The problem for the atheist: an unrealistic optimism or unlivable pessimism?
I was recently reading a book of Christian doctrine where the authors claim to outline a problem for the atheist. The authors (Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne in The Blueprint) are commenting about ‘who is in control?
I’m always intrigued about questions for the atheist and so I thought I’d pose the scenario here and see if this really is a problem for atheists. And if it is, how atheists overcome it.
Jensen and Payne pose a scenario which I believe all atheists would agree:
For the atheist, standing along on his hill, the world spread out below him is under no-one’s control. There is no great Architect, let along a great Executive Director.
I don’t think any atheist would dispute this? That there is no-one in control of the universe – we are the result of mindless unguided forces.
Then I think Jensen and Payne make a controversial claim and I’d be keen for comment,
He [the atheist] can accept, therefore, with pessimism the irrationality, hostility, and absurdity that he sees. Alternatively, he can take upon himself the responsibility of trying to run the world.
I think they are trying to say that the atheist recognises that there are enigmas and frustrations in the world, e.g. poverty, hunger, abuse etc which we reluctantly accept because this is just the way things are. What do you think of that? Can the atheist accept with pessimism the frustrations of the world because that’s the way it is?
Jensen and Payne go on,
Most people, even atheists, realise that they cannot personally run the world. However, some feel that by corporate endeavour, humanity can and will bring the world under control.
How do atheists feel about this? Is this fair? Do atheists believe that we can control the world? If so, how do we do that?
Jensen and Payne try to show how this is impossible,
This belies the facts. Humanity has tremendous trouble ruling itself, especially when trying to work out which part of humanity should do the ruling.
This is a challenging point and something my post on the Hunger Games and Sam Harris was trying to bring out. Who determines the good?
Jensen and Payne then conclude with the problem for the atheist:
The atheist is caught between an unrealistic optimism (expressed in the Humanist Party) and a bewildering and unlivable pessimism (expressed in existentialism).
So, what do you think? Is this really a problem for the atheist? Is there a tension between optimism about the improvement of the world or the pessimism about the nature of humanity. Is there a way forward?
Jensen and Payne then go on to say that belief in a sovereign God does remove us from some of the terrible tensions of atheism because this gives purpose and meaning.
I’d be keen to hear responses.