God didn’t prevent the Holocaust, but we would have. And God didn’t prevent the 2004 Christmas tsunami that killed over 100,000 people, but we would have. And Nature doesn’t care if death is the engine of evolution, but we do.
So we’re much, much better–more kind, purposeful, and sensitive–than either God or Nature, and our relationship to these larger entities is therefore absurd. They do not answer to our kindness, purposefulness, desires, or sensitivities.
Here’s Albert Camus from The Myth of Sisyphus (1942): “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 is saying that an unblinkered encounter with the universe–its indifference toward us, its apparent lack of purpose, and the suffering and death in it–leads us to the conclusion that we are in an absurd situation (neither God nor our environment answers to our longings). Yet this needn’t be an invitation to suicide. In such a situation, we can still lead a vital and moral life. It is our refusal of the absurd–and our outrage against it–that can affirm and energize a human existence: one of rebellion, freedom, passionate caring about our projects, and solidarity with others.
These are the qualities lacking in God and Nature, but present to us in experience.
So once you confront your fate directly–that you are a being toward death (Heidegger) in a cosmos that doesn’t care; that Nature is not ultimately holistic and purposeful in any meaningful sense; that God is dead, hiding, indifferent, or evil–and pass through the nihilism and dark night of the soul that accompanies this confrontation, then there is still the possibility for you to make a meaningful life. It can be private or public; it can be focused on aesthetic projects or others, but it can have value. It is possible.
How so? Look in the mirror. The meaning that you’ve been searching for can be found right there in front of you. You’re it. Meaning needn’t reside in religion or imagining yourself as one with the cosmos, but in you, in me, in other people. That meaning can be present because you can imagine it as present; because you are present.
So in our collective outrage at suffering being met with indifference by God and Nature, we can meet suffering with a compassionate imagination. Since nobody else—and nothing else—will value us, we can value each other and ourselves. If God and Nature will not speak, we will speak. The value of human life can come exclusively from us, and we can feel empathy for those who are in the same bad situation that we are in (again, as a being unto death). In Camus’ novel, The Plague, for instance, the heroic Dr. Rieux, though an atheist, doesn’t flee the plague city, or commit suicide in despair, but values the sick and distressed, and stays with them. That’s part of the rebellion of human consciousness against an indifferent universe: our affirmation of the value of others to us. We are the last court of appeal. Against a vast cosmos that doesn’t care and a God who is dead, we can care and live–and give.
As Camus wrote in “L’homme révolté”: “The solidarity of humanity is based on the revolt, and the justification of the revolt is man’s solidarity with others.” In other words, human connection and solidarity are justified by our revolt against the absurd. No one else, and nothing else, justifies it—or needs to justify it.
Camus’s atheism thus constitutes a robust and moral humanism grounded in outrage at the absurd nature of our private and collective experiences. We don’t need God or environmental holism for meaning, we need only the absurd existence we know; the existence of our evolved, contingent, and pitiful primate selves.
So we are (in Emily Dickinson’s phrase) kangaroos among the beauty—contingently evolved oddities—and in our contingent oddity, we can value ourselves individually and collectively, and extend to one another love, mutual understanding, and solidarity.
But our moral vision does not hold together in a single vision. That’s part of the absurdity of our situation, and a key to our rebellion. If God existed and was talking, or we could read our morals off of Nature (which David Hume told us is not really possible: no is makes an ought), then we would have an external hierarchy of values to point to as to what we should do (as Moses pointed the children of Israel to the Ten Commandments).
But we don’t have Moses’ luxury. In the 21st century, that’s not the way it is for us. God and Nature don’t speak, we speak. And yet we are constantly confronted with competing goods, not straightforward verdicts that we can draw between good and evil. No one can tell us what to do, or how, Solomon-like, we should split our “babies” (the things we value).
Human dilemmas of choice between competing goods are part of the absurdity of our existential situation, and are explored in tragic literature, such as in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone has to make difficult choices between her family and the demands of the state. Likewise (also in Antigone), King Creon has to make difficult choices between law and mercy.
The dilemmas of competing goods are also explored in the writings of philosophers like Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty.
So this is our human condition: to be sensitive beings in a world where God is not talking and the environment we’re embedded in is not meaningfully holistic. Nature really is red in tooth and claw, and things fall apart. The center does not hold because there is no center.
And this means we’re free. Free to choose from among competing human goods; free to cut the deck of definition and value exactly as we please. Free to decide what’s going to be important to us, and what’s not. A decidedly mixed blessing. And Camus in a nutshell.