One of the things I keep seeing in popular fundagelical culture is how atheists can’t offer hope to anyone. The thinking is that a promise of an afterlife and a magically divine purpose to spread an idea while living through a miserable existence is way better than taking reality at face value. In fact, it’s with a kind of sickening glee that amputees, children with cancer, and parents who lose children are trotted out with the demand, “Make them feel better! Oh wait, you CAN’T!”
First off, it’s very inappropriate to capitalize on human suffering just to insult someone else.
And yeah, this is exactly what it is. Offering solace to people by rights is an act of compassion meant to mitigate a real person’s troubles in dealing with very scary realities. At no point in my former faith did I consider the implications of turning compassion into a pissing contest simply to dig at people who believe differently than I did. Although I didn’t partake in it myself, this was a constant source of unidentified friction when I did believe.
Now that I’m an atheist, I’ve been able to get a little perspective on the matter. By all means, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be nice or compassionate to each other. What I’m saying is that nobody should be gloating over the inconsolable misfortune of others.
But do secular people who don’t believe in deities have hope?
The answer – at least that I’ve found – is kind of. But it’s not the same hope that religious people offer. Some of it is unsubstantiated, like when we would like to see certain scientific breakthroughs tackle really tough issues like aging, terminal illnesses, and improving quality of life for everyone. Scientific advance is by its nature a very methodical process, usually going by specific steps rather than leaps and bounds. But there have been terrific discoveries in the past (like penicillin), so it’s understandable that one might look to those for other issues that concern us.
That’s where the similarities end. Whatever else “hope” that secularists can offer might be, it’s based on confidence and determination. When people have been losing limbs to tragic accidents, researchers have been creating better limbs to replace them. With any medical tragedy religions would like to point out, there’s usually a hospital and labs right there to assist with actually dealing with whatever problem arises. They might not be perfect at curing what ails us, but it’s a damn far sight better than one, two, or even five centuries ago.
The difference, then, is between “Let’s investigate” and “Think about something else.”
While thinking about something else has its own brand of relief (such as with mental illness and developing coping strategies), it is by no means the sole domain of relief. Even early humans got fed up with the weather and decided to hang out in caves because the sun can get hot and rain is wet. Improving our lives is something humans have been doing ever since we’ve been walking upright.
So, if you’re unfamiliar with the perspective of people who don’t believe in deities, it’s okay to ask atheists what we believe without having to make stuff up. Many of us do not lose hope or become misanthropic internet curmudgeons simply because we don’t believe in deities. Robbing people of hope is not something inherent to being an atheist. All we do is put it in things we can see rather than what we can’t prove.