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Spreading the “Joy” of Atheism

“Is there a God? No

What is the nature of reality?  What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life?  Ditto.

Why am I here?  Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work?  Of course not.

Is there a soul?  Is it immortal.  Are you kidding?

Is there free will?  Not a chance!

What happens when we die?  Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and evil?  There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral?  Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?  Anything goes.

What is love, and how can I find it?  Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem.  Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose?  It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future?  Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.”

These are the words of Alex Rosenberg, the Department Chair and R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, and they are taken from the opening chapter of his recent work, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.”

His terse Q and A really needs no explanation.  And in many ways, it encapsulates his book, so there’s no need to say anything further about it.  I suppose my point in highlighting this quote runs along different currents.  As a longtime listener of Point of Inquiry, an atheistic/humanistic podcast devoted to spreading the “joy” of atheism, I am often surprised at how often they continue to cling to purpose even when their worldview eviscerates it.  They want to make a lasting impact.  They want to advance their cause, spread their message, and sway convictions.  They are in every way purposeful, even evangelistic, aiming to make a significant difference in this world.

But why?  Why when there’s no real point in the end?

Yeah, sure, they would say that they might as well make the most of the one short life they have.  But again, why?  Who among us, after all, when we really reflect on the endless, pointless silence of unconscious blackness awaiting us (given atheism), can seriously look into the camera of life and say, “Oh boy, I’m excited about such and such cause because it’s going to make a big difference?”

I genuinely don’t know how they do it, or rather, how they sustain it.  With the infinite weight of grim nothingness ever looming on the horizon, how does such a prospect not swallow one’s drive?  What is a mere flicker of existence anyway?  One second after death and everything becomes infinitely meaningless; so meaningless in fact, so utterly vacuous, that there isn’t even space for sad reflection.  Consciousness is snuffed out.  We’re talking nothing-nothing, the greatest conceivable nothing.  No reflection.  No awareness.  Complete and utter void.

In order for one to press forward, let alone press forward with zeal, it would require a strong dose of self-delusion or distraction to live at all normally with such knowledge.  Either fool yourself or try not to think about it (or maybe drug yourself up).  But both are sad.  In the former instance, it’s akin to a person writing a fairy tale and then turning around and trying to believe it’s real.  “Life is ultimately meaningless, but I’m going to paste a sticky note on it that reads, ‘Meaning for me.’  I’m going to squeeze my eyes tightly shut, and just keep saying, ‘This does matter.  My life does count for something.’”

I suppose there are those who try to summon bravado in the face of such hopelessness.  They try to stare it down, as it were; joke about it, mock it; or use it to somehow infuse their brief existence with more meaning. “It’s the only life, so let’s get living!”  Some do that.  But it is done so in vain.  For in this instance, it’s like a man who has been sentenced for life to solitary confinement trying to convince himself that the next two days before being locked up can be lived out normally.  Who can go about their normal business with such a sentence hanging over them?  No sane mind can wave it off fully.  It inevitably affects the soul.

So if there’s a positive side to a book like “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality,” it is this: It reminds us again of the logical implications of atheism.  And for those who might fall into the camp known as the new atheists, those men and women who do try to cling to morality and meaning apart from God, this book is a sober reminder that such ambitions are folly at best.  It’s a simple case of trying to keep your cake and eat it too.  And for that, I suppose I’m reluctantly thankful for Professor Rosenberg’s awful reminder.         

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. The vanity that comes with atheism is something that I’ve noticed as well. I’m still forming opinions but I liked the post.

    March 8, 2012
    • Thanks, Shay. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s been on your mind, so far as the question of Christianity or atheism is concerned? What’s your journey looked like thus far?

      March 8, 2012
      • Sorry, for the late response. I grew up as a Lutheran going to Church and a Lutheran school. Because of this, I’ve been confronted by religion my entire life. And because of that, I’ve been skeptical about the whole ‘religion thing’. In short, though, I teetered around ‘if their is a God’ scenario and all of that, and, as of now, have come to the conclusion that I would much rather believe then not. For me, it literally doesn’t feel right not to believe. I still flirt with random ideas, but have always come to the same conclusion–there has to be a God.

        Also, I found a video through Youtube (cant seem to find it now) about a speaker and his case for God. He explained, that in all of the ‘knowledge’ a person acquires that it is very illogical to dismiss a ‘god’ based on the idea that a person can’t fully aquire even a tenth of ‘all the knowledge’ from the universe. He explained it much better than I just did lol, sorry for the bad writing.

