that atheism has a message of good news, and we could afford to all be more evangelical about it.

What do you think, whether atheist, believer, or something in-between?

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54 Comments

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54 responses to “Should Atheists be More Evangelical?

  1. Unless one is content with “Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” as a life philosophy, I fail to see how atheism amounts to good news.

  2. Ian

    I feel the same way about Christianity “you are a sinful wretch, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but if you believe what we tell you, you won’t be punished for it”, doesn’t fill me with joy. But at least some Christians try to make it sound attractive.

  3. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with Christ, it seems clear that he offers hope of life beyond death.

    Whether someone agrees or disagrees with atheism, it seems clear that it offers no hope for life beyond death.

    Therefore, independent of whether either point of view is true, one seems to offer good news while the other doesn’t.

    What am I missing?

  4. Ian

    You’re not missing anything. You are just fixated on your own religion’s value proposition.

    You can set those comparisons up in any way you choose.

    Whether someone agrees or disagrees with Christ, it seems clear he demands unbending obeisance to a divine tyrant.

    Whether someone agrees or disagrees with atheism, it seems clear it honors the freedom of each person.

    … and so on. There are plenty of things we’d lose and plenty we’d gain, if any particular religion was true. The trick is convincing people that the thing your religion claims are more important than the things you’re asking them to abandon. The worst of all worlds is in being frank about the loses without being clear about the gains.

  5. I rather liked the new billboard shown here. I see that as a positive message, and I much prefer that to some of the more negative ads they have used in the past.

    For me, dropping religion was something I found positive. In particular, I could recognize feelings as being natural, an aspect of my biology, rather than as part of an inherently sinful nature.

    Responding to Mike – I have never taken “eat drink and be merry” to be part of my personal philosophy, though I sometimes wonder whether that is the philosophy of the purveyors of the prosperity gospel.

    Personally, I would never adopt the tone of PZ at pharyngula. I’ll criticize nonsense such as young earth creationism, but I usually try to keep out of arguments about theology. On the other hand, I don’t criticize PZ for his tone, which is mild compared to some of what comes from the religious attacks on atheism.

  6. The point I am “fixated” on is the issue of good news, which you raised – not me. While I agree that the proponent of any point of view wants to frame it positively, I am trying to draw a distinction that is objective. That is, whatever good news atheism offers to an individual lasts only until he dies, while the good news Jesus offers clearly extends beyond it.

    To use your language, atheism’s value proposition – even if you regard it as superior in every other way – expires at death. I don’t see how you get around that. Nor do I see how you can call it “good news.” Maybe try “Bad news that is not as bad as it could be” or “Bad news, but not as bad as some people think.”

  7. Neil,

    I would imagine that many, if not most, of the things you and Ian don’t like about Christianity, I don’t like either. I stand for Christ, believe that the Bible is true and that everyone is going to heaven, that no one needs to go to church, but that everyone needs to do what is right.

    Bad behavior can be exhibited by atheists and Christians alike. The point for me is not with which group do we side, but rather how do we think about God and toward God when no one else is around.

  8. Ian

    Mike, Yes true. But the point is that there are many such ‘objective’ differences. That you choose to identify that one and say it is crucial is because of your faith position.

    So yes, Atheism doesn’t give hope of life after death. It is an objective difference to Christianity. Many people think an afterlife is a very good thing. But so?

    Its an irrelevance to the above point, but I’d also quibble on whether the after life is obviously good news to everyone. The good news of Buddhism, after all, is that you can avoid life after death. You can break Samsara.

    I don’t want to live forever in some kind of celestial North Korea. My sense of self is intimately connected with what I do, how I think and how I behave, so the ‘life after death’ that Christianity promises wouldn’t even be me in a very crucial way. And I hate the idea that this life is basically meaningless, an entrance exam for a life to come. That all sounds dreadful.

    My experience is that atheism was a big positive. There were things I lost, and lots I gained, but the net benefit was very positive. As Neil also just said.

  9. Ian

    @Neil – thanks.

  10. Ian, most of the arguments I hear you make against Christ are against straw men. I, too, for example, “don’t want to live forever is some kind of celestial North Korea.” Nonetheless, my purpose in this thread is far more modest than trying to correct your perception of the “value proposition of Christ.” Rather, I simply want to make the point that having the benefits of one’s “value proposition” expire at death isn’t just one feature upon which I’ve chosen to dwell. Rather, it is objectively the crucial one that prevents any “news” you present for atheism from being ultimately “good.” For if nothing one does ultimately matters…then nothing one does ultimately matters. All the marketing experts in the world aren’t going to be able airbrush that out of your value proposition.

