A hard taskmaster

The preachers of my childhood lumped atheism together with humanism (which they mistakenly thought was new), Communism, and the status of being a Godless professor, implying that all four were modern fallacies so nearly identical as to lack meaningful distinction. Atheism’s modernity intrigued me because while its protagonists were invariably described as smart and well-educated, its newness also appeared to suggest that it was untrue because, after all, if everyone accepted God prior to the time of Marx, who was “modern man” to reject “Him”? As an adult, I learned somewhat of the ancient Greeks, the thinkers of the enlightenment, and evolutionary theory, and discovered that atheism was very old indeed and even predated theism, which was something that our species evolved into. Despite its antiquity, it has always and forever lacked art, ritual, music, tradition, community, special books, moral teachings, and shared beliefs, all of which were, and are, extremely important to me, and all of which are lacking in my life in any communal sense.

The atheists I’ve known were politically and philosophically liberal and elevated science and reason above other forms of knowing, but such things are not prerequisites for atheism. Indeed, there are no prerequisites for atheism. I find it to be bleak, comfortless, not a belief but simply a negation of a belief, yet much of what I am follows from it because it inescapably dominates my consciousness. Like terminal cancer, I don’t find it something to cherish but something to survive and to learn from as best I can, a hard taskmaster as the saying goes. The only good thing I can say for atheism is that it does infinitely less harm than the alternative, for I’ve yet to hear of anyone killed, tortured, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed in the name of atheism whereas millions are abused daily in the name of one god or another. If atheism not an inspiration for goodness, neither is it an inspiration for evil, and that alone is a worthy commendation. Even so, I would that there were more to life than a flicker before the darkness. As Tolstoy put it in his 1882 spiritual autobiography, A Confession:

“My situation was appalling. I knew that there was nothing down the path of rational knowledge, nothing beyond a denial of life, but in the other direction, the path of faith, there was nothing but a denial of reason, which was even more impossible than a denial of life. From rational knowledge, it was emerging that life is evil, people know that it is, people could choose not to live, but they have lived and they do live; and I have lived even though I have known for a very long time that life is meaningless and evil. But from faith, it was emerging that in order to understand the meaning of life I had to renounce reason, the one thing for which meaning is essential.”

After years of angst, Tolstoy finally did embrace “faith” as the only path to meaning. While he was correct in arguing that it is only through religious belief that an endowed meaning can be claimed for life, he ignored the possibility of an attributed meaning. For example, the atheist, Bertrand Russell, wrote of the meaning he had given his life: “My whole religion is this: do every duty, and expect no reward for it, either here or hereafter.” Because Bertrand's statement represented his best attempt to engage life with a clear head, I find it far more laudable than Tolstoy's “faith,” which arose from a desperation to avoid suicide.

Would it not seem grandiose to ask for more than Russell, to claim—by virtue of that which is called faith—that our primitive species is favored by God above the rest of the universe, and that God only created the rest of the universe as a boot camp for us to inhabit while we prepare for a place that is infinitely better? Faith is not the humble path it claims to be, but the unwarranted elevation of oneself to the status of being a special friend of the Infinite. By contrast, atheism is the denial of grandiosity inasmuch as it views us as so many meaningless sparks that flash from the darkness but for a moment before falling back into it. This being our situation, can we pronounce as sufficient whatever meaning we are able to create for our lives, or, like Tolstoy, are we condemned to choose between religious belief and futility? If the latter is true, it is surely a pathetic recommendation for belief. Even so, I relate to Tolstoy's existential despair, not because I find life meaningless in the absence of an ordained purpose but because I find life tragic in its finitude. There are days on end when I can't escape the knowledge that all of the good I do today, and all of the people I love today, will die tomorrow.

“There are those who, instead of denying despair in return for superficial hope, deny hope in return for unremitting despair… the choice is made for them by powers beyond their control… For them the reality of death and the passing of things leads to a deep paralysis… They are wise souls, but they are too wise. They do not have the courage to hope, for it takes a certain grandiosity to believe…” from On Depression by Nassir Ghaemi

Indeed. To the extent that grandiosity is a virtue, I am deficit in virtue, but this brings me to the quandary that Tolstoy faced, that is, is it better to honor one's best attempt at rationality, no matter to what depths rationality might lead, or is it better to believe that which will make one happy and productive even if doing so diminishes rationality? I would usually answer in favor of the former based upon the premise that intellectual integrity underlies moral integrity, but there are days on end when I question whether it is the right answer. There are days on end when I think that maybe a little irrationality might not be such a bad thing. Then, through means that I myself don't understand, I regain my center and repent of my heresy, because from what does the renunciation of rationality flow if not from the renunciation of integrity? At least, that is the case for me.

The 1922 era cartoon echoes the still common belief that atheism is a modern phenomenon.