In a world where God is not there (or, at the very least, is not talking plainly), the two things that redeem existence from being a very, very large mistake are just two things:
By morality I mean loving at least some other humans beside the narrow shrew of your own isolated self—being in solidarity with them—and by aesthetics I mean beauty, nature, art, blogging, science, architecture, math, cooking, photography, literature, music, poetry, drama, film etc.
I thus find Friedrich Nietzsche’s radical atheism and skepticism, though affirming aesthetic quests, unsatisfying insomuch as he removes solidarity, compassion, and love from the human equation and replaces them with the will to power. The post-9-11 New Atheists (like PZ Myers and Sam Harris) are certainly better on human solidarity, but they are also intellectually top-heavy on science (too often to the detriment of other elements of beauty, especially literary beauty). And they frequently harbor a naive optimism that I find grating. Albert Camus, on the other hand, seems to me to get the balance right: his philosophy retains affirmations of solidarity that are combined with aesthetic longing and a sense of the tragic.
And yet Camus seems a bit indifferent to science, and so he is not really (at least to my mind) the ideal doubter or unbeliever either. This brings me to Thomas Jefferson. He was a moralist philosopher cum scientist cum aesthete, and for this rounded and interesting character, I would give Jefferson my mythical Doubting Thomas Award. (And it’s kind of nice to think that a Doubting Thomas Award would go to somebody named Thomas).
In terms of nonmortals, of course, I like Prometheus, for he not only rebelled against Zeus, but loved mankind (stealing fire from heaven, and so bringing us techne and the arts).
In a world without God, who is your heroic ideal (mortal or mythic)?
The Finnish mass murderer would be my hero. He showed the truth of what is the result of uncompromising belief in a world without God.
I agree that grotesque nihilism is a risk to democratic civilization, but you imagine grotesque nihilism to be an exclusive dilemma of atheism. Religion, too, can become grotesquely nihilistic (as in the famous passage in one of John’s episles: “Love not the world, nor the things in the world . . .”), or when Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior (James Watt) dismissed the protection of forests on the grounds that the Second Coming was nigh.
And, of course, suicide bombers make life in another world the substitute for not giving the least shit about people dying in this one.
And the grotesque Christian anchorites in the Egyptian desert circa 400 AD make for other examples.
You can be anti-life, and devoted to power, without being a Nietzschean monster, though I admit that the danger of the Nietzschean monster is a real problem for atheism. But religious nihilism—making God into an arbitrary (not subject to human reason) exerciser of power—is also deeply problematic. It is, for example, a nihilistic and arbitrary monster called “God” that speaks to Job in the late chapters of the Book of Job. Whether you are religious or atheist, ethical justification chases its tail, and some people stop seeking justification and just declare: “God permits it” or “there is no ground for ethics, therefore I practice none.” Both moves are the mirror of the other.
You stole mine! Jefferson as a deist or agnostic (we can’t be sure) Lockean, exemplifies the type of leader I wish this country would elect again. Of course I do often wonder how much of that is the rose colored glasses of time (would I feel the same if I knew the man, and not the historical figure?)
We already have a Lockean, philosophical, agnostic, moral, and aesthetic-loving political leader.
His name is Barack Obama.
President Obama is a fine representative of an Enlightenment sympathetic rationalist in public office. He is our country’s new Adlai Stevenson. He was elected in 2008. And if the world is just, and the electorate rational, he’ll be elected again over any of the current religious fundamentalists that the Republicans now hold in the wings for 2012.