In contrast with happy face atheist marketing, Albert Camus tried to ground atheism honestly. Here’s what Camus said that we know (if we are going to see the world in atheist terms):
- Death is certain.
- The day of our death is not certain.
- The universe does not answer to our projects or to our death (it’s “indifferent”).
- Our projects are destined for oblivion. They will be completely forgotten over time.
In the light of knowing these four things, Camus suggested two chief responses:
- Rebellion. If we are to choose to live, and not commit suicide in the face of these apparent facts, then we will need to treat the universe’s indifference as a kind of pretend “boxing partner,” and resist its absurdity. We don’t have God to resist, so we must invent a substitute to generate the moral energy to fight on, and quell our outrage at the universe’s injustice. We should build something, or have a creative project, even in the face of futility (think “The Myth of Sisyphus”). Our defeat is certain, but we choose to stay in the ring in protest against the absurd situation that we find ourselves in.
- Freedom. There is little value in regretting the past, for it is lost to us, and since we cannot control the day of our death (apart from suicide) there is little point of directing anxiety toward the unspecified future. All we have is this present moment, this now, and in this now we can exercise our freedom. We can be like the actor on a stage who, knowing that the curtain is about to close, and the audience will disappear, and that her performance will soon be forgotten and never again repeated, continues to act. In the face of this knowledge, she plays her heart out and acts out her project as aesthetically as she can, trying to never lose sight of the fact that it is unrepeatable and impermanent.
For Camus, to live as an atheist lotus-eater, ignoring the above four facts about existence, and driving them from consciousness as far as possible, is to live in a kind of oblivious denial (scarcely different from religious denial). Camus, by contrast, suggests that we should try to live in the full presence and implications of death, indifference, and impermanence.
The proper atheist bus ad might thus be what was writ over hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”
It is, however, this move that leads the atheist, not to hell necessarily, but to an “eyes wide open” encounter with the universe as it appears to be, to her freedom, and to the human spirit of resistance and beauty. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” says Camus.
I’m not so confident of Camus’s conclusion. But at least his eyes are unblinkered, and he’s taking the implications of his atheism seriously, passing through despair to arrive at something, however diminished, on the other side.
In my view, atheism is a heroic path (not an easy one). It’s heroic like the first Rocky movie. He’s gonna lose on points, and he knows it, but he’s also going to stand as long as he can, and lose admirably and honestly.
As an agnostic, I am willing to confront life as it appears, and try to live in the light of Camus’s insights, but I’m also willing to keep a glimmer of hope open that maybe death will result in a pleasant surprise, that God exists afterall, and that I might see lost loved ones in some afterlife.