One life: the positive message of atheism

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As an atheist I have grown tired (nay, exhausted) of being told that my world view gives me a bleak world with nothing to live for. One of the most common recourses of the religious when the epistemological battle is lost is to claim that without a god, without religion, life has no meaning, no purpose, no meaningful end. That all is just a nihilistic wasteland of Darwinian survival of the fittest with no goal at the end of the cosmic game. I am deeply offended every time I see this card played because it implies that, without something supernatural, there is nothing to the natural.

It is remarkably similar to the card the religious play in the moral argument, that without a god and an objective morality derived from a deity we would have no reason to be good. I would like to think that humans have more reason to respect each other than fear of eternal damnation and torture. In the same way I think that humanity still has hope and a source for meaning outside of theistic doctrine; one does not need to believe that an intervening god has given your life meaning but rather one can give one’s life meaning in absence of divine agency.

When you look at it in context of religious belief, atheism is the assertion that we have no reason to believe that our experience of the world continues after death; without a belief in the supernatural the one life we experience is all we have. In the same way that most of us did not experience the year 1896 we will not experience the year 2196; we are simply a passing consciousness of the world that is presented to us for the years we are alive. Atheism denies the continuation of consciousness after death and hence asserts that death is, as far as we know, the end. This one life we have is all we have.

That is the very reason that an atheist has everything to live for, rather than nothing. If you believe that this is your one shot at life, then that gives you all the more incentive to squeeze absolutely as much as you can from it as you can while you’re still here. If you believe in a Christian afterlife, an eternity spent in paradise with god after you die, then what is the point in improving the world while you’re still here, in the corporeal state in which you can actually change life for the better? What is the point in experiencing life to the full if you believe that, because of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, you will live forever? From a realist point of view, the short few decades during which we have the privilege of being conscious are all we will ever get, and if you are a responsible member of the human race then you will exploit that time to the full, and make sure that you leave your mark. Christopher Hitchens, the awe-inspiring anti-theist, summarised this perfectly with a quote from Horace Mann in his autobiography; “until you have done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die”.

If you subscribe to one of the many theist religions available, the chances are that you believe that there is a plan at work in the universe; not only that, but that you are part of it, and that you owe your life to god. Can anyone think of a more humbling theory, however, that you were created in line with the beautiful laws of nature; that your existence was an event that could quite easily not have happened in the first place; that the next few decades of the one existence you have are yours to make of what you will?

To be an atheist is to owe your life to nobody but yourself, and to experience as much as you can of life, because, in the end, that’s all you can do: live the fullest and best life you can. Secular humanist morality informs you that all your common humans are doing exactly the same thing and that encourages you to respect them and derive meaning from contributing to their struggle. I once heard an argument that turned nihilism on its head: if you believe that there is no intrinsic beauty in the world then every time you see something beautiful, you have created beauty, by means of perceiving it so.

This is an encouraging thought and can be applied directly to the issue of meaning: if there is no intrinsic, god-given meaning to life, that does not mean there is no meaning to life, it just means that we should each create a meaning of our own. A meaning that is in accordance with the respect we have for other human beings who are trying to do exactly the same thing. Religion tries to provide the answers to these questions but it is far from the only game in town, and is the least rational of all the games in town. One does not need religion to be spiritual and if one is looking for spirituality, one need not believe in the supernatural.

The world can be full of meaning, and I would encourage each of us to give it meaning; but that emphatically does not mean hedging your bets with the father, son and holy ghost, or indeed Allah or Zeus, or Odin, or any other of the gods humans have created over the years to explain their existence. We now know how we got here, we have no need for a divine explanation. Why we got here is up to us to determine, and meaning can be just as potent, if not more, without the belief in a deity and life after death. Atheists have everything to live for because we acknowledge death as what it is: the end, as far as we know.

Let us live our lives with as much love and friendship as we can, because the only way we can truly have life after death is the life we have in the memory of our family and friends, the people whose lives we have affected, and the sphere of influence we create over people while we are still here.

Life is ours to make of it what we will; don’t give it to a deity, you only get one chance. Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, says that the meaning of life is to find something bigger or more important than yourself and to devote yourself to that. That is the genuine way to carve out your own place in the story of human existence and to die feeling satisfied.

The most important thing is to realise this imperative as early as possible. There is no life after death. Make the most of your life now. It’s the only one you’ll get. And that is the positive message of atheism.

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