The optimism of atheism

Miko over at MoF opened up a discussion on optimism and religion. Both sides of it (theist vs. atheist) have perspectives on this about themselves and their counterpart. Here is my take on the subject.

As a theist? Christian, I have come to understand atheism as a (mostly) healthy and optimistic shift in belief away from a very unhealthy and very ugly view of God put forth by very misguided religious groups. As a Christian, I have seen first hand and experienced how bad evangelical churches and movements can be (which I never thought possible before), and I have heard second hand (via John and Miko and others) how bad other religious groups and their dark and dismal views of God are and how that manifests itself in a religious culture and society. Miko and John’s atheistic world-view and accompanying beliefs/values to me could only be described as optimistic.

No joke – if I went though the experiences of most folks from bad religious backgrounds, I would probably be an atheist now, and I think that the true God would be pretty happy with that arrangement – it is a good way to sever ties with a belief system with so much crap that runs so deep it must be (in some cases) summarily rejected like a cancer for any healthy growth to take its place.

I say this because I hold an almost identical set of values that everyone else at MoF does – a love of science, skepticism, and doubt, a dumbfounded and deep awe of the world and universe I find myself existing in, a strong respect for human life and its continual well-being, and a strong dislike of man-made religous systems, even though there is some trace of good in them.

At the same time, I hold true Christianity to be an optimistic world view. While I have found so much pleasure and joy in life, I realize that my life has been pretty easy and without real hardship; but this is not the case for most of humanity. I want to be an agent of good and light in the world that is hurting, in all places I go and towards all people I meet. I want to leave them somehow better than if I never went there or met them. This is my true heart as long as I am alive, and it seems to be the heart of others I know as well, theist or not. I have not even mentioned the afterlife yet, but I believe it is optimistic without it, even though it is inseparable with what I believe.

But like another commenter on this subject (Rich) , I am puzzled. The way I stay closest to my true heart is by being drenched with God’s active and felt presence and spirit and with continuous communication. When I spend time with God, I am renewed – I love greater with true love, I become less selfish, more humble, more passionate, and more patient in the most tiniest details of my life that most people would never even notice. I am continually renewed and rejuvenated by the one who embodies all the values I seem to share even with my atheist friends. I become MORE skeptical, MORE hungry for truth, more hateful towards lies, blindness, false religion, and untruth as I grow closer to God.

…but how does the atheist become more patient, more loving, more humble, less selfish, more drawn to help humanity rather than use it for their own gain? Where do they go to be recharged and renewed? Where is their inspiration for a life of greater virtue? How do they fight selfishness, short patience, rage? How does one become so noble if they were not inspired in some 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-hand way from men or women who were inspired by God to be virtuous and understand the value of things in such a deep and intricate way like Rich said:

…that we are here for a reason, that our journey here is important, that we are significant, that something better can be achieved, that obedience to certain principles (commandments) that may seem counter-intuitive leads to true happiness and world peace, etc.

In other words, without the presence of the divine to inspire the greatest (Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha) to understand and be virtuous, how do we who are not like them find out about the details of virtue? Even though we may all reject the manifestations of religion we find in the world around us as being corrupted by man to a lesser or greater degree, is there not some essence of good and truth still uncorrupted there, amidst all the lies and deceit? Is not the foundation, authority, and source of virtue found where the divine is? Where else can it be found? Is it a priori knowledge within each one of us that allows us to recognize virtue when we see it?

    4 Responses to “The optimism of atheism”

    1. John Remy

      Great questions, Jonathan. I’ll be thinking about them for days. My immediate response is to say that the atheist (esp. of the humanist variety), believing in no divine source, looks to the best within humanity for inspiration. In fact, they would say that the best aspects of religion enshrine the best that humanity has to offer. It seems to me that the believer looks at the good in the world around them and points to God as the source.

      The more I learn about the diversity of cultures and our propensity to see what we want to in them, the less I feel that there is an essential, unchanging source of goodness. The highest ideals of various cultures seem to vary quite a bit over time and location especially when they are viewed on their own terms. I think that to do a proper comparison, we have to identify and then compare the core values of several cultures or religions, rather than beginning with our own values and looking for parallels in others. This would make more sense if I had an example, but I guess I’m suggesting that what seems universal or essential to us may be a product of how we choose to see the world; in order to make sure that we’re not simply projecting our values, we need to start with a methodology of comparison that would help us bypass our cultural biases. It’s late. I hope this makes sense.

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    2. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      It makes great sense! As a student of religion and psychology and to a very small degree, anthropology, I can’t disagree with you at any point. The best way to understand a culture or a people group is to see life through their eyes, not through your own with your own understanding and interpretation of it. This is why I continually try to read and understand people from cultures and backgrounds that are different than my own.

      The area of cross-cultural study that is most interesting to me is morality and virtue. I have become more aware of its use and its philosophy in video games. World of Warcraft, Bioware, and Dungeons & Dragons have thought about it or even developed a well established systems of morality and built it into their gaming worlds that affects the experience of a character. The Buddhist perspective has really entered the scene in a big way with the Start Wars movies came out (especially the last 3 movies) and has been something that has really intrigued me since it is so alien to our culture which has its morality roots in western Judeo-Christiantity.

      People choosing to be evil characters has always been a debate with me and others – that anonymity brings out a person’s true nature. How they choose to behave and act when no one is looking, even in a role-playing situation, is a good picture of who they really are.

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    3. Johnny


      Excellent Post. I really like your site, and I am going to link to it!


      and keep up the good work.

      Reply to this comment.
    4. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Thanks Johnny!
      I’ll link to yours as well – I read it almost every day now, so might as well put a link to it from here 🙂

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