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Saturday, September 3, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do In Times of Crisis?

Disclaimer: This series is by no means representative of atheists as a formal or organized group such as Christianity or Judaism with established history and orthodoxy, so any atheists should take their disagreements up with me with the prior knowledge that I am one atheist among many diverse kinds.

The world has always had natural disasters and other dangerous moments, like being in a military foxhole. People respond in different ways, and a predictable division exists between atheists and theists. Fox News apparently saw fit to waste five minutes of my time with a loaded question to David Silverman, president of American Atheists, “What do you do in times of crisis?” And Silverman answers simply that we prepare, just like anyone else would, believing in God or otherwise. What do they expect atheists to do; riot and loot in the streets? Apart from not praying, atheists would do the same thing in an imminent hurricane situation as a theist: prepare, plan, supply, etc. The same logic applies to the tired trope that “there are no atheists in foxholes” which is not only untrue with the existence of atheists in the military, but suffers from similar problems of saying atheists would turn to God when there’s a scary hurricane in the distance. We all have different ways of coping, some of them more effective than others, but effectiveness doesn’t always imply something is right. An atheist becoming theist because of the threat of death wasn’t much of an atheist to begin with if the mere possibility of dying made them think there must be both a God and an afterlife. Atheists can cope with danger without recourse to God, even in such a situation as a battlefield with IEDs and snipers looming over you.

Theists might ask whether atheists aren’t missing something with a spiritual component to their life. But I, along with Silverman, would respond that, 1) No one has a spiritual life, just our particular ways of interpreting events and ascribing significance to them and 2) We don’t need a spiritual life to be fulfilled people or be motivated to help others. The justification for why a spiritual aspect of life is important seems to hinge on the simple observation that it gives people comfort, which is patently ridiculous on its face. It’s true that, for the most part, atheists don’t have a mystical/supernatural aspect to their life, which is probably what they meant by spiritual, but at best a psychological and existential one. This doesn’t mean that atheists don’t have efficient and meaningful ways to approach reality and cope. Many atheist existentialists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (though he decried being called such), have put forward ideas of persisting in spite of the seeming hopelessness or absurdity that the world presents. Atheistic existentialism only differs from theistic existentialism in that the overall conclusion about life is that God doesn’t factor into your decision making, just you as a human being. There’s a definite similarity in that you’re forced to push past your anxiety and make those difficult choices. It’s either a leap of faith or a leap into the absurd (not meaning foolish, but simply uncertain).

Theists may also inquire what authority atheists appeal to in preparing for hurricanes and protecting their family and friends. Why do you need to appeal to any authority when preparing for a storm is common sense? I don’t need to ask God’s permission to direct people to shelters, stockpile basic supplies and such. I do it because it is ethically imperative upon me to help my fellow humans in immediate or incoming danger. But a response in this vein would potentially garner an accusation that atheists are living in poverty of this spiritual aspect and authority. Apparently since atheists just focus on the immediate physical life, they’re missing something in the realm of the supernatural. I wonder what I’m missing with theists praying to God about the safety of their loved ones. I want my loved ones to be safe too; I just choose to meditate on it, not make a plea to a deity that might as well not be there even if it exists, to keep people safe from something that they may not be safe from regardless of all efforts. Silverman responds to the allegation that he’s missing something with praying to God that people who have this “spiritual” aspect to their lives are living in a delusion and I’d agree with that. Your prayers do nothing to stop the storm from coming and even if you correlate your prayers and storm activity, that doesn’t imply they caused the storm to do anything.

Silverman also advises people to act like atheists in terms of natural disasters: plan, prepare and behave as if God doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter. Theists would no doubt object, alleging that theists can prepare just as well; they just happen to pray. Silverman responds that they can pray if they want; no one’s saying they don’t have a right to do so; but demonstrates physically that as you pray, you close your eyes and ears to the outside world and fixate yourself upon something that has no real benefit to anyone else. Many theists persist in the vein of argument that prayer comforts people and shouldn’t be denigrated and dismissed as Silverman and other atheists do. But he brings up a counterexample that, while simplistic at first glance, addresses a deeper issue that is neglected in this argument. When people focus on comfort before reality, they have their priorities mixed up. If we lose something precious to us, do we focus on comforting ourselves or do we face the music and press on in spite of our sentiments? Theists would appear to do the former, while many more atheists do the latter, such as in times of storms, and in preparing for them. More level headed theists may bring up the example of a priest praying for the safety of his congregation while also boarding up church windows. As clever as it may seem, there’s an obvious problem to be seen. When you divide your mind between preparations and prayer, are you genuinely concerned about other people or are you convincing yourself you can’t be a humanitarian without also being pious? You could be doing more work to keep those same people safe without taking any time to pray. Maybe afterwards, but even then, to be frank, you’d be wasting your time that could be used maintaining vigilance. Not to mention I imagine a church is not the first place you’d want to protect, unless you have people flocking to the church for safety, which could be the case, which would be at least more practical. Heck, I’ve gone to a church over in Jackson, TN, next to my grandmother’s when there was a tornado watch. Was I insulted? No, I just read.

Just because atheists don’t believe in any God that could save them does not mean they cease to care about the safety of their fellow humans. Being concerned about the safety of humans now instead of their posthumous security does not make their concern any less genuine. Atheists are more pragmatic, since their attention is solely directed towards preparation and preservation instead of prayer to any deity serving as a distraction. One can wish people well as fellow humans, but hoping that people will be safe in spite of the harsh reality of the world is unrealistic and delusional. Calling theists delusional, as Silverman and I both do, does not imply we insult them, but are assessing their beliefs as they relate to reality. The person in question who prays to God and believes that prayer has any effect is, to an atheist, deluded, since there is no reason to think prayer has any efficacy, let alone any evidence either way. Using Ockham’s razor, ironically formulated by a Christian thinker, the simpler explanation with less assumptions should be the one we give credence to. In this case, there is no God, things will happen as they will and the only thing humans can do is use past experience and intuition from that experience to work in the present towards preserving human life and increasing its overall quality.

If atheists are pitied for focusing on “candles and batteries” as Stuart Varney so eloquently condescends to David Silverman, among other necessities, then so be it. I’d rather be insulted for focusing on what matters instead of being praised for appearing as if I believe that any higher power exists or cares about people. When terrible things come, I will be scared, but I will not prostrate to any supernatural entity to protect me. Things will happen and my life or death will come when it will. There is no agency in tornadoes, nor any consciousness behind hurricanes. Prayer does little more than comfort people unwilling to face reality without a proverbial security blanket. In not facing reality immediately, they look to the past and the future to inspire them and quell their fear. But not all fear is evil. Fear is how we know our limits and how we can find ways to adapt. In times of crisis, an atheist will make things happen without adding extra hopes, whereas theists may try to help people, but also try to make things safer than they will ever be. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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