  11. Ian

    Mike, no, of course. But its no more of a straw man than “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die”.

    it is objectively the crucial one that prevents any “news” you present for atheism from being ultimately “good.”

    I disagree totally. But I totally see why you’d want to claim that parts of your value proposition are somehow at a higher level and more fundamental than others. That’s part of the game.

    For if nothing one does ultimately matters…then nothing one does ultimately matters.

    That you choose to define ‘matters’ as being somehow connected with having an afterlife is utterly alien to me. What we do matters because this is it, this is our life, one shot, make it count. What we do matters in the deepest possible way because there isn’t some divine figure going to come and clean up the mess and make all things right. To think what I do only matters if I have an afterlife to look back on it from is a bizarre level of pure selfishness that I just can’t access.

    In contrast, nothing you do really matters in a universalist form of Christianity. It is all ultimately a meaningless prelude to the real feature.

  12. You are attempting to answer an essay question with multiple choice answers – and an inaccurate and incomplete set of them at that.

    Moreover, you are in all-out evangelical atheist mode, so I don’t feel much a dialogue taking place between us.

    At least you are practicing the behavior you are calling for in the post. There is something to be said for such a consistency.

    Maybe we’ll find another topic down the road on which we can more effectively engage.

  13. Ian

    Why am I not engaging. Rejecting your premise isn’t the same as not engaging. I simply don’t believe that an afterlife is somehow a necessary condition to ‘good news’ or ‘meaning’.

  14. It doesn’t seem to me that you are engaging the point itself. Instead of engaging it, you jump to whatever you dislike about what you perceive to be “the Christian view” – such as “celestial North Korean dictator” (you really should be required to pay royalties to Hitch’s estate every time you invoke that phrase), or what you perceive to be my view – such as, “because everyone is going to heaven, nothing on earth in this life could possibly matter.”

    If you really want to engage, tell me how you think it can be good news that whatever meaning one establishes for one’s life will instantly evaporate at death, never to return again. The call of your post was for atheists to be more evangelical, to spread their “good news.” As I’ve said, I’m struggling to understand how you can frame your belief as good news.

    What I could understand is if you said, “We don’t have any good news,for you, but we can make the brief time you’re alive more enjoyable by removing from your mind any expectation that there is existence for you beyond death; in other words, the end of your life is indeed bad news, but you can make your life better between now and then.” You could even add, “While your death will mark the end of all your meaning, it won’t be so bad because you won’t be here to be bothered by that loss; in other words, it won’t matter to you that none of your life ultimately matters because it will at least matter in the moment to you, and up until the moment when you finally lose all consciousness.” In other words, I can see how you could market atheism as stoic and even as a temporary comfort; I just don’t see how you market it as good news.

  15. What a great post, Ian. Not only should Atheists discuss the beauty of nature and science, they should beautify their own cause. This applies to many sciences actually, think how muc further we would have been had we discussed new and interesting methods of Agroforestry instead of telling everyone we’re doomed due to global warming.

    But Atheists are to enlightenment what PETA is to animal welfare. They have cheapened and made ugly the idea that science can inform us of the natural world.

    A la Dawkins the movement has turned into a childish war between the religious loonies and the sexist, nihilist loonies. And Dawkins only hurts the theory by pitting it against creationism, therefore making it seem as though there is something to debate.

    The secular world can be celebrated in many ways, so I call myself secular rather than atheist.

  16. Ian

    Hmm, then I think we’re talking past each other somehow.

    The hitch quote was deliberately intended to be as silly as “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. But perhaps I misjudged you. Are you saying that you genuinely think that quote is how atheists perceive their lives? You weren’t being facetious?

    whatever meaning one establishes for one’s life will instantly evaporate at death

    Ah, I think this is getting at it. Why would that be true?

    While your death will mark the end of all your meaning … it won’t matter to you that none of your life ultimately matters

    How are you defining meaning and mattering here? Because it seems very different from my definition.

    Here’s an example. Imagine for a second that there is no afterlife. Would you say some figure, lets say MLK’s life would also be meaningless and have not mattered?

    Is the meaning of your life, or how much it matters, only defined by your own experience of it? So that it ceases to have meaning and ceases to matter the moment you are no longer conscious of it. Would your life temporarily cease to have meaning if you were in a coma? Is your life meaningless and immaterial when you sleep? I’m not trying to be obtuse, I’m trying to push the argument to find out where our intuitions differ.

