For both the atheist and the theist, reality is anything but fulfilling. The way things are, without you doing anything about them, has always been a problem, for reality, unstoried, is just one damn meaningless thing after another. And often unpleasant. It’s just not the way we want it to be.
And that’s what initiates all this busy work—all this imaginative butterfly chasing, and religion critiquing, and irreligion critiquing. Mundane existence, as present to consciousness, is not the way we want it to be. So we do something about it. We overlay it with religion or irreligion. We overlay it with art, or poetry, or science, or political action. In short, we overlay reality with symbols, myths, metaphors, and stories.
Neither religion nor irreligion accords with reality objectively. But putting a symbolic, mythic, metaphorical, or story overlay upon reality is satisfying to the human mind, and that’s why both theists and atheists do it, and I would say that they do it about equally.
For example, I suspect that William Blake was a happy person. Why? Because he lived in a self-generated and detailed imaginitive space, and yes, he took it seriously. Richard Dawkins seems like a happy fellow too, and for similar reasons. He also lives in a self-storied imaginative space (he obviously sees himself as an archetypal defender of science against the contemporary hordes of irrationalists in the world—and this gives his life narrative meaning for him). Was Blake deluded? Is Dawkins deluded? Well, objectively, I suppose so. Neither of their ways of telling stories to themselves is objectively true. Indeed, you might well tell other stories about Blake’s life than the one he told himself, and that’s true of Dawkins’s life as well. Dawkins once dismissed Blake as an obscurantist. Blake, were he alive, might well have put Dawkins into his poetry as a Urizen binder of imaginative energies. Give a punch, take a punch.
There is an existentialist writer, not well know today, but active in the 1950s and 60s, that I love. Her name is Hazel Barnes. I’ve sometimes thought I should start a Wikipedia page for her (as, to date, she doesn’t have one). She was the first translator of Sartre into English, and was a longtime academic at the University of Colorado. I assume that she has probably passed away (she was born in 1915). But she wrote an autobiography with an almost perfect Existentialist title: The Story I Tell Myself (University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Barnes’s autobiography title reminds us that it is impossible for the human mind to live without narrative frameworks, and those frameworks are chosen by us from a wide range of possibilities. Existence doesn’t speak. We speak. And as human beings, we speak in symbol, myth, metaphor, and story. Further, we reveal our imaginitive life by what we choose to speak about, and by what we pull from reality to emphasize and make important. Reality does not (and cannot) warrant those choices. Only we can, and we do. I know it’s not very comfy grounds on which to build our existences, but what else can we do? Does anybody have a better idea?
What I’m trying to say is that there is nothing inherently more satisfying about reality than, say, our dreams and narratives about reality, including our religious and irreligious dreams and narratives. People dream and fantasize and narrate and act in the world precisely because those behaviors are more satisfying to them than unstoried reality is. Are they wrong to live in that space? Are they deluded? Is Don Quixote an admirable figure, a comic figure, or a tragic one? Or is Don Quixote simply a reflection of our human condition? How else, afterall, could we ever be in the world—except as Don Quixote—and still be human?
“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other. Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and s(he) lets them come;
things disappear and s(he) lets them go.
S(he) has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When the work is done, s(he) forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.”
–Lao Tzu as translated by Stephen Mitchell (gender editing by me).