The Blessings of Atheism


IN a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.”

This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.

The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize. When giving talks on college campuses, I used to avoid personal discussions of my atheism. But over the years, I have changed my mind because such diffidence contributes to the false image of the atheist as someone whose convictions are removed from ordinary experience. It is vital to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.

Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”

Just two years later, in 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine began the process of eradicating polio, and my mother took the opportunity to suggest that God may have guided his research. I remember replying, “Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.” (He was to die only eight years later, by which time I was a committed atheist.)

The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.

Written By: Susan Jacoby
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  1. I think the general campaign to stop mumbo jumbo would benefit by help and advice that reduces the fear of abandoning religion. The threats of consequences from the religious community need to be countered so that people see leaving religion simply as a harmless choice they make, not a potentially life threatening, risk of hellfire decision.

  2. If religios were requried to explain doG’s indifference, inaction or inability before events rather than present bizarre but cozy emotional appeals post hoc should put an end to this nonsense. They’d be less inclined to turn up afterwards playing the cozy card to emotionally distressed victims. As it is they are worse than ambulance chasers preying on the emotionally vulnerable.

  3. Ok I haven’t got to the stage where I have lost people very close to me but life has presented many trials. When I was a roman catholic , I was never uber religious , my mother was very religious but it did not pervade my everyday life. So what was the problem. The problem was damaged psychology that religion insidiously layed the ground work for. First off I used to blame other people alot and after many years of self reflection I realised that these feelings were founded on the principal that an all powerful god allowed bad things to happen to me. This was met with anger and feelings of being singled out because I did something wrong in the first place. Guilt and low self esteem would frequently spread through my conciousness leading me in unhelpful directions. I eventually realised that once I threw religion right out the door , I was a better person. When I fall on hard times now , I don’t impulsively feel that I’ve done something wrong , I take the view that shit just happens.

  4. As I type this comment I see my bookshelves just near me here in this room. On the top shelf is my well worn out copy of the book Freethinkers, written by Susan Jacoby, the author of this opinion piece above. Freethinkers was the first book I’ve ever read that states the case for Atheism and explained the historic roots of the movement. Although I was most certainly checked out of religion years before I read it, the book galvanized my thinking and whipped me into good solid intellectual shape. Later I came upon The God Delusion and God is Not Great and now, at this point, those bookshelves I mentioned are chock full of books, each one more inspirational than the last. Something that I’ll never forget is that as I finished reading the last page of Freethinkers, what I said to myself in that moment was, “I’m not alone.” This is a realization that is both sad and hopeful and powerful all at the same time.

    As Susan Jacoby says in her article here, being “out” as an Atheist can really serve as a beacon of light to others who think that they are all alone in their way of thinking. I like the idea of Atheists taking a strong role in speaking at funerals and memorial services and a couple of years ago I did speak at the memorial service of a friend. After the service, many people told me that they were so happy I shared my memories of our friend and that it was the only touching and poignant part of the whole service, the rest being just impersonal religious dogma and ritual. Now I have more confidence to come forward and speak again another time.

    If Susan Jacoby is reading this thread I’d like to say how much I like and value the books you’ve written. It’s very clear that much criticism gets thrown around very freely and easily but I think it’s important to give positive feedback too and sometimes I must remind myself of how important that really is to people who put their creations into the public domain, (something I can relate to.). I look forward to the next book as well and I hope some day you will come to Boston, MA so that I can get my books signed and thank you in person.


  5. The article is touching. You are correct when you say “We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for – including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect.”
    How can we achieve this?

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