“Atheists have no hope.”
Of all the slanders and misrepresentations told about atheists and atheism, this is… well, this is the one I’m thinking about right now.
I’m thinking about it because of something I just read. It was in Doris Zine #26 by Cindy Ovenrack, and… well, here’s what it said.
“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she is a restaurant manager and we’d never really talked about politics at all, but something came up and she said, ‘Atheism and anarchist theory were the first things that gave me any hope in this world. They were the things that said we had the power within us to make things better. Everything else said we were either evil or helpless to fate.'” (Emphasis mine.)
Typically, when atheists respond to the accusation that we have no hope, our response is something along the lines of, “We do so!” Which is a perfectly fair response, one I myself have made before and will make again. We point out that there are many things to hope for other than immortality (which we believe to be a false hope). And we list all the things we have hope for. We hope that our book will get published, that our children will go to college, that global warming will get handled before it’s too late. We hope that our friend’s cancer is treatable. We hope that a reasonably sane and intelligent person will be elected President in 2008. We hope to be remembered after we die.
And I’ve always felt a rumble of both irritation and pity when I hear this no-hope accusation, a rumble that sounds something like this: “Do you really have no hope for anything other than eternal life? Is your life really so pathetic that you have no hope for anything other than Heaven? Does your life — the actual life that you’re living right now — have so little joy and meaning that you can’t imagine any hope without the promise that, when it’s finally all over, you’ll get to have another, better, permanent life at the end of it?”
But then I remember:
Maybe the answer is Yes. That’s true. They really do have no hope for this life.
I remember, among other things, that rates of atheism are much higher in countries with higher levels of prosperity and social health… and that rates of religious belief are much higher in countries that are riddled with poverty, oppression, and despair.
Now, if the person making the accusation is some yahoo on the Internet, then I feel perfectly free to indulge in my irritation and snark. If you have the time and leisure to be reading atheist blogs, then you have the time and leisure to make something of your life. This life, I mean. The one you actually have.
But for many people, it’s not so easy.
Which is why I was so struck by Cindy Ovenrack’s comment above.
And I am reminded:
For many people, religion does not offer hope.
For many people, religion offers helplessness, and self-hatred, and despair.
And for many of those people, atheism offers a way out of it.
Atheism doesn’t just offer the regular sort of everyday hope, the hope for achievement and health and happiness and a better world. Atheism offers, as Cindy’s friend put it, the hope that we have the power within us to make things better. Not the hope that we might be able to convince some moody, capricious, punitive, easily- ticked- off God to make things better for us if we walk on the eggshells just right. It offers the hope that no such God exists… and therefore we don’t have to worry about what he thinks or what he’s going to do. And that we therefore don’t have to listen to religious leaders and teachers who tell us at every step that we’re bad people, that we’re powerless to make ourselves better, that all the power we think we have actually belongs to someone else.
Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.
And that’s a pretty big hope.