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Fitzpatrick '12: Good without God

If you plan on visiting New York City over the Thanksgiving holiday break, I insist that you ride the subway at least once. While you're at it, take a good look at the ads — you may read something thought-provoking.

For the next four weeks, an advertising campaign coordinated by the Big Apple Coalition of Reason — an umbrella organization that includes several atheist, secular and humanist societies based in New York — will run in a dozen different Manhattan subway stations. In honor of the Oct. 27 release of Greg Epstein's book, "Good without God," the ads bear the message, "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?"

Well, are you? That's an excellent question!

Unfortunately, "good" is a very ambiguous term. Not having read Epstein's book myself, I am at a loss to understand the intended meaning of the phrase "good without God." At first glance, two possibilities seem equally plausible: "good" may either mean "morally sound" or simply "content."

Debating the virtuous interpretation is, quite frankly, a waste of time. Atheists are perfectly capable of making moral decisions. On the other hand, the satisfaction interpretation deserves a closer examination.

To say that a person is happy without God is a confusing claim for some religious people, because God represents the ultimate source of all happiness, meaning and pleasure in their worldview. At Brown, this perspective is mitigated by the open mindset encouraged by an academic setting, but the real world is not always so forgiving. In many religious traditions, atheists are almost certainly damned for all eternity, and some theistic blowhards out there still relish the notion of endless suffering for nonbelievers. By their logic, all atheists should be perpetually miserable.

And yet, a million New Yorkers — and a fair chunk of Brown students — are good without God. The prospect of damnation doesn't discourage us. In fact, the possibility of losing this existential coin flip is a good reason to smile. With or without God, atheists have no reason to hope for something better. With or without God, life is still worth living. No matter what, we will make the best of the one lifetime we have.

Alternatively, take the message from a more derisive British atheist campaign that displayed the following ad on buses in London this past January: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Putting aside the feel-good arguments, there is one other interpretation of the aforementioned question. This construal is not an invitation to reflect on faith or question theology; rather, it is a rallying cry — a clarion call to those millions of people who find themselves, by choice or circumstance, without a God.

As you might expect, I commend the efforts of the Coalition of Reason to raise public awareness of the various atheist, secular and humanist societies in New York. Even in large cities like New York, atheists and other secular humanists still represent a minority, but a growing minority nonetheless. And like all minorities, they will seek a community. Even atheists need social cohesion.

Out of all atheists, former believers more fully understand the grim reality of apostasy; especially in situations where one's family or friends are predominantly religious, atheism can be a very lonely state of mind. Religions are essentially groups of people united by common beliefs. Because of this, rejecting the religion of one's family and friends often leads to a loss of belonging, a feeling of disconnection from one's community.

What atheists — especially young atheists — need to know is that we are also unified by common beliefs: namely, a dedication to science, freedom of thought and a firm trust in humanity. A billboard ad campaign coordinated by the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason this past March summed up this idea fittingly: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."

Granted, these ad campaigns are all public displays. They will impact the daily routines of believers and nonbelievers alike. Most religious people will probably shrug off the message, but a few may find the ads offensive. This is, of course, the calculated risk of promoting a controversial point of view. However, it is my sincerest hope that religious groups take advantage of the ad campaign to foster friendly discussion between atheists and theists rather than protest the Coalition of Reason's freedom of expression.

For their efforts, the Big Apple Coalition of Reason's ad campaign and others like it are figurative successes, regardless of how many young atheists they manage to recruit. They send a firm message to the members of their local secular communities: We don't need to hide for fear of rejection. We don't need to feel like we are alone in the world. We can live comfortably with our choice of values and know that others share them.
 

Michael Fitzpatrick '12 is great without God. He can be contacted at michael_fitzpatrick-at-brown.edu.

 




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