The news of the death of American novelist Tom Clancy on October 1st this year made me recall reading his greatest work (in my humble opinion), The Hunt For Red October. As a work of fiction, it was realistic and detailed, with a tightly-woven yarn that left no loose ends and a set of complex characters who belonged. The yarn centered around the mind of Captain Marko Ramius, the highly respected submarine commander in the Soviet navy, defecting with the newly-commissioned submarine Red October to the United States. I especially recalled how Clancy carefully described the true reason for Ramius's defection – not the suffocating bureaucracy and frustrated political in-fighting, nor any particular ambition for peace or concern over the USSR's desire to strike first; not even the political corruption that protected the doctor whose negligence killed his wife. It was the State's Communism-inspired atheism, which forbade him from hoping and praying that his wife was headed to a better place, or contemplating the possibility that he would see her again one day. This sweeping intrusion, this stifling of his soul was the straw that broke the camel's back. Recalling it today, as someone who crossed the line of atheism, and with a handful of painful, personal experiences of his own, I can't help but ponder as to what atheism can offer to such a person.
It would not be Soviet-style atheism, for sure. Without the freedom of expression, there can be no natural atheism, for it is an arm of reason. Communist states use atheism to destroy the political power of the religions and then claim that spot for themselves. It is not that Communism sought to replace religion with atheism; it was Communism wanting to become a religion. However, when life around and within you just doesn't make sense, when the world seems to be racing past at an unnatural speed, with people coming and going, you will find yourself looking up to the vast skies with little, twinkling stars, hoping for someone or something to lend you a hand. Most of the religious claim that atheism seeks to rob you of the very opportunity to hope; and they are wrong.
The Right to Hope
Real atheism does not aim to prevent your good self from hoping deeply for a solution, a dream to realize, a desire to fulfill, or an intervention of events to come to thy side when you need it most. It is no “sin” or “crime” to want to see your departed loved ones again, or to seek a helping force when you find your best efforts failing in a difficult situation. These deep emotions have made literature, philosophy and poetry possible. Atheism is not that cold hand that seeks to chill your heart with its grip. It is the gentle arm of reality, which slowly relaxes frayed sinews and straightens your spine, ending desperation. The release of the forces behind desperation is a bitter-sweet experience, but the return to reality that atheism facilitates is the only real chance you have to reshape your life, to heal yourself and to move on. After the personal period of mourning, most of us quietly conclude that it is not possible to really know if there is any continuance after death, and the only thing left to do is to move on with life.
Atheism tells you that regardless of what answer you may or may not think you have received, life can only continue when your eyes finally return to the ground upon which you stand. Many people have gone through their entire lives without even one period in which they believed in God(s) or bore religious convictions of any kind. It is not likely, however, that any of these people ever went without the desire to see their departed loved ones again. After all, don't we all wish we could see and hear Christopher Hitchens again, one more time?
Atheism is not against such personal needs (and no atheist activist can change that either – these needs are natural and part of human nature). It is simply against lying to people with such needs, and it gives you the ability to discern. Giving people false assurances is the business of religion. Communist states sought to prohibit people from looking for hope, whereas true atheism is merely an acceptance of facts – that there is no evidence for the claims that religions sell, and that buying into something whose veracity cannot be established is basically allowing yourself to be taken advantage of when you are most vulnerable.
The Right to Pray
I try not to, but I would not really object to praying for a “helping hand.” Firstly, it is a “hand,” which “helps,” so regardless of the non-existence of any godhead, any one or a number of human beings can extend the needed assistance or comfort. I picture the rise of medical science as not only being through the experimentation and observation of natural materials by intrigued pioneers, but also the endeavor of devoted human beings wanting to minimize suffering and save lives. Any and all prayers that are “answered,” lives that are saved are due to the work of the descendants of the very first humans who conceived that they can defeat the threats to their lives on their own – just imagine what a feeling that must have been! The first time a human saved the life of another.. That religion still endures is an insult to our esteemed ancestors who started us on that journey, but the fruits of their labors have only multiplied.
Although the United Nations did not answer the prayers of the people of Rwanda in 1994-95, neither did any of the gods. Only one of them will hang their head in shame over it. A conscientious atheist will find it less ridiculous to watch a person pray to, say, Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, because he or she will know that there is a chance that this prayer to these particular entities will be answered. The only entity that has repeated their commitment, in both word and action, to helping humanity is humanity itself. The gods only demand loyalty, after which they may or may not be inclined to help. When humanity fails, it is confronted with its failure, and its members attempt to overcome it. When the world failed Rwanda, we pledged “never again.” You may criticize humanity for failing that promise since, but what, pray, did you hear from your God(s)? Has your deity ever made a single promise of “never again?” To the contrary – divine interventions are to destroy cities and send in catastrophes to “test” the believers.. The Red Cross will not stop working if it does not get a “thank you” from the people it helps; the various gods will not even consider starting until your loyalty and gratitude has been duly deposited and you sign away the right to withdraw. By the way, if you have direct scriptural evidence that god is causing or allowing the problems in the first place, why do you turn to him to stop them? When we first turned away from religion, we got medical science. It is only because of it that we have a second chance to turn away from religion; without it, we would have died out long ago, leaving none of our gods the wiser..
