"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 11 June 2012

To what do atheists appeal in adversity?

Following on from my last post, in his interview with Ed Miliband, Eddie Mair also asked him how, as an atheist, he coped with adversity. Miliband's response was that he relied on his friends and family, but that during particularly stressful times, during his father’s illness for example, he found himself thinking, “if there is a God …”
This is the kind of thing that leads cynical theists to argue that there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’ but I think Ed Miliband’s reaction is perfectly natural and doesn’t point to any ‘god shaped hole’ in his or any other atheist’s psyche.
We all find ourselves at the mercy of events over which we feel powerless, either because we genuinely cannot effect the outcome or we have not thought of a way that we could. As a species we have evolved to assume agency and see patterns in random events, as in our hunter-gatherer past assuming lack of agency (no lions in the rustling grass?) was likely to end messily. This tendency to apophenia may well be foundational to religion, but it is not a trait to which atheists are immune so it is no surprise that we make emotional appeals to fate when we feel at its mercy. If our thoughts do turn to gods it is culturally driven and for most ‘God’ is a shorthand abstraction for ‘I’m metaphorically keeping my fingers crossed that events over which I have no control turn out favourably.’
Like a gambler ineffectually blowing on the dice, or prayers from the faithful blowing in the wind, appeals to fate of any description are ultimately futile but we all seem hard-wired to make them anyway in one fashion or another. However, the realisation that we are largely at the mercy of random events can be strangely liberating. After all, if there really were a God to answer prayers and grant our wishes, we’d have a lot more to worry about when those prayers weren’t answered, as they often aren’t. We would have to worry that we were ‘out of favour’ or in some way unworthy of divine benefaction which would then make the unwanted outcome in some way our fault and we would have to add guilt to our already burdened lives (Catholics take note). I’m aware that the usual apologetic for the apparent fickleness of God’s response to prayer is that he “moves in mysterious ways”. However, his “mysterious way”, less than  mysteriously, looks a lot like the dumb luck it really represents.
There is I believe more comfort in the realisation that there are some things in life you cannot effect and that these are rarely anybody’s fault least of all our own. That the universe does not, in the final analysis, care one jot about us is, to me, more appealing than the idea of a ‘caring’ god that doesn’t actually behave as though it cares. This puts me in mind of The Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
Which even if God is not on hand to do the granting is at least a mindset worth cultivating if you are indeed an atheist in adversity.

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