Recently Drew Marshall of The Drew Marshall Show very graciously interviewed me on his radio show to earnestly encourage his readers to read Camels With Hammers. I was very grateful for the adamancy with which he insisted he wanted his readers to read blogs like mine. You can listen to the segment we did together here by scrolling down to “Godblogger” and downloading the mp3 that’s there.
Now, I talk a lot about how much I want to engage with theists and other religious people more than I presently do on this blog. I want this comments section to be much less homogeneously atheistic. One of the reasons for that is that sometimes there are challenges or questions that people elsewhere on the belief spectrum raise that I need to be challenged to articulate a clear position about. On his radio show, Drew posed such a challenge to me. He has been moving through various stages of potential deconversion from Christianity. At this point his position, as he describes it in his remarks to me below, sounds like a form of agnosticism. He stresses that he “desperately hopes” that there is a genuinely good God–not the actually monstrous God that the Evangelicals and other fundamentalists believe in–but a really good one. Here was what he said:
Drew Marshall: I don’t know if you’ve read anything on my site, but there’s a fair bit of your journey that I’m resonating with. And I’m one who is, I guess I’ve rejected a few things. I’ve rejected this God of certainty that I used to believe in. And I’ve rejected the God of Evangelicalism which I used to believe in. I still desperately hope there’s a God but I don’t know if there is anymore. I mean I really hope there is and if there is a God, then I hope he leads with love and stinks of grace. I hope he’s not some maniacal, you know, extraterrestrial being that wants to just, you know, use us as puppets…. I’ve kind of shirked dogma and legalism as much as I can, you know you shake all those things off. But I haven’t thrown the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Should I?
Dan Fincke: Well, I mean, I think that the problem is in the meantime you’re promoting the idea of God as a good thing, God as a necessary thing, then you’re kind of in with all the people down with legalism and dogma around the world…
Drew Marshall: No I don’t see that, I see myself raging against those people 24/7. As a matter of fact, it becomes exhausting, as a matter of fact it becomes like a red herring in many ways. Now I’m at the point where I just ignore those people. They’re not even part of my reality anymore.
From there I got Drew to clarify that the main reason he thought he and others hoped there was a God was that the idea of life ending when it ends was “just bloody terrifying”.
This is a serious issue for us atheists to address.
The first really interesting thing is that Drew phrased his question as a choice. Should he throw out the “baby” with the bathwater? What choice is this? It seems to be the choice to stop desperately hoping for the existence of a genuinely good God. But what difference will this make? Is it the barrier that keeps him from identifying as an atheist? What “baby” does he think I have thrown out that he is afraid to throw out himself? What is the good thing that he thinks I have lost and how does he think I have lost it? Does identifying as an atheist represent to Drew a rejection of the hope of a genuinely good God? Does Drew think that taking a self-consciously atheistic stance closes one off from hoping for a good God to exist? Some atheists are like Drew, they wish there were a genuinely good God too. Is Drew’s anxiety with anti-theism more specifically than atheism? Would Drew be willing to speak out in favor of atheism and argue against the existence of a genuinely good God if he did not think it entailed anti-theism? Or does he think that his spirit would be at cross-purposes with itself were he to simultaneously be challenging the existence of God while indulging his personal hope that a genuinely good God exists? Does he see a benefit to living in the middle? Is there a specific virtue, a good he holds onto simply by hoping for a genuinely good God to exist?.
There are two things that he might lose. He might find it hard to argue with relish that such an awesome being as a perfect being didn’t exist. That might be a disappointing thing, one hard to build an identity around denying. Who wants to ground one’s identity in one’s affirmation that something fantastically good doesn’t exist?
But it seems that that theoretical loss of a really cool possible being is not the real problem. Drew himself admits that he hopes for genuinely good God because he hopes for something beyond death. He does not want to die. Keeping alive, presumably in both himself and others, the hope for a genuinely good God seems to be his way of keeping alive the hope that death is not the end. This may be a resignation of the spirit into despair and terror that he thinks that we should avoid. The “baby” to hold onto is the simple hope that this is not all there is. Situating his mind to default to the thought that in all likelihood there is no genuinely good God would squelch this hope for good.
So, let’s explore this. What is there to gain by risking extinguishing this hope?
