Have We Killed God? Atheism & What it Means For us.

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Bertrand Russell once said that if atheism was true we’d have no choice but to build our lives upon “the firm foundation of unyielding despair” (1).

There is little more the atheist can do but to face the absurdity of existence and to live bravely in the face of it. It is this existence that the atheist philosopher Albert Camus referred to as “nausea.” Camus struggled deeply with the idea of the absurdity of life and of human existence, an existence that forces us to live within an uncaring, indifferent world. A colleague of Camus, a philosopher by the name Jean Paul Sartre, discovered that “If God does not exist… man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon, either within or outside himself” (2). Equally as depressive was the French biochemist Jacques Monod who in his book Chance and Necessity wrote that man has finally come to a place where he “knows he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe” (3).

One can’t elucidate what this means without mentioning the German nihilist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche saw that when man killed God, so man killed himself too. In his work, The Gay Science, he famously penned that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (4).

Now, obviously he did not believe God actually died, not to mention that the God of classical theism cannot die. Rather, for Nietzsche, God had never existed, and thus it was only our idea of God that had died, specifically the Christian version which he contended had “become unbelievable” (5). For Nietzsche the implications were severe; God’s death wasn’t a particularly good thing. Not only did it suggest that the universe wasn’t made with us in mind as once believed, but it also presented a challenge to our moral assumptions (which he referred to as “our entire European morality”). How, having removed God and the transcendent standard that is grounded within in, are we now to hold to a system of values in the absence of a divine order? Nietzsche contended that without God we had to reject our belief in an objective and universal moral law that is binding upon all people. With this rejection the western world’s foundation for morality had finally collapsed into a smoldering heap. But Nietzsche saw that many would fail to come to terms with God’s death given the fact of our human nature that longs for meaning, “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown” (6).

However, in the face of all of this, it is no secret that many atheists fail to live consistently with their atheism. Such atheists will often loudly and proudly denounce the superstition that is religious belief and belief in God. Today we have science, so who needs God? Science has done away with God so any rational minded person should adopt atheism. But no matter how loud she is, this atheist has failed to grasp the severity of all this.

Who, for example, is happy at the prospect of obliteration at death, and that whatever one has achieved in life, whether that is personal achievement or the helping of others, ultimately comes to nothing? Atheism demands that we come to terms with this, and like the universe, which itself will come to an end, so will human life. If the universe has no ultimate meaning, there is no reason to suppose that our lives have any meaning and value within it. At most then our belief that human beings are valuable and capable of living meaningful lives is an illusion merely fobbed off onto us due to sociobiological conditioning. What person is able to live with such a reality on a daily basis? What does the atheist doctor say to his patient on his or her deathbed? What does atheist mother tell her daughter when she begins asking these big philosophical, existential questions?

On such a view, human beings have no more value than any other animal. The only difference between the dog and the human is that the human can come to know and comprehend the meaninglessness of his own existence, the lives of those of whom he “loves” (love being nothing more than dopamine and norepinephrine chemicals within his brain), and the pointlessness of the universe itself. If this is true then the poor hound seemed to get the luckier draw in this life. According to the late atheist William Provine, “No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there any absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life” (7).

Francis Schaeffer provided an excellent examination of this inconsistency. According to Schaeffer, modern man lives in a two-story house (8). On the bottom level is the finite world without God where life and existence is absurd. The upper level, however, is where value and purpose exist. Schaeffer said that modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. However, modern man cannot live happily in such an absurd world. Modern man therefore has to repeatedly make leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God. He is thus fully inconsistent when he makes this leap, one that he can’t help but make. He grabs for something that he believes does not exist, hence man cannot live consistently and happily with his atheism.

This reminds me of Michael Shermer, a passionate atheist and the founder of The Skeptics Society. In his book he shares a sad anecdote from his college days when his girlfriend was in a car accident, an accident that paralyzed her for life. In that moment of desperation he prayed to God, begging God to heal her. But when his prayer went unanswered he turned his back on Christian belief fully (9). I feel incredibly sorry for Shermer and for anyone who has suffered so tragically; I am quite certain that there are good number of former Christians who left the faith over such things. But, on atheism, that is the brutal reality of existence. What happens, just happens, and it doesn’t matter how we get hurt.

As insensitive as it might sound (I feel there is no other way to put it), a car crash leaving a girlfriend paralyzed for life is simply, on atheism, a collision of atoms smashing into each other at high velocity. On a worldview where God does not exist, and in a universe that cares nothing for us, this is just the way things are no matter how much our hearts and minds tell us the contrary. Thus, if atheism is true no matter how much we beg for a miracle, for a sign, for anything, there is no God on the other end of the line to hear us. We are trapped on a rock that is no more than “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Carl Sagan once remarked (10).

