Consider this for a moment: if there truly are no gods and death means death and nothing more, is it smart to ignore that possibility? Believing in something that doesn’t exist and—even worse—building much of your life around that assumption is surely a major mistake. If there are no gods aren’t you wasting a good deal of your life servicing a myth? A Victorian philosopher/mathematician put it this way: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Of course that appeals to the lawyer in me, but it’s sound advice for everyone.
Okay, let’s say you’re open-minded enough to at least consider exploring atheism, how do you do it? In recent years there have been a number of best-sellers by the so-called “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,” and all are well written. Try Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion,” Christopher Hutchens “God Is Not Great,” Sam Harris “The End of Faith,” or Daniel Dennett “Breaking the Spell.” There is even a DVD of these four men having a two hour conversation on atheism, called “Discussions with Richard Dawkins—The Four Horsemen.” Any one of these references, approached with a willingness to listen, will set you to seeing the world in a very different way.
Consider, if you will, how the world would change if there were no gods/heaven/hell/angels and all the other trappings that religious belief totes around. For you personally—no mistake—it would summon up a seismic shift in perception! No God? NO GOD!!! Then . . .what? What? Why then comes the darkness! Comes despair! In her book “Reading Lolita in Tehran” Azar Nafisi describes the problem: “If one day I lose my faith, it will be like dying and having to start new again in a world without guarantees.” Yes, Azar, it would be like that, and the possibility is definitely hard to face. But we don’t always get to do easy things in life, do we?
So, yes, your personal view of the world would collapse if you stopped believing in your god, but there’s also one more important thing to appreciate: other than your own angst, the rest of the world wouldn’t change at all. Things will go on just as they always have. When good things happen, believers will thank their god; when bad things happen that same god will be given a pass. If someone prays for something to happen and, by golly, it does, some god is immediately praised for benevolence; but when those prayers remain unanswered, ah, well, gods have their reasons, and people left in serious trouble are offered the sop of stupid remarks like “God never gives you burdens you can’t handle,” or “When God closes a door He opens a window,” or “God works in mysterious ways.” No one ever says “God is unthinkably cruel.”
Humankind invented gods because they feared death and therefore would accept any explanation—no matter how improbable—allowing them to conquer death and continue living. Thus mighty Jove could throw thunderbolts from the heavens, snakes give epicurean advice about apples, slain prophets rise from the dead and float up to heaven (or ride there on a horse), and Joseph Smith could peer into a hat and dictate the meaning of golden plates unfortunately recalled before their data could be backed-up. If you’re not a member of a particular religion, the myths of that particular religion seem ridiculous. It’s been pointed out that we’re all atheists as to other people’s religions. True atheists take one more step.
But death? The finality of it is so overwhelming: no heaven, no gods to give us virgins to enjoy, no harps to play. How can atheists cope with such a dismal prospect?
The answer is simple: live life as well as you can while you still have it. But is that then also a license to commit crimes or be cruel or boorish to others? No. There remain laws, official and unofficial, enforced by civil authorities and society both. Behave like a cretin and you’ll pay the usual penalties. Frankly, the genius of Christianity and some other religions is the Golden Rule: do unto others, etc. If only we all obeyed that simple instruction.
And, finally, consider that if everyone abandoned religious justifications for their bad behavior, life on the planet Earth would be dramatically better. Had Osama bin Laden been forced to recruit atheists, the World Trade Center would still be standing.
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013