Understanding meaninglessness

February 7, 2007 | Atheism, Spiritual Dry Spells | 26 comments

The other day I came across the Ignatius Press Blog’s coverage of Steve Pinker’s piece in Time where he makes points like this [paraphrased]:

  • The notion of an afterlife devalues life on earth, leading people (e.g. the 9/11 hijackers) to do bad things on earth in favor of some sort of eternal reward.
  • When you don’t believe in an afterlife or an immortal soul, you believe that “life is short” and use that realization to do all sorts of good things in this life, from being productive to practicing forgiveness.

Good for him that those are the conclusions that his worldview leads him to. There are, obviously, a lot more scary behaviors a person with a godless, soulless eternal consequences-less worldview might find justifiable. That aside, the thing I find most striking about these kinds of pieces is how blithely the writers deliver the message that, in the grand scheme of things, we are nothing and nothing matters. That when each one of us dies, it’s the end. Each life’s significance only a mirage, the perception of the other meaningless chemical reactions that are their friends and family, who will also soon disappear.

It’s easy to talk about death on a surface level without really internalizing what it means. I did this for much of my life as an atheist, pushing the thought of death and meaningless way down into my subconscious. But, unfortunately, I accidentally really “got it” and fully realized my own meaninglessness when I was a teenager, and it threw me into a sinking, crushing depression that I struggled with for seven years. (In a testament to my hardheadedness and certainty that my atheistic worldview was correct, it was not belief in God that eventually brought me out of it. Though I realized belief would “rescue” me from my suffocating despair, I just couldn’t make myself believe something that I thought was clearly not true.)

Anyway, around the same time I read the Ignatius post, I received this email from a reader who has recently lost his faith. His words sound familiar to me. He’s looked at the world without God and knows what that means:

I really want to be able to believe wholeheartedly that there is a God and a Heaven…This has been a huge concern on my mind for quite some time now. [Doubt about God’s existence] just popped in my head during a break from school, and despite my best efforts, I cannot get it to leave.

I want to stop worrying about all of this and go back to being the way I was 3 weeks ago. I want to get the notion that life is pointless because it leads to nothing out of my head. It’s gotten to the point where when I see an elderly person on tv, I think about death. I eat a good meal, and I think, what’s the point? I go to class and I am jealous of the people who just worry about assigned readings, or the professor who is doing their job, because they are not plagued with this awful feeling I am experiencing.


He gets it. He knows the “awful feeling”. I’m guessing he also knows the sleepless nights, frantic search for distractions, strange feeling of looking at others as they happily go about their day and thinking, “How can you act like you don’t know?!”

I often wonder if Pinker, Dawkins and others like them have really internalized what they’re saying. Because, at least in my experience, when you fully realize what it means to be an atheist — that you and everyone you love are just chemical reactions, that all the poetry and wars and art and music and love of all humanity amount to not even a blip on the radar screen of the universe, that we are all simply a more complicated version of what happens when you mix baking soda and vinegar together — you don’t feel like writing pithy essays about it.

26 Comments

  1. lyrl

    There was a time in the past when I did not exist. I think I can count myself in the majority when I state that knowledge does not bother me. To take that further, though, what is so horrible about the idea that in the future, there might also be a time I will not exist? To me, it’s not any different than my non-existence prior to my life.

    Saying a lack of afterlife means life doesn’t matter is, to me, somewhat small-minded. Consider the huge impact on the universe quarks and leptons exert, even those that only exist for a fraction of a second, and how completely non-obvious that is to life on the human scale. Just because a person does not see significance in their life, that does not make their life insignificant, just like our lack of knowledge of them does not make quarks and leptons meaningless.

    A significant line of thought for me as a pet owner is to consider the meaning of their lives. I’ve experienced the death of a number of family pets. I’m not articulate about it, but I don’t see people arguing that the lives of such animals were meaningless and insignificant. Or that they were only significant because these particular animals interacted with humans. And yet heaven is generally perceived as being a humans-only domain. Somehow, we consider the lives of animals significant even without an afterlife for them. Why should the same not apply to humans?

    I could go on, but this is a long post already. While I’m agnostic about the existence of God, I’m pretty firm in not believing in an afterlife. I certainly consider my life to have worth. In any case, I am happy for everyone else who has found significance in their life, whatever the route, and hope those struggling with this issue can find quick resolution.

  2. Mike J

    My first thought is how I feel for the reader who recently lost his faith. As I’m in the same situation, I know what that can be like.

