Could An Atheist Have Written "It Is Well With My Soul"?

It is said that experience makes a man wise. That is a very unreasonable thing to say. If there were nothing still higher than experience, experience would make him mad.

- Soren Kierkegaard

Atheist Christopher Hitchens (rest in peace) was fond of saying: "Name me a moral action committed by a believer or a moral statement uttered by one, that could not be made or uttered by a non-believer." His point boggled many who erroneously thought that morality goes away when belief goes away - we forget that if God does in fact exist, then even non-believers can pursue the good, which flows from him. I would argue they even pursue God himself through the good.  

But I do believe there are some answers to Hitchens' proposition. For example, I don't believe that any atheist or agnostic, however moral or upright they are, could have penned the song that Horatio Spafford penned - "It Is Well With My Soul" - after suffering what he suffered.

Here's why.

You may have heard this song as covered by Daniel Martin Moore in a recent episode of the NBC show Parenthood (or from his fantastic album of acoustic folk, gospel, and bluegrass covers In the Cool of the Day). But the song goes back to the nineteenth century - in particular, to an American lawyer named Horatio Spaffard. We learn from Wikipedia:
"This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sailing ship, the Loch Earn, and all four of Spafford's daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, "Saved alone . . ." Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write [the hymn "It Is Well With My Soul"] as his ship passed near where his daughters had died." 
Horatio Spafford
How would Spafford respond to this situation if he were an atheist? After losing his only son at the age of four, being ruined financially, and outliving all four of his daughters after a freak accident at sea, he goes to meet his grieving wife and looks out at the watery grave where his four girls just senselessly drowned - what words come to mind?

Of course, Spafford the atheist, prior to these horrible accidents, could argue, with a detached, academic flair,  that physical and moral evil is illusory or unreal (as Buddhists and pantheists do), or at least tolerable through the universality of empathy with our fellow man.

CS Lewis
This perspective is especially easy to hold if one has good fortune, and can hide from pain and its ultimate non-answer by distracting oneself with business, friendship, love, drama, drugs, and entertainment.

But true grief is a constant reminder of itself. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed: "Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

An atheistic Spafford would be continually reminded that the tragic loss of his children and money are burdens with no redemption, questions with no final answer - such pain that even time can't heal, beyond reckoning, intolerable, even maddening.

Spafford the atheist would know that the backdrop of this insurmountable pain is a universe that is expanding into the infinite blackness toward heat death; that the biological expiration of the creature is the end of life; that there is no afterlife to sort life's messes out; that human suffering has no meaning beyond this world.

This knowledge, paired with such pain as Spafford felt, could not prompt words of gratitude, faith, hope, or joy. When the peripheral joys of life have all been stripped away by death, poverty, violence, boredom, despair, or disaster, the atheist is left face-to-face with a central sorrow that churns the universe.

For the believer, however, it is the other way around: joy is central, even when life hurls its greatest sorrows at us. Spafford the believer was moved to write these words:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul...

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

Many atheists will argue that this only means Spafford has resorted to leaning on God as a crutch; that, after losing all of his children and all of his money, he was on the brink of depression, madness, or suicide, and all he had left to make his life meaningful and joyful was his deluded belief in God.

Maybe so. Probably, in fact.

But isn't it begging the question to say that his doing so was futile, or deluded? If the behavior is deluded, it assumes that God doesn't exist - but if God does exist, what of Spafford's behavior? God doesn't exist, you argue, and that's that. Fine - but that's another argument entirely.

I still think the original thesis stands, whatever your belief or lack of belief in God. The composition of a song like "It Is Well With My Soul" in the midst of such tremendous suffering, whether it stems from madness or mirth, delusion or truth, is the distinct purview of the God-fearing. As Steve Martin sings, "atheists don't have no songs," and "no one ever wrote a tune for godless existentialism."  

God forbid the fates come crashing down on you or me like they did Spafford. Will we have a song to sing, despite our bad luck? Or will we have no other recourse but to "curse the fates and die"?  


  1. Writing a song is not a moral (or immoral) action. You've missed Hitchens' point.

  2. @Brian Westley Thanks for commenting! Well, Hitchens also said, "or a moral statement uttered." The song is an expression through words of faith and hope and love (charity, or "caritas"), all known as theological virtues. The songwriting isn't the moral action per se, it is what is expressed by the words (which again was part of Hitchens' thought experiment).

  3. I think I understand your general sentiment, and I think that I even agree with you, to an extent. I've never had such tragedy befall me, so I can't say how I would react.

    However, it seems to me that you're equating a grief-ridden atheist to a nihilist. Now, of course, many people who are grief-ridden may in fact end up, functionally, as nihilists for at least some period of time. I would argue all people, regardless of metaphysical beliefs, are prone to "situational nihilism".

  4. @jahutch2 Agreed. Yes, we are all subject to deep dread, especially after suffering an immense tragedy like Spafford did. But the question is - what can lift us up from it, if anything at all?

    I'm not saying a Christian or religious person wouldn't be just as subject to "situational nihilism" - indeed, such an event might even cause a faith-filled person to lose their faith. The question is, is that person more equipped with the tools to "press on", if they can recover the broader meaning of the events as they would've understood them with a clearer head? I would argue yes - and although that's not a good argument in favor of the truth of religion, it is comparable to something like Pascal's wager.

    Thanks for commenting - glad you enjoyed our writing. Come back again soon!

  5. In an objective "all things being equal" sense, I agree that I think a theist would be better equipped to cope with tragedy better than a non-theist. Contrary to that, I don't think that our philosophical musings are able to adequately predict how a single human (believer or not) would react to a given tragedy.

    At this point, I would normally turn to experimental psychology to garner further insight. I'll pop back in on this if I find anything of consequence.

    1. Agreed. Sounds great - thanks again for checking us out.