        March 9, 2012
      • Hi Shay,

        I can relate (in part) with where you’re coming from. While I wasn’t a cradle Christian, I did start attending church around the age of 12. And I can distinctly remember questioning my faith around 19. This lasted into my early to mid twenties. I guess one could say that it was the common, “I can’t ride on the coat-tails of my parents any longer… so what do I really believe?” My struggle was more with agnosticism and Roman Catholicism, actually. But let’s face it, agnosticism isn’t that terribly different from atheism.

        Needless to say, I’m now firmly convinced that Jesus is truly Lord.

        If I may, I would encourage you along a couple different lines. This may sound rather simplistic, and in many ways it is, but I would urge you to prayerfully read your Bible. Ask God to help you. Be honest about your doubt with him. But in turn, be honest with what you’re reading. Don’t run from He’s calling you towards. I have long ago learned, and have been genuinely amazed at what God will do when you seek Him with all your heart.

        Also, you mentioned watching a YouTube lecture. I’m actually a huge fan of listening to lectures and podcasts and the like. I’m a mailman, so I have plenty of time to digest good audio stuff. If you’re the type who likes to listen to stuff, and has the time, I’d love to put you on to some items that might interest you.

        You can find a LOT of stuff over at my old website: http://www.soundofdoctrine.wordpress.com

        Here’s a couple worth considering:

        http://soundofdoctrine.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/can-man-live-without-god-%e2%80%93-ravi-zacharias/

        http://soundofdoctrine.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/the-holiness-of-god-%e2%80%93-r-c-sproul/

        http://soundofdoctrine.wordpress.com/2010/05/08/39/

        Do keep in touch. And feel free to share whatever’s on your mind about all this. I’d love to help in any way possible.

        Austin

        March 9, 2012
  2. Don’t squeeze your eyes shut; look around you. There is no need to invent something to live for, when family, friends, and love are real. Eventually, sure, the sun will explode and engulf the earth, but that is no reason not to make a better world for your baby daughter to grow up in, and her daughter, and hers.

    Our environment has selected, as successful organisms and cultures, those of us who try to make the world a better place. God may be fiction, but the environment is not, and it has made us who we are. Who we are, is people who care–about our children, but also about art, music, science, culture. Because caring, frankly, has proved to be adaptive. Caring is so adaptive that it has led us to invent gods to ensure that we care. It is our nature; it takes effort *not* to care.

    March 8, 2012
    • Hello Cuttlefish! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I certainly don’t want to deny that atheists can’t conjure meaning, or suggest that they can’t enjoy whatever sweet pleasures life may afford (like children), but if we take Mr. Rosenberg’s outlook seriously, and if we believe it, the implications are inevitably devastating.

      Just take morality. The next time someone wrongs you, pause and reflect on how you feel. Injustice infuriates. Abuse is an outrage. Being slighted is painful. And yet, if at bottom, there is no underlying meaning, and if morality is merely a human convention, simply a relativistic game that continually shifts with the whims of human behavior, then I say that that knowledge (of no ultimate meaning), when you are wronged, is crippling. What’s the point of it all? My feelings of injustice are merely the result of chance. The same is true with love- whether the love of the arts, the love of children, the love of a spouse, or the love of a particular food.

      That’s why looking around doesn’t help, ultimately. Behind every instance, however enjoyable or seemingly meaningful, ultimate meaninglessness looms.
      I don’t deny that some atheists can live with relative happiness, but it is a happiness that suppresses the knowledge of the coming void- whether, as I said, through self-deception or distraction.

      But you know there’s actually a deeper reason why atheists can still function relatively well in this world, and that’s because they are in fact living in God’s world. There is ultimate meaning. And since we are made in the image of God, we cannot help but be meaningful. We know we aren’t the same as an ant. It’s the dilemma of atheism that pits the mind (or the rational implications of their worldview) against what just seems so very, very obvious, namely, that there is real meaning and real purpose and real significance.

      March 8, 2012
  3. Being someone who was once myself a professing atheist, I realize the hardship that it causes the mind. I believed this belief or non-belief system for a time and would ultimately be at wits end whenever I thought about the meaninglessness of life. What was even worse was the thought that in time my own existence would come to an abrupt end, and that nothing I had done during my brief time on earth would have any lasting value at all.

    There were many times in those years when I thought about the reality of just ending in all, or at least lived my life in such a manner that demonstrated that I indeed did not care at all about life. I find it very hard (impossible) to conceive that it was just luck that had kept me a live for all those years.

    I can understand why the atheist desires to bring others over to their side of thinking though, as the loneliness that ones feels if they really believe what they state they believe is at times unbearable. I then felt a need for like minded people to help keep me from going mad in a world without meaning.