At the end we can see why the question of God’s existence is no trivial one. And what conclusion we come to concerning this question will shape us, undoubtedly. But, as Nietzsche, believed, have we killed God?

May it not be so.

References.

1. Russell, B. 1903. The Free Man’s Worship. Available.

2. Paul Sartre, J. The Rebel. p.75.

3. Monod, J. 1971. Chance and necessity: an essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology. p. 180.

4. Nietzsche, F. 1882. The Gay Science. p. 125.

5. Nietzsche, F. 1882. Ibid, p. 343.

6. Nietzsche, F. 1882. Ibid. p. 108.

7. Provine, W. 1988. Scientists, Face it! Science and Religion are Incompatible. Available.

8. Burson, S. & Walls, J. 2009. C. S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century… p. 96.

9. Miller, A. 2012. Book Review: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. Available.

10. Sagan, C. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

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11 responses to “Have We Killed God? Atheism & What it Means For us.

      • Nihilism, like atheism and even humanism, seem to stir up both fear and exhilaration, i.e., fear of death, and exhilaration at relying on one’s own discoveries and making one’s own choices in life. I think Christianity stirs up both fear and exhilaration too with its notion of being saved or damned. Certainly many Christians fear for their souls and those of their loved ones and the souls of everyone on earth for that matter, and that viewing one’s self as part of a divine comedy as Dante did, is exhilarating. On the other hand, many Christians also seem to retain a fear not simply of hell, but of death as nothingness, and mourn just as greatly as atheists do when someone they love has died. The thought of anyone becoming a nihilist, including themselves, i.e., accepting that death is the end, also seems to strike a note of fear into Christians. Though ancient Hebrews apparently were able to accept that everyone who died, even the prophets, simply went to the same place as the animals, i.e., Sheol, the shadow land of eternal death, never to return.

        Does nihilism and atheism drive people to commit suicide? Atheists usually point out that they have everything to live for and not a whole lot of things they are eager to die for. Also, Christians suffer depression and even commit suicide like everyone else according to these figures (at the end are some quotations from nihilists on suicide, including some thoughts that one might call, “the lighter side of suicide”): https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/08/christians-or-non-christians-who-suffer.html

      • Camus posed one of the twentieth century’s best-known questions, which launches The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (MS, 3).

        But what does a nihilistʼs nihilist think of suicide? Forget Camus for a sec and read these quotations from E. M. Cioran:

        When people come to me saying they want to kill themselves, I tell them, “Whatʼs your rush? You can kill yourself any time you like. So calm down.” And they do calm down.

        It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.

        If death is as horrible as is claimed, how is it that after the passage of a certain period of time we consider happy any being, friend or enemy, who has ceased to live?

        In a world without melancholy, nightingales would start burping.

        What would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us theirs?

        Life inspires more dread than death—it is life which is the great unknown. (Or as Bertrand Russell put it, “We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think— in fact they do so.”)

        The Lighter Side of Suicide?

        Suicide is manʼs way of telling God, ‘You canʼt fire me – I quit.’—Bill Maher

        Potential suicides should keep in mind that itʼs a decision they have to live with for the rest of their lives.—paraphrase of something Paul Tillich wrote

        I am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.—David Levithan

        The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.—Friedrich Nietzsche

        There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.—Tennessee Williams

        The only difference between a suicide and a martyrdom really is the amount of press coverage.—Chuck Palahniuk

        I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed but all I could do was to get drunk again.—Charles Bukowski

        If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.—Mahatma Gandhi

        Once I tried to kill myself with a bungee cord. I kept almost dying.—Steven Wright

        Thereʼs no reason to live, but thereʼs no reason to die, either… Life is not worth the bother of leaving it.—Jacques Rigaut

        The New York Daily News suggested that my biggest war crime was not killing myself like a gentleman. Presumably Hitler was a gentleman.—Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

        “If the pain was constant and unbearable, or I was struggling for every breath and unable to sleep, I might consider suicide. I donʼt think Iʼve ever been the suicidal type because I have lots of addictive interests including making music. If the question is metaphysical, then I would add that metaphysics is sometimes full of bullsh*t. The thought of everything eventually perishing can create angst but not necessarily suicidal thoughts.”
        –Cecil Wyche [agnostic, non-Christian, though interested in religious philosophy]

        Devout Mormon Threatened to Harm Himself Unless His Brothers Stopped Cursing, Leaps to Death Rather than Endure Listening to Any More Profanity—(KSL News) Police now say an argument caused a 21-year-old man to jump from a moving truck. “Tyler Poulson was riding with his brothers last night when he became offended by one of them using profanity. Poulson, who recently returned from an LDS mission, threatened to get out of the truck if he continued. One of the men, not thinking he would, told Poulson to do so. Police said the car was going about 35 miles an hour when Poulson opened the door and jumped. He was pronounced dead on scene.” Posted Nov 12th, 2005

      • Major changes (or even minor challenges) to one’s well-entrenched philosophical, religious, political, sexual views often fills people with nausea, dread, sometimes terror.

