If not now, when?

My blog isn’t popular among atheists. I  can think of many reasons why this might be so, but perhaps the main one is that, while I’m terribly critical of religion, I’m far from being enamored of atheism. Most of the atheists whom I have known considered their loss of religion as an occasion for celebration (like being cured of a disease) rather than of grief. When it comes to the secularization of the public sphere, I would agree, but in my private life, my loss of belief in God was—and still remains—the greatest trauma I’ve experienced, even though the God in whom I was brought up to believe is not a God in whom I would even want to believe (given the immense suffering in the world, I can’t imagine that there even could exist a God in whom I would want to believe).

In summary, I’m not a “happy atheist” kind of person, but that’s the image that the atheist community is trying to push on society in order to win acceptance. While I’m very much a real atheist intellectually, I can’t rid myself of the emotional need to believe that life has an objective meaning, that is a meaning that can only come from God, because to think of it as a mere flash of awareness punctuated at either end by infinite nothingness makes it absurd (this isn’t a view that most atheists appear to share). Also, I don’t agree that most of the world’s problems would disappear if everyone became "rational" (that is, atheistic) because, people being people, we would still be violent and oppressive. As theists like to point out, Stalin and Pol Pot were mass murderers, and while I consider it significant that they didn’t murder in the name of atheism, neither did their freedom from religious superstition make them better people. I’ve also noticed that a great many lesser known atheists are intolerant and abusive. Given what we have endured at the hands of theists, I am sympathetic, but I am also frightened and ashamed that so many of my fellows seem consumed by anger (for one thing, it seems so irrational).

I’ve been talking here of those atheists who join atheist organizations because they constitute most of the nonbelievers I’ve known, and I would guess that they’re the ones who are most likely to see non-belief as central to their identity. As my readers well know, it’s central to my identity too, but not in the same laudatory way. While most atheists like to think of themselves as exemplars of rationality, I consider them as nutty as anyone else except, perhaps, in the area of religion, although I must admit that religion is a big area and a major cause of nuttiness. Still, it’s not a person’s entire being, and what really matters isn’t what one professes, but how one behaves. Too many atheists are haters, and this means that their ascendancy to political power might not mark an end to religious intolerance but simply a reversal of whom is dishing it out. For example, if militant atheists ran the country, I’ve no doubt but what religion would be classified as a mental illness, religious people would be discriminated against socially and in the workforce, and the children of religious people might conceivably be taken from their homes. No matter which end of the spectrum they occupy, the reign of fanatics is always the same.

Tallies of the membership of atheist organizations indicate that most atheists are non-joiners (at least of such organizations), so I don’t know how the majority feel about their non-belief, but I would make the following guesses: Some are in the closet because they fear ostracism if not overt persecution. Others consider the effects of religion on society to be salutary, and to this end, a small number belong to churches. Others are pantheists whose main difference with atheists is nomenclature rather than content. Still others are like my wife, Peggy, in that the religion/atheism dichotomy is of no interest to them (if you want to see someone go to sleep in three-minutes flat, try talking about these things with Peggy). Various others view atheist organizations as having a negative focus (I would argue with this), and choose to put their energy into other things. 

As to how many are like myself in that they view their atheism as an inescapable fact rather than a cause for celebration, I have no idea, but, surely, there are many such people who either never join an atheist organization, or else join only to feel that they lack the required boosterism. No doubt some are also—as am I—offended by the open mockery that many members of such organizations express for theists. However much I fail, I try to avoid this. For one thing, contempt alienates rather than instructs. For another, when I show contempt, it’s like when I openly curse someone—something which I have sometimes done—in that however satisfying it might seem in the moment, I later feel degraded.

I wish I had it in me to write a book because books about atheism are popular now, yet few of them are written for people such as myself, people who are sincere in their denial of religion/spirituality but who also find it impossible to be okay with life without God because life without God means life without divine guidance, life without immortality, life without ordained meaning, and life without the assurance that everything will eventually work out for the best. As hateful and contradictory as the fundamentalist God of my childhood appeared, he at least offered the promise of these things. By contrast, the atheistic view is that we owe our existence to unreasoning natural processes and then we die. Period. Finis. Deader than a doorknob. 

It’s popular among non-believers to deride as selfish and egotistical those who say this isn’t enough. Maybe such atheists are like frightened children whistling in the dark, or maybe they believe what they say. Damned if I know. I just know that if I were given a cake with a bit too much salt only to have it thrown in the garbage after I had but tasted it, I would consider it a pretty paltry gift, and so do I regard life without God, i.e. I came from eternal nothingness into a world that is marred by cruelty and injustice, and in less than a moment, I and everything I love will go back into that nothingness. For this I am supposed to celebrate atheism? I don’t think so. However grand the cosmos and however wonderful life can be at times, it doesn’t atone for what it lacks. But I should end on a positive note.

