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ON THE OTHER HAND: Atheism’s dilemma


Peter Laurie

ON THE OTHER HAND: Atheism’s dilemma

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Is Barbados going atheist? Hardly.
But here’s the paradox: most atheists I know are more committed ethical persons than Christians are.  
All the same, most atheists, including the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, find themselves in a dilemma.
I say most, because some atheists are simply indifferent to the larger question of the meaning of life, intellectually lazy, or scarred by some unfortunate encounter with religion in one form or another.  
The dilemma is this: on the one hand, if science “proves” there is no God, then it also “proves” there’s no basis for attributing any special significance to the animal known, rather immodestly, as Homo sapiens. Science can only tell us that humans are an animal like any other.
We live in a “dog-eat-dog” world, so let’s not pretend that right is other than might, or that humans are concerned with anything other than gratifying the desire for self-preservation, food and sex.
If science debunks God, it also debunks love, art, freedom – everything we humans cherish as essential to life. Science can tell us much about the world around us, but very little about the meaning of life.
If you wish to claim, as secular humanists like Dawkins and existentialists like Sartre do, that humans are special, and we ought to be committed to making life meaningful and ethical through better scientific understanding and through our intellectual and artistic achievements, then we do so as an act of faith. None of the preceding follows rationally from a chance universe in which humans are a random outcome.
I admire secular humanists, not only because I share their humanism, but because I find their act of faith extraordinarily courageous in the face of meaninglessness – my favourite French writer and philosopher of the absurd, Albert Camus, comes to mind.
The quest for meaning is an enduring human universal. Most of us try to find and bring meaning to life. But to do so from any perspective requires a leap of faith in the sense that we assert some value to life without having any scientific basis for doing so. Of course, most atheists do not think of themselves as acting out of faith. The very word is anathema.
Atheists try to use science to debunk religion by arguing that religion is superstition and that belief in a god is merely the persistence of an immature phase of human development – one that science is rapidly bringing to an end.  
They claim that science shows religion to be a man-made illusion. If by “man-made illusion” is meant that religion is a social construct, of course it is. But then so is art, philosophy, ethics, love, and everything we value as the essence of being human. So let’s not be selective. Let’s debunk everything: no need to single out religion.
Another tactic is to point out all the atrocities committed in the name of religion: the Inquisition, crusades, witch-hunts, suicide bombers and so on. Point well taken.
But there are equally numerous atrocities committed by non-believers: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea. All that proves is that human beings, religious or secular, have an infinite capacity for committing horrifying acts of brutality. So that’s a stand-off.
The crowning argument against God is that a loving and all-powerful god would never permit the terrible suffering that innocent humans undergo. Either he doesn’t give a damn, or he isn’t all powerful.
The answer is simple: God gives freedom to all creation. This means that humans may choose to do right or wrong, and nature is open to calamity and catastrophe. The alternative would be a controlled robotic universe.
We all live in faith of one kind or another.
So those of us who believe in human dignity shouldn’t waste time attacking each other.
Instead, let’s work together to dispel the wilful ignorance and shallow cynicism that too often characterise both sides of this debate.

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