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About Atheism and Nothing

February 21, AD2013 14 Comments

A couple of years ago, on my blog The Impractical Catholic, I made a snarky little comment about atheists feeling unhappy that people still prefer hope to despair and meaning to meaninglessness. And being a little too proud of the comment, I also posted it on Facebook.

One friend of a friend — Jessica, an atheist — called me on it. I was indulging in an unfair generalization, and she was offended. Another friend attempted to defend me; alas, honesty compelled me to publicly admit my lack of charity and apologize.

It does bring up a question, though: On what grounds does an atheist base hope?

Well, on a wholesale level, there’s not much. Regardless of what happens to humanity after you die, the best you can hope for is that your name will be remembered centuries after your soul has been extinguished, preferably as a force for good and a benefactor to society and human development.

Of course, the memory will do you no good, since there will be no you to reap any possible pleasure in the fact.  Julius Caesar was probably the single most influential person ever to have lived (after Jesus, of course), yet:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O that the earth which kept the world in awe
Should stop a hole to expel the winter’s flaw!

So says Hamlet, pondering the skull that once belonged to a beloved court jester whose lips he had kissed he knows not how oft, unaware that the grave he stands beside is about to enclose the body of the woman he loves. All that Yorick was, is now a memory made grotesque; Caesar is not even a memory but a legend become doggerel. The play is a masterpiece, but Shakespeare the master is beyond both praise and catcall.

So, instead of the wholesale, let’s look at retail hope. What can we hope for?

I see you don’t get it: You are going to die. The clock is ticking, and you don’t know how much time is on it. Until this moment, that fact has been a lonely howl in the distance; now, it’s a predator circling hungrily on the outskirts of your campfire, and when it springs to take you, there’ll be nothing you can do about it. Whatever modest hope you have is a cheat, beckoning you onward through your days, distracting you from the monstrous inevitability.

And after the clock strikes zero——

Nothing!

No love, no hate, no suffering, no joy, no peace, no anguish … because there’s no you to experience any of these states. You’re an atheist; you’ve stripped yourself of all illusions of a hereafter — except the illusion that, in some intelligible sense, you will still be.

What do you hope for — that Science will find some miracle cure for death, that old age will be banished, that you’ll live as long as you want to live because the mortality gene will be shut off? Do you hope that, by having children, you’ll somehow be alive in them after your own body quits? How many illusions do you intend to throw up to distract yourself from the reality of your fate! You have not thought your atheism through; you’ve simply proclaimed it for cheap intellectual street cred, for the self-congratulatory illusion that you’re not part of the mentally crippled, psychologically needy herd that is Religious Man.

And everything you enjoy about living, everything that makes living worth the nuisances, the pains, the sorrows, the suffering and the anguish — can you let them go? When it comes time to die — assuming the random draw of the universe doesn’t allow you to simply blink out of existence unexpectedly — will you have the courage to “go gentle into that good night”? Or will you scream and struggle, pleading to the God you disavowed so long ago for just one more year, one more month, one more day for pity’s sake!?

If you’re honest with yourself, sir or madam atheist, then you must realize that ultimately nothing you do has meaning because everything you could possibly do — have children, gain modest wealth, become a community benefactor, conquer the world, make your name a byword for terrifying evil — is transient, ephemeral. You are an accident and the product of accidents; you have no fate or destiny, but neither do you have final control over your own outcome. That “Nature red in tooth and claw” you so often blather about has no more respect for your existential bravado than it does for all the comforting fantasies of those believers whom you arrogantly mock. Therefore, you have all the dissatisfaction of an unjust life without the promise of rectification after life. You don’t even get the pleasure of spitting in God’s eye as you’re damned to Hell, because there’s no God in your cramped little cosmos to be insulted by it, no Hell you can enter in mock triumph, no you to take silly pride in such a Parthian shot.

Your existence has no meaning because, according to your story of the cosmos, Nobody intended your existence; and all your desperate attempts to create your own subjective meaning only underline the mocking fact that there was no objective meaning there to begin with. You are irrelevant. You have no final cause for being. Memento, homo, quia nihilum es, et in nihilum reverteris: you are nada, and to nada you shall return.

