When it comes right down to it, what are atheists confident about and what are theists confident about? It occurs to me that, to be an atheist, your life ultimately rests on just two rather naked confidences:
- God does not exist; and
- I can handle it.
The theist, on the other hand, tends to have four confidences. With the atheist, the theist is likely to share this one:
- Whatever comes my way in life, I can handle it.
But he or she also tends to add three others:
- I’m never really alone;
- love and justice are forces in the world; and
- at the end of things there is something good or meaningful.
In other words, the theist bolsters his or her life confidence—“I’ll handle it”—with three other beliefs. Martin Luther King used to say, for example,
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
There’s very little (if any) warrant for thinking that this is true, but the idea that love and justice are somehow “dice-loaded” into the direction that the universe is going helped King face difficult circumstances.
And this is not to say that atheists don’t believe in love and justice. Obviously they do. But they don’t share the confidence of theists that love and justice are things that the universe is doing outside of the contingent human brain. Love and justice are not forces and the universe does not have a direction.
And atheists can live with that.
And that’s admirable, to be so brave; to be intellectually hard-nosed and to live without illusions or faith. The strong atheists—like, say, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne—remind me of Sophocles’s Oedipus (who is a very, very good man; a noble and strong man) or Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes.
Like Charlton Heston, an atheist is someone who has been flung onto a planet where there are all these freakish talking apes—and he or she just happens to be one of them. But he or she is going to make the best of an atrocious existential situation, unillusioned by the niceties of any institutional religion.
And what’s not to admire in anyone who looks at life so, well, honestly?
Maybe this is why so many people are curious to know how nonbelievers die; in particular, public nonbelievers like, say, the 18th century’s David Hume (whose last weeks were recounted by bedside visitors). Likewise, public atheists today, under the extraordinary spotlight of contemporary communication technology, seem determined to make a point of dying well, perhaps even theatrically: the lonely iron man on display (like the lead character in Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”). Richard Dawkins seems especially concerned to do this at his exit, and has written about the subject. And inquiring minds want to know: can an atheist really live exactly by what he or she preaches and face bodily decline and death alone?
As an agnostic, I confess that I am in turns bewildered and admiring of both the confident atheist and the confident theist. Alas, I remain a Hamlet (to believe or not to believe) amidst the clash of heroic titans (the atheist Oedipuses and religious Martin Luther Kings of this world). Whence the power of their leaps and courage?