Susan Jacoby wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes called, "The Blessings of Atheism," in which she argues that atheists need to move away from "defensive" campaigns asserting that you "can" be "good without God," and move towards a more positive vision of what the atheist worldview has to offer.
I agree with her.
But I don't think she does a very good job.
So I want to try.
I want to try because I live happily, every day, in a world that does not contain a deity, and it is, from what I can see, a much happier place than the worlds inhabited by others that do contain a deity. Sometimes this is a coincidence, of course. And sometimes it seems the causation is reversed (a difficult life has led the person to need a consoling/explicatory narrative, true or not, which makes life feel worth living). But often it seems to me that the causation works in the other direction: that believing in the deity is harming them, is making them miserable; meanwhile, it is precisely my deity-free world that has enabled me to experience many of the things that religions claim to offer -- like a throbbingly powerful sense of the transcendent, precious, near-magical beauty of life itself, for example.
Let's talk about death. Let's say some total jackhole decides to murder some children. This worthless sack of crap gets a gun, goes to a school, and shoots and kills children. This is horrific. This is crushing. Those deaths are horrible deaths. There are no words. Those deaths require dramatic displays of emotion, of political action, of everything we can muster. We are not going to forget or "get over" those deaths. Injustice. Atrocity. Pain. Anguish. Howling in our hearts, long into the night.
Now, let's say some disease decides to murder 50,000 children a year. This horrible disease alters the DNA of the children, so they're born with a progressively degenerating muscular system. The kids will be mentally sharp -- more so than average, actually -- so they'll understand everything that's happening to them. The children will live short, painful lives, unable to run and play or even talk -- unable at the end to even smile at their mothers, whom they love.
The first situation, the guy with the gun, is much more horrible to us -- just look at how society reacts. The disease, we are more willing and able to understand and accept -- and, through reason and science, do something about. We're working on curing it, doing everything we can -- and someday we'll have a cure, and children will no longer have to suffer and die like this. Until then, here is the truth: hundreds of sweet, beautiful children died of Spinal Muscular Atrophy today, but you don't know their names, their faces, and you never will. Instead you know the names and faces of the children murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, because that was horror, that was atrocity.
Numbers of human lives lost aside. Length of suffering aside. Degree of pain aside. It's worse when someone does it on purpose.
(Please don't mistake me here: I am not suggesting we should be just as upset about children dying of SMA or that we should be less upset about children murdered by jerks with guns -- I'm just pointing out the reality of our experience: it hurts us worse when we know it's on purpose.)
To a theist, any theist, the world is in the hands of the guy with the gun. Everything that happens is at some level on purpose. In the extreme forms of this madness, every tragedy -- a mass murder or a hurricane -- is "God's wrath," retribution for not sufficiently persecuting gay people, or some other asinine thing. But even for the normal non-extreme religious person, this means that every bad thing that happens contains a measure of agony that wears on the believer -- in a way that cannot be met even by tragedies that objectively do far, far more damage in the world, to a non-believer. Only a believer can ask, in honesty and anguish, why do bad things happen to good people? As though being good should get you out of bad things.
As an atheist, I care deeply about curing diseases and stopping mass murderers -- especially deeply because I know that those children (whether shot or smothered by their own DNA), do not still exist (in "heaven" or whatnot), they are gone, and their loss is a pure loss, without consolation, forever and never to be undone. But these occurrences do not stress me in the way they would if I believed they were happening under the watchful eye of an intentional, omniscient god. Instead, I understand these occurrences as the results of influences, events, available actions, and random chance. They still suck, they're still sad, and we damn well better do something about them! But they're not on purpose.
To a theist, every victim of accident or disease is a victim of a mindful, purposeful God with a cruel and heartless "grand plan" that does not make exceptions for the pain and suffering of innocent babies -- it is a plan that may in fact require the pain and suffering of innocent babies. And while I've used as my example the most terrible thing I could think of -- the death of a child -- this concept applies to every little thing that happens in life. This is a universe of belief, a whole way of seeing the world, and it's one that causes believer undue stress and torment. It's a way for bad luck to cause existential struggles, for blind chance to cause howling in their hearts, long into the night.
But the clearest and most direct benefit of atheism is the one that Jacoby does nail in her essay, and that is that "the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth."
Now of course I'm not the first person to point out that most people don't seem to really believe in an afterlife anyway: people who genuinely believed in life after death would not mourn the deaths of children they don't know at all -- they'd just say, oh how nice that little so-and-so got to go to heaven early! And people who mourn the deaths of kids they know would be regarded as selfish -- hey, man, I know you miss little Jessica, but she's with Jesus, and you'll see her soon, you selfish sourpuss!!
But the very common half-belief in an afterlife -- the illusion of eternity we carry with us, allowing us to live our lives unmindful of our short time here -- that is a very harmful thing. Awareness of the shortness and fragility of life -- and of the fact that once it is gone it is gone forever -- is the key to living a full and happy life. Once we understand that every moment is precious, we're more likely to start treating every moment as precious -- to become more understanding and forgiving (because we don't have time to dick around with stupid arguments and endless grudges), to say yes to the rare and beautiful opportunities that arise in life, to live in the moment instead of rushing on to the next thing.
This is not to say that there aren't happy religious people. There are. But I, personally, would be miserable if I believed in a god. If I believed in a god, I would have to believe in a jerky god, a real asshole who doesn't care about anything or anyone. If I believed in such a creature, I'd refuse to have anything to do with it. I'd feel morally superior to it. I'd say, "throw me in your hell, you cretin -- I'd rather suffer forever than be aligned with a big old jerk like you. Because if I play along with your game and try to win your favor, I'm just as bad as you -- who has the power to end suffering but does not." Well that would be terrible, to be stuck believing anything like that. Even worse would be to believe and decide to toady up to this awful creature, trying to win the rewards it promises, trusting in its authority in defiance of evidence and one's own moral sense. I can think of no worse form of moral corruption. A person so compromised would have no moral center, no idea what to think. Unless told. (Shiver.)
Fortunately I'm a realist-atheist, living in a godless universe, and I am very happy. Life goes well, and when it doesn't, it doesn't, but the elements of chance that intervene in things are not on purpose, and don't unduly bother me. Those things I can control and make better, I do. Existence is amazing and precious and beautiful -- and mysterious, but mysterious with the promise of scientific discovery along the way -- and it's all the more beautiful for arising from the cosmic dust without a guiding hand, without a plot or plan, just physical things interacting over inconceivable expanses of time to create complex beings that are more than the sum of their parts, who are the universe of matter regarding itself and saying, wow: let's figure this shit out.