You have no reason or right to hope, because your story of the universe has left you Nothing to hope for. All your intellectual vainglory, all your materialist preening, is a false front; behind it lies despair and despite of the world. You have more reason to fear death than any believer, and yet you give yourself less reason to live than any believer.

To truly recognize the meaning of death is to be literally afraid of Nothing.

© Anthony S. Layne. All Rights Reserved.

Filed in: Faith • Tags: , , , ,

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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  • Malchus

    So we should all be like you? Terrified of death and life? Unable to create meaning and joy and happiness without a pat on the head from your god?

    How pathetic. How…sad.

    • Anthony S. Layne

      I had to rethink my original response. And I was right the first time: Your comment is a tu quoque fallacy. But the funny thing about the “you’re another” argument is that it tacitly concedes the truth of the opponent’s statement: We either exist for a reason or we don’t; atheism denies reason for our existence almost by definition. You’ve as much as said that you can’t create meaning without studiously ignoring the fact that the meaning wasn’t there to begin with. Whether one needs a divine pat on the head to create joy and happiness is a matter for another post. But it seems to me you’ve also conceded that you can’t create joy and happiness without ignoring the implications of your denial.

  • Chels

    This article is so true/awesome!!!

    Can only pray for them I guess. :(

  • Anthony S. Layne

    Fair warning: Abusive comments, whether directed at the author or at any other person who posts a comment, will be deleted.

  • Longshanks

    Were we living in Socrates’ time, would this argument apply to the worship of Zeus and Apollo? Would denying their existence also strip my life of meaning?

    You may, it’s true, possibly object on the grounds that those were but imperfect shadows of the “Truth.” And yet I weigh the evidences for both beliefs, for all beliefs, and find them equal. And equally wanting.

    No, my friend, my brother, I may or may not go quietly into “that good night.” It is possible that the ravages of time or disease could so deprive me of my faculties that any amount of vile nonsense would spew forth. The abilities of reason and logic are not impervious, and we are separated from the other primates by not much evolutionary progress.

    No, I may fail in my ability to think clearly in my final hours, I have certainly seen many loved ones do so in theirs, but my spit is not meant for the eye of the creator god who loves me and wants me to be one with him through membership in your church, as he does not, to the best of my knowledge, exist. I do not rant and rail against Zeus either.

    If he does exist, I would rather face him in honest disbelief than in a cowardly, intellectually bankrupt, bet-hedging acquiescence in the face of the thuggery and intimidation you show such a penchant for in this post.

    Google and watch videos of Christopher Hitchens as he approached the end of his life if you would like a concrete exemplar of the rejection of superstition and intimidation until the end.

    But fear not. We bear stamp of our lowly origin, it is true, in attitudes such as this; in an instinctual, however maladaptive, desire to recognize patterns, despite lack of evidence, the need to exclude patterns which contradict the wisdom and knowledge of the tribes into which we were born, despite presence of evidence. We suffer under these, and other burdens, it is true, but we have, just within our grasp, the ability to move our chances from one in umpteen billion million to two, and then perhaps three, four, and so on.

    We have all just witnessed the passing of a potentially life-ending asteroid which should, in fact, terrify everyone. And yet we do so very little about it. Hope? For myself, none, as I do not place my hope in fairy tails and I take my consolations elsewhere.

    For the race?

    Well, who ever enjoyed watching a race if they knew how it ended?

  • Andre

    Anthony,

    “It does bring up a question, though: On what grounds does an atheist base hope?”

    This is a fair question, one that has no answer which could universally be applied generally to atheists/adeists/agnostics. It’s one of the many downsides of having to think for yourself and having no doctrine to fall back on (please note: I’m not saying all atheists think for themselves, or that being religious means you don’t think for yourself).

    However, if we’re going to keep asking fair questions: where’s your concern that you could be completely wrong about your beliefs? The real irony is that, if you’re wrong, the best case scenario would be that there is no god. The alternative is that you’ve been worshiping the wrong god (this scenario is one of the many counters to Pascal’s Wager)…and we know how jealous gods tend to be in these situations.

