Saturday, February 21, 2009

Atheism and Happiness

The New Republic has a strange piece up entitled, "Atheism and/or Happiness?"

I wasn't aware that the two are incompatible, but to the author gives the distinct impression they are, but coherent thoughts are hard to make out from the lofty incomprehensibility of the piece.

Fortunately, it's about a topic almost everyone is already familiar with - famous atheist Philp Larkin's views on religion, atheism, and happiness. Okay, not really. I have to admit, I have never heard of this guy before, but apparently he was an acclaimed British poet.

How was his poetry?

Okaayyy...not the best I've ever heard and just a tad depressing, but I'm sure the religious views were excellent.
Religion -- "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die"
And that leaves him -- and us -- with no solace or reassurance, confronting the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness:
Wait...what? Okay, maybe I'm missing the inscrutable cleverness of the article, but on the whole, it seems like nothing more than yet another foray into ye olde "atheism = meaninglessness and existential despair" meme. *sigh*

It's hard to tell what's Larkin's actual views were from what the author extrapolates from his poetry (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly), but it definitely paints a picture of a forlorn atheism with nothing to look forward to but deathly annihilation and religion as a provider of happiness as well as "cosmological meaning and significance" and although the dogma may be false, their work is commendable because it has real and positive effects on believers' psychological states.
The preacher's love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart.
Yeah, it's so saccharine that I need to get tested for diabetes. But it also illustrates several lamentable misconceptions that theists have about atheists - that atheism is nihilistic, that atheists are tragically bereft of hope/meaning/happiness, etc. This is such well-worn territory that I won't bother with a detailed refutation - others have long since come up with some excellent responses. Suffice it to say that I find systems of worship of imagined gods and spirits to be supremely unsatisfying. Rather than comfort and meaning, they impart superstition with childish egoism and self-importance elevated to a truly cosmic scale.

Many theists take solace in religion. For them, religion is a powerful force in their lives - they're adamant that it gives their lives meaning and them a lift when they're feeling blue. That's fine. But the mistake they make is assuming that atheists lack these things by lacking religion. It's like an avid fisherman scolding passerby for not experiencing the joys of fishing and assuming that they live joyless lives because they don't share his hobby. He never stops to consider that they find joy elsewhere or that some people simply don't enjoy fishing. It's just a poor train of thought and a gross misunderstanding of people, and it's frustrating that this particular misconception comes up as commonly as it does.


Vince R said...

Yeah, a true believer may say "but my faith makes me happy" Sure it does, what I want to know is, is it true? Simple as that!
Put all the emotional claptrap one side, square up to reality and if that leaves you depressed, well at least its honest. "Better the harsh reality, than the comforting illusion" (Carl Sagan)
I highly recommend reading Carl Sagans books. In Billions and Billions, Ann Druyan writes in the epilogue
"Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever."

Imagine trading that depth of honesty for a fraudulant god...Never!!!

Hydra said...

I heartily agree that the truth, however harsh, is better than a comforting illusion.

But my exasperation stems from continual presumption that atheism cannot be a happy state - that it must be unbearably depressing news.

For me, it's not like that at all. It's an opportunity for humans as a whole and for us as individuals to choose our own path without worrying over the imagined wills of gods. Atheism is freedom. The freedom to work towards our own goals and become who we truly wish to be rather than merely conforming to pious demands of how people ought to be.

And although religion is constantly praised as a source of comfort, it's rare to see an honest appraisal that considers that believers do not always find their beliefs satisfying or comforting.

The deck is always stacked with the most content believer compared to the most caricatured, unrealistic atheist with the implication that therefore, theism is preferable to atheism.

It is simply dishonest.

Ziztur said...

Hey there!

Thanks for linking me! I definitely appreciate that someone else in the world has decided my post on how one can find plenty of meaning in their lives if they are an atheist.

Ziztur said...

Allow me to finish my sentence. Sorry, all of this writing frazzles my mindmeat after awhile... I shall finish my sentence here:

... is worth reading.