Happy atheists: a thorn for believers

I saw this comment on a rather insipid blog in which the author suggested that God gave Christopher Hitchens cancer to humble him into conversion:

"The very existence of functional, happy atheists flies in the face of your beliefs, so you must convince yourselves that we must not be genuine. Either we are not functional, not happy, or we are not truly atheists. Unlike your god, however, there is substantial evidence for our existence."

This got me thinking. I recently saw an ad for a church in which the pastor said things like (paraphrasing), "Do you feel hopeless? Things not working out in life? Are your relationships struggling? Come and let Jesus into your heart..." etc. etc.

Debates about whether God exists aside, I think there's a much more interesting question: whether God's existence matters. I mean sure, it may be a mildly interesting philosophical conversation to discuss the existence of a deistic god, but would anyone really give a hoot whether a deistic god exists?

With that in mind, I don't think Bible-thumping Christians can escape a central concept of their theology, which is that life is better when you're "saved". Actual degree and precise area of betterness varies from one denomination to the next, but it's always there. Depending on to whom you're listening, becoming a born-again Christian will lead to, among other things....

- A sense of purpose
- A deepened sense of morality
- Better relationships
- A stronger marriage
- Financial and/or professional and material success (the infamous "gospel of prosperity" that is so popular these days)
- Better health and/or faster recovery from illness
- Relief from depression
- A steady supply of grape juice and crackers

Now, some Christians might try to weasel out of this one and say that it's just about saving souls for eternity, but that's simply not representative of the overwhelming majority of Christians. It would appear that for most people, the whole idea of death and eternity, while somewhere in the back of their minds, does not preoccupy them in their daily lives enough to scare them into going to church on a regular basis. Christians, by and large, want to view their faith as pragmatic. This is reflected in a lot of the comments and questions I've received from Christians over the years, like these:

- You weren't really saved, because nobody could ever leave the faith after a genuine salvation experience
- Did something happen in your life that made you angry at God?
- Are you an atheist because there is a sin you want to commit, or because you don't want to be morally accountable for your behavior?
- Did you have a bad experience at your church? Perhaps their teachings weren't Biblical.

All of these have one thing in common: I can't be a happy, functional apostate. Maybe I was never really Christian to begin with. Maybe I'm a hedonist, and looking in all the wrong places for meaning. Maybe it's not that I don't believe that God exists, but that I'm just saying that because I'm secretly angry at him.

This isn't some rare issue. I can't throw a rock a theological discussion without hearing this line of thought sooner or later. Because here's the reality: I don't believe there is a god of any kind. It's not because I had any bad experiences, but because I critically studied Christian theology and theistic philosophy and found them to be logically untenable. I live a normal, well-adjusted life. I have healthy relationships with my friends, family, and the women I date. I don't suffer from depression or anxiety, and I'm in good physical health. In fact, I'm far happier as a non-believer than I ever was as a believer – my sense of morality and responsibility to others has deepened, and I feel intellectually liberated.

In a previous post, I discussed the fact that there is simply no evidence that being a believer makes your life better. You are not statistically any more likely to be financially secure, mentally stable, physically healthy,  stable in your marriage, or simply happier by being a believer, regardless of your chosen faith. Now, there is some evidence that Christians might be more likely to give to charity, which is like sort of like saying that Jainists might be less violent than non-Jainists. But surely we can be kind to others without having to affirm all kinds of convoluted religious dogma.

And that's really the big sticking point. Why do we need religion? It doesn't make your life better. It doesn't make you happy. It won't make you healthier or less likely to experience tragedy. It might make you more likely to cut a check to Live Aid, but then again, it might also compel you to oppress the human and civil rights of others, devalue women, or commit acts of violence. The existence of functional, happy non-believers is a thorn in the side of the devout, because it shows their religion is pragmatically vacuous. There's only one thing worse than a god who probably doesn't exist, and that's a god who might as well not exist.


  1. My father-in-law always says that though you may have bad times, god will always help you through them. As if to say, he somehow helps keep you afloat and gives you the strength to carry on. I chalk it down to old-fashioned dogged determination and will power. There really is no difference in believing that one or the other is keeping you afloat and neither seems to be more beneficial than the other.

  2. /applause

    Very nice post. Will be forwarding this one to my Christian parents for sure.


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