Other Worldviews

Atheists Should Accept the Grim Truth Wherever They Find It

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 07/03/2013

In an article in The Guardian titled “Yes, life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that,” Julian Baggini argues that atheists shouldn’t hide the fact that life without God can be “pretty grim”:

[T]here’s an...important reason why we should not choose a word that is “positive, warm, cheerful” [to brand atheism]: although many atheists are all those things, atheism itself is none of them....

Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that’s “can” not “is” or even “should usually be.” And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable.

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.... Not much bright about that fact.

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced.

And on the “more disturbing” “threat of moral nihilism”:

Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did.... In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that’s exactly what will sometimes happen.

So I think it’s time we atheists ’fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim.

I respect very much Baggini’s desire to accept the consequences of truth and live in light of reality, no matter the cost. But I think he’s mistaken about this desire being unique to atheists, and consequently, about this being a selling point, because of course religious people who similarly care about truth also desire to “live in full recognition” of the truth about reality, accepting the consequences.

Being convinced that the Christian God exists, we accept the truth of our sinfulness, the reality of God’s justice and wrath, the existence of Hell, and our need for redemption through the sacrifice of Christ. And yet, it is the atheists’ distaste for these very things that they often use to argue against Christianity.

If atheists want to make their selling point the fact that they have “traditionally embraced” a “commitment to the naked truth,” whatever it is, however disturbing, then let them live out this principle when it comes to assessing Christianity. The question of whether or not God is a monster, or Hell is unjust, or Jesus was despicable, or the cross was child abuse shouldn’t enter into the discussion at all until they determine whether or not these things reflect reality. If, according to atheists, a distaste for reality (including a non-moral reality) has no bearing on whether or not a person ought to accept it—and it is, in fact, a selling point to accept a “grim” truth one finds distasteful—then they shouldn’t allow their distaste for Christianity to play a part in their arguments.

When they can’t assess Christianity in a way that’s consistent with their proclaimed principle, it starts to look like they’re more committed to accepting atheism at any cost than they are committed to accepting truth at any cost.