For all the exuberant talk about the liberation of what is often called the “new atheism” as exemplified by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, and Saturday Night Live alumna Julia Sweeney – with the vast majority of which I heartily agree – there is one area, so far little remarked, where the “new atheism” and the “new atheists” simply cannot compete with conventional, theistic religion: comfort and reassurance. Yes, yes, to be sure, conventional, orthodox, theistic religion is, in many ways, a congeries of pathologies ranging from the comically absurd -- Neanderthal humans hunting t. Rex, anyone? -- to the violent to the downright evil. Their name is “Legion”, for they are many. I have criticized many of them in this space, and I will be first in line to say "Good riddance to bad rubbish". But, at least for Western First-World-ers, conventional, theistic religion pretty much has a lock on the “warm-fuzzies”. By contrast, atheism and skepticism have nothing comparable in terms of emotional mac-and-cheese, least of all anything equivalently aided and abetted by widely shared cultural memes.
Partly this is because of the overwhelmingly “evidence-centric” nature of atheistic and skeptical belief systems. The emphasis is always on reproducibility, experience (everyone’s, but including one’s own), and rationality – all of which is just a long-winded way of saying “evidence”. Now – just so there is no misunderstanding – such an outlook can eventuate in profound, even life-changing, “Buddha-under-the-bo-tree” / “Muhammad-in-a-cave” spiritual experiences. (I hesitate to say “religious experiences” because words like “religious” and “religion” are “always already” so freighted with theistic connotations.) But such experiences are exceedingly rare and anecdotal, and in any case – again – rely on evidence, even if only in the sense of one’s personal, idiosyncratic experience. Furthermore, there is an important sense in which even evidence-centric orientations require a certain, very carefully qualified faith. By contrast, theistic faith, specifically religious faith, properly so-called, while not necessarily utterly impervious to evidence, nevertheless is not “evidence-bound” in the sense of allowing evidence the last and final word on issues of truth. In fact, in many instances, religious / theistic believers are impelled to believe in spite of the very lack of evidence. (Credo quia absurdum -- Tertullian) There is no evidence that Jesus is going to return to earth or evidence that heaven exists (at least, as a place distinct from the here-and-now) – or, for that matter, even evidence that God exists. Hence the necessity of faith.
Given that religion – I very deliberately said “religion”, not "spirituality" – frees one from many, maybe all, of the confining strictures of evidence, the imagination – religious folks might say “faith”– has free rein to range over any and all possibilities from Heaven to Hell, from comfort to despair, from chaos to certitude, and all gradations in between. Loosen the tether to evidence, and one is free to imagine both life and afterlife in the most comforting terms possible. Hence the belief in literal streets of gold, in literal mansions, in literal robes, and literal crowns of my hyper-fundamentalist upbringing: the lust for comfort was a cognitive post-Tohoku tsunami that swamped the frail raft of evidence. (Of course, because of the de-emphasis on evidence, one is equally free to imagine horrors not otherwise conceivable, as any painting by Hieronymous Bosch or Brueghel the Younger will attest.) It is extremely difficult to be comforted and reassured on the basis of sheer evidence. It is extremely easy to be comforted and reassured on the basis of sheer faith. Comparatively speaking, faith does with the merest flick of the wrist that which evidence and rationality do – if at all – only laboriously, rarely, and even then only anecdotally and sporadically.
