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——
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.