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Ask An Atheist: Without God, where do you find comfort?


By Jim Downard

What do you want to Ask an Atheist? Submit your questions online or fill out the form below. 

If you don’t believe in God, where do you find hope, comfort?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133To the extent that you can find hope and comfort in anything, it is in our fellow human beings, and the things they make and do, the music and art and fine company, the hope of each new smiling child’s face with so much promise for the future. There is a lot of hopelessness and discomfort in the world though, a lot of children without smiling faces, and I freely acknowledge that atheists are at a distinct disadvantage here compared to some theist perspectives. We cannot promise “pie in the sky bye and bye when you die.” We cannot depend on a supernatural force to make things all better in eternity. We cannot expect Hitler or Stalin ever to have got their just deserts. All the good or evil in the world is our doing, and ours alone. No theocratic cavalry to ride over the event horizon and save the day. We either make our own hope, or not.

As in many of these questions there is an implicit presumption that there is a particular God one is to find hope or comfort in, and that deity is one that you can find hope and comfort in to begin with, that the god(s) are not just powerful but essentially nice and caring. Most religions find ways to channel those issues, turning powerful gods who you have to placate to keep your crops growing into powerful (but inscrutable) buddies who only want you to be happy but aren’t easily called upon in a pinch (you may pray for the cure of all Alzheimer’s patients as a practical test of this).  With that attitude we’re in the realm of psychology and coping mechanisms, which observers have been studying for some time now and have a surprisingly good handle on.

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Riff Mattre

What I like most about Jim’s answer to this question is that at the end of the day, hope is a choice: “We either make our own hope, or not.” Personally, I believe this to be the very rich common ground between theists and atheists, so called believers and nonbelievers, alike.

Tom Schmidt

Yes. Yes, Riff.

Tom Schmidt

Resurrection on My Terms


If you aren’t very interested in background or religious argument methods, skip to the second section on Resurrection’s meaning for me.

About the Resurrection, FAVS, 10/28, there was a very valuable conversation asking about resurrection, and discussing it mainly in the context of post crucifixion Jesus. I did find the discussion somewhat limited, mainly concerned with its factuality — did it really happen?, with appeals to biblical authority being the predominate method used to justify the writers’ positions. At that time I was reading some academic essays and books that often discussed the resurrection and delayed any response so I could see what the next page revealed to me. Most of the discussants used quotes from the Gospel of John. Most of the mentions in depth about the resurrection come from that collection of writings. I decided to take a look at Bishop John Shelby Spong’s very readable “The Fourth Gospel : Tales of a Jewish Mystic” before joining any discussion. I recommend it strongly. I have
tended to avoid a deep study of John because I have found its language, although beautiful and poetic, much too spiritualized and ethereal for my tastes, an opinion I have had since my college classes in the Gospels back in the 1950’s, when I faced the effect of the enlightenment advancing empirical evidence as necessary for religious discussions. On that basis, and the use of good logic, I found little in John I could believe as really happening. Textual criticism and a good class in Historical Method only added to that effect. I have not gone there for substantial argument or support, only for inspiration.

After reading Bishop Spong’s presentation of the Gospel of John, I have a new appreciation for it. The writers (Possibly as many as four, plus the writer of the maverick last chapter that seems to have been added very tenuously onto the end many years,
or centuries after the original assemblage, which took place sometime in the very
early 2nd century, ce). According to Spong’s very tight textural analysis, the original writers were not writing a historical account or even much of a narrative account of the life and works of Jesus. They were writing in a context of a growing movement that was facing hard times and persecution, and therefore took a mystical approach to what they wrote. They were concerned not with historical truth, but the mystical import of what had
happened almaost a century earlier. What did it all mean to us, now, in terms of our moral and spiritual relationships with each other, the world, the empire, and God.

Such an approach stands the Gospel, and the usual interpretations, on their heads. It becomes a deep and commanding description of the New Kingdom, which had come even before the crucifixion. I was surprised to discover that this treatment suggested that
Jesus was living in the New Kingdom, and he had come again several times before
the last appearances recorded by the writers. The Second Coming, as I have
suspected for 50 years, had already happened, and could happen again moment to
moment. The writers, as most writers of that ancient age, were not interested in presenting facts. They probably didn’t even have a notion of what “fact”meant. They were interested in what the story meant to them in the context of their lives at the time of writing, not so much of the time of Jesus’ life 80 years earlier.