Or at least – critical qualification – it is “extremely easy to be comforted and reassured on the basis of sheer faith”, provided that one’s prior life-experience with faith predisposes one to believe that the alternative of comfort / reassurance is available and valid. Hence the importance of the second factor: the nature and character of the individual person and her experience. What kind of Universe has one’s prior life-experience “programmed” one to believe is more credible: a Universe which is governed impersonally and rationally according to evidence, or a Universe in which evidence perhaps has a word but not the last word? Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but most of us also tend to ascribe more credibility to one extreme than to the other. Then there is the issue of socialization: which Universe is favored by our most significant community – family, friends, church, professional colleagues, etc.? I am 66 years old, but for roughly 55 of those years, I was a part of some Christian community or other which favored a Universe congenial to faith. Problem was I had been predisposed to skepticism and atheism – unconsciously so – through twenty years of intense indoctrination into the cattle-feedlot-waste ideologies of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, in which faith far outweighed evidence. (If that final clause seems an overreach, compare the "evidence" for special creation in the fundamentalist press with the real evidence for evolution in peer-reviewed scientific literature.) So to fit in, I (again unconsciously) play-acted the part expected of me, and that licensed me to remain a part of that community. But notwithstanding, privately, under the table, and behind the scenes, my life-experience vis a vis God and religion convinced me that I lived in a Universe that was random, unplanned, un-purposed, and in which I was on my own. All the whooping and hollering about Jesus and the ramshackle pseudo-intellectualism of the conservative Christian community only served to reinforce that prior (again, unconscious) conclusion. What finally liberated me into honesty, finally bringing my inner conviction and my outer life into harmony, was two things: (a) seeing the Catholic Church turned into a child-rape syndicate and (b) the trauma of the quest for the PhD and my “vocation” -- in both of which God was conspicuously absent. That would suffice to make an honest person of anyone!
So are atheism and skepticism utterly and absolutely and without qualification devoid of comfort? I will make bold to assert an answer that I believe is true for everyone: No. Even for people like me who no longer believe in the God of theism and who reject all forms of specifically religious comfort / assurance, the presence of the human community itself provides the comfort, support, and security I tried to find, but never found, in God and religion. (One more time: I'm referencing religion, not spirituality.) In the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan's superlative science-fiction novel, Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is mentored by an extraterrestrial being. (The latter is impersonating her late, beloved father in order to give her a stable point of familiarity and reference.) She asks her "father" about God. Her "father" smiles, kneels, scoops up sand from the beach they are standing on, and sifts it through his fingers, saying "The only thing we've found that makes the darkness bearable is one another". My wife Diane, my in-law family in Hawaii, our "adopted family" comprising Diane's colleagues at the branch library where she works and a whole community stretching from Leipzig and Stuttgart, to Oxford, to New York, to DC, to Wichita, to Tokyo / Yokohama, to Singapore -- and Seattle, of course -- make the darkness more than merely bearable. They enable us to greet it with joy. My spiritual biography could be written in terms of serial disappointment with God being compensated for by the over-the-top generosity of human beings.
Second only to relationships in the human community, I draw comfort and solace from art, specifically though not exclusively literature. The darker phases of literature in particular: literature that sets out to comfort, or where comfort is presupposed, stimulates only envy followed by depression. I find the literature of "premeditated comfort" ultimately, often immediately, depressing. The only kind of literature I find comforting is precisely the literature where comfort is denied. So I read much more of Wallace Stevens, Thomas Hardy, and the French symbolists than of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins -- and even then, the latter only in their darker phases (e.g., Hopkins' "terrible sonnets"). Ditto T. S. Eliot, A. R. Ammons, and Jane Kenyon: their texts lose me when luminous, but resonate when tenebrous (Eliot's "Ash Wednesday", Ammons's "Easter Morning", Kenyon's ruminations on mortality as she lay dying of cancer). I can at times empathize with Reynolds Price, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy. But I fully and unreservedly and without qualification enter into Peter DeVries's loss of his daughter to leukemia, to say nothing of his temporary dalliance with Christianity, in his harrowing, thinly fictionalized autobiography The Blood of the Lamb. As for theologians and philosophers, reading C. S. Lewis only results in a progression from envy to depression. But reading Albert Camus or Lev Shestov or Nicolai Berdyaev or E. M. Cioran results in affirmation, even exuberance. Their world may be a world without comfort. But it is my world: a world where I was never invited to the Party ... but then never expected to be.
For me, God does not comfort. Human beings do. If there is purpose for us, it is that.
James R. Cowles