Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here? Happy-Face Atheist Marketing v. Albert Camus’s Pessimistic Atheism

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):

  1. Death is certain.
  2. The day of our death is not certain.
  3. The universe does not answer to our projects or to our death (it’s “indifferent”).
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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19 Responses to Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here? Happy-Face Atheist Marketing v. Albert Camus’s Pessimistic Atheism

  1. Logicel says:

    When a teenager in 1966, everything became absurd overnight. From that moment of revelation, I kept droning: life is absurd, really and truly absurd, why do we keep going on, everything is absurd, absurd, absurd. The only person who listened attentively to my words was a nun who gave me a thin pamphlet to read about Existentialism. I was so relieved that others could see that life was absurd that I immensely cheered up. I was reading the situation right after all!

    A close friend thinks that my stance is heroic, but it is not. It is so easy to do what I do because it comes naturally. It would be much harder for me to embrace the tiniest bit of hope or faith that this life is not all that I have. It is not heroic because I can’t perceive it any other way! Life is absurd, many can see that, we accept it, and keep going until the inevitable end. Since my teen years, this perspective has always been with me–the absurdity of everything–including that atheist bus campaign slogan that so irks you and equally your reaction to it. All absurd. But I am game for the ride because it is the only ride I have, and I have no problem accepting reality.

    I want to emphasize that though existentialism originated from France (which is where I have lived the last eleven years), the French appreciate ‘les petite bonheurs’: the little things in life (like sublime butter applied to equally sublime bread, the smile of a small child, smelling roses, lilacs, and lavender all blooming now) despite the fact that everything is truly absurd. We are doomed for sure, but for the moment we are not, we are far from being doomed. And there is one perfect cultural physical expression that sums it up for the French: hausser les epaules (that precious acceptance of reality–the shoulder shrug–which says life is life, so let’s not let it get in the way of getting on with the only life we have, with the moment at hand). I also enjoy the verbal expression, c’est la vie, but my personal favorite which has me on the floor laughing my heart out: c’est normale (it is to be expected). The French has a good mix of sullenness (we are doomed after all) coupled with the ability to get over it in a flash (as soon a sip of pinot noir is taken or one touches a bolt of silk). As I have said elsewhere, we are fucked and not fucked at the very same time.

    As much as I loved my mother, I have no desire to see her or my two sisters again. They are gone just like I will be someday. Gone. It has a nice pristine ring to it. Came and gone, like zillions of others, humans and non-humans. An endless, absurd parade of life.

    However, embracing religious belief is more absurd than it is for an atheist to be a happy camper (and I really don’t know any of that stereotyped atheist, out of many whom I do know). Paradise with loved ones? Give me a break. Why would it be paradise then if it is not now or has been with them?

    The atheist that is focused on enjoying life is to be suspected that the only reason why they are pulling off happiness is because they are shallow? No, it is because they are wise and true to themselves and reality. They are happy not because they are clueless, but because they accept reality and are making the best of it. C’est simple. Look at the French. Are they hypocrites?

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  3. Mike says:

    Sorry to intrude on your site. I just bought a URL and was Googling it and came across this page. I can’t help to see the sharp contrast between the responses to Atheism and the primary responses of Christianity:

    1. Love God
    2. Love Others

    I was raised Catholic, but couldn’t believe in a church of going through the motions. I became an agnostic, but I was just going through the motions wanting to believe. Then one night I turned in despair to Ecclesiastes. Nothing new under the sun. Nothing better than to enjoy your work while you can, because someday it will be gone. I realized I didn’t know what it meant to believe. What did a real Christian look like? So I looked up and prayed into the darkness for God to show me what a real Christian looked like. And He did.

    It takes as much faith to believe in nothing as it does to believe in something. A life trying to understand God is the only way life can ever be understood. Good luck in your journey.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    You’re not intruding on the site. I want diverse opinion expressed here. And thanks for your kind words.

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Mike:

    I have not read Piper’s book. I’ll get a copy. Thanks for the link.

    —Santi

  6. Dave says:

    You desire diverse opinion, so I shall oblige.