I find it very hard to get behind any discussion about what factually happened between the time that Jesus died on the cross and his body was lost. I find that discussion to be weird and often revolting: Do you really believe Jesus’ bloated and rotting body defied gravity and floated up to some other physical realm? (Read the story about Lazarus coming with his stink out of his tomb (John 11)).

The Personal Meaning of the Resurrection for Me

In the past decade I have lost to death two wives, both of whom I have loved deeply for a long time. Both loses were devastating; I could not accept them at face value, and needed time to come to some meaning. I desperately hoped that the normative explanation were true: Those I loved still lived and I would, when I died, meet them “on the other side”. Oh, if only…. I can cry with the early disciples, “Oh, if only….”

What about that “only”? I could not believe it, but wanted desperately for it to be true. Naturally, my sense of reality was very screwed up in my mind, as happens with devastating loss, to cancer or to crucifixion. I heard and saw things. Shortly after a beautiful ceremony attended by her friends, bikers to nuns, we buried Dawn’s ashes beneath her favorite tree. Later, she came to me. “Tommie” I heard her call delightedly. A warm breeze ruffled my hair, and the meaning of resurrection came to me. She was with God, she has everlasting life in that life force….

You are my wind, you are my rain, you are my fire, you are my rock.

And some day my remains will join hers in its many forms, as close together as we were before the original vibration. I feel at ease, sad to tears sometimes, but happy and thankful for our time.

Soon I reconnected with my first wife, Janet, whom I had married 46 years prior. And just as Dawn had wanted, we married. She died as family and some Sufi’s sang her on her way… oh, too soon! “Iskh ‘Allah, mah bud li’la. All I ask of you is to forever to
remember me as loving you.” Easy. I’d come home and sit where she sat knitting
prayer shawls, and feel her warmth. Driving, I could rest my hand on her knee. I felt her glance and her smile.

I’ll not say very much about what the early followers of Jesus or the contemporary
Jews believed, except many believed in the resurrection, some that it was in some way physical going to one or more of several places. Very few connected the place with reward or punishment until Augustine, driven by his shaming demons, worked it out centuries later. Probably very few, as in our age, had strongly worked out beliefs, thinking “we’ll find out soon enough.” After death, some came out of their tombs and walked around. Jesus and some prophets did ascend, one physically, but he came back. Jesus ate, but only after walking through a wall – not a clear, consistent message. That was not the purpose of the story.

By the time Paul wrote he was interested in securing a place on the short list
of the apostles. As for the writers of John, they and presumably their school
wanted to advance the idea of the mystical presence of the spirit in each of
us: we all share a divine spark which is more than simply our seeable physical
body, and it is the temple of God, in some way. Whether physical or spiritual,
or even factual, did not seem to matter much to most at that time. The
pre-Easter concern was on the coming Kingdom and what it would be like, and in
John we are saved, i.e. moving from ignorance and darkness and filled with
light (a Mid-Eastern oriental concept)when we come to realize that we are children
of Light and the word. Jesus did talk of how he would be still be living at the coming of the new kingdom, so one traditional interpretation is that his second coming happened some time before his ascension.

The nub seems to be that we have several viewpoints that may agree or disagree with
each other. We get to pick whichever, or design new ones as they did back then,
whichever suits our heart and the heart of God. We just better be thoughtful about what our choice may mean for others. For instance, I believe that resurrection seen as a way of escaping a sin filled world as very harmful to life and God’s creation, and the guilt and shame felt while holding some idea of redemption from our supposed original sin could fill a plenitude of creations. And is the “promise of resurrection” an acceptable part of the recruiting of martyrs, todays or the crusades. Is it really OK to kill another on the belief that he or she will have a better life in heaven.

I like my rather poetic resolution. Its simplicity and beauty allows me to concentrate on other, more important and manageable things, such as the mass killings in Sudan, or the rising world temperature and coal and oil trains contributing to it.

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