November 15, 2018

Two questions for Atheists

I have had the privilege of debating five of the top seven “25 Most Influential Living Atheists” as listed at SuperScholar.org:

No. 2: Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”)

No. 3: The late Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”)

No. 4: Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”)

No. 6: Steven Pinker (“How the Mind Works”) 

No. 7: Michael Shermer, founding publisher of the Skeptic Magazine

Recently, however, I realized that I never asked any of them two questions that I would now ask before any other:

1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?

2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

The answers to those questions would tell me what I would most like to know about the person: how intellectually honest he is, and what motivates him.

To be sure, the answers to those two questions neither validate nor invalidate any atheist arguments. Atheist and theist arguments rise and fall on their merits, not on the motivations or personal characteristics of the atheist or the believer. But on a purely human level, their answers would enable me to understand the atheist as a person and as a thinker.

Take the first question: Do you hope you are right or wrong?

I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life. A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism. This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God. If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God? Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

Now to the second question: Do you ever doubt your atheism?

A few years ago, the largest atheist organization in the United States, American Atheists, to its credit, invited me to Minneapolis to debate the head of the organization at its annual meeting. 

At one point, I looked at the audience and asked people to raise their hands if they ever doubted their atheism. Not one hand went up. 

I found this interesting, if not disturbing, and said so. Nonreligious individuals often accuse religious believers of not challenging themselves. And, depending on the religion and on the individual, that is often the case. Yet it would seem that believers challenge themselves more than atheists do. 

As I explained at the debate, I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God. When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

I remember sensing that I had a struck a nerve.

So, then, while I still debate God’s existence with atheists, I do so in order that the audience will hear sound arguments for God’s existence.

But what really interests me — and I think should interest any believer or atheist — are the answers to these two questions. 

Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God” — do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism. I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person. 

But a sad one. For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).