While exercising today I listened to a podcast of the Philosophy Talk program, "Atheism and the Well-Lived Life." The guest philosopher was Louise Antony, who edited Philosophers Without Gods -- one of whom is Ken Taylor, a regular host of the program.
For me the most interesting comment of the program came from Antony. She was asked a question by a woman in the audience that went something like this:
As an atheist, what would you say to someone who is suffering, who has serious problems?
Religion offers consolations for people who aren't having a pleasant life. Most obviously, the promise of a much better afterlife. Believe in Jesus, Allah, a guru, or some other divine being, and heaven, paradise, union with God, or such awaits you after death.
Another form of religious consolation comes from being told that there's a reason for your suffering. And not just a scientific, materialistic, cause-and-effect reason, but a supernatural, moralistic reason.
"God has a plan for you." "You're getting clear of karmas from past lives." "What you're going through has been reduced, by grace, from a sword thrust to a pinprick."
Neither form of consolation changes the actual problematic situation.
However, believing that better times await us in an afterlife, or there's a divine plan/reason behind what's happening to us, can go a long way toward making us feel more positively about the crap that we're experiencing.
This is one reason why religion is so appealing to poor, downtrodden people with little hope for betterment. It's no accident that religious belief is low in successful Western European democracies and high in poverty-stricken areas of the world.
I was curious how Louise Antony was going to answer the woman. I liked what I heard.
Anthony made a couple of excellent points. One was that living truly is better than living falsely. Suffering is real. To deny suffering is to deny reality. When we hurt, we hurt -- plain and simple.
Her other point, related to the first, was that atheism supports the dignity of suffering people. I don't recall Antony elaborating much on this thought, but here's what I think she was getting at.
To discount the reality of suffering, to explain away what suffering means to someone via some sort of religious bullshit, to comfort a person with fairy tales of how everything will be all right once he or she gets to heaven -- this undermines human dignity.
Dignity is to stand tall. Dignity is to be courageous during tough times. Dignity is to face facts. Dignity is to look at reality square in the eye and say, "Yes, I see you. And here's how I'm going to relate to you."
It isn't dignified to run away from a truth. Poverty is true. Ill health is true. Feeling bad is true.
There are ways to deal with suffering, with problems, that don't require us to ignore what is real. We don't need to embrace religious fantasies to cope with hard facts.We don't have to fall on our knees or prostrate ourselves before an imaginary God to deal with what we're experiencing in life.
One of my best friends in elementary and high school, Todd, grew up on a ranch. I remember him telling me about some advice that he got from his father.
When you're facing an emergency, some serious problem, look around. What you need to deal with it will be within your reach. That might not be obvious at first, but keep looking. Be creative. Be confident you've got the resources to handle the problem.
No God required. No praying required. Simply deal with a situation with your own capacities. Good advice.