    I am thankful beyond words that in due course of time that God revealed a much more wonderful plan. I really do have a heart for those who are atheist and do not consider them as unthinking people, but only as those to whom the revelation of God has not as yet been made manifest.

    March 9, 2012
  4. Anyone have an extra copy of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to send the author?

    March 9, 2012
    • Brilliant post! I think their reasons for continuing are ultimately a hatred of the God they think they know from lies learned from the enemy.

      March 10, 2012
  5. Ian Tuck #

    For a belief system which claims there are no absolutes they sure make a lot of absolute statements. “Is there a god? No.” Is there a free will? Not a chance!” Huh? They say there is no such thing and morals and being moral makes one happy. It is no wonder so many atheist are so angry. It is a belief of contradictions. And the persons who wrote that book are professors of philosophy? Wow, I feel so sorry for their students.

    March 10, 2012
  6. Mark Johnson #

    Things your post assumes are true and why they are not true and why that is important.

    Assumption 1: All atheists agree roughly with this line of logic.

    Why you’re wrong: They don’t. This dude may be a smart man and a famous atheist, but he does not represent all atheist’s answer to these questions, in the same way that detestable folks like Fred Phelps, Rick Warren and Kirk Cameron do not represent the opinions of all of Christendom, etc. Contrary to the odd (and seemingly growing) assumption Christian Apologists tend to have about atheism, there is no set list of things we believe about life, morality, etc. Individuals have a wide array of answers to these questions, although many would agree with at least a few of those.

    Why it’s important: If you’re goal is to be snarky and antagonistic towards atheists, or support some delusion about atheism to your readers, then I suppose it isn’t. If you’re goal is to have a reasoned discussion that accurately represents the important sticking points between atheism and Christianity, then all you have here is a non-starter. You can’t convince atheists you’re correct if you’re answering some alternate set of beliefs they don’t hold.

    Assumption 2: Atheism makes you unhappy/angry/arrogant/hopeless/mean/X personality trait.

    Why you’re wrong: First, happiness, fulfillment, kindness, and morality are not measures of the truth value of the central question of God’s existence. In the same way that you accuse atheists of conjuring happiness or meaning, they’d likely say that you’re guilty of doing the same thing by conjuring up God to make you happy, etc. Second, Insofar as it is possible to gauge the happiness of another person, there is not really any measurable difference in the happiness of an atheist or a Christian. Your strange assertion that atheists are angry is unfounded and non-falsifiable. There are plenty of angry atheists and plenty of angry, unhappy Christians. Martin Luther himself struggled with what we’d likely call crippling depression these days over his view of himself as a sinner, and led a violent and destructive movement as a result. Not to mention his “anger” towards Jews, blacks and women. Additionally, you may be missing the cause of this anger/getting a poor representation of the general demeanor because irrational accusations and arguments like the ones that riddle this post and its comments tend to anger atheists because of their nonsense and difficulty to address (not due to their strength as arguments but because of their convolution.)

    Why its important: Many atheists and rational people of any ideological camp will probably not be very happy with you for asserting that their arguments stem from some emotional problem rather than thoughtfulness and contemplation.

    Assumption 2: Whatever you said about the afterlife.

    Why you’re wrong: Just because you feel like you would be afraid of non-existence doesn’t mean that it is something we fear and try to fill up with fake happiness we get from “looking around” anymore than your religion is something you do the same with by looking around and happening to find the Bible.

    Assumption 3: Atheism claims no absolutes.

    Why you’re wrong: You just are; we claim one should not believe in some absolutes just for the sake of doing so, but when there is evidence for doing so, thus the insistence on prioritizing physics over scripture for finding truth.

    Why it’s important: As with all the others, you really put people off and make yourself and your ideology look intellectually bankrupt, which you may not care about, but rationality and “making sense” are growing in popularity in all parts of the world, so this may be useful to you.

    March 11, 2012
    • Hi Mark,

      I genuinely appreciate your clear and controlled response. It’s refreshing. So thank you.

      If I may, allow me to respond briefly to each of your points.

      Regarding assumption #1:

      Having listened to scores upon scores of atheists over the years, I will readily concede that atheism isn’t monolithic. There is a diversity of opinions. I know some who are pro-life, while there are others who are pro-abortion. I know some who believe there are in fact objective morals, while others uphold pure relativism. So yes, there is diversity. And no, I wouldn’t want to judge a movement or a belief system on the actions of a select few.

      Nevertheless, I am personally convinced that Rosenberg’s statement is the logical and inevitable conclusion of atheism, so far as rational implications are concerned. People can certainly live inconsistently with their belief-systems. Granted. And people can certainly draw incorrect inferences or deduce poorly. Granted. But it doesn’t change what follows by good and necessary consequence.

