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):
You left out, “There will be an accounting.”
Atheists can’t really believe that, in the end, all people will be held accountable for actions and the evil ones will be punished.
Having faith that justice will be done, even if we mortals are unable to enact it, is a great confidence and one that atheists lack since, in their eyes Hitler and Gandhi came to the same end.
I agree with you that accounting is important—and did note it under “love matters,” but I’m less sure about the centrality of punishment—especially if that punishment is thought of as torture. One can achieve justice without tormenting the perpetrators of injustice, or persisting in a cycle of violence. As Jesus said on the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Great post. And I would agree with jonolan’s addition.
As an atheist, I see these this way:
– I can handle it. Yup, it is hard to make it through any other way. In the greatest times of stress, there is always the “Litany Against Fear.”
– I am never really alone , yet I am always alone. Make the things that keep you going part of you. I take them with me everywhere.
– Love matters. This is part of “never being alone” but it also serves to our purpose – to advance the species. Love is not the only emotion that serves to advance us, but it is one of the more important ones. It allows us to persevere, to get through the toughest times to carry on to our through the hardest things.
– At the ending there is something good. I don’t see this one at all. The good is what you do along the way.
– There will be an accounting. The only accountings that occur are from history and your fellow men. And even then, there is not always an accounting. Ever been around at the end of a good persons life? All those they have touched come to see them, recount the stories, tell their friends and families those stories. All the ways that life touched them are there. Conversely, ever seen a miserable person at the end? People only come out of sheer obligation, if at all. No stories, no recounting. Good bye and good riddance. I have watched the good person scenario as my grandfather died a few years ago. I am watching the other scenario with a close family member now.
What you’ve said illustrates that, whatever else atheism is, it’s not a path for weak people.
As for your relative dying under the shadow of having lived a rather bad life, is there anything that you might do or say to him or her that might function redemptively for them, and help them along? Maybe something would crack open in them if someone found something in them that was genuinely wonderful. Or here’s another possibility: what if you say to the person what everyone else is avoiding—get it out in the open and see what the person wants to do with it. Maybe that would help the person.
Or maybe not.
It’s a tough call.
Or even find it in yourself to forgive them, and tell them your perception, and what you’re forgiving them for. Maybe that would help. Bringing things into the open is hard.
“Ever been around at the end of a good persons life?”
Yes and quite by an accident of fate. I was also the only the one with her at the time due to that same accident of fate. So much for that theory.
If you want to share, I’m curious: what did you learn from being at the side of a good person’s death?
That they die, Santi, roughly the same as anyone else. Though each person’s death and dying is unique in many ways, there’s an underlying commonality based not upon good or evil but more upon how much that they don’t want to die.
None of the people she loved or had greatly touched during her relatively short life were with her though when she died, choking and drowning in the blood filling what was left of her lungs and too confused by shock and blood loss to really be lucid.
I suppose it was something akin to a kindness that her family wasn’t there though. It wasn’t the last site of- or moments with a loved one that anyone should have to go through.
Thank you for sharing that.
@jonolan – as I said, sometimes there is no accounting, good or bad
@Santi – I could make lots of excuses for why I could not reengage with this person. she is pretty close to deaf now and dementia is set in, so that would make it harder. But I probably could try. Should try, I guess. I am not sure I will, I need to think on it. Part of me sees it as the reckoning while I also realize I should be a good person and try. Ah, moral quandaries.
Have you ever seen the Ram Das documentary, Fierce Grace?
It’s about Ram Das after his stroke, and so about aging, dying, and the furnace of existence—and how we might respond who are still on the relatively cool side of hell mouth.
Maybe you can locate a copy at Amazon.
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