Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What Does An Atheist Do?

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.

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At 11/13/2007 9:59 AM, Blogger Doug Indeap declaimed...


Basically, as normal, caring, empathetic people, atheists can and do offer their troubled brethren the sorts of help and comfort offered by religious folks except for the fairy tales.

At 11/13/2007 10:27 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...


I don't mean to imply that Christians just pray and don't do anything practical at the same time- it's just that the tone of John's question suggested that the Christian response (prayer) was without an atheistic counterpart.

In a sense, he's right- we don't pray. But I also wanted to make it clear that just because we don't pray, it doesn't mean that we have no response to tragedy.

At 11/13/2007 12:04 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

Great post Zach.

I especially like the ACTS part.
A theist, for example, will pray for wings. An atheist, on the other hand, will invent an airplane.


At 11/13/2007 6:15 PM, Blogger Hellbound Alleee declaimed...

I often wonder what the hell people mean when they ask that.

I mean: what am I supposed to do if I don't "deal" with it? Fall apart? Die? Go insane?

Hell, it's called life. People deal. You deal or--what? Die? Praying is totally irrelevant. It's like answering: "I think about it." OKay, so? "I wish it weren't true." Fabulous.

And then the next day you get up out of bed (if you can) and continue to live. You don't really have a choice. You can try to end your life, but as Francois always says, you can't choose to not exist, because not existing does not exist.

At 11/13/2007 9:05 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

The person who asks such a question must either lack all human emotions, or be retarded.

What do atheists do? What do PEOPLE do? It's called being a human being. How the hell do some people get so disconnected from reality>

At 11/14/2007 10:00 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

you can't choose to not exist, because not existing does not exist

My brain hurts now.

At 11/14/2007 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...


I have to say that I am disappointed with this post.

I highly respect and appreciate all of Zach's work, but I would think he would know better than to lump all atheists together. Both John and Zach go beyond just what atheists and Christians actually do to saying what Christians and atheists should do. All Christians should pray, but not all atheists should weep, act, or comfort. There is no dogma for atheists, unless you qualify the lack of belief that is inherent in atheism's definition. There are atheists from all walks of like and each deal with these issues in very different ways.

I lost my other uncle this week (both died within 6 months of each other this year). It makes my second funeral I have went to as an atheist. I did everything exactly the same as before, except the religious stuff. Yes, I wept, acted, and comforted, but not because I am an atheist. It was because I was human and these are things I did already, even before I became a Christian in the first place.

Anyways, I am sure Zach understands what I am getting at.

At 11/15/2007 10:16 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...


An excellent point, of course.

My use of the indefinite article made my statements broader than I really intended them to be.

Atheism, as you recognize, doesn't tell people what they should do. Strictly speaking, it's my adherence to metaphysical naturalism and the moral theory that I've advocated here that results in the actions I described.

There's a simple way to modify the post without changing my original meaning, and I'll do that now.

At 11/20/2007 7:45 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

I’m in a crabby mood, so I feel the need to expound on the dark side.

An atheist can ignore. S/he can adopt the attitude, “It’s no one I know,” or “Can’t see it from my yard.” The only thing an atheist can’t do is rationalize away that callousness by believing that the person/group in question somehow “deserved” their fate by not belonging to (insert name of true faith here), or by somehow pissing off the invisible uber-alpha. Other rationalizations may apply.

An atheist can abdicate. S/he can decide, right or wrong, that it’s someone else’s problem. The only thing an atheist can’t do is decide it’s up to some magical creature to fix the problem, and set about attempting to cajole that being into desired action through prayer.

An atheist can gloat. Gloating over someone else’s misfortune almost always means that the atheist in question is also an asshole. Possible exceptions to this rule apply when the person suffering the misfortune is a heinous asshole themselves, or the atheist in question is seriously emotionally damaged.

An atheist can accept. If the person suffering is having heart failure due to years of improper diet and lack of exercise, or dying from smoking-related illness, the atheist can accept this as a reasonable consequence of the lifestyle. That’s not to say that there won’t be empathy, or pain at the thought of impending loss. The only thing an accepting atheist won’t do is ask meaningless questions like, “Why me/us?” This also can apply to less understandable illnesses if the accepting atheist understands the meaning of statistical probability.

“Do my prayers work? Are they mine that work or someone else's? A positive answer or a negative one does not change the fact that either way that pain is redeemed.”

There’s so much wrong with that statement I don’t know where to start. Suffice it to say, the last thing I redeemed was a coupon for

At 11/21/2007 1:15 PM, Blogger SouthLoopScot declaimed...

You've demonstrated that we atheist have the same ability Xians do.(we are human after all) And we don't need a sky daddy to prompt us to be empathetic or supportive of someone who is suffering.

At 12/04/2007 11:53 PM, Blogger Savedbygrace declaimed...

First I would like to say, Christians do not need to be prompted by God to show human emotions. When someone is in suffering we have the same reaction an atheist would. The difference is that we offer up prayer to God to help them in a time of need. Leave the situation in God's hands. For those who are atheists, I have a question. What do you have to lose by believing in God? Life is so short, why not guarentee the possibility of eternal life. Our time on the earth is like a grain of sand in the ocean compared to eternity.

At 12/19/2007 4:13 AM, Blogger Johnny declaimed...

Firstly Zach really good blog, and good post got here through Australian Atheist Foundation forum, someone put up a link in response to the same situaton. Prayer is one of the most assinine propositions, it suggests, because some prayers go unanswered whilst others seem to be answered, (this from a being who knows everything and always has) that there is some sort of criteria god uses to "save" some and not others. With all rationalisations about god xtians and other deluded have to do the reverse extrapolation, they have to explain the world as it is so when they all pray hard for something and it doesn't happen they can say "well god has other plans' or the one that makes me want to punch them "god works in mysterious ways" aaaarrrrgggghhh

How is it that you need to ask a being that is omniscient......anything? Does he not already know that they are in dire straits?

I have a question. What do you have to lose by believing in God? Life is so short, why not guarentee the possibility of eternal life. Our time on the earth is like a grain of sand in the ocean compared to eternity.

What a ridiculous question "savedbygrace" (I'd love to meet this Grace chick sounds like she is good at saving people, I'm not sure from what but seems like she's good at it!)
You seemingly don't understand what belief is. You must not understand your own dogma if you think we can turn belief on and off! Sure I could say I believe in god but if the skydaddy were true he would know I don't really, I can't really believe in anything unless it is conclusively shown to be true and frankly between you and me sbg you don't really have any substantial...... well anything to show the existence of anything supernatural let alone an almighty creator. I especially don't believe in one so petty that he/she/it would be so appalingly petty as to condemn those of us who simply don't believe to an eternity of excruciating agony, if there is truly such he is an absolute arsehole!!


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