1. One can hope for life beyond this life we live here without hoping for a genuinely good God to exist. God seems only instrumentally valuable to Drew. Why not just hope that in some way our lives have permanence or transcend this particular existence without hoping specifically that this happens via a genuinely good God? Existence is strange and mysterious. This one highly implausible being need not be the only way that we might conceivably exist eternally or in other realms. It is possible that every possible world exists. The notion that time “passes” may be an illusion and each of us might be eternally living in every possible life we could ever live in every possible world that could possibly be. Even if not every possible world is actual, it could be that at least this universe is and no moment ever passes but is an eternal event that we just perceive as part of a sequence of comings and goings though it’s not.
2. For as long as someone aligns their hopes at odds with their beliefs about what is likely, they exacerbate their anxieties. Part of why Drew desperately hopes for a life beyond this one may be precisely because he doubts it so much. The more one doubts something one hopes for, the more painful and desperate the hope becomes. While Drew thinks of holding onto the hope as holding onto the potential for a comforting reality, that hoping is actually very discomforting. Resigning to reality, accepting the possibility of annihilation rather than setting one’s spirit fundamentally against the prospect, means no longer being frustrated by that possibility.
3. Hoping for an afterlife makes it no more or less likely. Letting go of the hope does not mean that you will miss out on it if it’s not there. But living obsessed with the possibility of another life, when it may never come, you might wind up missing this reality. Last year I had only two one week long visits with the woman I most recently loved. In both of them, time was fleeting and the relationship completely uncertain. In the first visit, I went in looking at 7 days as an ocean of time. I practically luxuriated in every moment. I never counted the days until the visit would end. The 7th day sounded about about a year away. And I can honestly say I have rarely in my life squeezed more pleasure out of one week, nor savored that pleasure much more than I did that week. And the week ended with us extremely close.
The second, identically long, visit, I was acutely aware that we had only seven days. And that cognizance of the impending last minute doomed so many minutes along the way. That obsession with what I couldn’t have–next Monday–ruined what I could have–this Monday. That cast a pall over the whole week and helped doom the whole relationship. I lost the good when I started placing expectations on what it had to be like instead of accepting it as it came as a surprising gift.
I don’t see the point of wasting the time we have in our lives obsessively worried about the time we don’t have. We are here now. Our lives are now. There are more good things here than most of us ever open our eyes or direct our energies to. Why waste any of our focus on unattainable things? Why obsess over the end when it adds nothing to the now? We must start concentrating far more intensely on discovering and appreciating all that we have and can have, and let go of what we don’t have and likely can’t have. We must live our lives while we are guaranteed to have them–which is only in this very moment–and “let tomorrow worry about itself”. (Matthew 6:34)
4. Continuing to define the meaning and value of life the way Christianity and Islam do–as fundamentally only justified by heaven–keeps you mentally, emotionally, and spiritually enthralled to Christianity or Islam. If you see how warped so many Christian and Islamic beliefs are and how much they distort reality and corrupt people, why give those traditions so much power over your mind to determine your sense of meaning and value? You have been intensively conditioned since childhood to be terrified of being an atheist. But I can assure you, from the other side, from 13 years spent in anti-theist defiance spent firmly rooting my heart in this life and against the impulse towards escapism, it can be powerfully liberating to be an atheist. And, I can also say that from where I stand, bleating on about how miserable it is that there is no God just would give the fundamentalists so much succor and smug satisfaction that it makes me sick. My spirit recoils at the idea of them nodding in approval that I desperately want what they have–a God they believe in. You can say all you want that you don’t want the God they think they have but to them it doesn’t matter–they “know” they’re going to live forever and you don’t. Screw that! No, fundamentalist, I don’t want to believe what you believe. I am adjusted to reality thankyouverymuch.
5. One of the best reasons to hope for a genuinely good God is that a great deal of injustice and suffering and evil might be redeemed with a meaning and rectified in another world. I will grant that if asked to make a wish, I would wish either that the truly meaningless, horrible, destructive evils did not befall people at all or, were they ineradicable, that they at least all be arighted, lead ultimately to the joy of those to whom they befell, and that they have satisfactory meanings to those people. Sure, I would put that atop a wish list should a genie ever give me power over reality.