    The idea that my life loses all meaning and ceases to matter at all the second I die seems to me to be so staggeringly selfish that I really can’t get my head in that space.

  17. Ian

    @Amelie – thanks! My response above was to Mike, btw.

    But Atheists are to enlightenment what PETA is to animal welfare.

    I like that quote. 🙂

  18. The hitch quote was deliberately intended to be as silly as “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. But perhaps I misjudged you. Are you saying that you genuinely think that quote is how atheists perceive their lives? You weren’t being facetious?

    I was not being facetious.  This is what I understand you to be saying:  “Let us make the best we can of what will one day all go away.”

    Here’s an example. Imagine for a second that there is no afterlife. Would you say some figure, lets say MLK’s life would also be meaningless and have not mattered?

    It certainly will not have mattered for him.  Whether he did what he did, or had spent his life as a petty thief, will not result in any different outcome for him.

    The idea that my life loses all meaning and ceases to matter at all the second I die seems to me to be so staggeringly selfish that I really can’t get my head in that space.

    Oh, your memory may linger in the lives of others for a time, but that will be of no consequence to you.

    Besides, if our meaning is determined by what other people think of us then the lives of famous people have more meaning than the lives of people history never recorded.

    As for your impulses to selflessness, I commend you…or, rather I commend the Creator who gave them to you.  Moral values are self-evident to us because God made them evident to us.  Yet you have no logical basis to get others to accept them if others are unwilling to do so.  You’ve told them that all their consciousness ends in nothingness and thus there is no ultimate justice.  You are wanting to believe that you have good news but the denial of justice is never good news.

  19. I may read this comment threat later, but for now to answer your question, Ian:

    I think that different types of voices have different effects on different folks. And we can’t make others to have the feelings and temperaments of ourselves. So the dance of influence continues.

    Your voice here and reminder is very good.
    An understanding that there is not a damning god and that gods do not interfere in this world, is indeed good news — especially for those that have finally seen the obvious. For those fortunate enough to have their delusion confirmed by blessings after blessings, I ‘pray’ it all continues for them — just stay out of my face and my politics.

    Good piece, mate.

  20. I myself wonder if atheism is good news, bad news, or no news at all. If it isn’t god who’s damning us, it’s something or someone else; demons may not be real, but every now and again, I am possessed by anger; and sometimes I think the world would be better of with the divine monitoring our thoughts–I certainly wouldn’t trust the government, much less anyone else, to do it. The horrible truth of Christianity is that we live in a world populated by possible monsters, and if we don’t have God to play the role, then there’s only us to fill it.

    Sorry for the downer.

  21. Ian:

    As an atheist I have absolutely no use for the us-vs-them mentality you describe. I love many believers and I hate more than a few atheists. Belief is stupid, but there are many intelligent believers and stupid atheists. That may sound like a paradox but it’s not. The intelligent believers are analogous to the many intelligent people who are weak in math. Neither religion not math comes close to encompassing all that a human brain does. As for the stupid atheists: figuring out that belief in God makes no sense is a low hurdle, and becoming ever-lower. It’s no reason to pat yourself on the back.

    What I dislike the most about the New Atheists is how much they talk about the history of Christianity combined with how little they know about it. The us-vs-them mentality is an important contributing factor here: New Atheists often mistrust scholars whom they should trust. This is not entirely mysterious, as Biblical scholarship “and the related fields,” as they say, have a long and all-too-cozy relationship with theology. Still. For many if not most New Atheists, “them” includes most of the leading authorities “in the relevant fields.” Ehrman is wrong to equate mythicists with global-warming deniers, but it’s an understandable mistake: mythicists, and New Atheists generally, most of them, although they are up to speed on topics like global warming and UFO’s, dismiss academics “in the relevant fields” as a group. It’s always wrong to dismiss entire groups all at once, and miss the individual human beings of whom they are comprised. Always.

    I guess I’ve gotten a little bit offtopic. The chasm between Biblical scholarship and New Atheism has been preoccupying and aggravating me lately. Maybe just because I only found out about it lately. The chasm between believers and atheists is much more familiar to me.

  22. Steven Bollinger,

    An independent thinker – I like that!

    (But then, since you’re an independent thinker, it won’t matter to you. Nonetheless, I can’t help admiring a man for whom a search for truth means more than finding a crowd to join.)

  23. Ian

    Thanks everyone for the responses. All good stuff to mull on tonight.

    @Mike – I’ll reply to where our conversation left off tomorrow, as I’ve just got in and am heading for bed.

