I have a friend who is a talented illustrator and also a high school biology teacher. He draws wonderful pictures with colored marker pens on his whiteboard - pictures of living creatures of all sorts that are so well drawn it can take your breath away to look at them. Then, when the lesson is over, he takes a rag and erases the board and it's as if those beautiful works of art were never there. On atheism death is like that rag. It's the big eraser that blots out all that we've done in this life and renders it all nugatory.
Bell, of course, doesn't see it that way:
Popular Christian theology, on the other hand, renders this life less meaningful by anchoring all notions of value and purpose to a paradise somewhere in the future, in a place other than where we are right now. Ironically, my Christian upbringing taught me that ultimately this life doesn't matter, which tends to make believers apathetic about suffering and think that things will only get worse before God suddenly solves everything on the last day.This is just incorrect. Christians are not apathetic about suffering. Indeed, Christians believe that there's meaning to suffering. Such a belief is alien to atheism, however, which sees suffering as the pointless consequence of living in a cold, impersonal world. Here's atheist biologist Richard Dawkins on the subject:
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.Bell continues:
It struck me this year that nihilism is a disease born of theism. Some people have been taught to expect meaning outside of this world beyond our earthly experiences. When they come upon the many absurdities of life and see that it's "not as advertised," an existential despair can take hold.But if this is true why does that existential despair afflict atheists but not theists? Theists do not succumb to that despair because the absurdities of life, on theism, are the result of man's repudiation of God. Life is indeed absurd for the atheist. It's a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing. But for the theist there's a theme to history, a denouement. God has a plan, the theist believes, and in the end all will be made clear, it will make sense. The atheist believes that there is no God and none of it makes sense:
- "There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death….There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will…." – biologist Will Provine
- "What will come from what I am doing now, and may do tomorrow? What will come from my whole life? Otherwise expressed—Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything? Why should I do anything? Again, in other words, is there any meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me?" - Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy describing the thoughts that plagued him in his atheist years.
The solution Bell urges upon us is to just make the best of an inexplicable existence and then die. This is a prescription for hopelessness in the face of the absurdity of life. One way to frame the absurdity is to understand Bell's advice as adjuring us to live as if God existed even though he doesn't.
He concludes with these thoughts:
Without dependency on a cosmic savior who is coming to rescue us, we are free to recognize that we are the ones we're waiting for. If we don't make the world a fair and habitable place, no one else is going to do it for us. Our lives matter because our choices affect others and our children's future.This is all difficult to understand. How does the fact that our choices affect others and our children's future make them meaningful in any but a trivial sense? They're no more meaningful than the decision by the band on the Titanic to keep playing while the ship sank.
Life does not need a divine source in order to be meaningful. Anyone who has seen a breathtaking sunset or fallen in love with another human being knows that we make meaning from the experiences of our lives; we construct it the way we construct any social narrative.
Free from false expectations we are free to create purpose, share love, and enjoy the endless beauty of our world. We are the fortunate ones. There is no need for fear to have the last word.
Woody Allen was quoted in an article in Time magazine as he reflected on the question of the meaning of life:
"Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is," he says. "You see how meaningless … I don't want to depress you, but it's a meaningless little flicker." If anything, there's something refreshing in [Allen's] resistance to the platitudes about simple things making life worthwhile that so often pass for philosophy. It's not that Allen is unable to enjoy himself; it's that he's convinced the moments don't add up to redemption. "You have a meal, or you listen to a piece of music, and it's a pleasurable thing," he says. "But it doesn't accrue to anything."Unless what we do matters forever, it doesn't really matter at all. If the existence of humanity has no meaning then it's hard to imagine how the existence of individual human persons can have meaning. As the novelist Somerset Maugham writes in The Summing Up:
If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what am I here for….Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and [thus an individual's] life has no meaning.These are gloomy ruminations, but if atheism is true so are Maugham's words. The atheist can refuse to think about it or pretend that it's not so, but both alternatives seem to be examples of what Sartre calls bad faith. They're forms of self-deception. The thoughtful, honest atheist is in an awkward position since he really should be hoping with all his heart that he's wrong.