    I too want to believe God is real; that the whole of the Faith is real and right. But I cannot. I’ve always said, “I don’t care what the truth of any topic turns out to be, I just want to find it out and get on the right side of it.”

    This fellow appear to be of the same stripe. As do you Jen. Even when faced with a life-altering truth we don’t turn aside, but rather embrace it as best we can.

    Some things you said struck quite a cord with me:
    > I’m guessing he also knows the sleepless nights, frantic search for distractions, strange feeling of looking at others as they happily go about their day and thinking, “How can you act like you don’t know?!”< I’ve know that feeling on both sides of faith. I think most don’t want to know. Others know, but they push it down so they can get on with daily life. Others have simply made peace with it all. (I’m pushing for that last.) > what it means to be an atheist — that you and everyone you love are just chemical reactions, that all the poetry and wars and art and music and love of all humanity amount to not even a blip on the radar screen of the universe < Yes. I see that. I want there to be more. I want each of us to have a grand, eternal significance. I want to believe that we are all known and loved by an all mighty being who can take care of us and everything else. But when such a being can’t spare even one infinitesimal blip of all that power to just once say, “Yes, Mike. I’m here.” I can’t believe, I can’t hold on to belief. I still see purpose in life. Yes, I have to apply it myself, but such is my lot. To the unknown reader: I know a lot of folks who have gone or are going through the same thing. So know that you are not alone.

  3. SteveK

    The thought of not existing after death doesn’t bother me at all if it turns out to be the case. I don’t believe in God just so I can have meaning and purpose either. I believe because I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t believe.

    One of the nice “perks” is that ultimate meaning and purpose come with my belief. There are other nice “perks” but all of those take a back seat to what drives me toward belief in the first place. General revelation convinced me that god was real and special revelation convinced me that god (little ‘g’) was really God.

  4. M_David

    I know exactly what you are saying. I’ve had the exact same feelings and loathing. I cannot express how terrible the feelings are. Worse than death. Utter dispair.

    However: I have also, I swear, just a day later, had the exact thought and felt no fear at all. Just ho-hum. I believe that Pinker and his ilk have never felt the fear at all – and cannot understand why anyone would. They say, so I die, so what?

    But I must say it was science that first made me feel sure I knew nothing logically about an afterlife – quantum mechanics, Godel’s proof – all seem to mock logic to the point of “who knows” using logic. Faith is just as good here.

  5. Ersza

    This sounds like clinical depression to me. Perhaps in addition to engaging your correspondant spiritually, you can advise him/her to bring this concern to his/her doctor. There might also be some obsessive thoughts going on. Not to minimize the problem of death, but often mental illness strikes and we think we are upset about X or Y when really something has gone wrong chemically in the brain. It is a very painful condition.

  6. Professor Chaos

    1.) I want to believe in God and an afterlife.
    2.) Therefore God exists.

  7. Jennifer F.

    Ersza: This sounds like clinical depression to me.

    Maybe. Although, from my experience, the realization of your own meaninglessness is enough to send you to a really awful place without any physical issues going on.

    Professor C – I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I don’t know if the person who emailed me has a firm belief in God now just because he wants it to be true. Based on our correspondence, I doubt it.

    And that route definitely didn’t work for me, as I mentioned. I was actually in a really happy place in my life when I started to look into spiritual stuff.

    Also, surely you’re not saying that all theists believe in God simply because they want it to be true.

  8. Darwin

    Prof Chaos,

    Taken a certain way, perhaps. But I think another way one might look at what Jen is putting forward is more that an atheistic worldview is sufficiently un-useful as to be discarded.

    By analogy (and clearly, many with disagree with the analogy) there is nothing logically impossible about solopcism — yet in general one discards it, not because it has been disproved, but because it would be so un-useful to believe.

    I think that what Jen is basically saying here is that she finds atheism to be such an un-useful place from which to try to make sense of the world, that she finds that very un-usefulness to be an argument against it.

  9. Jennifer F.

    Darwin –

    I actually was not necessarily trying to argue against atheism here. Just suggesting that it’s hard to imagine that they’ve really, truly thought through the implications of what they’re saying, because it doesn’t seem like they’d be so gleeful about it if they had. I certainly wasn’t. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong, just that, if they’re right, it’s nothing to be excited and talkative about.

