Hope Is A Plentiful Thing

Question from Jun:
This may be similar to a question already asked about dealing with adversity, but I feel it is sufficiently different to stand on its own: How does an atheist overcome thoughts of despair, of giving up, even suicide, when things look hopeless? Christians turn to passages in Scripture or to prayer. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you very much.

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s okay, I think Jake answered the last one about this so I haven’t had a go in a while.

Look at it this way: what does God provide that gives you hope and a reason to go on? Whatever the answer, atheists get it from somewhere else because since they don’t believe in God they don’t believe God is the only source of these things. That can be hard to comprehend for people who think God IS the only source, which is why this question crops up regularly, but without a central theist belief a lot of secondary theist assumptions which you might not even realise you make suddenly go out the window.

Purpose, for example, can come from almost anywhere because people choose their own purpose. Even those who believe in God admit they don’t know what God’s larger plan is or how they personally figure into it, so they make their own choices about how best to serve Him. Not thinking that one has a divine purpose isn’t much worse than not knowing what one’s supposed divine purpose is, and allows more freedom in the choice because it can go entirely outside the realm of religion. Many social and political activists choose what cause to support in direct opposition to the mainstream religious dictates of the day, some because they don’t think the deity is real and some because they think the deity actually disagrees with the religion. Whatever is most important to you in life can become your purpose if you throw yourself into it. And if it ceases to be fulfilling or worthwhile, you can spin on a dime and pursue something else.

To tackle the other major point, people looking for a reason not to commit suicide need not only a purpose but a reason to think there is good to be found in the world. The point is worth hammering that if God doesn’t exist, God isn’t the only source of good in the world because there IS good in the world regardless. However you define “good” it’s happening out there somewhere, you just need to look for it. There’s no denying that terrible things happen all the time, but even in the middle of tragedy some of the greatest deeds are found. The Reverend Fred (aka Mr) Rogers often said as his mother said to him that whenever something awful was happening one should look for the people helping.

Another thing atheists see differently is that they think this life is the only one we have. Therefore leaving it prematurely gives no chance of a better subsequent life. Happiness can only be found in this life, so the only way to achieve it is to stick it out.

Mitchell Heisman, and one heck of a suicide note

“…if a man’s willing to write 1905 pages justifying his own death he’s not interested in being talked out of it.”

Question from Rohit:
Sometimes one comes across really rare incidents – and the reaction of the general public to such incidents really saddens one.

I’ve actually taken some time to go thru some of Mitchell Heisman’s 1905 page suicide note. I do not find any flaw in his logic except perhaps too narrow a focus on the concept of equality.
Some of his ideas are actually pretty interesting.
If you go to his site www.suicidenote.info and see his pic you do not see a guy who’s pathetic in appearance. He actually looks a bit intense. If you read his note even in bits and pieces you soon discover that this was a guy who was not pathetic in mental abilities either.

How would atheism sell life instead of death to Heisman? Can it? Can atheism justify life over death?

Religion’s stand on death seems to be pretty solid by the way. I’m not so sure of atheism’s stand.
I am an atheist and I think it is purely a matter of personal choice, social custom, muddied up with an evolutionary survival instinct (will to live – like that of any living organism – an instinct of flight from danger).

But I’d like to hear your comments on it … there’s been no answer to this in another forum till now.

An aside – Heisman’s is a case that has an eerie comparable in fiction – Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov in “Devils”

Answer by SmartLX:
Excuse me if I don’t devote the next several days to ploughing through all 1905 pages. I’m already reading Scott Pilgrim and I Shall Wear Midnight, and I have a job to go to. The sheer size of the piece may have a lot to do with why there’s no full response so far. Another major factor is that he only killed himself last month. Give it another month or two before you really wonder why there are no responses.

I did skim it though. My immediate response based on that, and your description, is that if a man’s willing to write 1905 pages justifying his own death he’s not interested in being talked out of it. He appears to have pre-emptively dismissed the stances of any set of people who he thought might try: Christians, Jews, members of many schools of philosophy, psychologists, scientists, atheists and so on. (His own position, in the vein of pantheism, might be called “technotheism”: God, or the making of God, is technology and He will have fully evolved at the point of the Technological Singularity.) Nobody, let alone atheism, had a chance of selling life to this guy.

Atheism by itself doesn’t justify life, nor can it be expected to. There’s no line of reasoning that goes, “There is no god, therefore don’t die.” The reasoning that keeps atheists alive, when it has anything to do with atheism at all, goes, “Despite the fact that there’s no god, there are such-and-such reasons to live.” We find reasons not in the simple absence which is atheism but in the incredible presence which is the universe. Philosophically or psychologically this can take the form of humanism (humanity is important), altruism (others are important), egotism (I am important), hedonism (while I live, I can find happiness), curiosity (I can’t explore when I’m dead) or any number of other concepts.

When you get right down to it, it is personal choice and social custom, “muddied up” with the hereditary survival instinct. Humans, by their upbringing and their intrinsic nature, generally want to live and most of the intellectual justification for living (religious or otherwise) is rationalisation after the fact. Mitchell Heisman didn’t want to live anymore, and for an educated man like him that took a mammoth 1905-page effort to rationalise.

The sad thing is that his last work may or may not contain the real reason he killed himself. It’s just as likely to emerge from his own circumstances as the last weeks and years of his life are explored by the media. And wherever it comes from, we may not even recognise it among the chaff.


“Death to an atheist is essentially a tremendous waste of opportunity and potential. It’s also actual death, rather than a passport to another life. It’s not often worth hastening.”

Question from Sam:


If I commit suicide, I will:

1) Not experience any of the harms of life.

2) Not miss any of the benefits of life.

So why not commit suicide?

Hi. You tell me. Why haven’t you done it yet? Purely because a god told you not to? I don’t think so, or you’d be constantly wishing He’d let you.

If you commit suicide, you will:

1) Not be able to do anything about the harms of life.

2) No longer experience any of the benefits of life.

If you care at all about others, you have an opportunity to help them only when you’re alive. Even if they end up getting your help after you die, in your will for example, you have to prepare for it while you’re still with us. It’s the other people in this world that keep most of us in it, I think. As Robert Frost wrote, we all have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. They can be some fulfilling miles.

If on the other hand all you care about is yourself, then it’s up to you to decide whether the benefits of life still available to you are worth the “harms” you’re likely to go through. Because life is absolutely teeming with potential benefits, depending on what you like, only in really awful cases does the answer to this reasonably approach “no”. It does happen, however, which is why there is a certain amount of support for voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.

Death to an atheist is essentially a tremendous waste of opportunity and potential. It’s also actual death, rather than a passport to another life. It’s not often worth hastening.