Swine Flu (H1N1), Atheists, Agnostics and the Problem of Justification

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I post things on swine flu (H1N1) at this blog. Perhaps you’ve also noticed that I’m an agnostic. But if there is no God, why help others in a time of pandemic? Why not just look out for numero uno? In other words, if theists have perplexity about why God would permit suffering in the first place, atheists and agnostics have their own perplexity of justification: Why engage in acts of solidarity at all?

In Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, non-religious characters run up against this impasse of justification repeatedly. Asked why some of them stay and assist the victims, rather than flee the city, they come up short and inarticulate. They don’t know why they help. They have no externally warranted moral system on which to base their atheism and agnosticism, but they help anyway. To Camus’s way of thinking, that’s honest and in accord with his rendering of the myth of Sisyphus. It’s absurd to help in a godless world, but they do it anyway. They don’t pretend that their atheism or agnosticism necessarily leads to Christian-style pro-social morality or actions, and might just as well lead away from them, but they choose them anyway, in rebellion against: (1) the absurdity of a godless existence, (2) a purposeless and indifferent universe, and (3) in solidarity with suffering consciousnessess like themselves. This is the full extent of their justification.

In other words, atheism and agnosticism have no external grounding for morality. None. Zero. And Camus doesn’t pretend that they do. And that’s a source of horror, trembling, and perplexity that Camus grapples with in The Plague. Characters come up against an impasse of justification, but stay in the city anyway. They struggle against the plague as if it was an injustice and as if something with long-term meaning was at stake. It’s why nonbelievers stay and help. The people who attend the ill, and who are unbelievers, are Sisyphuses, pushing rocks that they know must ultimately roll permanently and fatally back down the mountain again. They continue to push in outrage and rebellion. As do I.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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