In case you’ve missed it, there has been a strong move -in particular in the developed west – towards non-belief in theism. Most of the world’s believers are either followers of the Bible or the Quran or members of the Hindu faith, three religions whose fundamental and literalist interpretations have become increasingly easy to challenge. Non-believers in a god often posit that breaking away from these beliefs is a complete win-win situation, and that former religious believers are set on a worry free and liberated existence for the rest of their days.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly as an adult, overcoming the indoctrination of childhood (however friendly it may have been) is usually a painful experience. It requires a level of courage that will sustain (what is often) an ensuing ostracizing from a closely bonded network of loved ones. This may be benign or quite severe depending on the individual and her family or community.
Added to this is the personal anguish that can accompany the truth of our mortality. As a believer you get to find solace in an afterlife -in whatever particular form you envisage it- which alleviates the anxiety accompanied by life’s inevitable low points.
In my opinion however one of the most difficult aspects of being a new non-believer is the ability to deal with loss. Consider for an instance a parent, who loses their child; it’s hard to imagine a more grief strickening experience. What story is more appealing or comforting to someone in this position? Certainly the cold truth of the natural world is not what any decent person would put forward as consolation. Can you imagine such a conversation?
“Well Mary, yes your son is gone and that’s just how our universe functions. You will never see him again or get to tell him that you can make things better and when you die you will not be reunited in any form of eternal joy. Rather you too will die eventually to be forgotten by generations that come after you.”
Clearly this (rather extreme example) comes nowhere near the easy untruth of some prediction of an afterlife in which mother and son will be joined to live eternally in the happiness of their benevolent creator. Beliefs in a supernatural afterlife have powerful comforting effects. As do the beliefs that some divine creator has planned whatever particular hardship you are enduring and (given you do not lose faith) will always find the best path for you.
Liberating people from the bounds of supernatural beliefs however necessary comes at a cost, and it is a point that is often brushed off by those who are mature in their disbelief.
Science and reason may lead to truth but the truth can often be unpleasant, at least in the immediate short term. It’s important for us to be conscious of how we choose to design a faith free society. That is, one that is able to confront those most challenging hours without resorting to supernatural beliefs.
We may take solace in the uniqueness of our lives and our intelligence, and perhaps the answer is to help people understand that even our short fragile lives are a gift from the universe and its laws. We should learn to enjoy each day to the fullest. This may not have the consoling effect of theistic beliefs – but there is no way around this. It is better to live with a truth which will ultimately lead to a better, stronger, more successful society than to seek solace in a fabrication that is chipped away at every day by the sometimes very obvious truths of the natural world.
Nevertheless, we must admit that faith in divinities is a useful tool in times of need. As practitioners of evidenced reason we must acknowledge this fact if we intend to reach out to others in our society.
Losing Gods will almost necessarily result in some immediate loss of hope but it is not an irreplaceable crutch. We must learn to live without a belief in the myths currently deemed necessary to endure our darkest hours.