The problem is not with atheists, but with atheism. Of course, atheists were present among the victims and the mourners. I am not implying that they suffered less than anyone else. What I am saying is that atheism seems to have little to offer at a time like this. Consider this manifesto by Richard Dawkins in his book River Out of Eden: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Jacques Monod writes that to ascribe meaning or purpose to life is a kind of “animism,” like the primitive tribes who found spirits in stones. We are here, according to Monod, purely as a result of chance: “Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.” In the same vein, Steven Weinberg notes that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Here we see the underlying horror of materialism: everything becomes dark and meaningless. We also see the materialist solution to the problem of evil: evil is not a problem, because evil does not exist. Life in this view is indeed a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And if a crying mother asks what the purpose of it all is, Dawkins and Weinberg have no better answer than, “Sorry, there is no purpose for any of it. Life happens, and then it stops. That’s all there is to it.” I can see why my friend Bruce cannot bring himself to embrace atheism. Only God offers Bruce the promise of a life to come, of a soul that outlasts death. Atheism offers only extinction.
When I wrote an article noting the absence of atheist sermons at the Virginia Tech ceremonies, I received a torrent of abusive e-mails from atheists. I was a jerk. I was a cretin. I should seek mental counseling. I was exploiting the tragedy in a deeply cynical way. Interestingly, few questioned my point that atheism provides neither consolation nor understanding in the face of evil or tragedy. One atheist conceded atheism’s limitations in this respect, but then angrily asked me if I preferred consoling lies and fairy tales to hard truths that we must learn to face.
No, I don’t. But this presumes that the existence of evil and suffering has established that God does not exist. In reality, all it has shown is that evil and suffering have no explanation that we can figure out. Still, it’s possible that they serve a higher purpose not evident to us. Consequently we cannot treat atheism as an established truth. Not even modern science can claim such a secure status. One of the best arguments for modernscience is that it works, which is to say that it delivers the goods and meets our wants and needs. But this is precisely what I am claiming for religion in a time of evil and suffering. Religion works, which is to say it speaks to human longings and needs in a way that no secular language can. Just as science seems indispensable to make modern life go well, God seems indispensable when life goes badly or when we are staring death in the face.
Pragmatist William James put the matter with characteristic realism: Atheists are like people who live on a frozen lake surrounded by cliffs that offer no means of escape. They know that the ice is melting and the inevitable day is coming when they must plunge ignominiously into the water. This prospect is as meaningless as it is horrifying. The Christian too must endure the chill and the inevitability of death, but his faith enables him to endure them much better. When it comes to suffering, James writes, “Religion makes easy and felicitous what is in any case necessary.” When it comes to death, he adds, Chris- tianity offers at least the prospect of the afterlife and the chance of salvation. “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of chance makes the difference … between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.”