In its January 6, 2013 issue, the Sunday New York Times featured two articles that offered very contrasting views of the afterlife. One view was in a magazine cover story entitled, "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year" by Joel Lowell. The other view was in a completely different part of the Times -- the "Sunday Review" section -- in an article by author Susan Jacoby called, "The Blessings of Atheism." The two views were not intended to be read together, but Flannista, who reads most of the Sunday Times in one sitting, was fascinated by them. More than two months later, I'm still fascinated, and am curious about other opinions.
As most of you know, I am a lousy Christian, so tend to give a lot of credibility to perspectives that lean that way (i.e., featuring writers willing to admit the same thing). In his interview with the writer, George Saunders, Lowell asks him about "the occasional dramatization in his stories of the moments after death, the way, characters' lives are sometimes suddenly reframed and redeemed." Here's how Saunders responded:
“In terms of dramatic structure, I don’t really buy the humanist verities anymore,” he said. “I mean, I buy them, they’re a subset of what’s true. But they’re not sufficient. They wouldn’t do much for me on my deathbed. Look at it another way. We’re here. We’re nice guys. We’re doing O.K. But we know that in X number of years, we won’t be here, and between now and then something unpleasant is gonna happen, or at least potentially unpleasant and scary. And when we turn to try and understand that, I don’t really think the humanist verities are quite enough. Because that would be crazy if they were. It would be so weird if we knew just as much as we needed to know to answer all the questions of the universe. Wouldn’t that be freaky? Whereas the probability is high that there is a vast reality that we have no way to perceive, that’s actually bearing down on us now and influencing everything. The idea of saying, ‘Well, we can’t see it, therefore we don’t need to see it,’ seems really weird to me.”
Well, Saunders response seemed really weird -- and flaky -- to me, especially after I read Jacoby's editorial in which she articulates her "exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn." Jacoby then writes a stunningly reasoned and eloquent argument for the compassion of atheism. Compared to Saunders' perspective, Jacoby's seemed far more thoughtful and grounded:
It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
I urge you to read both articles, if you have time (the hyperlinks are embedded in the opening paragraph of this post). George Saunders may be flaky about religious belief, but his views on writing are inspiring: "I've seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person."
Well said, George Saunders . . . and thank you for perfectly describing how Jacoby dignified atheism and improved my narrow view of it.