Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Had an interesting and, frankly, disconcerting conversation yesterday with an “avowed” atheist named Jan (a man). I put avowed in quotes because I happen to believe that most self-described atheists really live out of two sides of their mouths: they say one thing when defending their position, but another thing when living their lives.
What do I mean?
Well, first of all, I should say that Jan was nothing but a gentleman. He has, as far as I can tell, a good heart. But it’s also, at least from what I could surmise in our initial meeting, a deeply injured heart, too. (But more on that later.) Suffice it to say, when an avowed atheist goes home to, say, greet his children after a long day at work and tells them he loves them, I’m willing to wager that he isn’t simply acknowledging that there is a sequence of synaptic events going off in his cerebral cortex that is triggering a bio-chemical response in his brain that induces him (to choose the word “love”) to express a purely biological phenomenon. I’m fairly sure what he means when he says that he loves them is exactly what I mean when I tell my daughter that I love her: that there is an objective reality apart from me called “love” that is the highest value that can be shared and experienced between two people and which finds its source in some transcendent realm (God) and which I am claiming she and I hold and experience for each other ~ or at least that I hold and experience for her.
In other words, I don’t think there are too many actual atheists out there, avowed or otherwise, because we all ~ all of us ~ use words like courage and justice and love and hope and romance, and we make distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, every day, and we mean, in each case, that these words (or at least the meanings they signify) have value beyond what we simply assign to them. For a true atheist, though, those words are ultimately meaningless and arbitrary. They can have no basis in any objective reality because, for the atheist, the only objective reality is a random sequence of events that may have provisional order of one sort or another, but even those provisional systems of order are themselves singularities ~ deviants from the norm, which is disorder, also known as entropy, or chaos. Or, in Christian parlance, Hell.
And if there are actual atheists among us, I pity them and the people they are in relationship with, because there is nothing beyond some arbitrary social contract decided by a group of people many thousands of years ago that forms the parameters of their existence. Life as it is lived is all, quite literally, made up. For some (Camus, Sartre among them), that is sufficient. But, I think, it requires a tremendous capacity for suspension of belief in order to engage the world productively (a capacity which, again, Camus and Sartre had prodigious amounts of). In other words, you must acknowledge that civilization is nothing more than an elaborate parlor game of which you are a willing participant; that it is a game that ultimately has no meaning beyond what you create for it; and that the theater (the cosmos) that surrounds the stage (the world/our lives) is utterly devoid of context or purpose. But if one thinks too deeply about this at any given point in one’s life, then the sham of what we say, do, hope for, despise, love ~ all come crashing down like an existential house of cards, simply because meaning that is merely made up is always provisional meaning, and provisional meaning has no basis for claiming for itself any actual stability ~ “meaning” becomes an entirely relative word, and anything that is entirely relative holds no meaning in itself. It becomes a problem of inconsistent first principles (like a man born deaf who claims that sound doesn’t exist; what does he mean by the word “sound” to begin with; and if he can define it, then its existence must be possible, at least in principle, and if he can’t, then how can he say it doesn’t exist?) So the perpetuation of the idea of atheism requires, ironically, that you don’t think about it too much. It requires, in other words, a tremendous capacity for denial.
Jan wants to suggest that religion is an evolutionary byproduct intended to keep the species going ~ he claims, and not without warrant, that it’s good at forming community (if he only knew how sick most religious people are of that word). But then, on the other hand, he says that the 95% of humanity who currently hold some sort of belief in the after-life will eventually be phased out in favor of the “mutation” (i.e. the 5% of atheists who hold to reality as it “actually” is). But that only begs the question: if religious beliefs are good at establishing communities and are what keep the species going, why would evolution be moving toward a mutation? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that those entities which are not as good at forming communities ~ atheists, for example ~ would be “sampled” out in favor of those entities that can keep the process of life going? And why is life preferable over death anyway? Why, in other words, is there evolution, which assumes a telos of some kind? But I digress.
This the play: If religion, as some avowed atheists (Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens among them) have argued, actually adds to the suffering and misery in the world, then it is an aberration of evolution that must somehow be eradicated. If, however, as other atheists want to insist (Jan and his ilk), that religion is actually what has kept the species going, then that clearly explains why it was “invented” in the first place, but now that we’re a more enlightened bunch, we understand this and therefore must do away with religion because we now know that it is a false impulse. In either case, the story ends the same: do away with religious belief.
After over an hour of meandering from one topic to the next, I finally decided to no longer be deferential, partly because I began to doubt his motives for wanting to get together in the first place. I’d initially assumed he was a fellow truth-seeker. I amended my position about an hour into our conversation, however, and began to wonder if he wasn’t more interested in playing a game of “gotcha” than mutually arriving at new truths. I began to suspect that Jan had a deep and abiding bone to pick with the church, or with God, or with authority of any kind, and even… dare I say it?… with life. He seemed, in a word, pissed. Real pissed. I have no idea what his relationship was/is with his parents, but something made me honestly wonder if his resistance to organized religion wasn’t some kind of preternatural rebellion against his upbringing (Dostoevsky reminded us that patricide and dei-cide are intimately related). At least, for me, his words and style of arguing had that quality. It’s almost as if Jan’s notion of self-hood depended on his complete independence and autonomy, and in order to accomplish this, he must deny any and all real transcendence. It wasn’t so much that Jan was an atheist as that he was an anti-theist.
At the end of the day, Jan may be right (along with Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, Pinker, the New Atheists, and others), that life has no meaning beyond itself, and any meaning we manage to muster is simply meaning we’ve made up. Perhaps there is no validity to the notion of Objective Value. But neither side can prove their point when all is said and done (the law of infinite regression applies here), so we’re left to defer to the best explanation. That is to say, we’re left with our hunches, our intuitions, our silent moments of honest consideration. And when I’m left with those things, I look to the stars as Dante did, to the world around me and to the people I love, to the horrors of Haiti and the tragedies in the daily news; I look inside myself with all of my contradictions and doubts, assurances and joy; I look at all these things and I’m left with what Chesterton refers to as something that feels like an incantation… that behind the veil of life, above it and around it and beneath it within it and beyond it… there is something Else, some other rhythm I can just barely make out, some design in all of this, something other than Me, or Us. Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” I say, “Hell is me, if that’s all I’m left with.” Or, “Hell is us, if we’re all we’re left with.” In the absence of proof either way, why not opt for the Comedy instead of the Tragedy? And isn’t it precisely God’s design anyway to always keep us searching on some level, which compels us to exercise this thing called faith? God put himself in a distinct disadvantage when it came to a battle of wits over rational explanations of existence. His very m.o. is to remain above our attempts at proving him (and thus disproving him). He wants a relationship based on love, not proof.
In other words, when I gather up all my provisions for thinking and feeling and doubting and hoping and facing up to reality to and to my capacity for denial (and all the attendant opiates and tonics that go along with this), I’m left with a lingering conviction (sometimes nothing more than a sneaky suspicion): that Jesus was telling the truth.