Often, the same individuals who argue belief in God because it makes them happy think that belief in no God should make me sad. They ask me—words gushing with sympathy and confident they know my answer before I give it—whether my worldview makes me depressed:
“If there’s no God, there is no right and wrong. So you don’t believe in morality, do you?”
“If there’s no God, then there’s no real purpose in life, is there?”
“Doesn’t it make you sad to think that there’s no life after death?”
Coming from theists, these questions are somewhat understandable, but what truly depresses me is hearing other atheists ask the same questions (or answer in the affirmative)!
But atheism does not imply absolute nihilism, and (rather than making me depressed) atheism makes me happy!
Nihilism is a multi-faceted concept with many meanings. Nietzsche himself described the concept in both positive and negative lights. I am a moral nihilist, as far as I understand the term. I do not believe there is a higher law that determines absolute right and wrong. And, consequently, there is no objective “good” and “evil”. But this is not to say I don’t believe in morality; I simply believe that morality is a subjective word, fluid in its meaning across national borders, situations, circumstances, and time.
I think most people (theists and atheists alike) are moral nihilists, though most theists would be loath to apply the term to themselves. Consider one of the great American moral debates: abortion. Moral conservatives (mostly religious) oppose abortion vehemently and consider Roe v. Wade an abysmal failure of the Supreme Court to protect basic human rights. However, the majority of these moral conservatives who oppose abortion agree that, in certain instances (e.g. if the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother, the fetus is nonviable, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape), abortion should be permitted as a legal and moral option. Those who hold this view cannot claim that abortion itself is an immoral act; rather, it is circumstance and motivation that determines morality. Killing works much the same. If person A shoots person B and takes his wallet, it’s an immoral action. But if person A shoots person B while person B is holding a gun to the head of person A’s wife, thereby saving her life, it’s heroic.
But simply because we cannot establish clear lines between absolute right and wrong does not mean that we are unable to live moral lives or make moral judgments. As individuals, we judge morality mostly by the Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”
I’ll wager that, were we to establish strict laws and punishments based solely on the Bible, most Americans would find Biblically-sanctioned practices (selling our daughters into slavery, killing everyone who works on the Sabbath or plants different crops side-by-side or wears clothing made from different thread) as abhorrent as they find the concept of Sharia Law.
In short, atheistic moral relativism is more moral than Biblical or Koranic law, and most Americans recognize that without thinking twice. The only attraction a theistic understanding of law and punishment brings to the table is the hope that evildoers who are never caught and punished in this life will get what they deserve later. (Which means that atheism, if accepted generally, would actually encourage a more effective justice system.)
Stepping beyond morality, atheism does not preclude the possibility for purpose in life. Asserting that if something ends (life in this case), therefore it is worthless, demonstrates absolute ignorance. Thousands of counterexamples to this sort of nihilism present themselves on a day-to-day basis—and none of them have anything to do with God.
Think about what you eat, what you wear, where you live, and the thousands of choices you made since waking this morning. Everything you do is, from your perspective, calculated to make you happy. Yet it is mostly transient. You enjoy and look for better sources of satisfaction. You want to wear more comfortable shoes or more fashionable clothing. You want to ride a roller coaster or play a video game. And yet, after the day is done, you have gained absolutely no long-term benefit from picking the apricot jam over the strawberry jam. The flavor lasts a few moments and fades. But because the flavor fades does not mean choosing the apricot was worthless. It made you happy.
If you were told right now that you have exactly one week to live, what would you do? Perhaps do what you can to put your family and financial affairs in order, but I’m confident you’d eat your favorite food, indulge in a bit more ice cream than usual, visit your parents and siblings.
We seek our own happiness in everything that we do—even when we don’t realize it. We choose to donate to charities because it makes us happy. We go to work for terrible employers because the long-term consequences are better than if we didn’t go to work.
The only difference between atheists and theists in this regard is that theists are impossibly optimistic in how long their happiness-seeking behavior will endure…and also in their ultimate effectiveness at achieving happiness.
Which brings me to my final point.
Life After Death, Unicorns, and Why Atheism Makes Me Happy
Asking if I worry that there is no life after death is like asking if I am actively dismayed that there isn’t a magical, time-travelling unicorn waiting outside my apartment. That more people believe in life after death than the magical unicorn does not make me regret its non-existence any more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I have no recollection of existing for the billions of years before I was born, and it was of no inconvenience to me then. I don’t suppose I’ll care much when I’m dead either.
What I do care about is wrenching every last bit of happiness I can out of the world I’m in. This is where atheism makes life so much sweeter. Knowing that there is no tomorrow makes today particularly precious. Understanding the improbability of life makes me appreciate its impossible beauty. Believing that there is nothing about the universe that prevents us from understanding its mysteries makes me want even more desperately to satisfy my curiosity about quantum mechanics, the origin of our species, the history of human thought. And knowing that I’m too small, too short-lived, and too limited to learn everything I want to makes me yearn for a unified species of global intellectual cooperation and specialization.
Accepting and understanding my own atheism has driven me to a singular religious conclusion: Life is short. And then it ends. Happiness will not be doled out posthumously by a benevolent being to those who never had it here. Find it now. Cultivate it. And share it.