    First, let me say that as a Christian I completely agree with Mr. Camus’s four observations of the certainties of life . . . death is certain, and it is this point that I would like to challenge you with.

    Death should be the TOP Priority dilemma that all human beings wrestle in earnest with; not foolishly overlook in some sort of existentialistic, French shoulder shrugging, “oh well, let’s party” attitude; and yet that is precisely what most of the world does.

    You say you are willing to keep a glimmer of hope that death will result in the pleasant surprise that God exists after all, and thus you may see lost loved ones in the afterlife; but I must ask you a very important question: Exactly what makes you think God will accept you into His kingdom?

    Don’t get me wrong, I DO NOT claim to sit upon the throne of judgment and decide who and who does not enter heaven; but I DO claim to know who does have that kind of authority, and that is Jesus the Christ.

    It is clear to me that you do not know who this Jesus is, for if you did I am confident that the intellect that you so clearly possess would have demanded a thorough investigation of who he is, and why people follow him.

    But it is the certainty of death that makes Jesus worthy to be praised; or more precisely, His overcoming of death. Unlike any other religious founder in human history, only Jesus claimed that he would rise from death, and actually did it.

    Now, you may be saying, “Jesus didn’t rise from the dead”; but I challenge you to examine the undisputable facts.

    History records that Jesus was crucified and died on a Friday. Three days later, the tomb he was buried in was empty. What happened to the body of Jesus?

    Some say that it was his disciples that took the dead body of Jesus, hid it somewhere and thus began the Christian religion.

    Others say that Jesus never really died, but escaped from the tomb himself, and walked away somewhere else and even started a family of his own.

    But neither of these scenarios make sense, when you consider that all the disciples were eye witnesses to the resurrected body of Jesus, and continued proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus to their deaths.

    WHO WOULD CHOOSE TO DIE FOR A KNOWN LIE?

    In this day of Islamic extremism, it is no secret that people are willing to die for something they believe in. But again I ask, Who would die for a known lie?

    If the disciples knew that Jesus was dead, and for whatever insane reason they wished to start a new religion, what gain is there for any of them to die for this lie? Even in this crazy world there is simply no logic in this.

    Dying for something that you know is false, fake, and untrue; is simply something no one person would ever do, let alone over 500 eyewitnesses. Yet the Bible records there were over 500 witnesses of the risen Jesus. These people were persecuted, taken from their homes, imprisoned, and most were ultimately killed just for the crime of proclaiming that someone named Jesus was the son of God.

    Why would anyone willingly give up everything they have for a lie?

    Yet Jesus himself said the he is the son of God.

    Jesus said that he would be raised from the dead in three days.

    And it is Jesus himself that said he is way, the truth, and the life and no one gets into heaven except through him.

    This brings me back to my question.

    On what basis do you place your hope that God will welcome you into the kingdom of heaven, when you live your life with a mediocre, luke-warm belief of leaving room for the existence of God, but not believing in Him enough to worship or place any trust in Him? Do you perhaps think yourself better than the rest of us lowly sinners?

    Or perhaps you think that you are among the elite, intellectual thinkers that have risen above the masses of simple minded people, and have so dedicated your gifted mind into thinking far beyond that of the typical church going slug and thus have “earned” the privilege of being welcomed into heaven by God, the creator of all things.

    I truly am not trying to be offensive, for I don’t even know you. But I am challenging you to examine your own stated logic.

    If God does NOT exist, than there truly is no point or meaning to life . . .

    If that be so; eat, drink, do drugs, get high, have all the wild sex you want with whom you want whenever you want; do whatever you can get away with! For life is short, and then you die . . . with no accountability of an after life whatsoever. If it feels good do it, while you can!

    But if God DOES exist . . .

    Then don’t you owe it to yourself to seek Him out? Would it not be wise to find out for yourself if there really is any truth to this Jesus? If God exists, and He created you; it is He who has the authority to place judgment on your soul, and what possible recourse will you have?

    The truth is friend, that every single one of us humans in this world are sinners, and no one can enter heaven on our own. But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

    The truth is that the tomb Jesus was buried in is empty. Jesus was raised from the dead, and it is this evidence that we Chritsans place our hope in the afterlife.

