Following news of an unfortunate health problem with the family of a mutual friend of ours, John Wilson
struggles to understand how atheists cope with these situations.
I mean this in as sincere a way as I can muster: what does someone who does not believe in God do with pain and death? Having a degree in Philosophy ensures that I have had and continue to get an earful of why evil means that God does not exist but not one time have I heard a good explanation from the other side as to the meaning of it.
I can pray for my friend and for his wife. I can pray for them both. I can offer up petitions and beg for her health. And maybe I am painting the ceiling with air. Maybe nothing is listening to me but my distant cousin, the cockroach. Then I am only participating in some art form handed down by some gene. Or my brain uses it to provide some societal function.
Do my prayers work? Are they mine that work or someone else's? I don't know. I don't need to know. A positive answer or a negative one does not change the fact that either way that pain is redeemed. And none of this solves anything.
And yet...I can pray.
A Christian can pray, sure.
An atheist can weep. Lacking any god-belief does not imply a lack of human empathy. The pain that occurs in the lives of others cuts us to the quick as surely as it does any believer, but we don't have access to the anaesthetic of concepts like divine providence or provenance, having given them up to avoid the unhealthy side effect of accepting life's blows like a battered wife. Human pain caused by natural happenstance is no less tragic, but is decidedly less masochistic than the alternative.
An atheist can act. Whether that be organizing the friends and family of a sick person to provide for their needs in times of trouble, or working diligently to find a cure for whatever horrible illness has befallen his or her fellow human, being an atheist means that you know that the here and now are what count, and no other agent can be counted on to intercede when things go sour. Being an atheist means that the onus of responsibility is on oneself, instead of being impotently projected outward.
An atheist can comfort. Although trememdous progress can be made by human efforts, nothing is ever complete. Even the latest and most advanced medications have a failure rate. Once everything humanly possible has been done, an atheist knows that the ultimate moral value is happiness, and tends it like a delicate flower. Not every disease can be cured, but even though our days are finite, if they are filled with happiness, they can be precious to us nonetheless. An atheist knows that its limitations make life special, just as the fleeting beauty of a rose blossom is something to be anticipated, enjoyed, and remembered.