  24. Ian

    It certainly will not have mattered for him. Whether he did what he did, or had spent his life as a petty thief, will not result in any different outcome for him.

    True. But what really shocks me about your approach, Mike, is that it even occurs to you that this is a factor in determining why MLK matters and what his life means. I’m not sure how to respond without being rude about you, but that degree of self-centredness comes across as a woeful lack of moral compass, I’m afraid. Perhaps that’s what you mean by good news: that the universe is all about you after all. I’d just hope that, for most of us beyond about three years old, that stops being an appealing prospect.

    Besides, if our meaning is determined by what other people think of us then the lives of famous people have more meaning than the lives of people history never recorded.

    We’ll get into some definitional mess here, I think. Meaning is not a quantity that I can see. What has more meaning, the word “fish” or the word “floor”? If you want to be quantitative, perhaps ‘matters’ (i.e. has consequences) is a better of your two words to go with. And there I think there are at least two axes: how many people you matter to, and how much you matter to them. So a celebrity might matter to far more people than I do, but probably matter deeply to a pretty similar number of people. So yes, the life of a celebrity might matter more than a homeless person in a back alley.

    And I hope that strikes you as unjust. If it does, then you need to do something about it, because it is indicative of a larger injustice and disparity between people. Pretending that it will not matter in the next life, so doesn’t need to be addressed in this life, is another way of being complicit in the injustice. More on this later.

    As for your impulses to selflessness, I commend you…or, rather I commend the Creator who gave them to you.

    Well, given that it is the Christian in this conversation who is advocating a bleak and unremitting selfishness, I think this is ironic.

    Moral values are self-evident to us because God made them evident to us.

    Clearly not, since there are several things you believe to be moral which I find morally reprehensible. You have previously said you follow God’s moral commandments in the bible, not your own moral judgements. Which further makes a mockery of the inbuilt morality idea.

    there is no ultimate justice.

    There is the justice we bring, only. Which is another way of saying that, if you see injustice, it is your responsibility to confront it. Pretending God will sort it out later is not ‘ultimate justice’ it is just an excuse for not confronting evil now. It gives support to the worst of human behaviour and makes you complicit in it, as far as I can see.

    Claiming you are wonderfully moral is not good enough. You have to show it. You seem to do a lot of the former, Mike, but on all kinds of issues I find your actual moral position very lacking.

  25. Ian,

    I hardly know how to respond as I am finding your worldview practically inscrutable. For example, while I have made no claim to be “wonderfully moral,” I am completely puzzled at why you would call my observation that on your view MLK’s life lost its meaning for him when he died and will lose meaning for everyone else when the last memory of him is gone a selfish one (and even more puzzled that you would call my view “bleakly and unremittingly selfish”). I can understand why you might want to dispute my observation and counter it with some kind of correction, but I’m baffled at why you call me selfish for expressing it. Neither do I understand the need for your shift from “meaning” to “matters.” As for your two axes, at the very least you ought to have added a third axis for opportunity as surely the son of a king has more opportunity to affect the masses than the son of a pauper. But even then, that paradigm would allow a man to shortchange his wife so he could affect the masses as long as he scored more points with the masses than he lost with his wife. And this does not exhaust the statements you’ve made that defy my comprehension.

    Further, I find at least some of your judgments to be based on assumptions about my opinions that are not valid. For example, you assume on my view that if I am confronted by injustice I reject responsibility for action and instead assign it to God for sorting out in the afterlife. On the contrary, on my view if I am confronted with an injustice that I can rectify and don’t do anything, I will be judged negatively for this by God…in this life and in the one to come.

    I hardly know how to suggest proceeding. The best idea I can think of is to request you to expand on your moral worldview and how you think atheism justifies it. After all, the point of your original post was to proclaim the “good news” of atheism. I can hope this suggestion would make your position more coherent to me, but I can’t be sure.

  26. Ian

    I am completely puzzled at why you would call my observation that on your view MLK’s life lost its meaning for him when he died

    Okay, we’re talking about my view of there being no afterlife here, right? So all that follows is on that basis.

    You originally claimed that my life loses all meaning the instant I die. I responded by saying you seem to be saying the meaning of my life and whether it matters is governed by whether I am conscious or not.

    So I asked you whether MLKs life should be likewise judged based on his being around to experience it. You seemed to agree, highlighting that, for him now, it wouldn’t matter whether he was a great moral leader or a petty criminal.

