Faith and Non-Faith

Can Atheism Offer Comfort?

Thoughts on Susan Jacoby's op-ed on atheism and tragedy.

I'm a fan of Susan Jacoby's writing, generally speaking. Her book Freethinkers, about the founders, which came out a decade or so ago, is really something you should check out.

So I was intrigued to see her Times op-ed yesterday on atheism, in which she argues that atheism "is rooted in empathy as well as intellect":

The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world...without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.

I think this is exactly right, that last bit. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I think I'm a moral person. There are millions of us. We get our morality from some combination of common sense, experience, and reading. And the fact that we believe that this life is our one shot at getting it right makes morality all the more urgent a matter, really.

I don't happen to attend a church regularly right now, although I'm open to it, and I'm interested in it for two reasons: the sense of community church can provide, especially now with the little one toddling about, and my notion that hearing a couple of lessons about loving thy brother once a week--setting aside what it might or might not do for my "soul"--probably stands to do me a little good over the course of the week in the here and now.

Jacoby isn't quite so convincing to me on what such a view can offer at moments of great tragedy (her peg of course was Newtown). I've just never believed that there's some vast shiny place up there where I'm going to be reunited with mom and dad and the other loved ones, and meet Martin Luther King and John Lennon and Gene Tierney, in whom my interest is admittedly not entirely divine. I have clear memories of being skeptical about all this from the age of seven or so. If one is built that way, one is built that way. I'd be delighted to be wrong.