On this blog I call myself a skeptical believer. That is, I am a believer but I tend to habitually question everything. I don’t go for pat answers or religious cliches. For me this way of thinking is mostly a blessing as it makes me confident that the things I believe in are real, but it doesn’t come without cost. There are many times I’ve wished for a simple uncomplicated faith where I didn’t have to wrestle and debate every single point of every single belief like two countries hammering out a peace negotiation line by line.
I know many of you reading this are like me. You are a searcher of genuine truth no matter what it is, and I know that many of you arrive at very different conclusions than I do. This essay then is written for you, the skeptical atheist. The person who genuinely desires to know what is true and real, but leans toward the conclusion that there is no God, that we are alone in a cold, hostile universe. I honestly sympathize with your struggle, and I can respect the reasons you have for believing thusly. They’re very compelling. However, I ask you to consider the following:
If atheism is true…
You are nothing but highly-ordered ooze that secretes thought like a stuffy nose secretes mucus.
If atheism is true…
Your love for a spouse/significant other is nothing but chemicals interacting with each other. Your love for your children is an illusion, forced on you by the very cells in your own body for no other reason than to ensure your DNA survives to replicate itself.
If atheism is true…
Good loses and apathy wins. Evil wins. The good guys are wrong and the bad guys are right. Those who cheat senior citizens out of their savings are the true winners of life. A kid who guns down twenty first graders wins. Men who crash airplanes into buildings or cut the heads off those they disagree with…all these guys win if atheism is true. As much as you can win in a meaningless universe, anyway. At the very least, they’re not cosmically “wrong” in any real sense.
If atheism is true…
There is no justice. Nothing unfair will ever be set right. Those who escape justice for their crimes truly escape. Rapists get free sex, murderers get away with it. The voices of the oppressed are never heard; their tyrants die warm in bed surrounded by wealth and comfort and mistresses, never to face judgment.
Friend, this can’t be true. This can not be true. We all know deep in our bones it can’t be true, that somehow someway, goodness and justice are in command and will have the final say. Even if it often doesn’t look that way. The insides of even the most hardened atheist cry out and practically scream This is wrong! when they see the horrific atrocities we are capable of.
The problem for an atheistic worldview, however, is that the only basis for morality in a world without God is that things are “bad” because they’re evolutionarily inefficient.
Oh sure, there are all kinds of tortured justifications and rationalizations for being a good person in a world without God. You can spin things any way you choose. In the end, though, when it all comes down to it, those reasons are nothing more than window dressing covering an empty store inside. They’re a bunch of deck chairs you’re rearranging on the Titanic. A beautiful lie*.
Actually you can’t even say it’s beautiful, because beauty has no meaning in such a universe. Any beauty or meaning or pleasure that you derive from life is just as illusory and fake as any religion you might decry, if there truly is no god. Everything you’ve ever loved, admired, or aspired to is all hopeless vanity destined for a cold, silent, permanent death.
If atheism is true, then sentient life is truly the most depressing thing that has ever existed in the entire universe. It means that every single thing you have ever valued is devoid of significance. Life for most is short and brutal, and that’s just the way it is. Everyone who has ever lived has died in vain. Your young cousin who died of cancer and never got to “appreciate how precious life is” is gone. My sister’s best friend who died of a brain tumor at 19 is gone. Your dad who was killed by a drunk driver is gone. They died for nothing; their sufferings brought nothing and will not be redeemed.
If this is our reality, then Consciousness is by far the cruelest of all possible fates. Better to be a slime than a person!
If you’re a true-blue atheist and you believe you’ve constructed some sort of meaning for your life then I respectfully but forcefully disagree with you. You are fooling yourself. You’re not looking at the big picture. Here’s the only sensible response I can believe in if there is no God (courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Sunset Limited):
Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing, and one thing above all else. And that one thing is futility.
If people could see the world for what it truly is, see their lives for what they truly are, without dreams or illusions, I don’t believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible.
I don’t believe in God. Can you understand that? Look around you, man. Can’t you see? The clamor and din of those in torment has to be the sound most pleasing to his ear. Your fellowship is a fellowship of pain and nothing more. And if that pain were collective instead of merely reiterative, the sheer weight of it would drag the world from the walls of the universe and send it crashing and burning down through whatever night it might yet be capable of engendering until it was not even ash.
Banish the fear of death from men’s hearts, they wouldn’t live a day. Who would want this nightmare but for fear of the next? The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, loss, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness…and all of it with a single conclusion for you and every one and every thing you have ever chosen to care for.
You tell me that I want God’s love. I don’t. Perhaps I want forgiveness, but there is no one to ask it of. And there’s no going back. There’s no setting things right. There’s only the hope of nothingness. And I cling to that hope.The Sunset Limited (HBO Films)
That’s some honest atheism right there. That’s the only kind of atheism I could get behind, if atheism were the truth.
In light of all this, what I ask of you is to be just as skeptical of your atheism as you are about your spirituality. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I also urge you to be skeptical about your skepticism. We “skepticals” like to pretend we’re above the fray, more intellectual and rational than the ordinary person. Really though, when healthy skepticism becomes an excuse for indecisiveness–or worse, drifts into cynicism–it’s just as much an emotional response as anybody else’s. Pride, anger, betrayal, or any of countless other woundings are usually the true source hiding behind the intellectual facade.
I’m convinced that we all, even atheists, are desperately searching for meaning. Unless you’re completely nihilistic, you want to be part of a story that makes sense of your life and tells you that you matter to this world. Just look at some of the ways great scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan have tried to romanticize a world without a god.**
With all due respect to their prodigious intellects, I think their inspiring rhetoric is flatly delusional if God isn’t there. You can’t build a life worth living with honest atheism. There is no story to be part of. If atheism is true, any meaning you give to life is an illusion. If atheism is false, any meaning you derive is reflected light from the life of faith. Either way, faith provides a background tapestry and direction for your life, and atheism provides…well…a cold, dead universe. For this reason alone it’s worth applying your skepticism to atheism, if only for the opportunity (no matter how slim you think it might be) to find something real that matters.
You have a choice to make, in the end. Which do you think is the aberration of humanity: our ugliness or our beauty?
Atheism says that all the greatness of humanity is merely an artifact of evolution. Our highest achievements and our best moments as a species are dust in the wind. “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Atheism means the sickest depths of human depravity are merely potential evolutionary paths that will either win or lose depending on how efficient they are. It’s just the way it is. Sorry if it royally sucked for you, but that’s life.
Faith takes a look at that and cries “Hell NO!” It’s our evil that’s the artifact. The artifact of a Fall that can and will be remedied. Faith contends that you are not an accident. You, the person reading this, are not an accident! You have an important role to play in this world that nobody else in the entire universe can fulfill. Your life matters. What choices you make in life matter. Your suffering matters.
Faith means our goodness is the expected normal and our evil is an unnatural stain that needs to be risen above and done away with. Faith means everything noble, everything pure, everything lovely, everything admirable, excellent and praiseworthy is the way things are supposed to be, and that these things are worth fighting for because they are going to last beyond the universe and exist into eternity.
That’s a story worth looking for.
Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
Falsehood aptly defended loses not its falsity.
*I give myself points for fitting a Bowfinger reference into an essay about atheism. You get double points if you got it.
** It’s important to note that both these gentleman have described themselves as agnostic, but their views are still relevant because they are almost universally claimed by present-day atheists as champions of their beliefs. Also, I love the Pale Blue Dot speech. It’s one of the best speeches ever given, but it only makes any sense in the context of “there is a God”.