    Saying that all meaning of a person’s life is the meaning it has to them is — to me — the most bleak statement of selfishness.

    But, if that’s true, then I suppose you’re right: eternal life is a requirement for your life to have meaning. But that is most definitely not good news. Quite the opposite. It is a horrible view of what life is about.

    In contrast, I think MLK’s life matters deeply, regardless of whether he is enjoying an afterlife or not. And, in fact, if he is currently conscious, that adds nothing to the meaningfulness of his life, as far as I can see. In fact, I think his life had adding meaning and came to matter more because of his death. A fortiori, I think that the significance of MLKs life is not to be judged by its significance for him, but its significance for others. Similarly with my life and everyone else’s.

    Would I rather live a meaningful and significant life on earth and my consciousness forever end with my death, or would I rather live a meaningless and immaterial life on earth and then get an afterlife? The first, every time, with no shadow of doubt.

    Here’s another analogy that seems apt to me. Many religions claim that I was alive before my birth. Some will help me recover the amazing memories of what I did in previous lives. Many scientologists find memories of being starship captains, or Pharaohs, emperors of planetary systems. They recover memories of thousand-year lives on paradise planets.

    Now, since we’re leaving aside the question of whether this is true (though I’ll point out that scientologists have lots and lots of people who’ve actually experienced these past lives, while almost no Christians claim to have experienced heaven), your assertion that an afterlife is necessary for anything to be good news, sounds just as idiotic as someone claiming that a prelife is necessary for anything to qualify as good news. And what you’re suggesting seems just as ludicrous as a Scientologist claiming that it is terrible that my life had no meaning for me before I was born, and wouldn’t it be great if it did! No, not really. Maybe I’m unusual, but neither pre-life not after-life really appeals to me. And while I can see that either might appeal to other people (and therefore qualify as ‘good news’), I totally fail to see how either are pre-requisites for anything else qualifying as good news.

  27. Ian

    @Dan

    . The horrible truth of Christianity is that we live in a world populated by possible monsters, and if we don’t have God to play the role, then there’s only us to fill it.

    What role? I lost you there.

    I agree, if true that would be horrible. Which is why I think the truth of atheism is such good news.

  28. Ian, thanks.  That’s helpful.

    Let’s focus just on your MLK example.  I’m not saying that on atheism his life loses all meaning at his death.  Rather, I’m saying that his life loses all meaning for him at his death.  You want me to be grateful for the meaning his life has to mine and others…and I am.  But I cannot be content with this, because, to me at least, it would be selfish for me to enjoy the benefit of his life without his getting to enjoy the benefit of it.  He was the one who suffered abuse.  He was the one who was assassinated.  Why should I get the benefit and he be deprived?  It would be unjust for me to benefit at his expense.  Why should I consider this good news?  If anyone should benefit from his goodness, it should not be me because I’ve done nothing to deserve it.  And even if he chose freely to give it away and asked nothing from me in return, I still cannot turn my back on his plight and enjoy the goodies.  I feel like I’m picking a dead man’s bones.

    Ironically, if there is a view here to be considered selfish, it would be yours.  You seem to be willing that we should all be content to benefit from a kind and generous person and consider it good news without being encumbered with the weight of guilt about what was taken from him in the process.

  29. Ian,

    On another point of your response, let’s focus on your view of afterlife. You express no interest in afterlife. Does this mean you have no interest in extending this life either? That is, do you not want to live until tomorrow, next year, or to retirement age?

    What is afterlife if not an extension of this life? I can understand (though I wouldn’t condone) a suicidal person who did not want an afterlife. But a person who wants to live a long life here but eschews afterlife is being less logical.

  30. Ian

    Okay, so you seem to be going in a different direction. This was motivated by your claim that without an afterlife there can be no good news. Life can have no meaning and cannot matter?

    Regardless of the other moral issues, are you now retracting that claim?

  31. Ian

    But a person who wants to live a long life here but eschews afterlife is being less logical.

    That’s a good question. Hmm. Since you’ve taken it out of an afterlife and are talking about just an earthly life, then I think it is definitely the case I would not be interested in living forever.

    I think there will be an ‘enough’. I don’t think one has to be suicidal or even depressed to decide that one has had enough life. I hope the legal framework will be in place for me to make that decision and have it carried out when that time comes. I strongly support an individual’s right to die as a moral position, provided it can be enacted in a framework that ensures others right to continue living.

    I think that the ideal situation is that lives are neither cut short before, nor extended, beyond the point where their owners want them.

