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What Does Atheism Do For Atheists?

There are a few things I don’t understand about this Susan Jacoby essay on “The Blessings of Atheism”. Jacoby writes,

It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.

It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.

I can certainly see how it could be a relief not to think about how to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it. But how is this connected to “what atheism has to offer”? What does atheism have to offer when “a loved one [is] losing his mind to Alzheimer’s,” and so on? I don’t see how atheism qua atheism (as the philosophers say) has anything at all to offer, though particular atheists, just like particular religious believers, can certainly offer a lot in the way of care, compassion, physical and emotional assistance.

Jacoby seems to be saying that atheism can have a role in an atheist’s life that’s similar to the role religion has in the life of a religious person, but I can’t see how that could be so. A religious person might say,“I help those who suffer because I believe that God wants me to do that,” but I don’t imagine that an atheist says that helps those who suffer just because she is an atheist.

Atheism is a metaphysical stance with no obvious ethical entailments. “There is no God and therefore I should be compassionate” is a syllogism with evident missing parts. If you don’t believe in a loving God who wants us also to be loving, any compassion you demonstrate doesn’t derive from your not believing something, but from your believing something about what human beings owe to one another. (I have known compassionate atheists, but their compassion derived from those positive beliefs that they would have shared with some but not all of their fellow atheists.) So when Jacoby writes, “We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect,” this strikes me as a nonsensical statement. How can atheism be “rooted in empathy”? “I empathize with others and therefore I don’t believe that God exists”?

One more question:

Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.

I don’t know what it might mean to “deny religious believers the comfort of their faith.” Presumably few atheists would want to reach into the minds of other people and snatch their comforts out — though maybe some would — but certainly to be an atheist is necessarily to believe that the comforts of religious faith are false comforts. And, on the other side, what counts as “respect” for atheist’s “deeply held conviction” about the absence of an afterlife? No matter how deeply an atheist might hold that conviction, I don’t agree with it: is that disrespectful?

In short: I can’t make sense of this essay. Can anyone offer some clarification?

(And nota bene: if you want your comment posted you should really try to answer my questions, or explain civilly what’s wrong with them, not fight the Wars of Religion all over again.)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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