I came across this piece a few weeks back and finally got around to writing about it. This will tie back to writing and argumentation, eventually.
First, I’d like to take a look at Linker’s claims. As I read them, they are: atheism is inherently tragic and terrible, “honest” atheists suffer unto nihilism, and no god is akin to no meaning in life. These are all common arguments against atheists and atheism, as such they’re likely familiar to anyone who is open about his/her atheism. They’ve also been argued ad nauseum (I can present the counterarguments, if desired, just ask).
More important, I think, are Linker’s underlying assumptions. Although he doesn’t directly state his assumptions, they are key to his argument. First, he has the assumption of absolute forgiveness, the idea that no matter what a person does, no matter how horrible, everything can be forgiven. Second, he has the assumption of absolute justice. Third, he assumes that all atheists must inherently be despondent, a common assumption on the part of many, particularly conservative, religious people. Fourth, he assumes that atheists are just people who have had a crisis of faith and are looking for a way back in, also a common assumption amongst conservative religious people. Finally, he assumes there is, must be, an intrinsic fear of death.
Each of his assumptions has some notable flaws. Absolute forgiveness has always been a sticking point for me, particularly in regards to Catholicism and Baptists (and I spent eight years in Catholic school). In theory, a person could commit genocide and still get into the good afterlife because they repent on their death bed. This doesn’t sit well with me. It also causes a problem with absolute justice: absolute forgiveness inherently undermines absolute justice (assuming that we don’t accept the later Catholic invention of Purgatory). I think Robert Heinlein said it best, noting, “TANJ” (There Ain’t No Justice). I’ll hit the other three assumptions in my own take on atheism next.
I find atheism to be freeing, rather than depressing. There is a definite freedom in not having a reward-punishment cycle and in the lack of empty ritual. And I have yet to meet an atheist who is looking for a way back into any religious faith. I think one of the interesting aspects of atheism is the acceptance of death, the acknowledgement that there is nothing after. This frees people to live in the present, to live for this life not for some imagined reward or to avoid some imagined punishment in another metaphysical place.
I think atheism, the lack of reward-punishment, also frees people to true morality. Admittedly, morality is in many ways a social construct (e.g. without society, there’s really no need for morality, since morality is basically a code for getting along with others). Without a deity, I argue, people achieve true morality: they aren’t performing, or not performing, acts because of an expectation of reward or fear of punishment (which is conditioning, or self-interest, not morality), they perform acts because they are the right thing to do or don’t perform them because they are the wrong thing to do. This also means that the atheist bears personal responsibility for his/her actions, (s)he can’t claim “god (or Satan or whoever) made me do it.” Perhaps that is one thing that scares a lot of people.
On that note, the promised tie to writing and argumentation. Linker’s piece is an excellent example of the importance of ethos (authority), understanding counterarguments, and understanding the positions of others in debates. His piece fails on all three. It fails because of Linker’s initial assertion that all of his opponents in the debate are dishonest if they do not fit perfectly into the mold he wants them to fit. Obviously, this assertion causes problems for true discussion or debate, since one party comes into the debate assuming the other is lying.
For a more reasoned discussion of the subject see: