In a controversial column from last March, I argued that most contemporary atheists are being fundamentally dishonest in claiming that godlessness "is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings." It most certainly is not, I claimed, referencing passages of philosophy and poetry to show that, viewed honestly, atheism is "utterly tragic" — and that the denial of this tragedy amounted to little more than "sentimental, superficial happy talk."
Many readers were not amused. A number of the most indignant critics limited themselves to colorful variations on "how dare you say that!" But some gave a more substantive reply, wondering if I meant to imply that a genuinely honest atheism would involve living in a state of perpetual psychic misery.
That's a fair question — and one I'd like to answer by making a case for existentialism as the most honest form of atheism.
Existentialism differs from the greeting-card version of atheism so prevalent today, in taking its cue from the realization that life without God is hard.
It's hard because human beings tend to be anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of the worries wrapped up with our mortality. It's hard because our lives and our loved ones matter to us more than we can possibly express — and the prospect of losing them for good in the annihilation of death is irrevocably terrifying. It's hard because part of us wants to believe that we reside in a moral universe — that an immoral deed violates an intrinsic standard of right and wrong, even if the perpetrator eludes human punishment. And it's hard, finally, because we crave good things for ourselves — many of which (fame, fortune, honor, glory) only the luckiest will ever acquire, and some of which (happiness unmixed with sorrow) no one will ever enjoy within the limits of our finite lives.
Rather than denying these core human truths in an effort to make godlessness seem more palatable, existentialists insist on living in their light, even when doing so cuts against the grain of the human heart and its deepest longings.
Variations on this outlook can be found in the writings of philosophers (Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, E.M. Cioran), poets (Philip Larkin), and playwrights (Samuel Beckett). But perhaps no one has captured it with greater concision, beauty, and pathos than Eugene O'Neill in the passage of his greatest play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, when the character of Edmund tells his father about a handful of spiritual experiences that have given him a glimpse of a deeper sense of meaning than his atheism usually allows. At these moments, Edmund feels as if he belongs to a larger whole, "without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man. To life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way."
When this feeling washes over him, Edmund believes he's witnessing "the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see — and seeing the secret, you are the secret. For a second there is meaning." But then, inevitably, "the hand lets the veil fall" and the feeling fades, replaced by the realization that it was nothing more than a beautiful illusion. And when that happens, the sobering truth is all that remains: "You are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason."
Reading those lines, our shallower atheists are sure to respond: What do you mean "no good reason"? I have plenty of good reasons for what I do with my life!
To which an existentialist like Albert Camus would reply: Can you really give a spiritually satisfying answer to the question of why you do what you do — an answer that transcends arbitrariness and contingency?
Camus didn't think it was possible, and he considered that a problem — one that an honest atheist needs to confront. That's because what Camus called "the unreasonable silence of the world" in the face of the human quest for intrinsic meaning threatens to render absurd every form of human striving, from the ambition to accomplish great deeds to the far more mundane activities of pursuing a career, raising a family, and even getting out of bed in the morning. An existentialist understands that in the absence of a God who provides an ultimate answer to the question of "why," the goodness of human life can appear to dissolve, requiring reconstruction from the ground up.
That is a monumental spiritual challenge — one that can only be undertaken on the basis of an admittedly absurd leap of faith that affirms the goodness of life despite its ultimate pointlessness. Sisyphus rolls his rock up the mountain, watches it roll back down to the bottom, and then begins the process again, in full knowledge of its futility. That is Camus' stark vision of the human condition. And yet he insists that we should work to embrace it — and learn to treat "the struggle itself" as noble enough "to fill a man's heart." Only then can we begin to "imagine Sisyphus happy."
Existentialists do not counsel despair. They seek, rather, to provide us with clear-sighted and candid guidance as we make our way through a disenchanted world. As O'Neill wrote in a letter to a friend, it is in "facing life" and "fighting against the eternal odds" that human beings gain their greatest dignity and discover "the meaning of life — and the hope." "The individual life," O'Neill believed, "is made significant just by the struggle."
Which is why it's so important that atheists not deny the struggle in the first place.
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