But I still don’t hope a genuinely good God exists to make this so. But why not? Because I think that the likelihood of such a God existing is simply too exceedingly low. And given that reality, I don’t want to waste any more time hoping that these evils and sufferings are redeemed than I could spend counteracting them. And I don’t want to be spreading hope in this unlikelihood when I know how utterly devastated and disillusioned so many people are when the cold reality of evil befalls them after they’ve lived a life pumped up on hopes in a genuinely good God. Some of the most gutwrenching losses of faith are for those who go through life managing to hope themselves into a delusion that terrible things will never happen to them. I don’t believe in propping up false hopes. And I think that idealizing them just encourages the human mind to do that. I believe in mentally preparing people for reality, adjusting their minds to it. I do not want to actively condition people to believe that their highest hope is something that is exceedingly improbable.
And even were I to think a genuinely good God who alleviated suffering and righted the wrongs was more likely than I do, I still don’t trust that hope. It is an incredible temptation to minimize one’s appreciation of the horror of suffering and to be complacent about ending it. Mentally disposing oneself not to hope for miracles but to think fully in terms of what we know can be done and figuring out new things that can be done is the most constructive path to actually alleviating suffering. It is also the path to genuinely facing suffering. Too many people who hope themselves into believing that all suffering is redeemed and is “part of a larger plan” wind up becoming obnoxiously callous to just how awful and unredeemed others’ suffering really is. I doubt Drew would be so insensitive outloud but I don’t share his longing to be mentally thinking “this is all covered in the larger plan” when someone expresses their inextinguishable pain and loss to me. I don’t want to console myself with such thoughts when they do nothing for those who cannot escape their anguish.
But what about those whose pain is mitigated because they are able to go on in peaceful belief in an afterlife that sets it all aright? Well, I’m not going to fight with them about that. Confronted directly with people in that frame of mind, I only wish them well. Sometimes other things than truth are more necessary to a given person’s overall flourishing and my fundamental concern is that everyone thrive as much as they can. I would never be like the Christians who regularly show appalling, selfish, hateful, manipulative disregard for atheists’ mental well being by trying to antagonize us into feeling nihilistic despair, goading us with taunts that our lives are meaningless in order to make us desperate enough that we drop to our knees, where they demonstrably want us.
Recently one such Christian made such a remark goading atheists directly for supposedly having meaningless lives as his first comment on my Facebook wall after he friended me, completely unrelated to the thread he was responding to. I found his hypocrisy seriously distasteful when just days later he “liked” a comment in which, in the wake of the Boston bombings but not in response to any specific atheist remarks, someone (an atheist) chided atheists in general for being so cruel as to be interested in crushing religious people’s desperate afterlife hopes with their outspoken denial of religious beliefs.
While I agree no atheist should turn a time of mourning into an occasion for insensitively popping people’s afterlife belief balloons, demanding we hide our disbelief in supernatural hopes is unfair to us. It’s goading people that they’re going to be annihilated that is unseemly from atheists. And it’s goading atheists that our lives are meaningless (or hellbound) that is unseemly from believers. And in times of fresh grief for the person or group one is directly addressing, putting differences of belief over the emotional healing of the other or others shows remarkably inhuman priorities.
But I digress. As far as I’m concerned, I won’t antagonize those who let me know that they’re clinging to belief because of grief. But there are plenty of people in pain whose teeth are set on edge by nothing more than bullshit. There are people who can handle nothing but sober honesty, rational solutions, and having their pain acknowledged in its full reality and justification. Those are the people I want to comfort. I don’t want to spend my energies trying to help myself or others hope and rationalize their ways out of facing reality. I want to be one of those who helps people not only cope with but to wholeheartedly embrace the real–even when that means not looking away from, nor trying to numb, the horror within it.
6. I want to be someone who helps others recognize the wealth of value and meaning and purposes in the world around them rather than counter-productively encouraging them to risk despair by placing their whole conception of value, meaning, purpose, and hope in what is nearly impossible. That’s not only a recipe for misery and false consciousness, it is a lie–a bit of baseless theistic propaganda–to say that there is no meaning, value, or purpose unless there is a world beyond this. What is objectively and subjectively meaningful here is really meaningful. What is both objectively and subjectively valuable here is really valuable. And the purposes worth pursuing here are simply worth pursuing. Nothing supernatural required. I would rather make that truth clear to people than waste my energies hoping (and encouraging others to hope) that transparently unlikely sources of meaning, purpose, and value are necessary.
Read points 7 and 8 here.
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