Monday, July 27, 2015

The downsides of atheism

Considering I recently wrote about the problems with Catholicism, I figure it's time to talk about the problems of atheism.  Sure, there are other religious possibilities, but these are the two that appear to have a pretty strong intellectual defense.  However, my doubts about Catholicism haven't sent me straight into the atheist camp, and this post will explain some of the reasons for that.

I think all of the flaws in atheism can be condensed by saying, it's not to a human scale.  Atheism assumes the universe was not made for humans, and therefore it doesn't have to make sense.  Even if true, that can be a difficult viewpoint to live with.  The human mind constructs narratives out of everything it sees.  It constantly tries to reduce what we experience to something comprehensible and consistent.  What if the world's not like that?

In atheism, you have to deal with the scale of the universe -- immeasurably vast, and completely unconcerned with you.  Your life may have repercussions all over the world, and that still doesn't make a huge difference from the universe's point of view.  It's nice to think there's something out there even bigger than the universe that cares what you do.  If there isn't, it's hard not to feel insignificant.

Atheism does not provide meaning for you.  Sure, you can make your own, but you always have to face the reality that it's something you made up.  When I was a kid I used to go through my mom's CCD teacher manuals.  I'd read the questions, close my eyes, think of the answer, and then check to see if I was right.  "Theological virtues?  Faith, hope, and charity.  Bingo!"  But sometimes the answer would be the one I most hated .... "Answers may vary."  Answers may vary?  Then how do I know I got the right one?  If there's no teacher, there's no back of the book, and no way to be sure you're doing it right.

It also doesn't give you prepackaged answers.  Should you take a job that pays well, or a job that makes a bigger difference for others?  Should you have a baby?  Should you lie to protect someone else?  It's like you have to reinvent the wheel.  You could read the best moral philosophers in history, but there's always some disagreement, so in the end it's still down to you.  Wouldn't it be nice to outsource this to an expert who would give you a tidy framework to make decisions with?  Well, it certainly would, if you could know they could be trusted, and if you don't believe in any religion, you don't have access to anyone you trust as much as religious people trust God.

It can be exhausting to try to answer questions like this.  You probably have a life you'd like to be living, and taking time out of it to ponder the meaning of the universe and your life can distract from that.  Who can tell you how to balance existential reflections with real living?  Yet again, no one but you.

Atheists are so heterogenous that, unlike most religions, you can't assume another atheist will think anything like what you do about life.  They might not share your morals.  That is probably part of the reason why atheists don't always have a strong community to look to.  That, and that religion itself is a community-supporting structure which binds people together much more tightly than other groups generally do.

Atheism doesn't come with spirituality .... how to mark the passage of time, how to experience transcendence, how celebrate life events.  Any ritual you want, you have to make up, which feels a bit like playacting since it doesn't come with the weight of tradition behind it.

And atheism doesn't have an answer to death.  At a Christian funeral, people say, "We will miss him, but he is in a better place.  Our grief is temporary and we will see him again someday."  An atheist can only think, "He no longer exists.  And someday I too will no longer exist."  It's hard to even think about death from an atheist perspective -- what does it even mean to think about no longer existing?  What will that "be like"?  Obviously it won't be like anything if there is no one to experience it.

Many people I know think that the time of a person's death is fated somehow.  It's out there, sometime, and though they don't know when it is, they act as though they had no control over it.  This is a comforting illusion, but in reality many of the ways a person can die are preventable.  So you start to worry: if I get into a car, will I get in a wreck?  If I don't get this mole checked out, will I die of cancer?  It can spur you to make better choices -- the illusion of invulnerability can inspire some stupid decisions -- but it can also increase your anxiety.  Even in small things, you can't say there is someone looking out for you.  There is no reason bad things won't happen to you.

An atheist has no one to thank.  Sometimes life is so intensely beautiful, so precious, that you need to say thank you, but if there is no God, there is no one to hear you.

I'm sure there are more, but I'm going to stop there.  Some of these needs can be fulfilled by other groups besides the big umbrella of "atheism" -- there are communities like rationalism or humanism that have more specific goals.  Some are just things you have to learn to live with. 

All of these are problems, not with the intellectual possibility that atheism is true, but with the human mind.  Atheism doesn't have an answer to our longing for permanence, for certainty, for hope of eternity.  I don't think these desires are proof of anything -- I don't think the universe is obligated to provide me with the things I wish for -- but they are there nonetheless.  Atheism is not to a human scale.  I don't know that I'm resigned yet to that.

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