High-profile apologists like to claim a Christian monopoly on any cheerful worldview. Life without God is bleak, they tell us. For example, Christian apologist Ken Ham said about the atheist worldview,
None of our accomplishments, advancements, breakthroughs, triumphs, or heartbreaks will ultimately matter as we face extinction along with our universe. This is certainly a bleak and hopeless perspective.
And that bleak and hopeless perspective applies to the Christian because, in their worldview, their accomplishments don’t matter. All that matters is whether they believe in Jesus correctly (h/t Jack Baynes).
Notice that Ham says our accomplishments won’t “ultimately” matter. I agree—a billion years from now, the accomplishments of one society on one planet in one remote corner of one galaxy won’t matter from the standpoint of the universe. I’m an adult, and I can deal with that bit of trivia. If imagining the atheist worldview makes Ken Ham sad, perhaps he could get a kitten.
“Bleak and hopeless” doesn’t sound like the worldview of atheists who exist in real life. Such “atheists” exist only in Ken Ham’s head. Since he can’t correctly describe their worldview, maybe he should stop playing therapist. It’s a poor Christian argument that imagines atheists obliged to act in a way that they don’t act.
An atheist perspective
Instead of a young-earth Creationist ineptly telling atheists what they must think and how they’re wrong, we can explore the idea of life without God through an article by atheist Julian Baggini, “Yes, life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that.”
Baggini makes two reasonable points: first, atheists see no good evidence for God and refuse to live as if there were. And second, in focusing on the positive side of life—as in public atheist ad campaigns that read, “There’s probably no God; now stop worrying and enjoy your life”—atheists have glossed over the fact that for many people life sucks.
While I agree with his points (wholeheartedly with #1 and to some extent with #2), I don’t like how he gets there. Let’s examine his support of the Christian claim that life without God is bleak.
Baggini sees the popular stereotype of atheists within society as “the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe” and fears that atheists have overcompensated. They’ve pushed the happy side of atheism (without much apparent success, if “brooding existentialist” is still what comes to mind), but atheists haven’t acknowledged that life can be meaningless and miserable.
When disaster hits
Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? . . .
Sometimes life is shit and that’s all there is to it.
Quite true, but this is the human condition. It’s not like the Christian has an advantage. Will you say to the Christian parents who lost their child to suicide, “They’re in a better place”? Or “It’s all part of God’s plan” or “God must’ve needed another angel” or “You’ll be reunited soon”? Do these evidence-less platitudes bring the parents much comfort? And how do they portray the source of this misery, God? Would the parents rather hear empty Christian phrases, or would they get more comfort from an honest offer of help and support from an atheist friend or relative?
Both the atheist and the Christian feel that this hypothetical child’s death was an injustice—life is just not supposed to work that way—but Christians actually make things worse for themselves. The atheist is likely a naturalist and so knows that reality isn’t bound by human instinct for “right” or “wrong.” Reality doesn’t always fit into our moral shoebox. The Christian, on the other hand, is told that God’s hand guides anything. Whether you got that promotion or your child got cancer, it’s all God’s plan. And the Christian must live with that.
And Christians must believe just the right thing to meet heaven’s entrance requirements. What if they get it wrong? The invention of heaven created a new anxiety that never burdens the atheist.
Will that child be in hell?
And what if the child gets it wrong? I once listened to a theology podcast with a panel of pastors wrestling with this problem. A man’s 20-ish son had died in an accident. Problem 1 was the obvious one: the man was grieving the loss of his son. Problem 2 was entirely of Christianity’s making: the son was a lapsed Christian, and the father’s beliefs put his son in hell, in torment.
The atheist’s advice would be to drop the beliefs in a God who isn’t there (and have him take his nonexistent hell with him), but the pastors were obliged to tap dance around this enormous burden of their own making, unable to seize the simple, obvious, and common-sensical solution provided by the atheist’s worldview.
God the spoiled child
Many Christians grant God license to do things that seem immoral. Drowning humanity with the Flood (for example) sounds barbaric to us but might make good sense to a God who is omniscient. If God has carte blanche, he might just refuse entrance into heaven for any or all Christians for no (apparent) good reason. Since God does things that seem illogical or immoral to us, the Christian must see this as a very real possibility and one to which they could make no protest.
Christians frequently play the, “But since God is infinitely wise, he could do things that he knows are correct but that don’t make sense to you, right?” card. Now it comes back to bite them.
Source of morality
Baggini wonders where atheist morality comes from.
Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did.
Let’s not go hiding behind Philosophy’s skirt. Naturalism has a short answer: humans are social animals like other great apes. Evolution selected for social behavior (trust, compassion, Golden Rule, and so on) because these traits improved evolutionary fitness.
Christians make unwarranted claims for the existence and accessibility of objective morality and ground all this in make-believe, and Baggini’s concerned about what grounds atheist morality? When Christians bring something compelling to the table, perhaps I’ll see a need to justify atheist morality more than the short answer above.
Although morality is arguably just as murky for the religious, at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail.
No, it’s not murky for the atheist. We can see why morality evolved the way it did for humans. By contrast, Christians have only just-so stories about a creator god who loves us, drowns us, and/or consigns most of us to hell, depending on the chapter of the Bible.
So I think it’s time we atheists ’fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim. . . .
The journey can be wonderful but it can also be arduous and it may end horribly.
Life with or without God can be grim. You see the alternative to atheism as skipping through a meadow, hand in hand with Jesus, with all problems solved. Some Christians might imagine that, but that’s where it happens—in their imagination. An honest Christian will wonder, if only occasionally, if their story is just BS.
but the universe doesn’t love us back.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/10/16.)
Image from Tobias Wrzal, public domain