    A few of my atheist commentors have noted over the past few months that their belief system is not exactly a walk in the park, that it’s a depressing thought that we’re just chemical reactions. All I was trying to get at here is that I agree with that, that was my experience too (as well as that of the person who emailed me) and I just don’t get why Pinker and co. so cheerfully deliver their messages, even if they are correct.

  10. Professor Chaos

    Why would the lack of an afterlife be depressing? What’s more depressing:

    a.) Suffering for eternity in hell
    b.) Eternity in heaven…while knowing that loved ones are suffering for eternity in hell.
    c.) Nothingness.

    How is NOTHINGNESS bad? It’s nothing!

  11. mike

    Modern atheism seems to be find its roots in existentialism- or, the philosophy that existence is all that there is. What you see is what you get.

    Existentialism itself was a philosophical response to an extremely depressing situation: World War II. According to Sartre, the point of existence was simply to exist until you die. There was no transcendent point, no ultimate goal- you struggled to exist and then ceased to exist.

    Existentialism was and is a profoundly pessimistic philosophy. In existentialist thought, people seem to be something, a waiter, a writer, etc… but they’re just pretending. The existentialist’s goal, then, is to simply exist. But there’s no reassurance that existence is grounded in anything. Everything might be pretending to exist. You and everything you experience might actually be a delusion.

    If I am right and much of modern atheism is strongly influenced by this philosophy, then it’s no wonder that some of its adherents find modern atheism depressing.

    I would suggest your friend read up on natural law and Aristotle. As I see it, they’re a good counterbalance to existentialist philosophy.

  12. rose

    How is NOTHINGNESS bad? It’s nothing!

    “And specious stuff that says no rational being
    Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
    that this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.”
    –Philip Larkin, “Aubade”

    I don’t know, I tend to think that there are just two kinds of people: those who find non-existence terrifying, and those who don’t. Personally, I find the idea aboslutely horrific, but I’m not sure that I could really mount an argument to convince those who don’t. I think you either see it or you don’t.

    (Incidentally, in Catholic theology, existence IS an actual good–which is why the devil is not Absolute Evil, because insofar as he exists, he has a quality that is like to God, and that is therefore good.)

  13. SteveK

    a.) Suffering for eternity in hell
    b.) Eternity in heaven…while knowing that loved ones are suffering for eternity in hell.
    c.) Nothingness.

    How is NOTHINGNESS bad? It’s nothing!

    Nothingness isn’t bad, but as Darwin said it’s not a particularly interesting or useful belief just as solipsism isn’t. I’d believe in nothingness if the evidence pointed to nothingness, but this isn’t the case. It may be for you, but not me. I can accept the reality of nothingness if it turns out to be the case and apparantly you are willing to accept the reality of God’s judgement if it turns out to be the case.

    I’d qualify b) with the added thought that these loved ones snubbed their collective noses at God and refused to bend their knee before the Most High when asked. As C.S. Lewis said “Thy will be done.”, or as Burger King said “Have it your way.”

  14. Professor Chaos

    Mike, atheism has nothing to do with existentialism, or any other philosophy.

    Atheism is simply a lack of religious belief.

  15. Professor Chaos

    Lurker, “nothingness” does not require evidence. It’s the default. You claim that an afterlife exists. There is no evidence for that afterlife. Therefore I believe that the afterlife does not exist.

  16. Professor Chaos

    Rose, I have no idea how one could be terrified of something that cannot be perceived.

  17. SteveK

    There is no evidence for that afterlife. Therefore I believe that the afterlife does not exist.

    As I said, the evidence points the other way for me. I’d be lying to myself to pretend otherwise. Take the afterlife out of Christianity and replace it with nothingness and I would still believe in God – because of the evidence.

    BTW, Lurker is dead. Long live SteveK !!

  18. Jennifer F.

    How is NOTHINGNESS bad? It’s nothing!

    Whew! Professor C, you’re more stoic than I! The thing that always got me is that whenever I got happy or excited about anything at all, it felt like it mattered (e.g. the purchase of a cool condo, landing a hot job, falling in love, etc.)…then I’d remember that it only mattered in my own mind, which wasn’t all that “real” anyway since I was a soon-to-be-gone set of chemical reactions. And especially that all of humanity was going to be dust shortly anyway, I saw no point in really feeling excited about anything, despite what my gut was telling me. It was really hard to deal with.

  19. Darwin

    I think the thing that I find most disturbing about the idea of nothingness after death is that (as someone very attached to the search for and finding of truth) I would have no way of knowing that I’d been wrong.

    My mind rebels against the idea of that final non-discovery. