On this blog I’ve written relentlessly about atheism and explained why I’m an atheist. I always assumed that religion exists primarily because of indoctrination from an early age, and because people have a natural predisposition to believe in the supernatural. Our need to explain the world in terms of narrative leads us to suppose that random events happen for a reason, and so we get sucked down an intellectual rabbit hole.
However, fellow blogger, Mike from Self Aware Patterns, has told me on more than one occasion that atheism is, in his words, “emotionally expensive.” I felt this was a patronising opinion, rather akin to how people used to think that women wouldn’t want to vote, because it would worry their pretty little heads. But I respect Mike a lot, and so I listened to what he had to say, and I mulled it over for a while. Then suddenly I had an epiphany. In a flash I understood why so many people find real value in religion.
It’s about security, confidence and motivation, I think. In a godless world, things happen for a reason, but they often appear to be arbitrary. If your crops are ruined by bad weather, there’s a reason why it happened, but it might just seem random and cruel, as if nature is a mighty force waiting to crush our tiny lives (which it is, of course.) If we believe that God causes events for a reason, then even though we might not understand that reason, we can take come comfort that it’s all part of a grand plan. We might even be able to think of a reason (God is angry with us because …) and do something about it. Whereas the atheist shrugs at disaster, the devout has a plan of action and some reasonable confidence that God can be placated.
I realise that this is an over-simplification, and that many people have far more subtle relationships with God. But the idea that there’s a plan, or some kind of intention behind events, must be comforting.
Religion also confronts head-on that most terrifying of questions – what happens to us when we die? It gives us a certain answer, and even suggests a plan of action for how to approach death.
Religion is a tool for amplifying faith. We need faith to believe in religion, and in return it gives us back more faith, more confidence in our beliefs. Even though that belief may be false, it has power. The science presenter, Neil de Grasse Tyson, once said that the best thing about science is that it works even if you don’t believe it. Perhaps the best thing about religion is that it works if you do believe it.
Maybe Gandhi was thinking along these lines when he wrote that all religions are true.
Imagine that you can say a prayer, or make a sacrifice, or change your behaviour in some way, and just know deep inside that God will be on your side. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You would have the confidence to do anything.
After all, confidence doesn’t depend on being right. It depends on believing that you’re right. And religion offers that belief, especially if you belong to a community that reinforces and encourages you in your beliefs. That’s a very powerful force indeed.
Without that confidence that God is on your side, life is much more of a struggle. You have to wonder if you have the right tools to succeed, if you planned carefully enough, if you’re the right person for the job, or if your goal is even the right one. You have to dig deep inside to find the courage to go on.
I realise that this is another over-simplification, and that religious people have plenty of doubts too, but I also recognise that religion can be a source of hope in people’s lives. More than that – it can be a powerful motivational force for good.
I imagine that Christians must view atheists rather like flies. We buzz around their head, annoyingly droning on. You swat us away, but we just keep coming back. In any case, what use to a Christian is a discussion about the existence of God, when you speak to Him daily through prayer? Why dig into shortcomings of the Bible when you find it a useful working document that guides you through the trials and hardships of life? In a way, atheists and Christians aren’t even addressing the same questions.
When controversial Christian blogger, Kenneth Justice, wrote that atheism is a failure because it offers people no hope, I had literally no idea what he was talking about. I thought it was one of the most stupid things I had ever read. Giving hope was never the goal of atheism. Atheism won’t fix your love life or help to cut your energy bills either. But now I get it. Atheism doesn’t offer hope in the sense that Kenneth talks about. It’s not in its nature. But people need hope. They need something to power them through the day, and guide them through life. Atheism doesn’t offer that. It never tried to. So maybe Kenneth was right when he said that atheism fails to offer an emotionally fulfilling alternative to religion.
We have to look beyond mere atheism if we want motivation. But that’s another story.
For now, I’m content to admit that I was wrong, and that my understanding has deepened. Feel free to tell me that I’m still wrong, of course. I’m always listening.