The aversion to religion and the embrace of atheism becomes especially baffling when you consider that, on the face of it, atheism is a dismal ideology. Many atheists like to portray themselves as noble figures venturing into the cold night, raging against the dying of the light, and facing the pointlessness of it all. This strikes me as a bit of a pose, and an inauthentic and slightly comic one at that. As Michael Novak observes, if there is no God, what is there to rage at? Is it brave to spit in the face of a volcano or a tidal wave? Natural forces are neither good nor evil; they just are. So where does heroism come in if atheists are merely taking the world as it is?”

Other atheist writers—and I would place Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in this camp—seem serene and almost gleeful about living in a world whose defining feature seems to be nature red in tooth and claw. This is an odd reaction, because as a number of evolutionary biologists, like George Williams, have admitted, Darwinism would seem to be a repulsive doctrine. Williams expresses open disgust at the ethical implications of asystem that assigns no higher purpose to life than selfish bargains and conspiracies to propagate one’s genes into future generations. According to Williams, a moral person can respond to this only with condemnation, yet Dawkins and others embrace Darwinism without ambivalence and indeed with genuine enthusiasm. Why are they drawn to such a philosophy and where, in its grim hallways, do they find room for such evident good cheer?

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould provides a clue. Pondering the meaning of life, Gould concludes that “we may yearn for a higher answer— but none exists.” Then he says something very revealing. “This explanation, though superficially troubling if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating.” In other words, the bad news is good news. Doctrines that might ordinarily seem to be horrifying— death is the end, there is no cosmic purpose or divine justice, free will is an illusion—can from another vantage point be viewed as emancipating.