It occurs to me that life turns on four confidences, three of which atheists and agnostics simply do not possess. If one wonders why so few people are atheists and agnostics, a big part of the puzzle may lie hidden here. And it gives me no pleasure to list these four confidences, for I myself am an agnostic and recognize my lack.
Here they are:
- I’ll handle it;
- I’m never really alone;
- love matters; and
- at the end of things there is something good.
Let’s deal briefly with each in turn:
- I’ll handle it. This first one is the central thesis of a still popular (and excellent) self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Whether you are encountering nature (such as bad weather on a hiking trip) or your fellow human beings (a job interview, a date, an audience), if you have inner confidence that you can handle whatever comes your way, it makes life a lot easier. “I’ll handle it” has no specific religious component, and so it is something that atheists and agnostics might well possess.
- I’m never really alone. At the end of Frank Capra’s great film, It’s a Wonderful Life, I recall someone saying to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), “One is never alone who has friends.” And, of course, this is true insofar as you have a good network of people who love you. And peoples’ constant and obsessive text messaging suggests that this is really, really important to the human psyche—not being alone. But there is also a saying that goes this way: “You die alone.” And that’s also true—unless you believe in God. One thing that God belief ameliorates in those who have it is this: human isolation. Whether you are in a retirement home abandoned by your relatives, dumped by a lover, or on the surgery table, God is with you. Always.
- Love matters. In one’s immediate and interpersonal relations with people, it’s not hard to believe that love matters. But in the area of social justice, it’s trickier. Martin Luther King used to say (and this seems to have bolstered him), “The arc of the universe is wide, but it bends toward justice.” There is, of course, no objective support for such an idea. But when one is trying to dialogue with “enemies,” or practice ahimsa (nonviolence)—especially toward people who are unlovable—or where the results of one’s love are paltry, it helps to think that love really is the highest force in the universe, with some external warrant, and that God sees you and makes an accounting of what is done. Love, in other words, is not just another Darwinian strategy for navigating a situation that may or may not “work.” Whatever the outward result is, one can be sustained in love by the idea that love really matters, and that the universe, in some sense, really is governed by love (though its reign is not yet obvious). As Gandhi put it, “In the empire of non-violence every true thought counts, every voice has its full value,” and “[love, or ahimsa ] is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts, whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.” And Jesus, of course, said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” which, as Gandhi also reminds us: “Jesus lived and died in vain if He did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.” These, of course, are statements of faith; there is no evidence that love is the supreme law of the universe at all, and really matters (except to us in our contingency as social primates). Atheists and agnostics, in other words, are warranted in not believing these claims. But not believing them might well short-circuit your confidence wherever you are pursuing nonviolence, peace, justice, or some other larger form of meaning in the universe. Who wants to live in a world where love is not, in some sense, the universe’s ultimate law and sanction for human action? And yet, I think it is fair to say, most atheists and agnostics do not think of love as being anything like consciousness—a mysterious and seemingly non-material epiphenonenon or force emergent in the universe. In other words, outside of the contingent human brain itself, they’re suspicious of the claim that love is something that the universe is up to or moving towards. And it is certainly not evidently central to anything else going on in the universe. Just look at the shark.
- At the end of things there is something good. This is nicely captured by Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1940 essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith”:
Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.
These seems to be the big four. Am I missing anything?
Lastly, I’ve long felt a draw to those who have had near death experiences (NDEs). I find their stories moving. I’d love to go to an NDE conference. And isn’t it curious that so many NDEs bring these four confidences together?
Why is that?
Here’s my favorite NDE (as recounted in a BBC documentary on the subject):