The Right to Live
Religion is not about hope, its about gambling with life. It is a casino, and you gamble with what life gives you – you have to believe that the “system” will work for you, that the “House” will play fair. You stake your dreams and desires, a lot of money and sadly, even your lives, in the hope that your “system” will prevail and the House will pay out. The House wants you to hope and pray, and you do, but it makes not the slightest difference, does it? You feel a little better after a “rousing” Sunday sermon or Friday's “namaaz,” like you do when you win fifty bucks on the slots. Confronted with greater stakes, like financial ruin or death, and the feeling is not unlike losing your life's savings in Texas Hold 'Em. You can pray and hope all you like, but you know that your loved one is to be deprived of their physical form, and you do not see anything left of them. The House is now promising that they, along with you, shall reconstitute in due time, but you have never actually seen that hand ever being played, have you?
Atheism is the sober reminder that while you may not leave a millionaire, you will keep your sense of value in life, which enables you to enjoy and make the most of what you have. Like the “House” or any professional con artist, religion will leave you finished with life or a shriveled shell of your former self as you endure the endless wait. Atheism, which is reality, never leaves your side.
I do not really mourn those who die in their eighties or nineties; I would be lucky to live that long, and they sure were. They have had a full life of rich experiences, colored with tragedies and triumphs. Hell, even the most corrupt and vicious dictators depart with colorful and adventurous experiences for themselves, if not for the others. The people I would really feel sorry for are the ones who consigned their minds and precious hours, days and years of their lives to look only for the dice to roll onto their number, for the hand to bear aces, for the slots to roll three fruits in a row. Yes, I have a real good feeling this time, I'm sure it will come through, it has to come through, I figured it all out.. Imagine how their mind's eye are riveted to the rolling dice, not realizing the dice won't stop rolling until their heart stops beating. Then imagine where they could have traveled through their mind's eye, into lands of limitless fascination, rather than watching the same sides of the dice roll over and over again.
The Right to Closure
It is debatable if closure is actually possible. It is not possible to reverse the course of time, which is something even religion does not pretend to offer. However, religion almost always acts to withhold closure or a sense of resolution. That is the basis of all eschatology – the wait for the eternal Day of Judgment, when all the living will be judged, sins punished and scores settled. The offenders who escape civil justice due to the poverty or oppression endured by the victims, due to miscarriages of justice or the socially-imposed code of silence upon victims shall not escape the judgment and wrath of God. So teaches every religion. Every single fantasy – that of the meek inheriting the earth, the pious being “raptured” into Heaven, the wicked being reborn as “lower” forms of life, or just being reborn, period – is driven by the desire to exact a long and painful punishment upon those who got away.
Atheism allows you to accept that life is unfair, and so you must prepare to protect yourself when necessary and accept the truth about the past. If you cleanse your mind of the pain, or at least accept and understand it, your future happiness shall be unconditional and independent of your past.
Religion promises that every single instance of perceived injustice will be revenged severely and often endlessly. A core principle of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime, and not be cruel or unusual. Religious judgment violates all these principles, qualifying as both inhumane and unjust. Its promise leaves millions resigned to their “fate,” where they live in wait of “deliverance,” enduring cruelty and injustices without protest because they literally think they are earning religious merit. The ultimate reward of Heaven or Nirvana is only half the promise – the other being the knowledge that your enemies will suffer endlessly.
Atheism does not play upon human sentiments. The embrace of bittersweet truths about life and justice helps us regain our sense of happiness and confidence without bottling our pent-up fury and pain. Truth is often painful and difficult to endure, but it does not delve in exploiting desperation. A believer approaches death with the desire to present himself or herself as a victim deserving of revenge. A free-thinker carries no perverted fantasies, only bittersweet memories.
The truth is that most of our rational conduct and sober institutions thereof were constructed in spite of religion, for they specifically refuse to adopt the hysterical, melodramatic and delusional behavioral tendencies demonstrated by the characters in every religion and mythological tale and encouraged in the teachings. There is no “eternal bliss,” so you must value the little moments of happiness. There is no “eternal punishment,” so you can pay for a mistake and move on with life.
Hope all you want. Cry as much as you need to, pour your heart out. Do not keep grief or despair bottled up, nor hold your dreams in abeyance for the “promised” moment. Living your lifetime to the fullest is the only way we know that can convert grief into joy. Accumulating knowledge through a myriad of adventures is about watching dreams churn into reality. Opening your mind to these unexplored roads in life is the function atheism helps to perform.