If you were to ask me what I admire most about my species, it is simply that we as individuals endure so much without killing ourselves. Maybe the reason is what Schopenhauer called blind will. I say this because it’s hard to make a case against suicide, yet relatively few of us go that route, and many of those who do are in horrible shape and nearing the end of their lives anyway. Whatever the cause, we humans are tough and adaptable, and while the same can be said for a lot of other animals, we’re the only ones who appear to have a choice. I see in myself a tenacity that I can’t explain, and which seems to come largely from my desire to keep learning and simply to see what happens next. I want my life to have a conclusion, and I don’t just mean death, but a conclusion in terms of wisdom. I’m aware that life doesn’t usually work this way. People die at age 20 in war, or at age 50 of a heart attack, or at age 80 of a stroke without appearing to have learned much or concluded much. They’re alive one moment and dead the next, and their lives resemble nothing so much as a novel with an unsatisfactory ending. This, to me, might very well constitute the ultimate tragedy, and so I say with Thoreau:

“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This—along with my curiosity and my obligation to Peggy—is what keeps me going. My best guess is that there’s really very little left for me to learn, and that how one regards one’s life is a matter of disposition rather than either philosophy or what I will call spirituality for the lack of a better word. Yet, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a loser in the disposition category, so all this leaves for me is knowledge of whatever kind and however obtained. In this regard, maybe, for me at least, the search is the destination, but whether this is true or not, I can’t help but think that I was made to be the person I am, and that I am not a mistake. I am actually much more disappointed in the shallowness that I find in other people than in the angst that I find within myself because it seems to me that most people walk through life like so many mules with blinders. I believe that much of the evil we do is the result of our shallowness because who can contemplate life deeply without making a determined effort to act wisely in the short time that is left? After all, if not now, when?

A shopping trip

I had to take Peggy to the airport at 4:30 this morning, so, hating crowded stores as I do, I went grocery shopping on the way home. The main aisle of the store was crowded with young male stockers pushing large dollies. I watched in awe as they joked with one another while lifting heavy boxes, and I thought about how recently I could have done the same and how much I took it for granted. I recalled working on a roof one day when I was their age, and my employer/helper was in his sixties. Out of the blue, he paused and watched me for a long moment, and then he said, “You are a master, and I’m a past-master.” So did it seem to me today as I watched those young men. What was easy has become hard, and what was hard has become impossible. I used to do bicep curls with 45-pound dumbbells, and that was easier then than lifting a 30-pound bag of cat litter was this morning. How can it be that so much of my strength is gone, and I can’t get it back? Walking hurts my knees, exercise that helps my back hurts my shoulders, exercise that helps my shoulders hurts my back, and each of my two kinds of sleep apnea just keep getting worse, as does my memory if not my intelligence. I am made ever incredulous by my decline. Yet, as I watched those young men, I felt equally incredulous that in four decades, many of them will be as I am now. After all, they looked like gods, and gods are eternal.

When I took karate, I was impressed by tales of aged karate masters who had vanquished gangs of young hoodlums. I believed at the time that all ails could be remedied with diet, determination, and exercise, and that age itself could be postponed indefinitely. Now, I know the extent to which bad luck can overpower strength, and age can overpower anything. Still, it was hard for me this morning to believe it for those young men, just as it’s still hard to believe it for myself. I keep hoping that I will find a way to improve my situation, yet the years bring only decline. Despite my best efforts, I can’t turn it around, and the pills I take to ease the pain will almost surely shorten my life.

My friend, Gordon, died this year at 87. I remember him best for looking me in the eye with the haunted look of the Ancient Marnier as he said, time and again, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” I considered his warning trite, and got tired of hearing it, yet he said it with an earnestness that left no doubt but what the realization was eternally fresh in his mind, which I’m sure it was as he became ever more tormented by his failing body. Just as he never adjusted to his decline, so might it be for me, yet I have another friend who’s 94, and while he says he’s bothered by the fact that he can no longer do much of anything, I never see him but what he seems happy. I ask myself what he has to be happy about when all he can do is sit in a chair and watch TV. My best guess is that (a) he’s simply wired that way, and (b) unlike Gordon, he isn’t in pain, pain having the ability rob anything of enjoyment. I can not tell you what a burden it is in my life, yet I’m ever aware that there’s no law that says it can’t get even worse (it almost surely will), but there is a law that says narcotics can suddenly stop working. Oh, but how I dread that day.

* I wasn't so young in the photo, being 43 at the time, but it seemed appropriate since I was mugging for the camera. The picture was taken at a hot spring in Oregon's Alvord Desert.