Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Henrik Unné

My essay - "How Can an Atheist Be Happy?"

8 posts in this topic

I wrote the essay below for the Swedish Internet debate site Newsmill. It was an article in a series that I started about metaphysics. The purpose of this essay was to awaken non-philosophical readers´ interest in the subject of metaphysics, by writing about a subject that many people are interested in, and which at the same time touches a great deal on metaphysics.

When I wrote this essay I reasoned that many people out there think that atheism is OK, but that there is a problem - namely that if you don´t believe in a life after death, then you will be plagued by anxiety about the fact that one day you will die. I thought that if I used Objectivism´s rational metaphysics to answer that fallacious idea, I would demonstrate the value of a rational metaphysics. I hoped that some readers would pursue the subject of metaphysics further, for example by reading my other 6 articles in the thread that I started on metaphysics.

HOW CAN AN ATHEIST BE HAPPY?

There is a saying that goes – “There are no atheists in the foxholes.” This saying expresses a common belief – namely that if one is an atheist, and therefore does not believe in a life after death, then he must feel anxiety knowing that one day he will die.

But I, who am an atheist, am certain that my life has become much *more* happy – and free from anxiety – than it would have been if I had been religious.

Consider. What would I have done if I had chosen to be religious? First of all, I would have given up my conviction that my mind was fit to know reality. To have become religious would namely have entailed that I must have *faith*, i.e. that I must have beliefs for which I have no evidence. That would have meant that I placed my mind, and thereby my life, in the hands of the *arbitrary*. I would no longer have regarded myself as fit to *myself* check the truth of whatever I came to believe in. I would just acquire beliefs arbitrarily, on the basis of authority. But if an authority, such as the priests or the Bible or my neighbors, decided which beliefs I was to have, then that authority would have power over my life.

Would I be able to feel secure, if some authority had the power to decide what I was to believe in, and I therefore was helpless? The answer is obvious. A helpless person must in reason feel anxiety. Deep down inside anyway. I know , to be sure, that many religious persons alleviate their anxiety, by telling themselves that they can depend on their beliefs to be true just “because”. But how do they *know* that their beliefs are true? They do not have any clue to how old the Earth is, for example, since they just cling to the belief that it is 4,004 years old, merely because the Bible, according to the clerics, shows that it is.

The belief that there is an eternal life after death is just as arbitrary as the idea that the Earth is 4,004 years old. And the religious persons therefore cannot *really* be sure that they are looking forward to an eternal life. One piece of evidence for this is the fact that most religious persons show a fear of death, if they, for example, find themselves on a battlefield in a war. Just think of all the religious persons who let themselves be converted to a competing religion, “merely” because they were threatened with death if they refused to convert. Why should the threat that one might be murdered have any effect on a religious person, if he *really* believed in an eternal life after death?

No, religious persons are not at all secure, deep down inside. But the more their anxiety closes in on them, the more desperately they cling to their faith. It becomes a vicious circle. Since they do not know how to acquire objective knowledge, without blind faith, they do not experience any real feelings of security. And since they do not know how to acquire objective knowledge, they feel that they just *must* believe still harder and more blindly, when they feel that anxiety is closing in. They do not know of any other way out than blind faith, from the anxiety that their blind faith gives rise to!

I am glad that I am an atheist, and also an Objectivist. I do not believe in God. I “believe” in reality. And that gives me a solid feeling of security. I realize that reality just is what it is. I can therefore rely on it, and “trust” it. I know where I have reality, so to speak. If reality just *is*, and therefore does not have any will of its own, then it cannot choose to deceive me. I am, to be sure, fallible, but if I make an error it is ultimately my own fault, and I always have the option of finding out where I went wrong, by checking how my convictions correspond to the facts of reality. I discuss the nature of reality in my other essays in this debate thread about metaphysics. Especially my essay “The Law of Identity” is relevant, if you want to understand why I “trust” reality.

But can a religious person trust God? Well, he can *say* that he trusts God to be omnipotent, omniscient and completely good. With a really loud voice if he wants. But how does he *know* that he can trust God to be that way? He has never seen God. He has just heard about Him, in sermons in churches for example. And he has read about Him in a book, the Bible. But has it never happened that what other people have said was not true? And has it never happened that what was written in a book turned out to be spurious? So the idea that faith in God will give him a feeling of security is like a house built on quicksand. As soon as his faith for some reason begins to be afflicted with any speck of doubt, the house sinks down into the sand. And then the religious person has to redouble his efforts to just “believe” arbitrarily, in whatever he has become accustomed to believe in. And to attempt to keep the anxiety at bay, by clinging more desperately to his faith, is like trying to keep the withdrawal pangs at bay, by injecting still another dose of dope.

There are of course many non-religious people who also feel anxiety. It is not enough to lack a faith in God, in order to feel secure. One must also have some positive and rational view of the world that he believes *in*.

I am convinced that reason provides me with certain knowledge of reality. It is this realization that gives a person a genuine feeling of security. Since I am certain that I can perceive reality with my own reason, I feel into my very bone marrow that I can deal with reality. Reality is not “unreliable” in my eyes, since I am convinced that it merely is what it is, and nothing more or else.

