Friday, 9 March 2012

Julian Baggini: life can be harsh, and atheism is about accepting that

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The Atheist Bus message was unreservedly positive. But
should the godless also face up to life's harsh realities?
In the latest instalment of his excellent Guardian series on atheism, "Heathen's Progress", philosopher Julian Baggini confronts one of the toughest questions facing non-believers – should a non-religious worldview be a positive and optimistic one, or is it important to recognise that, without God and the hope of an afterlife, the world can be a dark place and life, for many, a harsh and unrelenting struggle?

As Baggini points out, atheists, confronted with religious accusations of amorality and nihilism, have often been keen to stress the positive nature of life without God. Hence the atheist bus slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life", or attempts to rebrand with terms such as "Brights". Baggini argues that there's nothing wrong with this, but says it's important that atheists don't allow the positives to totally overshadow other, more negative realities:
"Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn't the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying everyday as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that's all there is to it. Not much bright about that fact.

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don't freely admit this, then we've betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced."
I highly recommend reading the full piece over on the Guardian site – and catching up with the rest of Baggini's series if you have the time.
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