Pain, Atheism and TruthWhy do we feel pain? What is it for? Pain tells us when something is wrong. It is an incredibly powerful set of millions of sensors disbursed throughout our body to alert us to a problem so that we can take action. Foot tissue being destroyed? Alert the brain! "OUCH!" which leads to the foot being retracted.
For dubious philosophical reasons, we assume our senses have evolved to provide us with accurate information about the physical world. Pain is a particularly salient kind of information and usually does a good job of keeping us alive. Of course, it seems like we're getting more and more chronic pain conditions in which the sensors seem to be broken or malfunctioning. But the big picture is that they're really useful (as leprosy patients will tell you).
But humans have the ability to feel more than just physical pain. We also have evolved the ability to feel psychic pain. For some reason, it is assumed that, while the physical pain is useful for alerting the organism to a problem, the psychic pain is pointless. We often treat it (a likely very expensive adaptation) as always malfunctioning. In an article on Christians having more positive Twitter accounts, the Jezebel author explained,
atheists' rational thought "diminish[es] the capacity for optimism and positive self-illusions that typify good mental health.
The underlying assumption (by the atheist) is that the atheists are seeing the real world while Christians are believing in illusions. But imagine the same thing were said of physical pain: "Atheists' foot immobility diminishes the capacity for painlessness and un-charred flesh that typify good foot health."
Why are atheists in pain and Christians not? Why do we assume that the psychic pain sense is the only sense that leads us wrong? Might it be that the psychic pain is telling the organism some useful information? If we are to be scientific and follow our senses, why ignore this one? Why shouldn't we move in a direction that we, even if we were dumb animals, would follow to escape pain?
I have the utmost respect for the atheist virtue of valuing truth so highly. It is the virtue of Thor and other Norse mythical heroes who, knowing defeat to Ice Giants is certain, fight on. It is the virtue of the stoic, who knows the gods will win, but doesn't give them the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. And so may atheists soldier on valiantly, without hope of afterlife and without cosmic meaning in this one, enduring the pain that only "self-delusion" would palliate. But what if the pain wasn't necessary? What if life could be lived with satisfaction and without pain? What if all of our senses pointed us toward truth? What if reason and faith could, like estranged lovers, meet in a long-overdue embrace?