Spring and Fall:
to a Young Child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
In his book, The Choice of Hercules, A. C. Grayling includes a very necessary chapter entitled “When Darkness Falls” (Chapter 3), in which he discusses, as he must, times when we are sick or dying or grieving, for life is not always summer afternoon. Indeed, as Grayling says,
[t]o live is to contract for loss. Only if you die before the deaths of people you care about, and never separate from any of them because of a quarrel or because they move away or abroad — in short: only if every one of the thousands of exit doors that take people out of each other’s lives stay shut until our own opens out of all of theirs, will you not know loss of this kind. [53-54]
Or, as Richard Robinson said in his book, An Atheist’s Values, the
chief argument for the legitimacy of suicide is that life is a trap. We have not asked for it, and it can be terrible. 
When I saw the sun, this morning, shining on the trees in Maplewood cemetery where Elizabeth’s ashes are buried, it brought to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, the chapter from Grayling’s book and Robinson’s rather trenchant remark.
Contemporary atheism is optimistic. Given its wall-to-wall phalanx of writers hell-bent on mocking everything that smells of religion, it may seem that this label is ill-applied. Yet under its bluster and iconoclasm atheism is full of good cheer and high spirits. Anyone who knows an actual atheist knows this.
And what, one would like to ask, is wrong with being full of good cheer and high spirits? But the claim is ridiculous: Where do the religious come up with their zany ideas?! Atheism is a lot of things, but it is definitely not full of good cheer and high spirits. For atheism, after all, is an “ism,” a word, the name for a point of view, a Weltanschauung, if you like, sometimes accepted by people who find that they never could or no longer can believe in a god or gods. Not all atheists are comfortable with this word, because it is simply a negative term, which makes it seem as though nonbelief in gods is dependent upon belief in gods, or, further, as though atheists have nothing besides the negation of religious belief in common, as though it is all about negation. And it isn’t.
It is kind of Paul Wallace to notice that this is not true, to notice, that is, that there is more to atheism than negation. That is why some people who disbelieve in gods and the supernatural prefer to call themselves naturalists, that is, those who believe that the life we have and the world we know are the only world and the only life that we will ever have or know. Being dead is like being unborn or asleep. This, of course, does not mean that we will never be unhappy or afraid or in pain. We may experience all these things, if we live long enough, and no one, of course, is too young to die. But that does not mean that we should spend our time in anguish that this is all, for it is so much. As Dawkins reminds us from time to time, the chances are infinitesimal that we, the specific persons that we are (insofar as it makes sense to speak in terms of specific persons), should have come to exist. We are lucky to be alive — or unlucky, as the case may be, because not all lives are good to have. That is why it has seemed reasonable to some ethicists, like Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, that children born with certain conditions that mean only a future of pain and misery should be able to be put quietly and mercifully to sleep (as we say of our pets), instead of being forced to endure a few days or months or years of misery.
But what atheists can do, that people like Paul Wallace cannot, is to face these kinds of things squarely, and without flinching. We do not need to wonder why we were “created” to endure misery, if misery is our lot. And if we want to thank anyone for our lives, who better than our parents, or those who, in special ways, have contributed to our lives? In her journal, that she called The Cannabis Chronicles, which she began writing for her doctor shortly after she received a legal exemption to use cannabis for the relief of some of her MS symptoms, Elizabeth once remarked that she sometimes felt shortchanged by life, and thought it would be nice to think that she and I could meet again in another realm where we could enjoy our love more fully. However, she wrote immediately that, though she sometimes thought this way, she realised that this would make her life even more of a horror than it was already in the process of becoming, because it would mean that there must be a deliberate purpose behind her misery, and that it had been done deliberately by some intelligence, and this was something that she simply could not accept. But despite this she was joyful till the last moment of her life. This does not mean that she did not suffer, nor does it mean that she never cried in desperation because of the apparent pointlessness of the pain and disability and growing indignity of her life, but at the same time she lived life to the full, and she died with great courage and determination.
Paul Wallace mentions the atheist bus slogan in London, and then he says:
It is optimistic because it assumes that the default condition of human life is peace. It is optimistic because, in its refusal to acknowledge the deeper problems of life, it redraws human experience on a solvable and finite scale, presuming that what people really need is to “enjoy their lives.”
And this is nonsense. It makes no such assumption. While I sometimes think that the atheist signs on German buses were more to the point, saying, essentially, that, since there is no god we are responsible for ourselves and for our values, the London slogan makes an important point as well. Religion takes up a lot of time, and it involves a lot of needless worry. Some religion is healthy-minded, as William James said, and Wallace reminds us. But much religion is that of sick souls, as James called them, people consumed by fear of what comes after, horribly disfigured by melancholy, deeply troubled by moral scrupulosity so narrow and so intense that it gives the sufferer no peace, uncertain about the present, fearful of the future, incapacitated by sinful thoughts that arise unbidden and unwelcomed yet unimpeded, subject to self-doubt and existential loneliness, misanthropic and miserable. I used to say to people, years ago, that there is something refreshing and astringent about atheism, because not so morbidly preoccupied with the self, and Richard Robinson’s book was the source of many a homily. There is some of that morbidity in Hopkins’ poem with which I began, though it still seems to me beautiful, because it does capture an important dimension of life, and how inner significance resonates with the world around us.
As for Paul Wallace, he’s simply wrong. Nonbelief captures as many moods as belief, and perhaps many more. For if we recognise that we are of the earth, earthy, and simply parts of the living world that comes into being and then is gone, recycled, if you like, with the rest of the natural world, then we can resonate to all the rhythms that are natural to us, and we do not need to be so fearful lest we overstep imaginary boundaries placed there by a invigilating super-intelligence. It is well-known that sexuality is deeply compromised by religious believing, that women have been marginalised by religion, and that their efforts to assert their place in the world are being continuously subverted by religious beliefs and believers. This is only one range of issues that we may expect to be influenced by the loss of religious belief, and influenced for the better. Many of our beliefs about what is and what is not disgusting, for instance, depends entirely upon religion, and some of these things, as P.Z. Myers recently pointed out in reference to a debate on abortion (he also links to a video of the debate), makes us fearful of things that pertain to human rights, like the rights of women to retain control of their reproductivity, or of the suffering to wrest control of their dying away from religious invigilators who think that their feelings of what is or is not acceptable should govern what we do with our lives. It is not that atheists or naturalists are optimistic, as Wallace suggests; it is simply that atheists do not think that many things that are of such agonising concern to the religious are the business of anyone but the person or persons concerned. Wallace thinks that he is a coward, and because of that could not be an atheist. Well, why not? Let’s let him play the coward, if he wishes. The real issue, though, in case he hasn’t noticed, is what is more likely to be true, and cowardice in face of the truth is not admirable.