Atheism and the Consolations of Philosophy
January 16, 2013
It’s only natural that a belief system like religion would judge rivals by its own criteria for success.
Having nothing to instruct humanity about the realities of the world, religions can only appeal to the fantasies of the mind. Arouse the wildest fantasies, and any religion can then say, “Yes, we can believe that!”
Since there are few natural constraints on the world of imagination, what feels satisfying and valid can feel as real as one likes. The only limit is how far a person can go with the inner power of their own conviction. Science must notice when cold nature halts the loveliest theory with its stern command, “No, that doesn’t work.” But within the warm willful world, religion never runs into any hard facts. If a person would only feel a desperate need to believe, to faithfully believe anything, right then and there some religion can step up and say, “We will believe with you.” Religion nowadays reduces you down to your willpower, and then convinces you that if you really want to believe it, then you can believe it, and you can make it real. Is that a reasonable criterion of reality?
Once the criterion of religious validity is simply whether someone finds a fanciful conviction immensely satisfying, then almost any religion enjoys validity. What might a person fancy? Not so long ago, the human mind was satisfied by nothing less than a terrifying god who demanded human sacrifice in a gruesome display of submission. The more blood on the ground, the mightier the god, or so it seemed to people desperate for any sign that their god was truly the greatest. If religions today are more reasonable, it is only because their gods demand less blood, not because religions have found reason.
The consolations of religion are as numerous as the hopes and fears of individual people. But who taught the people what is hopeful, and what is fearful? The earliest religions doubtless told people what to think about their ordinary hopes and fears. Going further, some mythmakers thought, why not tell wilder tales to arouse fresh fears, so that the stories are even more compelling?
Some say religions started captivating the human imagination when naturally fearful events required unnatural explanations. Perhaps so. But I say that early religions really acquired their full powers over the human mind when they began instilling unnatural fears, requiring even more unnatural explanations and interventions. Nothing in the natural world could arouse the idea, much less the fear, of suffering an unpleasant afterlife. Fear of lightning and earthquakes is natural. Regret over death is natural. But worry over regretting one’s life after death is unnatural. Fear of Hell or hope for Heaven are things so unnatural that only the human imagination could create them. I say that religion truly became religion when the story-tellers began clouding the mind with fanciful hopes and fears, so that religious myths could have even greater power over what people do. Control what people think about a next life, and you can control what they do in this life. That’s a robust religion.
Let religion control what gets lodged in the human imagination, and just about any religious fantasy could appear helpful and plausible. The consolations of religion? The consolations of religion only manage to relieve people of hopes and worries they shouldn’t naturally have in the first place. Don’t tell me anything more about the “consolations” of religion.
Atheism means the consolation that you won’t need the consolations of religion. That’s the consolation of philosophy in general – first relieve your mind from wearying thoughts about unreasonable things, and then focus your confident energies on what really matters. Reasonable people naturally need consolation over natural troubles and tragedies, but they don’t really need the consolations of religion. Death comes too early, to too many people. Reasonable people all agree on that, and they seek reasonable ways to prevent early death. Our earthly and ethical humanism will have to serve, and so it clearly does, among people unclouded by fantasy. Yes, loss and tragedy is all too real. Does it take a nonbeliever to see that?
Perhaps only atheism can see tragedy for it really is. No, we aren’t angels trapped in bodies. No, our fates aren’t controlled by inscrutable gods. Only a religion could convince people that tragedy is actually victory, that loss is actually gain. Only a religion could turn evil into good. Let us have no more talk about atheism’s “denial” of tragedy.
If you expect a human response to tragedy, then let us be human first. Actually, we really can withstand the pain of loss and grief. We are not the frail folk of straw who topple in the storm, as religion would have you think. Strength begins with the mind, a natural mind, and a natural heart. If you can't bear grief without religion, that says more about what your religion did to you, than about what grief does to atheists.
Only a foolish atheism would let itself be judged by the standard that religion long ago set for itself. The criterion of reasonableness is not pleasantness. The price you’d pay for consolation shouldn’t be set by your false terrors. Let the terrorizers of humanity sell their consolations somewhere else.
Better to be mindfully awake to the regrettable shortness of life, than to regrettably stunt the mind for happy dreams.