    I truly hope you have not taken offense to any of these words, for they are not meant to be. But if you are still reading this then you are still open to the truth, and this there is still hope . . . genuine hope.

    I urge you to seek for yourself the God of creation and his one and only son Jesus. The Bible says he who seeks will find. I say this not for any personal gain myself, but only for the sake of your soul.

    Because how heartbreaking and tragic it would be, to live a life holding on to a glimmer of hope in the existence of God, only to one day see him and be told . . . “I never knew you”.

    Dave

  7. We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

    — Richard Dawkins, excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” of Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

  8. santitafarella says:

    Dave,

    As an agnostic, I hold my hope in the afterlife modestly, in the same way that I would hold hope in life on Mars. There might be life on Mars, but I have no idea what its nature is, and I don’t know of anyone with the authority to do more than speculate concerning it (should it exist).

    Likewise, all that you have larded onto the afterlife (hell, danger, a god angry at me if I don’t believe certain things about Jesus) is to me akin to the UFOlogist who has populated our solar system with alien bases on Mars and the moons of Saturn. A modest proposal has turned into an elaborate system without evidential warrant.

    You may well be correct in all you say, in which case I’m quite in trouble, but I simply don’t have the information to make a rational decision.

    As to the resurrection, I think that Dostoevsky’s observations concerning it are dead on. If Christ rose from the dead, the universe has hope. No doubt. If he did not, then we are caught in the strict naturalist (and Darwinian) maze. Icky. I’ve thought about it. I’ve read books about it (such as NT Wright’s book on the resurrection). I’m still thinking. If you want to see some of what I’ve said about the resurrection and Dostoevsky, type into my blog search box: Dostoevsky. Stuff should come up. Maybe you’ll want to make a point to me from something I said there.

    —Santi

  9. trishothinks says:

    I was raised a “Christian”, and find the older I get, the more I move towards being a “Deist”. That said, I studied philosophy in college, and absolutely love Camus. His philosophy is so liberating, in that he believed so much in “living for now, today, in the moment”. That one must live each day to its fullest (carpe diem).

    I happen to like that Camus has “hope”, (and how he imagined that Sisyphis was happy).

    I really enjoy reading anything about Camus, thanks for your views on his philosophy.

    • santitafarella says:

      Trishothinks:

      I like your moniker—it’s clever. As to your comment, I too like Camus a great deal, and the more I think about the options available to atheists and agnostics (like me) the more I find myself drawn away from, say, the optimistic and science-oriented New Atheists and the anti-solidarity “overmen” following Nietzsche, and toward the solidarity-oriented existentialists (like Camus).

      I like Camus’ literariness, humanity, and tragic sense.

      —Santi

      • trishothinks says:

        The problem is (in my opinion), many people paint a rosy picture about life. Schools and Parents teach children that if they follow a certain plan or set of rules, then life will be peachy…..that is just disillusion.

        Camus addresses this well in the rebellion and freedom part of his philosophy. He realized that life isn’t all wine and roses, it is mostly harsh and dismal (that is why we must enjoy each day, and each little thing that makes us happy).

        I hate to say this (because of my strong Christian upbringing), but now I believe that people who go to church are “weak”. They need to go because they can’t deal with what life is. They have to be around others that tell them, “its ok”…they need that affirmation (they also go because they believe that there is something better when they die), in the meantime, because they are weak, they go for the support (kind of like AA…lol).

        I ALSO DO NOT BELIEVE YOU HAVE TO GO TO CHURCH TO BE A GOOD PERSON, OR A GOOD “CHRISTIAN”

        I believe in God, and I even pray, but I don’t NEED to go to Church to have a relationship with him. Now…….do I BELIEVE he hears my prayers? Not sure…but I don’t believe that he is REALLY that concerned with MY life (or anyone else for that matter).

        So, the Camus part comes here….I HOPE he is there, and that he hears my prayers. I HOPE there is something better when I die, Lets just say its a shot in the dark.

