I have often described atheism as a positive and hopeful worldview, and I stand by that description. I truly do believe that humanity has the potential to inherit a future glorious beyond imagining – not an imaginary heaven, but a real and genuine utopia existing in this world, one built up by our hands and our effort. But I cannot deny that this vision still lies far in the future, and some days it seems as if it is receding farther away, rather than drawing nearer. The problems we face seem so vast, and our efforts to solve them so feeble. The old evils that we thought we were long rid of have once again sprung up, and far too many good people of courage and conscience are complacent and unwilling to fight back. And I cannot deny that, at times, I feel despair, even hopelessness. Sometimes it seems as if all the moral progress the human race has fought for, all the intellectual and ethical achievements we have made, are no more than a guttering candle flame at the mercy of the darkness that surrounds it; that this feeble light will be snuffed out and the dark will once again close in, plunging us back into an era of suffering and superstition worse than any we have ever known. Sometimes it seems as if the struggle for the good is doomed to fail, that our efforts will inevitably come to naught.
But in times such as those, I take comfort from the lessons of history. I remind myself that we are not the first generation to live through such times. On the contrary, our forebears fought evils even more grievous, battled hatred even more malignant and well-entrenched, and won. The great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once gave voice to these words:
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
In our era, this message seems prophetic. We are struggling for liberty, and the forces of darkness are fighting back fiercely. We hear that roaring now; we are in the heart of the storm, tossed and turned by its convulsions. It is the roaring of the vested interests we hear, the blind and selfish masses and those who profit by pandering to their prejudices and fears. Their anger and hate buffet us with the vast implacability of a force of nature, like a monstrous wall of dark water. They care about nothing but establishing their own will, and if the price of doing that was the ruination of humanity, they would gladly plunge into destruction and take the rest of us with them.
The foot soldiers of this darkness all emerge from a common wellspring. Whether it is the the anti-woman crusaders who rage against the use of contraception while the human population swells beyond sustainability and cheer from the sidelines as wars and strife inevitably result, or the end-times fanatics who hail the ongoing destruction of the Earth as prelude to their heavenly exaltation and go into paroxysms of glee at the thought of the rest of us falling into an eternity of burning, or the dominionists who want to conquer the world and harden it into the cold iron of theocracy, or the suicidal jihadists who would set the world on fire rather than allow any sect whose beliefs differ even slightly from their own to continue to exist – they are all alike, and their goals are all the same. They wish to clamp down on the light of knowledge, stamp out the sparks of human freedom beneath the awful weight of petrified dogma, and wall off the true awe and glory of the cosmos behind bricks of primitive beliefs. In their quest to prune the vastness and complexity of the world down to something their faith can easily grasp, they would block out the night sky above us and the great oceans of history in the rocks beneath our feet; and given the slightest opposition, they would willingly crush human lives in the gears of their terrible creeds. And their leaders are the worst of them all: the selfish elite who would build walls of money and privilege around themselves as the flames rage and the waters rise higher, who would gladly consign humanity to an apocalypse of their making as long as they can insulate themselves from the effects.
In these hateful hordes, we see our own worst nature writ large. There are demons that still lurk at the bottom of the well of the human mind, demons of ignorance, fear and unreason, and it is those demons that ride the shoulders and caress the faces of those blind and self-righteous crusaders who think they are fighting for the glory of God. In reality they are driven and enslaved to the lash of their own base natures, mistaking the hate-inflamed fantasies of their own creation that drift before their eyes for reality.
The people who believe these things are numerous and strongly motivated, and every day they are plotting how best to spread their noxious message and impose their will on the rest of us. And far too often, they are winning. Little wonder, then, if even the most die-hard optimist still occasionally feels a tremor of despair.
But the crusaders of darkness have not triumphed; their victory is incomplete. Despite the roar of the storm and the lash of the waves, all is not lost. In this angry chaos, there is a glimpse of another way: a break in the clouds, a shaft of bright light and clear air that beckons through an opening in the dark sky. In this beam there is a bright future that hovers just out of our grasp, as fleeting as a soap bubble, and as fragile. Whether it comes to pass is a choice that lies in our hands. One course of action will imbue those filmy images with the depth and solidity of reality; another will burst the bubble, whirling them forever beyond our reach.
All our problems are interconnected. Pollution and climate change, overpopulation and environmental destruction, poverty and want, religion and unreason, war and terrorism – all have roots in each of the others, and give rise to all the others in turn. We cannot solve one without solving all. But we know exactly what must be done to achieve this goal; there has been no shortage of perception or counsel. Humanity lacks neither the knowledge nor the ability. All we need to muster is the will. We need the courage to listen to the dictates of reason, to face up to the problems that menace us squarely, and to be willing to take the difficult, painful, but absolutely necessary measures to put an end to them.
And we can no longer afford to put off doing so. In human history, our place is unique. We live at the tipping point, the fulcrum of history, the dawning of the age of consequences. Only a few decades ago, many of these problems were either not yet visible or not serious enough to menace our world as a whole. Only a few decades hence, the time for action on many of them will have passed, and we will necessarily have chosen the course we are to take, whether for the better or for the worse. In a very real sense, our choices today will determine what the world of the future will be like, and so our time to act is now.
As a great man put it, future generations will wonder why we did the selfish, ignorant and irrational things we did. We must hear that question now, and get others to hear it, if we are to have a hope of choosing correctly. But at the same time, we can use this as a reason to hold fast to hope. The future is calling out to us, giving us a reason to persevere. I find that the surest cure for despair is to remember what we are fighting for. So long as we keep our gaze fixed on the destination, we can draw strength from it. And no matter how the waves batter us, if we keep our gaze on that shaft of light and swim towards it with resolve, then I see reason to maintain my optimism that, despite the current tumult, liberty in the end will not be denied.