But religious people say that there is no possibility of “hope” if facts are just facts, and they are nothing else. But what is the object of religious persons´ hope? The unreal! They just dream that they will live an eternal life in bliss after death, without any crumb of evidence to support that hope. Their reasoning is apparently – “I *want* an eternal life in bliss after death. Therefore it exists, and I am going to get it. Or at least I can *believe* that I will. And that is good enough, isn´t it?”

To build one´s feeling of security on the unreal – that is just about the most futile endeavor that he can come up with. One is trying to build a house on a void. There is nothing there to support the security.

But *my* security has a foundation. Reality. The one I live in. I learn from my experiences. And every single experience that I have tells me that I live in an objective reality. That merely is what it is.

And what other reality can exist? Can there be a reality that is invisible? If this hypothetical reality cannot be experienced, then how will we ever come into contact with it? Can death be a door into this reality? How could we, in that case, ever come to know it? How could we ever know anything about the door into something that we cannot experience? No, the belief in another reality than the one we live in is completely arbitrary, and therefore worthless. There is no value to be derived from the unreal, i.e. from that which does not exist.

Those people who seem to feel a fear of death, do not do it because they really are afraid of death. What they really are afraid of is that they are not living life while they can. There are so many people who do not put forth the necessary effort to acquire personal values, and who therefore never achieve happiness. It is not so strange that they are afraid. They are throwing away their only chance. Those people who do not develop the courage to pursue important personal values in their own lives, often try to compensate for that failing with religion. They tell themselves, roughly, - “I am, to be sure, throwing away my chance to achieve happiness in this life. But that does not matter! Because I will get another chance, in another life, after death.”

But I live my life now. I do not waste my time on daydreams about a second chance, in another life after death. And therefore I will know, when I eventually am about to die, that I made the best use of my opportunities that I could. And I will know that it was the only thing that I could do. I will not imagine that I missed out on something by not having had daydreams about an eternal life in bliss after death.

One should not waste time and energy worrying about things that he cannot do anything about anyway. I cannot do anything about the fact that I sooner or later will die. So I do not worry about it. And I also know that when I am dead, I will not miss life. I will no longer exist, so how could I miss anything? What matters is only to ensure that I do not miss out on something that was in my power to reach in the life that I have. I won´t daydream about riches in heaven, but neither will I let the values that I can achieve in this reality, before I die, slip between my fingers.

So my rational philosophy, and especially my rational metaphysics, ensures that I feel calm and secure when I deal with reality. I am a happy atheist.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Very good, Henrik. Especially the emphasizing of the positive.

Thank you.

I think that this essay of mine, is in some ways similar to my essay - "The Role of the Intellect in Production". I think that it explains an important philosophical point in a way that a layman can understand, and in a way that does not tend to offend the typical layman as much as, for example, my essay - "Hitler Was an Altruist" - is likely to do. (I write and publicize a lot of essays like "Hitler Was an Altruist" anyway, because I do not want to try to appease my enemies).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A very good essay. As previously said, I like the positive statement, and your language is very understandable for everyone. I especially like it because you make it interesting for the regular person as well for a more experienced philosophical reader. I think you're totally right on this one.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A very good essay. As previously said, I like the positive statement, and your language is very understandable for everyone. I especially like it because you make it interesting for the regular person as well for a more experienced philosophical reader. I think you're totally right on this one.

Thank you, Laars. By the way, Lars is a typical Swedish name. Are you of Swedish descent (I assume that you are an American, since most of the people here are)?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A very good essay. As previously said, I like the positive statement, and your language is very understandable for everyone. I especially like it because you make it interesting for the regular person as well for a more experienced philosophical reader. I think you're totally right on this one.

Thank you, Laars. By the way, Lars is a typical Swedish name. Are you of Swedish descent (I assume that you are an American, since most of the people here are)?

Oh, sorry Laars. Now I see that you are from the Netherlands. I should have guessed from the spelling of your name, and from the image of the Dutch flag.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, Laars. By the way, Lars is a typical Swedish name. Are you of Swedish descent (I assume that you are an American, since most of the people here are)?

Oh, sorry Laars. Now I see that you are from the Netherlands. I should have guessed from the spelling of your name, and from the image of the Dutch flag.

Haha, no problem, but Lars is a pretty common name over here too. Laars is not my first name though, it's my nickname. It's slighty differs from my last name. I know some Swedish though; Jag heter Laars. But that isn't really that hard actually.

By the way: have you any idea about the amount of Europeans on this Forum?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, Laars. By the way, Lars is a typical Swedish name. Are you of Swedish descent (I assume that you are an American, since most of the people here are)?

Oh, sorry Laars. Now I see that you are from the Netherlands. I should have guessed from the spelling of your name, and from the image of the Dutch flag.

Haha, no problem, but Lars is a pretty common name over here too. Laars is not my first name though, it's my nickname. It's slighty differs from my last name. I know some Swedish though; Jag heter Laars. But that isn't really that hard actually.

By the way: have you any idea about the amount of Europeans on this Forum?

I haven´t the faintest. Try asking Betsy. She, if anyone, should know.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0