The atheist’s comfort

It’s a common canard that atheists are miserable because they have nowhere to turn in times of adversity. When I first left belief behind, a feeling of helplessness did engulf me at times of great stress – when we worried something was wrong during my wife’s first pregnancy, or when I hit bone-rattling turbulence on a flight that felt like it would never end. There was a sense of being “out there,” exposed, with no celestial safety net to call out to.

But with the benefit of a little time and distance, I realize the “comfort” I derived from religion was a cold comfort indeed. The religious are consistently taught that nothing happens without a reason, that everything is ordained by their deity. “God’s plan” — that most pernicious of well-intentioned English phrases — is cavalierly whipped out when believers are at their lowest to justify and rationalize their suffering. Whatever horror befalls us, our loved ones, or even a complete stranger, we’re assured that, although we can’t know the reason, it’s all part of “God’s plan.” And that’s the best comfort religion can give us. To the question “why?”, religion answers “because Dad said so.” What we don’t accept as adequate human parenting, many gladly accept from a supposedly omnipotent deity and his prophets.

Atheist pugulist extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens, currently undergoing treatment for esophogeal cancer, has a different answer to “why?” — Why not? In a recent post at Vanity Fair, Hitchens reflects on finding himself a new citizen of “the sick country.” In a paragraph that none other could write, Hitchens lays out a view of adversity that should inspire nonbelievers everywhere:

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

That last sentence is worth repeating, and making a personal mantra:

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

This is humility. This is a proper understanding of one’s place in the universe. And it is comforting in a most profound way. Adversity strikes us all in one fashion or another. People die. Disasters happen. Jobs evaporate. In the face of such trials, are we to demand that our particular suffering be explained and justified, even by a fairy in the sky, when all suffer in some way? Or do we think beyond ourselves and view our plight from the perspective of the larger world? Do we rage against an unseen father figure, anguishing over why he would allow bad things to befall us? Or do accept that bad comes to all, and that we’re but one small part of that “all”? In a strange way, perhaps one of the most comforting thoughts we can have is best expressed by a crude bumper sticker — “shit happens.”


3 Responses to The atheist’s comfort

  1. Anna says:

    Depends on the believer’s theology.

    I know two pastors (one is a hospital chaplain and the other is also a psychologist who teaches classes on counseling) who, when people ask “Why me?”, will say, “Why not you?”

  2. Fair enough, but I’d wager their reactions are more the exception than the rule. I’ve belonged to both evangelical and catholic churches, and the “god’s plan” theme was common in both. But credit where it’s due — a theology that says “why not you?” is at least more humane than one that says “you’re suffering because god wants you to.” I wonder if the contexts in which they work don’t result in a bit more realism creeping into their theology (which is a compliment).

  3. Good post … and I enjoyed the comic up at the top.

    Growing up my family didn’t attend church much so I guess I’d label myself as a “Christian” … meaning I’m not a good Christian but I at least try and act in a good way (more a result of good parents than church).

    ANYHOW. I don’t think I ever thought much about the “it’s God’s plan” kind of stuff til college but I would agree that mess is nonsense.

    You should check out 2 books by Simon Rich. They’re just short little humor stories but he has a few about God/religion that are very smart. One of them is a baseball player thanking God, and God listens so happily while a natural disaster causes hundreds of others to die. Hm … sounds dark, but it’s very funny.

    Anyhow – good post!

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