    I suspect some people would want to live forever. The idea doesn’t appeal to me at all, and I am somewhat suspicious of those for whom it does.

  32. No different direction. I think you’re missing the timing dimension. Therefore, I’ll restate in total and emphasize the time aspect. All statements that follow are on the atheistic view:

    When a person dies, all the meaning of his life to him is gone.

    The meaning of his life remains in the memories of those who benefited from his life for as long as they remember it. It will, however, be less meaning for them because they were not the one who did the deeds, and who spoke the words that created the benefit. Equally important, they will not be able to express their appreciation to the one who gave them the benefit. Thus gratitude will be forever denied proper expression.

  33. Ian

    What I mean by a different direction is this:

    1. Does an afterlife qualify as a ‘good’? I’m not sure it does to me, though I totally concede it might to most people, and therefore Christianity has ‘good news’ unavailable to atheist claims. That much I agreed way back.

    2. Is an afterlife a precondition for any other feature of a world view to be considered ‘good’? This is what you seem to want to argue, and you seemed to want to argue on the basis that the sum total of goodness, meaningfulness and significance of our life is the goodness, meaningfulness and significance it has for us.

    You now seem to be retracting from the argument you were using to support #2, which I’m glad about, because it seemed horrible to me. But, if so, do you still think an afterlife is a precondition on any quality of life?

    Because if you’re not now arguing for #2, then I’m happy to get back to looking at individual claims of Christianity, and whether they are good news or not (even though it wasn’t the point of this post). But I want to do that based on the understanding that we agree there will be some features of every set of religious claims that will be ‘good news’, and others that will be less appealing. Instead of this idea that somehow any features of atheism that people find to be good and positive are somehow invalidated by a lack of an afterlife.

  34. The vast majority of medical expenses incurred in a human being’s life are incurred in the final six months. Doesn’t sound like many people think they are getting the “long enough” life.

    I also noticed that Hitch went to a great deal of pain to get as many more days as he could.

    I also think your stoicism is affected by the aging process. In other words, most people are like Woody Allen: that is, they don’t mind dying; they just don’t want to be there when it happens.

    In other words, your “I’ve had enough” projection is surely affected by the fear of a certain debilitation whose time of onset is uncertain.

    Lastly, I’d say that the question about a desire to live indefinitely cannot be properly considered without a context. This includes not only the aging process but also the state of the world in which we live. Surely it is a more pleasant environment for some than others. But for those who desire to live morally excellent lives and teach their children to do the same, it can be a heartbreaking world to wake up to each morning.

  35. Ian

    Yes, these are all excellent questions. And I agree with much you’ve said.

    I also suspect that, were the afterlife generally not believed, more people would be motivated to want a longer earthly life. Which is another way of saying that people cut short their earthly life in the hope of something beyond. Which is a shame, in my book.

    It does seem a rather tangential discussion to the rest of what we’re talking about though. Not least because we don’t seem to be in much disagreement here, so I’m not sure this is where your problem with my OP lies!

  36. Ian,

    I am not, and have not been, arguing for (2) as you have worded it. I am, and have been, however, arguing that there must be something permanent about our experience for it to have ultimate meaning. On atheism you can have temporary meaning, meaning in the moment…but you can’t have lasting, enduring, ultimate meaning.

    On atheism, we are no better off than Sisyphus. Yes, we may find meaning in rolling the boulder up the hill, but…

    When I was a kid there was a toy writing device that most of us had. It probably cost less than a dollar. It consisted of a plastic stylus with which you’d write on a plastic leaf fitted over a thin but firm piece of cardboard with a impressionable coating just beneath the plastic sheet. You’d write whatever you wished, but when you lifted the plastic sheet, the writing all disappeared and you could start over. On atheism, we write our lives on a plastic sheet which eventually gets lifted up.

    I don’t say that atheists can’t be moral. (There are certainly some atheists who are more moral and therefore more pleasing to God than some Christians.) Nor do I say atheists can’t find meaning in life. Obviously, many do; you included. What I do say, however, is that calling atheism “good news” requires at the very least for some qualification because there’s an “expire by” date involved. People used to hearing their “good news” as having no expiration date may stumble over your use of the term.

    After all, Peggy Lee didn’t sing “is That All There Is?” to an uptempo tune.

  37. Ian

    So are you defining “ultimate” as “unending”? Because if you are you’ve just given a tautology. There must be something permanent about X if it is to have unending Y. Sure.

    On atheism, we write our lives on a plastic sheet which eventually gets lifted up.

    Just like MLK’s life was erased when he died?

