So… where does this leave the atheist?
I see two options available to the atheist. The atheist can either live a life of nihilism, suffering under a burden of meaninglessness, pushing the stone up the hill every day for the rest of existence, believing that all of the effort is for nothing. Alternately, the atheist can convince himself or herself that their life has meaning in some way. This meaning would be internally defined, which would lack any external validation. Thus, it would lack objectivity. And thus, it would be considered deceitful to the individual. I don’t know which is worse, living a life of meaninglessness, or lying about it to oneself.
The question now becomes, is there a moral and ethical responsibility for an atheist to alleviate suffering in the world? Peter Singer, in Practical Ethics, argues that there are numerous reasons to act morally. He cites reason [Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Second Edition, New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pg 318.] and self-interest [Singer, pg 322] as two reasons to be ethically responsible. To this list, I would add compassion as another reason. There is no shortage of reasons for the atheist to be morally and ethically responsible. The only difference between the religious and the atheist viewpoints is in one’s motivations. Regardless of the motivation, the results are often the same. The atheist is just as likely to be morally conscious of one’s neighbour as a Christian would be. Actually, Bertrand Russell, like many other critics of Christendom, argues that religion has been historically responsible for some of the greatest atrocities ever recorded. The Crusades were religiously motivated, as were the attacks of September 11. Atheists would be the first to point out the moral inappropriateness of either of those activities.
Thus, the atheist is just as capable as a Christian to determine right from wrong. Therefore, the atheist is just as morally obligated to protect their children as a Christian would be. By extension, it would only make sense for an atheist to protect his or her children from suffering. This presents a paradox, as the atheist is unable to live a life free of suffering. As I concluded earlier, either the atheist is suffering from an existence stuck in meaninglessness or the atheist is lying to him or herself about their meaninglessness. Looking out over this vast meaninglessness is reckless. The atheist is ill equipped to answer what purpose there is to living life any longer. Why not just quit life now? If life is meaningless, then what’s to stop the atheist from crossing the line now? Wouldn’t suicide be easier than living one more day in the suffering torment of meaninglessness? Life appears to be in vain. For the majority of atheists, the abyss has not yet been contemplated. Instead, many atheists (the masses) simply disregard the abyss. They ignore the fact that they have nothing to live for. These atheists simply go through life pretending that everything is fine. They lie to themselves, trying to convince themselves that their life has meaning. That is worse than accepting one’s fate and still struggling onwards in spite of the futility.
The clever atheist could counter by asking if the Christian is lying as well, simply masking the nothingness that surrounds the whole religious experience. This argument is simply deferred back to the earlier discussion pertaining to the metaphysics of our reality. Both the atheist and the religious practitioner are equally suited to argue their case. The difference is that the atheist chooses nothingness or a self-imposed purpose in life, whereas the religious practitioner chooses an external, pre-ordained purpose. Both the religious and the atheistic worldview are valid choices, based on the evidence presented to support either argument, but only the latter choice leaves the believer with a purpose of hope.
This decision is ultimately one of hope… Is the atheist able to instill a sense of hope into a child, or would an atheist be ill equipped to prevent a child from needless suffering in the world? Horrible, horrible actions could happen to a child regardless of whether that child’s parents were atheists or Christians, so the responsibility for bringing a child into a world where evil exists is equally burdensome to either one. However, the moral and ethical responsibility that the atheist fails is in providing hope to one’s child. The atheist is poorly equipped to protect a child from the eventual view of the abyss that the atheist is confronted with on a daily basis. It is one thing for the atheist to accept the burden of pushing the stone up the hill, like Sisyphus. It is yet another for the atheist to introduce this meaningless existence to his or her child. That goes against the moral and ethical responsibility to alleviate suffering in the world, which is especially applicable to one’s children. Therefore, unless a parent is able to perceive meaning in life, it would be cruel and unusual punishment to bring a child into an existence that lacks meaning. Lack of meaning is, as we saw with Sisyphus, the worst kind of punishment that one could inflict on another.