Monday, July 22, 2013

Atheism and Nihilism

Randy Boyagoda talks about atheist author David Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto) in a recent column at First Things. Here's an excerpt from Boyagoda's post:
Shields writes,
“In the absence of God the Father, all bets are off. Life makes no sense. How do I function when life has been drained of meaning?”
[Shields] appreciates the stakes of his project, the nullity and nihilism that ultimately characterize a godless existence, and challenges his readers to join him in what he regards as courageous atheism:
“[F]or many people in the post-transcendent twenty-first century, death is not a passageway to eternity but a brute biological fact. We’re done. It’s over. All the gods have gone to sleep or are simply moribund. We’re a bag of bones. All the myths are empty. The only bravery consists of diving into the wreck, dancing/grieving in the abyss.”
But the person writing the book isn’t done yet, nor are the people reading it, and so what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Shields wants us to seek salvation by putting our otherwise useless faith in ourselves and our reading lists, just as he has done.

“Writing as religion” he commends in a passing koan that he elaborates upon late in the book by recommending some fifty-five works “I swear by,” effectively the works that he positions as a testament to his concluding tenet: “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.”
So, as I understand Shields, his point is this: There is no God nor conscious existence beyond the grave. Your life is therefore no more meaningful than the life of a protozoan. We're born, we suffer, we die and that's all there is to it. There's nothing we can do about this absurd, empty, pointlessness, except read a couple of books, the best of which simply remind you that you're nothing more than a cosmic hiccup.

Well, I agree with Shields that, given his atheism, life pretty much is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I think he's correct that in a Godless world life has no objective meaning or value. Unless what we do matters forever it doesn't matter at all, and I think too few atheists either recognize or admit the fact that what they're prescribing is utter hopelessness and despair. You'd think it'd be a tough sell.

At some point in our lives we each come to an intersection. We can take the road that leads to atheistic nihilism as Shields has done, or we can take the road that leads to purpose and meaning. This road, however, requires of us that we reject atheism. What fascinates me is that there are so many who eagerly choose the first road, not because they want their lives to be a hiccup, but because they just don't want to believe in God. They're so repelled by the idea that there really is a loving creator who guarantees us life forever that they'd rather accept a depressing belief in our existential worthlessness. Why?

Some people reply that there's just no evidence for God, but this is not only untrue, it's a cop-out. Lack of evidence is not why most unbelievers don't believe. If the two roads were instead two stories, most people who disbelieve do so because they simply don't want the second story to be true. It has nothing to do with evidence.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel probably speaks for many of his fellow atheists when he wrote in his book The Last Word that, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

In the movie Life of Pi an atheistic journalist is interviewing Pi because he's heard that Pi has an amazing story to tell of how he survived an ordeal at sea after the ship he was on sank. Pi tells the journalist that he's going to persuade him that God exists. The journalist encourages him to give it a shot. Pi then relates his story which seems just too fantastic to be true. It's filled with events that just don't seem credible.

He then explains that when he was finally rescued he was taken to a hospital where he was interviewed by agents of the company that insured the ship. They asked him to recount what happened to him, which he does, but they don't believe him. So he gives them another account which has no fantastic elements to it at all. This seems to satisfy them and they leave. Pi then asks the journalist which story he prefers, which one does he wish to be true, and the journalist replies that he likes the first one, the one in which incredible things happened. Pi then says to him, "So it is with God."

After all the arguments and the evidence have been articulated and exhausted we often wind up believing the story we want to be true. If Shields doesn't believe in God, I suspect that, like Nagel, deep down he simply doesn't want there to be a God in the first place. He'd rather live by a story that makes his life nothing more than the fizz on the head of a beer than accept that the universe is the creation of a divine artist. He prefers the story that leads to emptiness and despair rather than the one that leads to beauty, love, and hope.

Sometimes I think that that is just perverse.