      • santitafarella says:

        Thrishothinks:

        I like this that you said:

        I hate to say this (because of my strong Christian upbringing), but now I believe that people who go to church are “weak”. They need to go because they can’t deal with what life is. They have to be around others that tell them, “its ok”…

        Would you be okay with me making your quote a separate post so that people might see it and perhaps comment.

        I think it is very Nietzschean and interesting (and worth discussing).

        —Santi

  10. Mike says:

    @trishothinks Some of the worst examples of Christian thinking can be found in churches across the country. It took me many years of searching before I found a church that could teach me the message of Christianity and the Bible. From your comments, I don’t think you’ve found the right church yet.

    My bible says that people are basically sinful. Romans Chapter 3 is all about this. Romans 3:23 sums it up best: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The apostle Paul continues on about the condition of man in Romans 7:18 “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” The whole story of the Old Testament is people’s inability to do the right thing -whether it was the one rule in the garden of Eden of “do not eat of the tree” or the 10 commandments given in Egypt, time and time again, people demonstrate their sinful nature, causing separation from a Holy God.

    So what did God do about this separation? Was He content to watch from afar? Pour down His wrath? Turn his back? In John 3:16, Jesus gives the answer to a seeker: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Is God concerned about your life? Enough that He sent His one and only Son into the world to die on a cross, to take the punishment for every wrong thing you’ve done and will ever do. Jesus goes on to say “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” By taking the penalty for sins, Jesus gives us the ability to be reconciled with a Holy God. If He cared enough to die for you, don’t you think He cares to hear your prayers too?

    If you were God, if you had all the power of God, how would you have written the story? The Bible makes sense to me because God creates man with the free will to make bad decisions, but gives us a way out. He gives us the freedom to learn to love, to choose a path that leads to life. And He does it by sacrificing His life for us. Who but God would write the story this way? Who could make that up?

    Going to church is about reminding ourselves that each day is a choice of how to live. We can choose to put ourselves first, or we can choose to put God and others first. When God is first in my life, all the other things fall into place. I don’t call this a “peachy” life. It is a peace-filled life. That is, when I am able to keep my life centered on God. I take comfort that even the apostle Paul could not claim victory in always doing the right thing. But I know it is easier to do right when I am in the fellowship of others on the same path. That is what church ought to be.

    When I was younger, I appreciated Camus insight of the absurdities of life. It was as if he was the only writer who was insightful enough to see that the Emperor wore no clothes. But when someone finally explained the Bible to me, I could finally understand life is a world with both the seen and the unseen. Without understanding the unseen part of life, the rest makes no sense. If you see this world as all there is, I think depression or hedonism are the only rational responses. But if you look at this life as a prelude to eternity, the most obscene injustices of today become irrelevant. They won’t matter in light of eternity. The only thing that is truly relevant about today is choosing the path that leads to eternal life. And God loved you enough to send His only Son to tell you that.

    • trishothinks says:

      I should have mentioned earlier that I already know about Jesus dying for my sins…etc. To save you the lengthy explanation.

      I went to Church enough growing up, I really feel I don’t need to go anymore, or on a regular basis.

      The Christian morals have been instilled in me early….I’m not a bad person (I also understand when I do something sinful), but the beauty is that there is forgiveness.

      I have found a Church that I do attend on occasion…as the preacher talks about what is going on in the world NOW, and how it is affecting the Christian community. I believe it is important to maintain the Christian values of family, hopefulness, righteousness, compassion, humility, generosity, and charity.

      I am leery of most churches, as they oppress women, and keep them subservient to men.

      I do NOT think that people are basically “sinful”.

      I can talk to God whenever I want (but as to whether he listens….I don’t know).

      Again, my faith and hope is what I have, I believe in God, just I don’t believe he actively intervenes or interferes with our lives….I’m becoming a deist.

  11. trishothinks says:

    Santi,

    About my quote, sure you may use it. I would be interested to see the responses you get, however I think many will be from people like Mike (bless him….he is just trying to be a good Christian, and save the poor wretched lost souls…..I totally understand where he is coming from. I was taught to do the same, but I prefer a more indirect way to lead people to religion or God).

  12. Pingback: Is going to church a form of weakness (a way of not dealing with what life is)? « Prometheus Unbound

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