Speaking very broadly and taking the religious or theistic and the naturalistic or materialistic positions in their most generic sense, it must be said that, if it’s true, the naturalistic position is very bad news for the generality of humankind, whereas the religious position, if true, is deeply good news.
This isn’t to say that atheists can’t point to, and enjoy, human goodness and love, the satisfactions of family life and community, various physical pleasures, aesthetic appreciation, creative expression, the glories of nature, the quest for scientific understanding, food, sports and entertainment. They surely can, and all these unquestionably are, or can be, good.
But the simple fact is that a substantial proportion of humanity has been largely denied access to such things. Perhaps even, speaking historically, an overwhelming majority. Those who profit from material prosperity in stable societies, who benefit from adequate nutrition and decent medical care, who enjoy reasonably good health and have received fairly solid educations, who have been born into rich and relatively healthy cultures — those who, in the late British philosopher John Hick’s phrase, “have been lucky in the lottery of life” — have a shot at more or less happy lives.
Even in such cases, though, happiness is scarcely guaranteed.
“I will say nothing against the course of my existence,” the great German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in 1824. “But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.”
Even the most fortunate of humans will have their illnesses, their sorrows and bereavements, their frustrations and missed opportunities, and their ruptured relationships, although these will befall them in a generally positive context. They will inevitably encounter pain, sorrow, grief, disappointment, despair, frustration, sickness, aging and, finally, death. But there will be some compensating satisfactions.
For those, by contrast, who suffer from congenitally poor health, whose lives are blighted by plague or war or political oppression, who are mired in hopeless poverty, there is no favorable context to which they can return. There will be relatively few compensations — and perhaps essentially none at all.
Any atheist or humanist, to be realistic, must acknowledge this fact. But it isn’t often that such atheists or humanists, at least in the West — belonging, as they do, to the well-educated, comfortable, lucky elite — seem to realize the depths of the pointlessness and the hopelessly inescapable misery to which their sunny nihilism condemns the majority of their fellow human beings.
“If I were to die now,” commented a 19th-century atheist cited by the great Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James, “being in a healthy condition for my age, both mentally and physically, I would just as lief, yes, rather, die with a hearty enjoyment of music, sport, or any other rational pastime. As a timepiece stops, we die — there being no immortality in either case.”
But most people don’t die suddenly. They don’t proceed painlessly from robust mental and physical health to oblivion, accompanied by a first-rate string quartet. Rather — whether for a brief period or over the course of a lengthy decline — they suffer physical deterioration and the loss of mental faculties. And, for all too many even today, this concludes lifetimes of frustration, hunger, humiliation, pain and injustice.
Even for fate’s most favored children, though, there will inevitably be regrets and areas of disappointment.
“Take the happiest man,” suggests James, “the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of 10 his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.”
None of this, of course, demonstrates that we are immortal, or that there is a world of compensating rewards awaiting us on the other side of the grave. But certainly it illustrates why the question of whether such a world exists is and ought to be of profound concern to normal people. As the apostle Paul exclaimed nearly two millennia ago, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).