Where are the honest atheists?
Oh look, another article full of anti-atheist straw men. It is not possible to produce an argument against atheism that wasn't old before any of us were born, but they do keep trotting them out whenever someone publishes a book.
One of these days I'll catalog them. My favorite is the one I call the "I didn't get a pony for my birthday" argument: that's the one I frequently hear from the very religious who are convinced that every atheist actually knows that God exists, but we're just angry at him for one reason or another, so we pretend not to believe to spite him.
Most anti-atheist arguments are either projection or outright logical fallacies. Damon Linker's argument, above, is not really new, but I admit he's put an interesting spin on it, so I'll call it the Lovecraft Argument: basically, he is saying that atheism is, if true, a horrible and bitter truth that must necessarily leave atheists terrified and alone in the face of an uncaring universe.
He starts with another common logical fallacy:
It's quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.
This is the "Church makes people behave argument," often formulated with slightly greater sophistication in anthropological terms to argue that humans, at least at some point in their cultural evolution, need religion in order to become civilized. Even some atheists believe this — supposedly, we "needed" religion in the past but now we can chuck it because we don't need fear of gods to make us behave. Except they figure some people still do need fear of gods to make them behave, hence the argument that religion is a net good if it gives less morally-grounded people a reason not to go on killing sprees or steal old peoples' pensions. I haven't ever seen any evidence that those who are inclined to do such things are much impeded by religious beliefs, but I suppose now and then fear of hellfire might have deterred a few sins. Whether this makes up for the negatives religion brings into the picture is a much longer debate. So, getting back to Mr. Linker:
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
He then goes on to cite Nietzsche, Camus, and other buzzkills as examples of "honest" (and miserable) atheists. (As opposed to super-religious rays of sunshine like Leo Tolstoy.) How can you possibly find joy and meaning in life if God didn't make you a special immortal snowflake who is more important than every other not-human atom in the universe? How can you face the stark terror of knowing you're going to die if there isn't a light at the end of a tunnel on the other side?
It's actually not that hard. I will not claim to have invested a lot of thought into formulating a complicated philosophical reason d'être for myself as a bulwark against the apprehension of my own mortality, because I honestly do not feel any existential angst about not having a continued existence after I die, nor do I need to believe in an afterlife in order for what I do and experience now to have meaning.
To reject religion does not merely entail facing our finitude without comforting illusions. It also involves the denial of something noble. It is perfectly fitting, Larkin seems to say, for an atheist to lament his lack of belief in a God who bestows metaphysical meaning on the full range of human desires and experiences.
You only lament it if you felt a need for a "metaphysical" meaning for your desires and experiences. There is no reason why you should feel such a need.
Now, do I see the attraction of believing there is a benevolent omnipotent deity who loves each and every one of us individually? And that after we die, it will be Board Games Night forever in heaven? Or less flippantly, that all the horrible, evil things that happen in this world, all the misery and pain and suffering that no human agency can ever end, all the injustice that can never be addressed, will somehow be made right? That there is justice in the universe and we aren't just allotted a random portion of good and bad over which we have no control and no appeal? Of course I see the attraction. It's a very pleasant thing to believe — probably even more pleasant if your own cup of sorrow is overflowing.
But. There are lots of things I'd like to believe. I'd like to believe I am twenty years old again. I'd like to believe I have super powers. I'd like to believe the economy will start booming this year and global warming will turn out to have been a big mistake — those silly scientists!
The fact that it would be very comforting to believe something is not an argument to believe it.
If that makes me seem like a gloomy gus, per Damon Linker's argument, I can assure you that believing in god wouldn't make me particularly more optimistic. I know plenty of cheerful atheists, though, and an awful lot of bitter and miserable religious folks. It's pretty self-evident that religion is no balm for most people, and lack of it does not, in fact, bring nihilism and despair to those who have faced the awful truth.
tl;dr version: Damon Linker is a wanker.