        Also, even theists who believe this cosmos was created by and overseen every instant by an absolutely moral God, such theists are still stuck with the fact that people still hurt each other, and nature still hurts people, in horrible ways, and sometimes unexpected ways, and neither God, nor claims of having an absolute moral code, stops such things from happening. Of course judging by attempts to organize and regiment human behavior, you squeeze too tightly in one place, and some other kind of behavior appears that is making people upset for some other reason.

        As for absolute moral lessons derived from nature, we see microbes feasting on humans or their crops. We also see people (or their crops) drowned, crushed, frozen, seared in varied and unexpected ways. As for lessons in morality derived from nature there are hermit species and social species; herbivores and carnivores; some that mate for life, others that live to mate, and some that eat their mates. Plus, there are species in which sons mate with mothers, newborn children mate with each other, fathers kill other father’s children, mothers eat their children, daughters eat their mothers, and fetuses devour each other in the womb.

  1. You’ve come upon the heart of the matter, James. I’m glad, as an atheist, that I’ve followed your blog long enough to read this piece. Though I don’t necessarily subscribe to every supposition, particularly regarding the meaninglessness or unhappiness of the atheistic position, I’ll refrain from critique. Nevertheless, this may be the most astute and sensitive exploration of the nature of the question I’ve read here. Thank you.

  2. The statement, “if atheism is true. no matter how much we beg for a miracle, for a sign, for anything, there is no God on the other end to hear us. We are trapped on a rock that is no more than a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Karl Sagen

    I believe Mr Sagen was right, so why not make the best of it and try to better life on this “mote of dust”

    I **REJECT** the BELIEF in the EXISTENCE of any god or gods. There are NO facts or scientific evidence to support this supernatural belief system. There is no proof of an after life, or a soul, or of miracles, or Heaven or Hell, or that prayer doesn’t do anything except build up false hope(no one is listening), or any of that silliness Churches teach just to get your money.

    The “belief of a god is dying” is because the nones are “freethinkers” and becoming more secular. They are asking questions and receiving NO sensible answers. They are gathering evidence and facts from their I-Phones and discussing this subject with their friends. They are reading the Bible and that does it for many as it did for me.

    Is god dead? The god that was the father of Jesus(if there ever was a Jesus), IS dead because he only existed/exists in the brainwashed minds of his blind flock. In order for something to die, it must be alive to begin with, like be of flesh and blood, a heart, a body, etc.

    Religion is so silly, however, there are many who consider themselves religious and do many good things. On the contrary there are many and have been MANY MORE in the past who have murdered for their religious leaders.

    In my opinion, the World “EARTH” would be a MUCH< MUCH better place to live if there was no religion.

  3. Well said, and bravo for referencing Schaeffer. Truly NO ONE lives out the atheist belief system with “integrity”–I would recommend to you J Budzewsewski’s chapter in Why I Am a Christian edited by Geisler and Hoffman. In it he describes his own journey into and out of atheism. It’s brutally honest.
    Anecdotally, I know a few atheists, and I know a lot of serious Christians. If I were to make a decision about which to be based solely the apparent results of each choice…I certainly would not choose to be an atheist.

  4. The human condition consists in answering that question – why are we here? As countless philosophers have put it, rejecting a transcendent purpose rather than liberating us actually leads to despair and absurdity.

  5. Wow you really hit on some things I have been thinking about lately as an atheist. Non-existence scares the you know what out of me, not because I think I will care when it happens but I just can’t imagine it. I know the common response is you didn’t mind existing before you were born but that doesn’t seem to help. I believe unlike other animals for whatever reason our minds evolved to understand this fundamental truth but then we used religion as a coping mechanism.

    You know the other thing that hit me hard was the idea of justice, Hitler committed suicide … as a Christian I believed he was going to get what’s coming in the afterlife… now I realize he has the same fate as the most moral person on Earth. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but we have to remember life is the way it is, not the way we want it to be. The matrix has it right … ultimately it comes down to the Blue or Red pill.

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