There’s a tendency for people to view atheism as “negative”, merely because it asserts a negation. I can understand this, especially for those who define themselves positively through a religious belief, but I am here to say that atheism has been a powerfully positive force in my life and that it has helped me weather the various storms through which I have passed. As I have tried to articulate exactly why I believe my atheism has helped me, I have realized it is because a world that operates according to natural laws and that is without gods is a world that is metaphysically fair in a way a theistic world is not.
I think it is safe to say that I have lived through some trying experiences in my life. This is not to say that I have every starved, that I have been physically or sexually abused, or that I suffer from any serious medical conditions. I have had the absolute privilege of growing up as a lower-middle class white male in the United States of America at the end of the 20th century. I have not faced systematic persecution or subjugation and I live in a time and place where I can exercise free speech without fear of retaliation. As far as that much is concerned, I have won the cosmic lottery. I am appreciative and grateful for that.
That being said, I have had my share of troubles. I am a product of divorced parents and am now effectively estranged from my father after years of emotional manipulation and abuse. My family has always struggled with money, and financial problems are still a constant source of stress. I have had to call off an engagement with a girl with whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life. I have had my identity stolen by someone close to me and was left responsible for the massive debt racked up in my name. I have been cheated on, which nearly broke me. I have had close friends die well before their time, for what seemed to be no reason at all. I have lost best friends because I proved to be a weak person, incapable of defending friendships that could have lasted years.
In short, I’ve lived a life. Not a particularly interesting, traumatic, or exceptional one, but it is mine and I have had to cope with all of these things.
I don’t say all of these things expecting (or wanting) pity or consolation. I have come to terms, in one way or another - and to varying degrees - with all of those events, and many more besides. I’m nearly 28 years old now, which means I have lived just enough of a life to be able to look back at some of my life experiences with some measure of emotional distance. Looking back at my life across this distance (however narrow it may be), I am thankful for one thing: I do not believe.
This isn't to say that belief would have inherently made things worse or better. Having never believed, it would be foolish for me to say how I would have reacted to my various tribulations if I had. I know there are millions, if not billions of people, who have found succor in their god. I can see how it would be comforting to believe that you are always loved, even at your most alone and vulnerable. Who wouldn’t want that?
The fact of the matter is that I do not hold those beliefs, and as such can gain nothing from them: they are alien to me. Yet I also realize that my atheism has given me something more effective and truer. As I said before, I recognize that I have basically lucked out. If I had believed in a god, particularly one with a plan for me and mine, then my experiences are not the outcome of random happenstance, but rather the intentional outcome of another being’s will. I will have been at the mercy of someone else, not just something else. God has no plan for me that I can rail against, nor is there a Fate laid out that I am forced to endure because of the will of another.
I have spent many nights contemplating what it is to be alive. Why am I here? What lies in store for me? What possible meaning can be derived from the painful experiences every person will have? Is there any point in continuing on when things seem beyond repair? I am sure that most, if not all people, have done the exact same thing. It stands as good a chance of being one of those quintessential human experiences as any other.
Metaphysical Peace of Mind
Happily, my atheism has not proved a hindrance, but rather a boon, because it offers answers to those questions with an authority any religious person would be jealous of. I do not wonder if I am adhering to the right religion, or following the right sect, or interpreting the proper texts in the proper way. Do the Southern Baptists have it right, or the Catholics, or is Islam the one true religion? Am I giving Shiva enough attention? Should I have been sacrificing to the old gods? Or have any of these interpreted God’s revelations properly? And, if not, then what hope is there to understand my place in the world? If you assume there is at least one god, then there is a series of further questions that can be asked. Atheism frees you from all of those considerations and offers you this consolation in their place:
None of this was done to you, nor is there anyone to blame, because everything is doled out in an effectively random way – and randomness is fair.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully acknowledge how terribly random and cruel the world can be. Bad things happen to good people and bad people get things that they categorically do not deserve. In a world that is without an arbiter, however, there is no metaphysical claim to be made for fairness. Things will happen in a way that are often counter to how we think they ought to be, but there is no cosmic injustice in this. There is no god to rail against, no authority to which one can appeal their sentence, and this has been a freeing truth for me.
I also realize that the notion of a benevolent god who cares for you is a comforting one to many people. Who wouldn’t want to feel that they are never truly alone or unloved? These are nice thoughts, but they strike me as little more than wish fulfilment. Sometimes we are alone, and sometimes we aren’t loved. It is unfortunate, but true. However, the fact is that most of us are loved by people we can rely on, and this is a far more tangible and effective kind of relationship. I have grown closer to those around me in light of my experiences, and I am grateful for the chance to have my friends and family, even if every one of these relationships will ultimately end. I am also grateful for the chance to stand on my own, when the time came. I do not need a loving god. I can do just fine on my own, and am happy and content in that knowledge.
I have had bad things happen to me, and I am likely to have many more bad experiences. There is no guarantee that everything will “work out in the end” or that there must be a “better tomorrow”. For all I know the zombie apocalypse will happen this afternoon and I will spend the next few days simply trying not to be eviscerated by my former roommates. However, the flip-side is also true. My future is unknown to anyone, and I am free to try and better it in any way that I can. I can get beaten down by the unfair things that have occurred, or I can grin and bear them with the hope that tomorrow will turn out differently. The fairness of a godless world at the metaphysical level is something from which I derive a huge measure of peace.
Ultimately, I think a godless universe is the most metaphysically fair world in which we can live. No randomly deity gets to decide how things should be for me, or those I love. Nothing has been done to me at the cosmic level – things have merely happened to me. So I press on, trying to make my path through an often difficult world, happy to have had the chance to experience anything at all. No matter what has happened or will happen, I have had the opportunity to live – I won that cosmic lottery. I am an infinitesimally small part of the universe manifested in a form that allows it to look back on itself, and that mirror image is something terribly beautiful. It can be cold and distant, unfeeling and cruel, but it has also given rise to truth, meaning, love, music, and a myriad other wonderful things. In short, nihilism is optional. We can stare into the abyss and scream and the unfairness of it all, but we would be mistaken to do so.
Life can be a bitch, and that’s okay.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user trdesignr.