My fiancé and I had a visit this weekend from my aunt. She stayed for three days, during which we took in a few of London’s finest museums. I rate the Imperial War Museum very highly, but the Natural History Museum has got to be my favourite. We managed to spend a couple of hours there, at the dinosaur exhibition and the human evolution exhibition. For reasons I can neither comprehend nor defend I hadn’t ever seen the human evolution exhibition before. It was wonderful. To me, human evolution has got to be the most enthralling subject in the world. I’m exhilarated by the thought of having a connection to something so similar, yet alien; that mind-blowing sense of recognising oneself in something so physically and cognitively foreign. It is the same reason why, when people get to know about cephalopods, they become fascinated by them. I think it’s also why I love having pets and love learning about animals. And then there’s the great question of why we’re here and the other humans aren’t. How did we survive and thrive so well while they died out?
Three days ago, the centre of my wonderful home city, London, became the scene of a terrorist attack in which four innocent people were murdered and many more were injured. The aim of the attacker was to incite terror, so it was immensely satisfying to visit the centre of town the very next day and see for myself precisely how hard he’d failed. London is a huge and resilient city and, as always, the city centre was jam-packed with shoppers and commuters, tourists and photographers, buskers and dancing Hare Krishnas. Walking the pavements from Regent Street down to Embankment, I didn’t for so much as a moment remember to feel afraid – that is, until I approached Trafalgar Square. A sliver of anxiety ran through me as I saw that dozens of police vans and personnel in high-viz vests had formed a formidable ring around the iconic plaza, where crowds of people had come together to remember the victims. The police kept a protective watch as the crowd observed silence, lit candles, and gave strength to one another.
I’m a fan of watching formal debate. One of my favourites is William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan debating and discussing the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?”. I was struck by how poorly Craig argued his case in comparison to his usual performances, but then the loosey-goosey format didn’t seem to play to his strengths. I’d never heard of Shelly Kagan before but after hearing his passionate defence of animal welfare I’ve decided that I probably love him. Anyway, the discussion made me think about some things: Meaning and morality, the priorities we hold, and the different ways I thought about them both pre- and post-deconversion.
At the outset, I’m content to admit that I either didn’t fully understand Craig’s argument because I need to listen to it again, or because of a divergence of perspective on what constitutes an adequate reason to care about morality that makes our respective understandings of this issue fundamentally irreconcilable. So if what I write appears to be a strawman, it’s unintentional.
After I “came out” as an atheist, I started noticing something about the responses I got from Christians. Here’s the kinds of things people would say:
“How sad that you don’t believe anymore!”
“Doesn’t it make you miserable to think that your life doesn’t have any purpose?”
“Wouldn’t you like to believe that there’s a God who really, really loves you?”
“But Christians are happier than atheists!”