I am a Christian. Catholic to be specific. I have often reflected on what it means to be a good Christian. I have come to the conclusion that a good Christian is someone who really lives what they believe. And I have also come to the conclusion that this is not me.
A good Christian believes God is the source and summit of their life. I believe that. But I don't live it. How often I neglect my thoughts of God. A good Christian should fill much of their time with charity to the poor. I believe that. But I don't live it. I donate some of my time to charity, but not nearly enough to be considered decent, and much of the volunteer work is not given to the poor as it should be. A good Christian believes that Christ lives in all of us. I believe that. But I don't live it. I often find other things get in the way of me truly loving the people around me. When I do my examination of conscience each day, all of my vices come jumping out at me and I see how much I made an idol of myself. And I know that this is really stupid. I would be happier by serving my wife by helping with the laundry or fixing things around the house instead of sitting on the couch like a lump watching an Arrested Development Marathon.
I am not a good Christian. I have met good Christians, who really live their faith. I always feel small in their presence. These are men and women who always think of God and the poor and they put those thoughts into action. They believe that Christ died for them, and they witness to that each day by dying to themselves to live for God and others.
But I have never met a good atheist
I have met many atheists in my years. And in all that time I have never met a good atheist. I have read about good atheists. I have seen some on TV. But I have never spoken with a good atheist.
By “atheist” I mean it in the strictest of senses. I am not speaking about an agnostic, who is not sure if there is a Divine. I am speaking about a person who has made the committed conclusion that there is no ultimate reality beyond this world. They do not believe in a God, nor anything else beyond the universe like Plato's Forms, the Brahman, etc. The atheist is a materialist in the sense that all that exists is the material world. There is no soul, there is just body. There is no mind, there is only brain. There is no love, there is only a biochemical reaction in the brain. There is no good nor evil, there is only physical activity. And above all, there is no meaning.
As I have said, I have read good atheists. The best atheist I have ever read is Jean Paul Sartre. His line of thinking is clear and his conclusions based on his premises are perfectly valid. He argued that if there is no God (i.e. no ultimate reality beyond this world), then nothing in this life has value or meaning. We intuitively get that kindness is better than cruelty, love is better than hate, courage is better than cowardice. Sartre says that this does not make any sense without some kind of God. “Better” and “worse” are ultimately meaningless. How can something be better or worse if there is no point at which to measure it? If you shot an arrow at a target, and then I shot an arrow that did not go as far, you might say that your shot was better. In other words, you were closer to the goal. But if we were both shooting at nothing, with no ultimate point, we could not say one shot was better than another. You could say yours was farther, but that does not mean better.
In the same way, there is no way to give value or meaning to an action if there is no ultimate target, whether that is God, the Forms, or something else eternal. But Sartre makes clear that if there is nothing beyond this material world, then everything we do is meaningless. It is simply activity with no ultimate end. Brush your teeth or shoot a toddler: they are both actions with no ultimate meaning. Be a Mother Teresa and carry the poorest of the poor on your back or be Joseph Stalin and kill millions of Ukrainians. From the atheist point of view, both are simply material actions. Now, an atheist may respond, “But one helps people and the other hurts.” But if the human being is simply a collection of atoms, what does it matter? No one set of atoms has more value than another. Or an atheist might say, “But this or that is good because it preserves human life and continues the species.” We may desire to continue the species, but that desire is ultimately meaningless. The universe existed for billions of years without humans and it was just as meaningless before and after.
For an atheist there is no answer to the question of “why?” Why are we here? Why be good? Why should we value human life? Sartre was clear about this. There is no answer to this question. His logic goes thus:
In order for the universe to have meaning, there must be an ultimate reality (e.g. God)
But there is no ultimate reality.
Therefore, there is no meaning.
And this is why I have never met a good atheist. I have never met an atheist who lived this. Make no mistake, they were atheists. They believe that there is no God and therefore we have no ultimate value. But they do not really live what they believe. They live as though acts of charity matter. They behave as if their friends and family have value. The atheists I have met find value in kindness and tolerance and love.
I remember this one atheist I met: he was passionate about his art and his girlfriend. He gave the impression that he would sacrifice much to make her happy. But that would imply that her happiness had some kind of value that was worth the sacrifice he would pay. But, according to atheism, her happiness has not value. He was a bad atheist.
I met another atheist who loved his children. He gave so much of his own life for their happiness, even if they would never acknowledge him or pay him back with any kind of love. Even if this gave him joy, that joy is ultimately meaningless and hollow. The pleasure is just a biochemical reaction in the brain with no greater value than any other biochemical reaction. At least that is what he should say if he was a good atheist.
But he was not a good atheist. I have never met one. Every atheist I have met has lived as if good ethical actions had value. I have met atheists more moral than some bad Christians like myself. And even if they reject morality, they live as if their passion projects are important and have value, which they ultimately do not, according their believes. But they don't live it.
Most of the atheists I have met are good people. But that makes them bad atheists.
I am glad that they are bad atheists. If they can live their lives as if they have meaning, maybe I can too and maybe one day become a good Christian.