Saturday, 29 September 2012

An Atheist Finds Hope

Losing faith in God - or never having had any to begin with - means creating a worldview free from the usual guarantees: no eternal life, no supernatural punishment for 'sins', no comforting hand on the wheel when we feel we're losing control. It requires the ultimate reality check - the realisation that we alone are responsible for our actions, with no heavenly third party to refer to when things go wrong. For many people with faith, this proves a difficult concept to understand.

When atheists face questions from those who have faith, often the same few enquiries come up. With no holy text to dictate our morals, what stops us from committing heinous crimes? With no fear of hell, what prevents us from mistreating those around us? Many atheists find this notion hilarious - the threat of judgement by God is all that prevents a decent, moral believer from committing murder? The sense of right and wrong that we imbue young children with is insufficient to this end? 

Perhaps the issue is one of simple and understandable ignorance: if a believer has spent their entire life taking their moral cues from the Bible, maybe they simply don't appreciate humanity's ability to regulate their own behaviour without that hand on their shoulder. If you'd spent your entire life breathing oxygen from a canister with a mask, would you trust your ability to breathe the air? Would you be prepared to slip the mask off and take the risk?

One of the finest (and most surreal) questions of this type, though, is an example that was circulating on the Internet this summer. Discussing a post on another blog entitled "20 Questions Atheists Struggle To Answer" the author applauds her comrade's efforts to "engage with a group who simply don’t understand Christians" - a curious description, given that a great many atheists have become so after moving away from the religion of their youth. But her crusading counterpart has been remiss in his interrogation; he has missed a vital opportunity to ask a question which these godless heathens will be completely disarmed by.

 "How do you live without hope?"

"This really is a cruel world that almost seems to be thinking of ways to disappoint, damage, or ultimately destroy us. So I ask, how do you live without a hope in the after-life? I simply cannot understand how someone faces life each day, believing that their existence and that of those they love can be permanently snuffed out in an instant. Believing that they will never meet again with those that have died. Believing that ultimately this short life is all there is."

We concede that this is a painful conclusion for any new atheist to come to: that we will not see our beloved friends and family members again, that innocent people lead good lives and die meaningless deaths without the promise of heaven to console those that loved them, that death really is the end. No-one likes to consider that they can be "snuffed out in an instant", or to realise that they too will be passed over and forgotten by history, their efforts trivialised by the passage of time. But acknowledging the absence of an afterlife is not the same as giving up on the future: it forces a shift of focus to the present and the people we share it with.

It takes a special kind of ignorance not to look around and notice the struggles and misfortune of those around us. Between countries torn apart by war, communities decimated by famine, natural disasters and disease, and the private struggles against ill health, addiction, poverty and hopelessness fought by families and individuals the world over, one could be forgiven for briefly wondering if the fabled Horsemen of the Apocalypse already rode amongst us. But it is our response to this suffering, rather than our beliefs about the cause of it, that defines us as human beings.

Let us consider the online responses to a natural disaster like that which affected Japan in 2011. Facebook, 21st-century almanac of public opinion, lit up with emergency appeals for assistance. But the specific requests varied wildly in their nature. Some asked for money - in the UK, the Disasters Emergency Committee were quick to set up a dedicated number to facilitate the giving of donations to the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontières and similar aid organisations. Some asked for donations of food, clothing, blankets and children's toys to be sent out to those in Japan who had lost everything. Some asked people to petition their government to pledge millions in aid, even in countries struggling against recession. And some asked people to pray.

To pray. Not to give money AND pray, not to send warm clothing AND pray, just to pray. As if prayer alone would solve the problems. As if prayer alone would provide shelter for the displaced, food for the hungry, and comfort to those who had watched loved ones swept away by the endless, swirling, dirty water. As if prayer would induce God, whose involvement with the human race has been at best minimal from the alleged moment he placed us on this earth, to return from his current residence on high, look at what one of his creations had done to another, see that it was not good, and somehow fix it for everyone.

Maybe I am mistaken, or being too literal. Maybe God was present. Maybe he was in the hearts of the rescuers, and in the minds of the people that tended to the injured, comforted the bereaved, and sheltered the dispossessed. Maybe he was in the actions of everyone that donated money to the charities on the ground, and of those that helped to rebuild the shattered cities. Maybe he was in the hearts of the men that walked into a compromised and dangerous nuclear facility, securing and controlling the material that threatened to cause a bigger disaster than Chernobyl, in the certain knowledge that doing so would lead to a desperate illness and a horrible death.

Or maybe that was not God. Maybe it was something far more real, and far more useful to us as a fragile species clinging to the face of a lonely planet: human compassion. The simple concern for another human being that comes from a place that psychologists and evolutionary biologists still cannot agree on. When you accept that God doesn't exist, and you consider our planet, circling endlessly under a cold and empty sky, you realise that all we have is each other. If God will not help us, all we can do is help one another. If God will not provide a blissful eternity for those that suffer, we must do what we can to make things better for them in this life. If this is the only life we have, we must use it to make our flawed and difficult world better.

Let us return to the words of the blogger mentioned earlier. She continues, "the Christian believes that behind a broken world there is a sovereign God who will one day fix it all, and in the meantime is working everything round for good to those who love him (Romans 8:28)"

Of course! How silly of us to forget! God's going to fix things for everyone, and we needn't worry about taking any action at all. We don't need to give money to support cancer research or treatments for catastrophic spinal injuries. God will "fix it all", and if we want him to move a bit more quickly, we can just pray! That's why you see so many of those appeals on Facebook: "pray for my friend's sister, she has cancer" or "pray for the people of [disaster-struck country]". Conversely, of course, those who don't "love him" can expect to receive none of his goodwill - an atheist fallen on hard times deserves it, then?

If God exhibited even the slightest inclination to assist the day-to-day struggles of the sick and the dispossessed, these requests for prayer would be far easier to swallow. If you believe in God, pray for sick children if you feel you must; but be ready to donate to a group who do practical things to make their lives better. As it is, we're asked to believe that we're his greatest creation and he still doesn't seem to give a damn about us. Instead of praying, we must continue to support organisations taking practical steps to combat these problems. If God will not remove them, then humanity must strive together to overcome them. And that, Christian bloggers, is where atheists find hope.