Have you ever felt wretched, just sick to your stomach, over how you’ve hurt someone else? I want to talk about how atheism deals with these experiences. (Please notice how I define atheism).
At a time in my life when I should have known better, I put myself in this position. I decided to start dating someone because I was insecure and she really liked me. It meant lying to myself, and more particularly, misleading her. I led her to believe that I liked her when I didn’t, thinking it would be pretty cool to date someone who was really into me. I was so wrong. We broke up soon after we started dating, and the rejection was really painful for her. And there was no way around it: I was entirely responsible. It was a terrible realization: my immaturity and selfishness directly led to someone else feeling really bad, for a long time afterwards. And worse, there was very little I could do to make it better. “I’m sorry” didn’t fix much.
I’m curious – and I want to understand – when we are the evildoers, where is the hope for atheism? Think through it for yourself: What have you done to get money? To get sexual pleasure? To be in power? Anything you don’t want others to know about? Any bad habits that you just can’t break?
How does atheism account for these experiences of addiction, wrongdoing, shame and guilt? Here is how Richard Dawkins explains suffering:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
To summarize: our suffering comes from our genetics, our environment, a social equilibrium that tends towards misery, and random accidents.
How do we put this explanation together with the haunting, nagging realization, ‘I myself am responsible for great suffering in someone else’s life’? Well, we can recall that “The natural state” is one of “starvation and misery.” So, in the big scheme of things, the suffering we caused is pretty ordinary, pedestrian, unremarkable. We can blame our selfish genes. We can notice that the universe itself exhibits a “pitiless indifference” and choose to imitate its unconcern for our hurting neighbor. We can remember that morality is merely a social convention, relative and adjustable as we see fit, and lower our standards until we no longer feel guilty about anything.
Does this work? Aren’t we still left with the very real feeling of great guilt? Don’t we still experience a deep-seated shame that sticks to us no matter how long we shower, or sleep, or drink, or see a counselor? And don’t we still find ourselves helpless and frustrated beyond understanding that, sometimes, we keep doing things that we know to be really wrong, really hurtful to others? Don’t the attempts to explain it away feel false and empty?
I think one of the most agonizing components of atheism is the hopelessness: no hope for avoiding personal selfishness, no hope for our guilt and shame, no hope for a reduction in the amount of suffering in the world, no hope for justice, no hope for an explanation. When it comes to our own, very personal acquaintance with evil, atheism can only offer us despair.