    I appreciate that you’re quite certain that you’re correct in your belief. However, what I don’t understand is your approach in this post, to try and ridicule the position of non-belief. You must know that, on a global scale, any believer of any particular faith is always in the minority. You, as a Catholic, are surrounded by a world of people who in large part believe their view of god/reality as the one true version – views which are largely to the exclusion of yours, and every other view. Where, given that most children born into the world wont be born into the “correct” tradition, is your accounting for the role that random chance plays in all this? A bit more humility is in order, I would think.

    • Anthony S. Layne

      You ask a fair question: “where’s your concern that you could be completely wrong about your beliefs?” And, to be honest, it crops up from time to time.

      Faith is a much misunderstood concept; by no means does it require blind denial of all contradicting possibilities, nor is it self-maintaining. My upbringing and exposure to the world isn’t nearly so homogeneous as you suppose, and my co-religionists only surround me at home and at church. Long periods of my life are and were spent in the company of people with vestigial creeds or no real concern one way or another, and I’ve worked with Jews, Buddhists, Moslems and secularists of different shades.

      You said you don’t deny that believers think for themselves (for which I thank you most heartily!). Between my eighteenth and forty-eighth birthdays, there was a lot of thinking and questioning, and prolonged absences from church. In the end, though, if we’re free to think at all, then we’re free to agree as well as disagree, free to submit as well as free to say, “Non serviam.”

      But Christians can and do ignore the implications of death, which is itself a cheat. For further thoughts on this, I recommend this post from Catholic Phoenix, which was some inspiration for this post. (As for this post — sooner or later, if you blog long enough, you realize you’ll lay some eggs. This one wasn’t one of my best, for which I apologize.)

  • why must life be about what is left over when it ends. most people don’t have any problem with the fact that they didn’t exist in 1850. so why should we be concerned about not existing in 2250. one should live life for its own sake. life ends. don’t waist it pretending that it doesn’t.

  • Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch

    I was told that I should explain on a blog – http://scienceblogs.de/astrodicticum-simplex/2013/02/10/welche-religion-ist-die-richtige/ – my opinion: it is wrong that modern science can be understood only by atheists. I could not: but maybe you can. I could not, because the blog is illegal: the AUSTRIAN CONSTITUTION allows our PRESIDENT (“Bundespräsident”) to swear that he believes in God. [I may have to ask you to pay attention to the fact that this discussion started when it was announced that BENEDICT XVI. was to weak to be a bishop for Rome.]

    • Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch

      I am told that I should add: near the gothic church of Neuberg an der Mürz is the “VILLA” the Presidents of the Republic of Austria use for diplomatic purposes. I overtook someone on my bycicle between Mürzzuschlag and Neuberg in the Province (“Land”) of Styria – as a pilgrim: I was heading for Mariazell. The conversation that started from bycicle to bycicle was on MADDALENA DEI PAZZI – s. the articles on the “Wikipedia”, in “english”, “german” an “italian”, I contributed to the “Wikipedia”, http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Maddalena_de%27_Pazzi (this article quotes Maddalena dei Pazzi at it’s beginning).

  • Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch

    I read less than one hour ago: the teacher of Beethoven, JOHANN GEORG ALBRECHTSBERGER, announced that Ludwig van Beethoven would never achieve anything. I have been quoting for quite same time one of the famous Russians who does not think that Shakespeare is “a master beyond both praise an catcall. In Austria, between Vienna and Graz, there is A M O U N T A I N called “Hohe Veitsch”: you find your way from there to the “Hochschwab”. Coming down from there, I usally get to Mürzzuschlag, where Brahms composed one of his symphonies. If Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy are masters beyond praise: who would dare to get order into the discussions we seeen about that? In Mürzzuschlag I was a guest of the CHURCH OF RUMANIA, in doesn’t seem have decided that it should use a ‘GERMAN LANGUAGE’ in Austria. Now: the CHURCH OF RUMANIA did seem to accept information about the MEDICI from me – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQTTFUtMSvQ , http://www.youtube.com/user/minhducphampiano , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xx7rNXVsLwI .

  • Siegfried Paul

    I still found part of my comments on http://blog.adw.org/2013/03/how-about-a-little-more-sophistication-in-modern-discussions-heres-one-simple-rule-to-help/ (“A TALE OF TWO BRAINS”, a title that is an obvious allusion, my comment “March 10, 2013 at 10:13 pm” was on Scott) about two hours ago.