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). Taken on their face, these words would seem to have far reaching implications for human value, life, and significance, and Russell would have agreed.
There is little more the atheist can do but to face the absurdity and despair of human existence and to try to live bravely in the face of it. It is this existence that the atheist philosopher Albert Camus struggled with. He struggled deeply with the idea of the absurdity of life and of human existence, an existence that forced human beings to live within an indifferent universe. Camus wasn’t the only one, however, as a colleague of his 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 melancholic 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 neither forget the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who too had his gloomy but certain views on the subject. 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).
Nietzsche obviously did not believe that God actually died. 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, and so suggesting that God’s death wasn’t a particularly good thing. Not only did it suggest that the universe wasn’t made with us in mind, but that 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 him, 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 deemed binding upon all people, which led to morality itself collapsing 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 which 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, the unbearable nature of the loss of any objective meaning and morality tends to result in most atheist being unable to live consistently with their atheism. They often, for instance, vocally denounce the superstition that is religious belief and belief in God. After all, today we have science. Science explains the world and science gives us meaning, so who needs God? The proud narrative within atheistic camps is that science has rendered belief in God irrational and out of date. However, whether that is true or not, it is when probing the carcass of a universe atheism has left humanity with that one wonders if contemporary atheists have really grasped the implications of their atheism.
As the notable atheist philosophers quoted above had observed in their own day, the image atheism paints isn’t a pleasant one.
Who, for example, is happy at the prospect of obliteration at death, and that whatever one has achieved in life, whether that be 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 human life has 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 by our socio-biological conditioning. In an attempt to affirm the lack uniqueness of the human being, the atheist will reduce him or her to likes of any other animal. On atheism human beings possess no more intrinsic value than any other animal, and the claimed naturalistic narrative speaking of humanity’s place within the universe proves it. “Value,” in essence, does not exist, but is rather a construction of the human imagination, and not because some deity or God made animals and humans with intrinsic value.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of a human being, we seem to have received the rear end of the stick, for 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. 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).
The atheist will not only realize this but too discover that love is nothing more than dopamine and norepinephrine reactions within his brain. This is a hard fact to swallow should the human being have other of whom he or she loves.
As such, atheism paints a gloomy, hopeless portrait for what person is able to live with such a reality on a daily basis?
The Christian philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer provided an excellent commentary on the practical inconsistency of such an image. 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 stated 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.
And so it seems with atheists and their atheism.
This reminds me of Michael Shermer, a passionate atheist and the founder of The Skeptics Society. In his book he shares a tragic anecdote from his college days concerning the his girlfriend’s experience of a car accident which left her paralyzed her for life. In that moment of desperation Shermer prayed to God, begging him to heal her. But when his prayers went unanswered he turned his back on Christian belief entirely (9). One is moved by such a story and from the stories of countless others who have suffered similarly.
But on atheism this is the brutal reality of existence, and is it perhaps not this what Richard Dawkins had in mind when he famously declared that,
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (10)
What Dawkins paints here is Shermer’s world, and the world of every atheist no matter how much protest there is to the contrary. What happens, just happens, and it doesn’t matter how one gets hurt, whether that’s Shermer’s former girlfriend or my own mother.
The clear implication of the enormity and significance that the question of God’s existence has, and what conclusion we reason to will undoubtedly shape us in nearly every possible way.
According to Nietzsche God had died long ago, but what do you say?
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. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden. p. 131–32
11. Sagan, C. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.