Columnists > Voices

Ill will toward men

A warm-hearted atheist is difficult to find

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

The season of Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men has swiftly passed, so it's OK to resort to road rage and gloom. Or if you're more inclined to savage laughter, a book by novelist Meg Rosoff might be just the ticket.

There Is No Dog, published a few months ago in the UK (available here in January), imagines God as a lazy, sex-crazed teenager named Bob, whose mother volunteered him for the creation gig. Since Bob is incompetent on top of his other faults, he requires some middle management to ensure he doesn't destroy the world in a thoughtless moment. This would be merely dumb in the adult market, but the novel is intended for teenagers.

Last fall, after learning about the content of her latest book, a Christian school in Bath revoked an invitation for Rosoff to speak during a literature festival. This prompted the author to remark, "It's disappointing that some schools feel that the subject of my book is unsuitable for their pupils as I consider it part of my job as a writer to explore sensitive issues, and to let my adolescent readers find hope, humour, and redemption in a world full of danger and loss."

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Beyond the clanging, boiler-plate echoes of this statement, it's hard to see how a self-indulgent satire would be helpful to a teen exploring sensitive issues. But an interview with Rosoff published around the same time may shed more light than she intended on her motivations. She claims to have been an atheist since the age of 7, and "if I could have been an atheist younger I would have been. I used to stand at the bus stop and think, what a rubbish creation is man!" She was also tormented by the thought of death and "eternal nothingness." Still is: "Life is absolutely horrific, leading up to absolute horror."

This from a woman who has achieved a level of career satisfaction that most authors only dream of. Other wildly successful atheist writers betray an attitude about the world and its inhabitants that is at best conflicted. "The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear," says Richard Dawkins. But he also writes, "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Which is it? That might depend on one's mood at the moment.

But mankind is even more paradoxical than the universe. "To deny atheism is to reject humanity," boldly states TheAtheist blog, and right away backs itself into a corner by the simple fact that most of humanity "denies" atheism. Are they stupid, venal, or simply ignorant? "My own view," says Christopher Hitchens, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, "is that this planet is used as a penal colony, lunatic asylum and dumping ground by a superior civilization, to get rid of the undesirable and unfit. I can't prove it, but you can't disprove it either."

Can I prove that atheists tend to hold a low view of mankind? There's plenty of circumstantial evidence. One is the position they stake out for themselves as more intelligent, courageous, and honest than the general run. Two is an argument that pops up frequently in skeptical circles: If God were such a creative genius, wouldn't He have done a better job? Especially with humans? Three is the scarcity of benevolent works founded by atheists. I'm sure there are some, but their names don't spring readily to mind like, say, Samaritan's Purse, Catholic Charities, and the hundreds of hospitals named for a Saint.

Seen on Answerbag.com: "How do atheists express their love for the rest of humanity?" Answer: "You don't need religion to express love, you complete idiot. Why are all your questions so ignorant?" Genuinely warmhearted atheists exist, but warmheartedness is not the first descriptive quality that comes to mind. The more vocal ones betray themselves sooner or later: To reject God is almost always to despise people.

Email: jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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