Last week I began a lengthy response to a commenter who accused me of having a dishonest brand of atheism because I am not a nihilist. Despite the fact that the accusation is wrong almost to the point of banality, I found thinking about it yielded some interesting fruit that I’d like to share with you.
When we last left our hero, he was in the throes of deep, soul-penetrating and unremitting existential angst, brought about by holding a cognitive dissonance closely to his chest. I could not seem to reconcile the facts of the world to the articles of my faith, a faith which warped and mutated wildly as I struggled valiantly to find books or movies or plays or songs to prop up the rapidly crumbling scaffolding of my belief in God.
Giving up my faith outright wasn’t an option for me. I was not lured by a siren song of atheism – there was no appeal to pretensions of godhood. To be completely honest, I didn’t know the first thing about the atheist or skeptic movement. I had no idea there was an entire community of people who had faced down the same demons I had. In my youthful arrogance I imagined myself uniquely plagued by questions of faith – those who believed were simplistic and naive, whereas those who disbelieved had never really believed in the first place.
After many years of failing to find spiritual satisfaction in any type of religious belief (I briefly toyed with the idea of converting to Judaism or going to an evangelical church, but quickly realized that I would only be trying to drown the doubts with noise rather than addressing the issue), I took a different tack. I remember vividly sitting in church in Toronto with my parents on Christmas Day, being berated by a priest for not being faithful enough – not me personally, but the handful of people who got up early on Christmas morning to go to church. I remember thinking “if there’s a God out there, this asshole definitely doesn’t speak for him.”
All of a sudden, the voices of doubt immediately quieted. The reason why there were no answers in religion or the Bible is because they are products of humankind! Of course we couldn’t know anything about the nature of God by looking at things that human hands had crafted – we could only learn about humans that way. This happy thought comforted me for a few seconds, until I thought about its implications. If we don’t know anything about God, if God is fundamentally unknowable, then all attempts to placate Him or curry His favour are a shocking waste of time and perfectly good treasure (yarr). Since God is, to all appearances, completely unmoved by prayers or other attempts to bribe Him, we should stop trying those methods – they just don’t work.
In a flash I realized that the existence of God was a completely unimportant question. If He does exist, then he’s clearly uninterested in helping anyone or making life tolerable, in which case worship is a foolish endeavour. If He doesn’t exist, then worship is equally meaningless. Spending years of my life wrestling with the question had been, sadly, a waste of those years and the emotional resources consumed in the attempt.
I felt a bit like Dorothy pulling back the curtain of the Great and Powerful Oz. But instead of finding a man who would guiltily admit to perpetrating the hoax, I instead found the man had recently fled. Some people looked at the absence of someone behind the curtain as evidence that Oz is real, but the existence of machinery that moves the head, the microphone that made the head speak, and the lingering odor of pipe smoke (suggesting that someone was recently behind that curtain) was sufficient evidence for me to become an a-Oz-ist.
Of course, this happened in church, sitting next to my parents. I didn’t bother sharing this insight with them. While I might spout off some rhetoric about being respectful of their right to believe what they want, my primary concern was that I might get browbeat back into the faith camp and lose the threads of what seemed like a very promising resolution to my problem. I wasn’t ready yet to defend the position, having arrived at it so recently. However, it was then that I was ready to start exploring the issue.
What you’re reading here isn’t the product of that exploration so much as it is a window of insight into the ongoing process. I’ve honestly and earnestly explored the multitude of so-called “reasons” why YahwAlladdha exists, and found them to be completely lacking in merit. They’re inevitably some combination of arguments from ignorance, garnished with varying degrees of linguistic sophistry. My reaction to these now is similar to when I was young and realized that I was a head taller than the school bully – all of a sudden the thing I had been so worried about seemed so petty and unimpressive that I was disgusted with myself for fearing it in the first place.
This is why I am so impatient with the faithful – not because I think they are stupid per se, but because they have compartmentalized their minds and refused to address the irrationality at the core of belief in God. The only honest form of belief I have found is that of Katie Kish, who says that she recognizes that it doesn’t make any sense, but she likes how it makes her feel – while this stance annoys me, that’s really my problem and not hers.
To return momentarily to the assertion, or rather accusation, that my atheism is dishonestly come by, or that atheists can only be happy if they delude themselves into believing themselves to be gods, it is (hopefully) abundantly evident from the above story that there is no merit to this view. It is a silly, spurious lie borne by a combination of ignorance and ready acceptance of propaganda. I am finally, after years of struggle, able to live a fulfilling and happy life without having to lie to myself, or hold beliefs that are contradicted by evidence in multitude. My mind can rest easy in moments of quiet reflection, no longer plagued by the need to find some kind of explanation of my place in the universe. I can develop personal moral positions and defend them without having to rely on faith-based beliefs that I do not really believe in.
Far from making me a nihilist, my divestiture of God was the most honest and liberating thing I’ve ever done.
TL/DR: After being haunted for years with the contradictions inherent in religious faith, I finally figured out that the question of the existence of God was meaningless either way. At that point I was ready to explore the issue without guilt, eventually granting me freedom from the question at all. Nihilism is far from the only or ‘most honest’ reaction to atheism.
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