      Now you may want to insist that this isn’t the case- that atheism doesn’t necessarily entail his view- and if so, then I am left with basically two choices: Either try to convince that this is so, or simply continue to maintain that it is. Which shall I choose? Some people, as you well know, can’t be reasoned with, and in those instances, the latter is the only route that can be taken.

      The interesting thing at this point, and it serves to illustrate why utter relativism and agnosticism inevitably follows, given atheism, is precisely the disagreement over truth. What standard are we going to choose to discern truth? Or what moral standard are we going to agree upon to discern whether we even ought or should (see the intrusion of morality here?) be logical? Your entire post is littered with moral denunciations. But why, I ask, should I care, given atheism?

      Even if we could discern moral facts, given atheism, which I don’t believe we can, the transient nature of our existence, plus the ultimate meaninglessness of life, eviscerates your concerns. For one second after you and I are dead, my or your inability to discern the truth of this particular matter is absolutely unimportant. Nothing matters then. What a few billion pieces of animated flesh did for a very brief period of time on a very, very small island of a rock is neither here nor there. It simply doesn’t matter. So if one piece of flesh chose to do his homework, or if one piece of flesh liked to rape other pieces of flesh, or if one piece of flesh was an upright citizen, is all equal in the void of unconsciousness. Those actions are all equally unimportant. No difference. So even if they mean something now, they won’t shortly. Give it a few more decades.

      In my mind, self-deification is intimately associated with atheism. We are all gods unto ourselves, choosing our own standards of rationality, morality, tastes, preferences, whims, etc. Why capitulate to what another person thinks? Facts? Ah, but all facts need interpreted. People interpret facts. And people look at the world through colored lenses. The proof of this is everywhere.
      In the end, if we are going to know anything at all, and if we are going to be able navigate these questions, we need an absolute standard. And that absolute standard isn’t just some god out there, but I am convinced that it is the Triune God of Christianity.

      This may sound like mere dogma shouting to you, but after having reflected on this issue for the better part of my adult life, and having stared agnosticism squarely in the face, I believe and am convinced this is the only answer that not only satisfies, but is true.

      Assumption #2:

      Quickly. You are right. Both Christians and atheists experience a wide array of emotions. Some are depressed. Some are happier than others. Etc. But while the general prosperity or emotional state of Christians may not provide an unassailable benchmark for proving God’s existence, the Bible is quite clear that genuine Christians (not mere professors) will be like trees planted by a stream. They will experience a kind of joy that can only be had by knowing God intimately. If Christianity is true, then this necessarily follows, so you surely won’t disagree in theory. And I would insist that atheists should feel disappointed or feel dejected or depressed, given atheism.

      Here a quote from Rosenberg will amplify the inner sense of emptiness here:

      “So, what should we scientistic folks do when overcome by Weltschmertz (world-weariness)? Take two of whatever neuro-pharmacology prescribes. If you don’t feel better in the morning…. or three weeks from now, switch to another one. Three weeks is often how long it takes serotonin reuptake suppression drugs like Prozac, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, or Luvox to kick in. And if one doesn’t work, another one probably will.”

      This is sad.

      Assumption 2 (which you meant 3):

      You are correct, if atheism is true. That would follow. But if Christianity is true, then it doesn’t follow. Think about it.

      Assumption 3 (or 4):

      Now Mark, let’s be fair here. I don’t think people should believe in some absolutes just for the sake of doing so. That’s an unfair caricature. I believe God is absolute because of the evidence.
      Now conversely, you say that you believe in other absolutes based on evidence, and therefore insist on prioritizing physics over Scripture. So let me get this right. What is it about physics that you believe is absolutely true? Weren’t the laws of physics different at the time of the singularity? What about the multiverse? Or how might you deal with Descarte’s dream problem (Or the Matrix problem)? What about the one and many problem? What about the debate over indeterminism? You may choose to absolutize physics as a matter of personal preference, but you can’t be sure that it is absolutely true. Rather, you choose to stand on it as the surest foundation for human knowledge. But in this case, the hard sciences tell us very, very little about human life (all the metaphysical questions we continually deal with on a day to day basis). So I’m not sure this helps much.

      March 11, 2012
  7. Ian Tuck #

    Hey Mark,
    My comment said “so many atheists” and not “all atheist,” because I agree with you that each is an individual with opinions differing on many points as both you and Austin point out.
    Sorry if my comment seemed like a slap in the face.

    March 12, 2012

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