An AlterNet article by Amanda Marcotte reminds me of a question a reader asked me over at Google+.
7) Atheist lives are bleak and lack meaning. Those in the atheist activist community find this one particularly insipid, because we so often deal with people who suffered religious abuse and were only able to find peace by abandoning religion. There’s really no reason to believe that happiness and fulfillment come from a supernatural place, or else believers would have no need for fulfilling work, loving families, friends, and hobbies, since their spiritual beliefs would suffice. Most atheists actually find our lack of belief in a supernatural being makes it easier to fill our lives with meaning and joy. Since we don’t believe in an afterlife, many of us find ourselves more motivated to make the most out of the time we do have instead of looking to the next life to make us happy.
Some might remember that Amanda Marcotte was one of two bloggers fired from the John Edwards presidential campaign for some rather extreme anti-Catholic screeds. In this article she makes some valid points though her article named “10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists” should really be named “10 Myths May Atheists Believe That Religious People Hold About Atheists” or at least that is the impression I get from her replies. She could not put the disclaimer “No straw man was hurt in the making of this post.” This is not to say there are no myths that religious believers have concerning atheists. I would say there certainly are when it comes to discerning motivations and atheists like any group of individuals have motives that span the gamut.
The question I got asked myself concerned the question of joy and happiness when I was an atheist and the comparison to now.
Generally I have always been a happy person and as an atheist enjoyed many of the natural joys involving family, discovery of knowledge, and the effects of the natural virtues (and of course the effects of vices). I could read an article in a science magazine and feel elation on some aspect of science and discovery and be amazed anew at our universe. Music has brought me great enjoyment. I certainly experienced many material joys and I would have called myself a generally happy atheist. My developed sense of wonder certainly contributed to this feeling.
I didn’t dwell on the meaning of life since there wasn’t one other than to “go along to get along” and to enjoy what I could since one day I would just stop existing. When I thought about this “not existing” it didn’t fill me with fear since that was a natural end and there was nothing to regret once you stopped existing. This is not to say that the idea does not cause a rebellion of self at the idea of not-existing, but it was just a fact to be faced and one to be faced not all that often.
There’s really no reason to believe that happiness and fulfillment come from a supernatural place …
I don’t anybody who believes that or makes that claim. Atheists can very well be happy people, but can it really be said that their happiness derives from their atheism? Is somebody who most fully lives the tenants of atheism happier? Some of the atheist philosophers were the most miserable people I can think of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ayn Rand, Jean-Paul Sartre. When you think of the new atheists the word joy doesn’t usually come to mind, but this is also seems to be true of some religious leaders.
What I would contend is that religious believers in general and Catholics in particular can be more filled with joy than any atheist. Joy is the feeling aroused by the expectation or possession of some good. There are both natural and supernatural joys depending on these goods. There are goods that atheists deny so this in itself reduces the range of possible joys. I did not give up joy when I came to faith. All of those natural joys I was comforted by were expanded in directions I never expected. My love of science did not end as I came to believe in God, it was extended. Somebody who took great joy in the beauty of paintings who discovered that there was also a painter could rejoice in both the painting and the painter. Before I was limited to just admiring the painter. It is a much greater and deeper joy to think about both the universe and its creator. My love of science resulted in the fact that the world is intelligible.
Most atheists actually find our lack of belief in a supernatural being makes it easier to fill our lives with meaning and joy.
Of course she doesn’t mention how she knows this and if her data is other than anecdotal. Where exactly does she get this meaning she fills her life with? In an atheistic universe meaning is only something you impose on it. There is no intrinsic meaning other than 42. One of the many things I found towards the end of my atheism was that I used many words and ideas in a way that I could not really defend. The words good, meaning, rights, etc were societal conventions and societal devices that could ultimately make no claims on me other than what I decided for myself. Something is generally agreed upon might be well worth looking at, but it can make no moral demands on you if there is morality other than a subjective one.
Since we don’t believe in an afterlife, many of us find ourselves more motivated to make the most out of the time we do have instead of looking to the next life to make us happy.
Again a generality that probably can’t be supported. Going from atheism to theism did not affect my motivation for making the most out of time. I did not suddenly decide that I could stop making the most out of time now that I believe in an afterlife. Besides the whole phrase “making the most out of time’ is pretty subjective. Is somebody traveling the world and constantly dong things making more out of time than a nun in a contemplative order?
Sometimes you hear of a Jewish person who converts to the Catholic faith saying that they did not leave behind their Judaism but completed it. All of those natural joys and virtues I enjoyed as an atheist were not left behind, but completed and heaped upon. Ironic that in her myth-debunking post that she asserts that believers just look to the next life to be happy. This is really usually a both/and situation unless your St. Bernadette*. When I think upon Heaven, I don’t think “well I can hardly wait for the afterlife to be happy and I will just have to need trudging along until then.” What I do know that gives me great joy is that God has made me for himself and even though my imaginative abilities to conjure the reality of Heaven are woefully lacking; I totally know that God will give me joy and happiness also in the next life. Many atheists would call this wish fulfillment and a crutch, but that there is a reality that matches the desire in my heart is not some cosmic joke and if a crutch helps me walk straighter and to obtain that joy – all the better.
I just wish my “wish fulfillment” didn’t bring me to belief in hell and the real possibility that I could reject God. That my “wish fulfillment” didn’t wish for a hundred or more Lents to work on my sins and to be able to grow in virtue. Darn that “wish fulfillment” for putting a crimp in my style and keeping me from just going after individualistic pleasures. Us believers really need to work on our “wish fulfillment” since we come up with such downers like repentance and all that. Some might critique atheism as a sort of “wish fulfillment” of there not being ultimate consequences to actions, but this would be as equally untrue to the majority as the counterclaim.
* I say this jokingly because of the famous quote from the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette “I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next.”.