In a previous post, Shattering Stereotypes, I discussed ways in which atheists can clear away the noxious stereotypes about us that are spread by religious groups and that hinder our ability to get our message across. That is the vital first step in speaking effectively on behalf of atheism. But once we have cleared that ground of the thorns and thistles of stereotypes, we must decide on what to build there. Again, we nonbelievers will achieve more if we speak in unison – if we agree on a plan and join together to support it, thus creating a strong, consistent narrative that society and the media can easily understand. For that narrative, I propose the following: Atheism is a positive worldview. Contrary to the false views put out by religious leaders, the life of an atheist can be at least as full of purpose and hope as that of any religious person. We can adopt as our motto a verse from the Bible, Matthew 9:12:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
Nothing could be more apt to the message we should be trying to convey. Religion has convinced people that they are sick so that it can sell them the cure. But atheists have a better message: we are healthy, and we were healthy all along. It is in our power, if we so choose, to live lives of freedom, happiness and accomplishment free of the burdensome weight of religious superstition. With this in mind, I offer a set of talking points that concisely explain why atheism can and should be considered a positive worldview.
Atheism is a positive worldview because…
- …it gives a deeper appreciation for and sense of spirituality toward the cosmos.
A great many religions in existence today believe that the world is a fallen or accursed place, something evil and twisted toward which our attitude should be revulsion and repugnance. Even those groups of theists who do not believe this tend to believe that our only purpose in this life is to escape it in favor of a far superior place, and that this world is at best a distraction and at worst a dangerous threat to that goal. In opposition to this view, atheism gives a deeper appreciation of the beauty and uniqueness of this world, leading us to the recognition that it is neither fallen nor accursed, but a majestic and wonderful place and the site of the only life we will ever live. Rather than scorning it and seeking to escape it, we should appreciate it for what it is and what it offers us, and take advantage of the wonderful chance to be alive while we possess it. And rather than the egocentric view that creation was made only for our sake, atheism offers the gift of greater humility when we grasp our true place in the universe.
- …it imbues our lives with the knowledge that our goals really matter.
Most varieties of theism believe that God will ultimately judge all people’s souls and reward or punish them as they deserve. But the inescapable corollary to this is that anything we do in this world to reduce suffering or establish justice does not matter in the long run. On the other hand, if this is the only life we have, then our goals regain their urgency, and we regain the knowledge that they really do matter. Anything we want to accomplish, any good we want to work, anything we want to learn or do, we have to do them here and now, and live this life to the fullest. Though the finitude of love and happiness is a great tragedy, in a way it also makes them all the more precious and important. It would be much easier to take the beauty of a rose for granted if it did not inevitably fade away.
- …it offers the freedom to make up your own mind and choose your own direction in life.
- …it offers freedom from the fear of arbitrary divine wrath.
Atheism grants freedom from the guilt and shame that ensue from believing a powerful being is always watching your thoughts and marking them down to use against you, or that every act one commits is a sin, or that life is nothing but a steady accumulation of spiritual tarnish that must regularly be purged to avoid dire consequences. As atheists, we know that thoughts alone can never be harmful, only acts; that human nature, though far from perfect, is not irredeemable but carries just as much potential for good as for evil, and the only ones to whom we are responsible for our conduct are ourselves and each other. Atheism banishes the fear of an afterlife of eternal pain and replaces it with the realistic view that morality consists of the practice of virtue and obeying the rational commands of conscience.
- …it offers morality superior to that of ancient texts.
The scriptures of most religions still endorse grossly immoral practices such as slavery, torture, genocide, and the oppression of women, and these passages have been used to justify inquisitions, holy wars and persecutions since time immemorial. Although most mainstream churches no longer practice or support such acts, the impetus for change came from human conscience, not from new revelations; and bizarrely, even while they disavow these evils, they still believe in the sacred authority of the texts containing them, unaltered. In addition, many modern churches still strongly support some of these evils or others, such as anti-gay discrimination. By contrast, the humanistic morality compatible with atheism is far superior to these primitive, often savage moral systems. An atheist can recognize the equality of all people and the absolute immorality of inflicting suffering without hesitation, and can unequivocally condemn the evils of the past and does not have to defend any text that supports them.
- …it offers hope for the future.
According to the writings of most religions, the world is doomed to apocalypse and destruction, and no action taken by any human being can avert this disaster. To make it worse, most of those same religions teach that when this occurs, the souls of the majority of human beings will be sent to Hell, where they will suffer for all eternity. This is an unremittingly horrible worldview, leaving us nothing to look forward to but a dark fate bereft of hope. By contrast, atheism blows away these gloomy visions and replaces them with the light of freedom. The future is in our control, and it is our choices that determine what we will make of it. We are not guaranteed a positive outcome, but neither is that possibility ruled out. A bright future of happiness for all humanity beckons us, if we have the will and the courage to do what must be done to make it real.
Other posts in this series: