Are you an atheist, and are you evangelical about it? In other words, do you want other people to become atheists too? I’m an agnostic myself, but I’m not sure whether I can really recommend it. It seems like a hard path to me. And I wonder if it’s possible to be too glib about telling others what it means to be an atheist, or even an agnostic, as in this atheist bus ad campaign:
Atheist and agnostic evangelism can be Diet Coke misleading if we pretend that atheism and agnosticism aren’t real divorces from vital sources of hope in human beings. You’re asking people to give up (or at least be very skeptical of) hope of very particular kinds. You’re asking people to accept as fact that their loved ones don’t go on; that they don’t go on; that the universe has no purpose, but came into existence of itself, and without any ultimate meaning. You’re suggesting to people that there might be no grounding for morality. None. If a person eats another person, or loves another person, or rapes another person, ultimately these might just be competing evolutionary strategies, and any of them might prove successful in a particular context.
And religion is a passion. To many people, to ask them to live without religion is akin to asking them to live without lovers. Atheism can obliterate the heart—and set people in a desert alone—and it asks people, should that be their experience of atheism, to accept it as their fate because religion is false, and to nevertheless build a life in that obliterated landscape. But this is a stout path that even heroic intellectuals like Albert Camus had difficulty trodding. I think that this Barbra Streisand video is a good analogy for the passion of religion and its potential, if lost, for psychological obliteration:
Of course, not everybody feels obliterated when they lose their religion. Many even feel liberated. Not everybody wants to look at the obliteration. Maybe the smart thing for atheists and agnostics, psychologically, is to never dwell on what is obliterated. But some doors have closed when you become an atheist. Other doors might open, but others shut very hard. It’s not all air and sunlight on the atheist and agnostic side.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr even thinks that hope of the kind that atheism blocks is well nigh crucial to the happiness and physical vigor of (at least most) human beings. Here’s Niebuhr, from the beginning of his essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” (1940):
Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.
In other words, Niebuhr sees optimistic belief in the universe’s meaningfulness as an important factor for human psychological energy. The universe must, in some ultimate sense, hold together as a cosmos rather than a chaos for people to be happy in it. This is the opposite of Albert Camus’s view. Camus believed that it was an unblinkered encounter with the chaotic and absurd universe (its contingency, purposelessness, and indifference) that sets the atheist to vigorous rebellion and life. Here’s Albert Camus from the “Myth of Sisyphus”:
“I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”
In other words, Camus suggests that an honest encounter with the universe’s absurdity—the suffering and death in it, and the universe’s apparent lack of purpose and indifference to us—paradoxically can lead to a vital life. It is an outraged person’s refusal of the absurd that can then affirm rebellion, freedom, and passion against it. But Camus’s atheism, while arriving at human positivity and vigor via absurdity, starts with a bleak and unblinkered encounter with meaninglessness. In other words, he does not treat atheism glibly.
Further, to arrive at Camus’s optimism we must (as Camus puts it) “imagine Sisyphus happy.”
To say the least, atheism is no easy road if Sisyphus is, ultimately, its patron saint. Only the stoutest individuals would seem fit for it.
Is that elitist to say so?