This post will ramble, I can already tell.
I have two best friends, Ernie and Sara. We have all known one another since junior high school, so something like 30 years. They were dating in high school and got married in 1996 or so. Maybe 1997.
In any case, they seem on the path to divorce. She’s successful in her career, she looks great and wants to have fun. He’s struggled since losing his job maybe five years ago. He’s also had some health issues. Back in the day, he was a star athlete with model good looks. He still looks good, and he’s a dedicated husband and father, but he’s no longer a hot shit. They have diverged, then.
One painful element of the divorce lies in realizing that although he wants the marriage, she doesn’t. She wants out. I’m oversimplifying the complexities and nuances of their total relationship, and even I don’t know everything that goes on between them. Neither do I mean to blame or judge either of them. They stand in different places, with different views on what their marriage means.
I want to make a larger point, however, that any of us can blow up a relationship very easily. What’s easier than to break up or dissolve a marriage? Any one of us has ample reason to get out of the situations we have put ourselves in. I have said it many times in the context of my own marriage: if I want to make her religiosity or my atheism a problem between us, I can do it instantly. If I get sick of her depression, or if I want to plunge myself into my job, or if I want to criticize–well, it would take just a moment to drive in a wedge between us.
Marriages, and peace generally, come down to will and values. To encapsulate both will and values in one expression: Being happily married makes up our highest value. Nothing comes above it, not her religion or my atheism or anything else. Everything, in other words, must give way to our happy marriage. This seems reasonable and right to me, not least because I imagine being terribly unhappy apart from my wife and our home.
Yet we all know people who bash atheists and love to tell what an atheist’s moral and behavioral commitments must be. You know the argument they use: “To be consistent with your worldview, you atheists should be committed only to whatever makes you personally happy. If you’re married and want to commit adultery, you should feel no compunction whatsoever about doing it.” And so forth.
These people forget–always, conveniently–(a) that morality can arise through other means than religion/theism, and (b) that pursuit of pleasure does not necessarily follow from atheism. Allow me not to lay out whole, full cases now, but reasoning and tradition can generate fine moral guidance without recourse to a paternalistic god. And for the second point, we atheists realize that the best path to happiness includes both the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. I don’t go out drinking and dancing every night because whatever pleasure it might give me would also cost both me and my body. Since the time of Epicurus, materialists have embraced the way of moderation. Thoughtful atheists do, too.
I wish atheists could all be one big happy family. In fact, I wish this for the entire world. Conflict, even bitter conflict, doesn’t necessarily undercut happiness or family ties–but it certainly can. My opinion, for the little it’s worth, is that those who have brought forth the allegations against other atheists of sexual intimidation or misconduct tend to be on the right side of the issue. I think the moral courage goes to that side, and I think the long-term welfare of the atheist/skeptical communities (their attainment of pleasure for all and their avoidance of pain for all) benefits by current events. We are not communities going through divorce but rather going through the work to strengthen our will and our values.