Last month, Ian Cromwell started a series asking atheists at large to contribute what being an atheist has done to improve their lives. Though I was not raised in a particularly religious fashion—a progressive take on Catholicism, followed by hippie spirituality—my involvement in the secular movement and active identification as an atheist and a skeptic have enriched my experience.
I have but this one short life. Though it would be nice to plan to live to a ripe and grouchy old age, it could end tomorrow. Or next Tuesday. Life has this terrible habit of behaving unpredictably, you know.
Though I am extraordinarily clumsy, I will likely, as do the vast majority of people, fade out of existence quietly. Five, ten, fifty years from then, I will have become nothing but curled pictures and retold retellings of stories.
These are facts, and they are cold. We atheists hear a lot about the chill of disbelief, about what we miss without a sense of the supernatural, the oceans of unseen, unmeasured universe we just have to have faith in. We are asked if it isn’t just a little bit lonely, to have nothing but ourselves and the neurons between our ears? With so little meaning to our lives, what motivation can we have?
Quite a bit, really.
I’ve but this one life to live. That means when I see homophobia, when I see sexism or littering or injustice in the world, I must act. I must act because all I have is this very moment. But most importantly, I must act because the person who is suffering, like me, only has this moment for themselves. There isn’t any other happy alternate life for them either.
I’ll play devil’s advocate to your Pascal and his wager—in the vast infinity of beliefs, are you willing to let the unhappiness of your fellow human hang in the balance against the existence of a paradise for them in the afterlife?
I believe there is nothing to death but the winking out of one flame against the backdrop of an unending candelabra; I must do all I can in this life.
I have only this time, and if the only contribution I can leave as memory of own my existence is my actions, I must make them count. I must say what I mean. I must tell those I love that I love them now, because tomorrow is uncertain. I must share my happiness, and do what I can to give everyone else an opportunity to leap about in joy. Sometimes this will come before my homework.
Because I am an atheist, I must act to the best of my ability in the most moral way, and to help the greatest number of people I run across.