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.
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.