    Or do you mean, eventually, there will come a day some day when nothing we’ve done will have any effect on anything? Yes, eventually there will be the heat death of the universe. I’m pretty content not to worry that far out, however.

    If you feel like your life is forgettable and irrelevant, then its up to you to do something about it.

    I also think you’re mistaking ‘memory’ for effect. I won’t ‘live on’ in my family’s memories after I die. I will be remembered, I will have an emotional impact on them, for a few years. My social effect may be longer lasting. There will be a time where my effect on others, direct and indirect is felt, but my name or existence is long forgotten. My physical effect will make changes to the future that will last until the end of time, as it does for all things.

    That’s very cool by me. I struggle to see how the end of the world and the creation of a new one makes that better. But again, maybe that’s just me!

    People used to hearing their “good news” as having no expiration date may stumble over your use of the term.

    The term was intended for people to stumble over. Because people are used to hearing ‘good news’ as being Christian truth-claims, by virtue of the fact that the early Christians chose a similar Greek phrase to represent their teaching.

    I’d expect people to stumble over a Buddhist using the same term.

    And I’d expect Christians to think that their good news is better than all the other religions, because they follow it. But again, that’s more a restatement of your faith.

    Just as I’d expect a scientologist to say that any religion that failed to deal with the fundamental issue of body Thetans cannot possibly be good news, because one life free of them would be better than eternal life under their control.

    The point is that atheism is true (in the assumptions of this post). Is that truth enough? Or can we do better and show that, as well as being true, it is also exciting, liberating and enriching? I think we can, because I believe it to be all those things.

  38. Ian

    On atheism, we are no better off than Sisyphus. Yes, we may find meaning in rolling the boulder up the hill, but…

    So if one chunk of life has no real meaning, how can a larger amount have any more meaning? If rolling the boulder up the hill is pointless, doing it for eternity is no better (like Sisyphus).

    The Christians I know best seem to suggest that this life is the significant and meaningful bit. Because in the life to come we will be in the presence of God. There will be no faith, or hope, no injustice to fight, no dangers to overcome, no temptation to resist and no heartbreak to endure. Nothing, in short, that makes life meaningful. So, sure the meaning of this life can be enjoyed for eternity. But this life is where you show who you are.

    I get that position. And I agree. I just think the heaven bit is highly meaningless in that model.

  39. Ian,

    Another point that has arisen in this discussion that I wish you explore more is the source of your morals, your sense of justice. Obviously, this sense is strong in you. Where do you think it comes from? I take it you were moral when you were a believer, so it’s not as though atheism introduced you to morality. Also, I wonder in what ways you think atheism enhances or strengthens your morality.

    I ask these questions because I cannot see anything in atheism that would require morals or justice of human beings. It seems as if you do, so I hope you will be patient enough to explain it to me.

  40. Ian

    Mike – did we have that discussion before on a previous thread? I thought I remembered it, but I can’t find it, so I may have just imagined it. Either way, probably best for a new post, so anyone else coming upon this post in the future doesn’t feel like they’re intruding too much on the comments. I’ll post my response now.

  41. Marko

    Related to the point that Mike has just raised, Ian I’m interested by your use of the word ‘should’ in the original title of the post. Maybe you could tackle the question of atheist moral imperative in another post sometime? I’d very interested by that.

    Back on this post though, a few thougths.

    Where atheism comes about as a reaction to a particular idea of god then I guess it will have the tendency towards being combative in nature. So in that sense then maybe, since it is early days for post-Christendom, it’s not yet in the atheist DNA to spread good news, even if it has such a message? And maybe it doesn’t need to.

    Presumably realising there is no God might be a relief to some and highly unsettling for others so perhaps whether it’s good news or not just depends on the individual.

    If you really feel you have good news to share Ian then presumably it will just spill out of you quite naturally like other good news does when you have some? But are you pondering whether you have a moral obligation to engage in more structured evangelism I wonder?

  42. Ian

    Marko, thanks for the comments. The ‘should’ in the title wasn’t meant morally, no. I suppose one could make a moral case, that if one believes religious delusion to be ultimately harmful, or to be correlated with immoral behavior (such as bigotry, othering, restriction of rights, limiting of free thought, etc), then one is morally obligated to optimize one’s ability to convert people to atheism, and therefore one ‘should’ be more evangelistic. But that seems like a very dubious moral calculation to me, so I wouldn’t want to go there. I more meant should to be ‘would it benefit us more’, as in ‘should I heat my soup before eating it?’

