The “comfort of religion”
We atheists are often reminded that religion is “comforting”. Sometimes, even other atheists will ask; “Why would you want to take away the comfort other people find in religion?”. It’s a valid question, and the answer varies by the individual. Personally, I don’t. If the religious would kindly keep their mythology out of the state house, I have no issue at all. Believe what you like, if you can. *
Fear of death
Many atheists assume this comfort refers to the promise of eternal life. Christians promote this view by asking us; “Where are you going to spend eternity?” This is both popular and biblical: “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?”
Welcome to the afterlife
Me, I don’t believe in an afterlife. In fact, I find the concept terrifying. Hell, if it existed, would be an unspeakable horror. But heaven is not much better. Spend eternity osculating the derriere of a bronze-age tyrant? No thanks. For that matter, name any activity you’d like to do for all eternity. Take all the time you need.
OK, so what else is comforting in religion? Intercessory prayer.
I’ll pray for you
The meaning of “I’ll pray for you” varies by context. When you are disagreeing with someone, it means; “Go To Hell” (at least, in the South). But when someone you love is hurting, that’s a different story. Empathy can be painful.
Sometimes I think prayer was invented just to address the feeling of helplessness that we have when our beloved friends and family members are suffering, and we can’t actually do anything to help. I encounter this nearly every day, and “You are in my thoughts” doesn’t convey what I feel.
Love is sometimes defined as the state of mind in which another person’s happiness has become essential to your own. And when the prospects of the other person’s happiness are sparse or nonexistent, we desperately want to do… something. Maybe we don’t care so much what happens to us in some mythical afterlife, but it’s a different story for our loved ones.
You have a friend with cancer, or who has no place to live. A loved one whose child is ill, or addicted to drugs, or in jail. And you can’t do a damn thing except watch your friend or your relative suffer.
Lead us not into temptation
It is tempting to believe in something because it would make a more comfortable universe. And when I say “tempting” I mean just that – a real temptation. I’d like very much to believe that I could appeal to a greater power on behalf of my friends, my family. But the trouble is, I don’t believe in that greater power. No amount of wishful thinking on my part can conjure it up.*
I wish I could pray for the victims of the Charleston shooting. I wish I could pray for friends with cancer, or facing homelessness, or struggling with some tragedy in their family. But, to whom would I pray?
What’s an atheist to do?
This explains why an atheist might be willing to be a soldier, or an aid worker, or a school teacher, and why there are secular aid foundations like Foundation Beyond Belief. Not everything matters just because of “eternity”. In fact, the relentless focus of religion on eternity cheapens human suffering now. When you don’t believe some deity is going to step in and make it right…
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- “Believe what you like, if you can” refers to the fact that belief is usually not volitional. If you think about it. Once you believe something, you can’t just stop believing it because you don’t like it. Or believe something just because the implications of that belief would be in your favor.
- More than a few marriages have been scuttled by the sense that, when one speaks, there’s no one listening. Ask a hundred atheists, and probably thirty of them will say that they prayed, but there was no evidence anyone was listening.
- When I speak of God, it is in the same voice I use to speak of Batman. As in; “Batman would never sing Kum-By-Yah”, it is ‘factual’ within the framework of the myth.
- I think some people believe non-existence would be somehow painful. But as far as I can tell, I didn’t exist at all for the last 14 billion years, and I wasn’t inconvenienced by it. When I stop existing (as all the evidence at my disposal suggests will be the case), there’ll be no “me” to worry about it. If death wants to frighten me, it will have to do better than that.