In the past, I have heard atheist activists argue that atheism actually enhances the meaning and value of our lives. How so? Well, since this is the one and only life we shall ever have, that makes it all the more special. The atheist thus cherishes and values life precisely because it has no eternal backing or support.
Of course, there is an alternative view:
Adherents view life not as a gift and a miracle, but a harm and an imposition. And their notion that having children may be a bad idea seems to be gaining mainstream popularity.
This nihilistic and pessimistic view is held by the anti-natalists, people who believe and argue because of all the suffering associated with life, it would better to have not been born.
Apparently, one of the intellectual leaders of the anti-natalists is South African philosopher David Benatar, who published a book in 2006 which is widely credited with introducing the term anti-natalism.
Welcome to anti-natalism, a small but lively corner of philosophy that, in our time of climate change, prospects of nuclear war, and divisive populist politics, has been growing of late. Though David Benatar, one of the chief modern architects of this philosophy, may or may not have coined the term “anti-natalism”—he’s done “intellectual archaeology” to figure it out, and his jury of one is still debating—his recent appearance on Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast further solidified his stake in this long debated topic: Is life worth living? Benatar says no, at least for the unborn.
According to Benatar, head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town and author of Better Never to Have Been, being born is “not always a harm, but always a very serious harm.” Summating his philosophy, he continues:
We ought not to bring new people into existence, but I think the view is broader, that we ought not to bring new sentient beings into existence. It’s not just the view that it’s harmful to come into existence, but a further view that it’s wrong to bring beings into existence.
The article then notes,
Harris finds a correlation with Buddhism. According to a translation of Buddhist texts by Sir Hari Singh Gour, Buddha claimed that men are ignorant of the suffering they unleash; existence is the cause of old age and death. If man would realize this harm he would immediately stop procreating.
Harris does try to push back against Benatar’s views, but, judging from this article, doesn’t come across as being all that successful.
The question that interests me is whether Benatar is an atheist.
This “better to not have ever existed” position is the nihilistic culmination of atheism. It’s also where the Argument from Evil leads. A reality so evil that it supposedly negates the existence of God is a reality so evil it would be better if it had not existed.
To test my hunch that this anti-natalism is so nihilistic that only an atheist could propose and spend a lifetime advocating for it, I searched Google, but could not find any place where Benator either self-describes as an atheist or is described as an atheist.
But then I found this New Yorker article which explains how Benatar is immensely private (explaining my difficulty). Yet during his interview, he let the cat out of the bag:
Some people argue that talk of pain and pleasure misses the point: even if life isn’t good, it’s meaningful. Benatar replies that, in fact, human life is cosmically meaningless: we exist in an indifferent universe, perhaps even a “multiverse,” and are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces. In the absence of cosmic meaning, only “terrestrial” meaning remains—and, he writes, there’s “something circular about arguing that the purpose of humanity’s existence is that individual humans should help one another.”
And there it is. Humans as cosmically meaningless entities living in an indifferent universe subjected to blind and purposeless forces is the very perspective of atheism.
After all, it is the atheistic view of Richard Dawkins:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
And, as icing on the cake, we can also note the analogy:
Like everyone else, Benatar finds his views disturbing; he has, therefore, ambivalent feelings about sharing them. He wouldn’t walk into a church, stride to the pulpit, and declare that God doesn’t exist. Similarly, he doesn’t relish the idea of becoming an ambassador for anti-natalism. Life, he says, is already unpleasant enough.
So the evidence does indicate Benator’s anti-natalism is ultimately rooted in atheism. Which is probably why artist Samuel Abelow notes, “both Harris and Benatar are rational-materialists, objectivists and, of course, atheists.”
While Benatar may not relish the idea of becoming an ambassador for anti-natalism, that horse has left the barn – he has already become one as a consequence of his own public writings and interviews. What’s more interesting to me is his reluctance to make the public connection between his atheism and his anti-natalism. Wonder why that is? 😉
It is also interesting to step back and take in the various moral perspectives of different expressions of atheism. Whether it’s Singer’s advocacy for bestiality or infanticide, Dawkins’ advovcating for “mild pedophilia,” the determinists insistence that serial murderers and rapists are helpless victims, or Benator’s belief that it is immoral to have children, it is not uncommon to find atheism in dark places.