    As for the post on morality. I’ve just written for an hour, and am only just getting into it, so I was too optimistic that I’d get something out today! Maybe tomorrow.

  43. I thought of this post when I saw Paul Regnier’s reference to Atheist church services

  44. Sorry for getting back to you so late, but what I meant was that the world is populated by possible monsters whether or not there is a god, and subsequently that I find the possibility of God’s punishment less terrifying than, say, the possibility that I’ll be gunned down by some redneck with a gun. Don’t ask. I was aiming for profundity…

  45. Ian

    🙂

    Of course, there’s the possibility you’ll be gunned down by a redneck and then also punished by God. Which would really suck.

  46. I suppose there is that … what a frightening thought.

  47. Just popped back to take a peak to make sure I didn’t miss a response — I didn’t. Not following, btw.

  48. Ian

    Yes, sorry Sabio, I got bogged down in the conversation with Mike, and it rather detracted from the conversation I wanted to have on this. I’m easily distr… which reminds me, I need to go and check what’s happened on that Evolution/Creation argument on your blog. Thanks!

  49. Claude

    The point is that atheism is true (in the assumptions of this post). Is that truth enough? Or can we do better and show that, as well as being true, it is also exciting, liberating and enriching?

    I think it’s a hard sell. I’ve been atheist/agnostic for most of my life and find non-belief to be none of the above. Perhaps because I didn’t feel oppressed by religion so much as highly skeptical (and I remain a non-believer). This packaging of atheism as a kind of alternate theology is very strange to me; as you said, not believing in God is no great achievement and the existential wilderness is not exactly “exciting.”

    Atheism as “good news” is unpersuasive because its surrogate idol science, no matter how amazing and successful, doesn’t appeal to the desire for transcendence, the need for empathy and the promise of justice. The genius of the Christian story is that its hero was a man who suffered as much as any man could suffer and who as God was uniquely positioned to not just love but empathize with every and any person. Further, I think Mike’s apologetics misses the mark a bit. Jesus offered not just eternal life, but perfect justice in which everyone would be held accountable. Since men and women are clearly incapable of establishing the justice they long for, only God has the power to set things right. Religion is so often a hindrance to justice on earth, but the prospect of divine justice is nonetheless tough competition for evangelical atheists and their confidence in reason and logic to bring on the kingdom.

  50. Ian

    Thanks Claude. I appreciate that viewpoint. I do think that the good news of atheism, such as it is, is about a) freedom from dogma, and b) access to truth. To that extent it is weaker if you already are in the right place. But then, my wife grew up from birth as a Christian, and could never figure out why the good news was supposed to be good either. So I wonder if part of the issue isn’t always claiming why the grass-is-greener on the other side.

  51. Claude

    Ha! Personally I’m not convinced the grass is greener (I was a cradle Catholic), but since I find the truth claims of Christianity fantastic the prospect of greener pastures is moot. Rather, I just wanted to reiterate why the “good news of atheism” is bound to meet considerable resistance. It may be the claim that God does not exist is true, and it’s certainly true that freedom from dogma is liberating. The problem is that atheism lacks a narrative as powerful as the Christian narrative. People are moved by dramatic stories that satisfy fundamental human longings. What is atheism’s dramatic story?

  52. Beau Quilter

    Interesting post, Ian. Of course, for me, atheism isn’t the good news. I am an atheist, but it’s not my story, or creed, or belief system in the same way that Christianity is for Christians. To say that I am an atheist is simply a descriptor; it means that I don’t see any credible evidence for belief in God.

    Unlike “Christian”, “atheist” is just a label for one simple aspect of how I see the world. I’m also a sometime “democrat”, but neither label reflects me as a whole person or serves as my way of life.

    There are far more relevant and important labels that I use for myself: I am a father; I am a son; I am brother; I am a friend; I am a citizen; I am a teacher; I am a student; I am an artist; I am a scholar. These labels have far more meaningful associations for me.

    And, as you have said, no afterlife is required for these aspects of my life to be meaningful.

    I use this Mark Twain quotation frequently:

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

  53. Ian

    Thanks Beau. Yes, there are issues of identity and labels. And I largely agree, I use the label of “atheist” quite selectively, when it makes sense to emphasize that particular belief. I don’t think atheism should be a ‘thing’.

    But I think that’s a little tangential to my point. I do think that being free of religious nonsense is a good. And good not just in comparison with theism, but good inherently. And that is worth being said.

  54. Beau Quilter

    You’re right. It’s always good to be free of harmful beliefs.

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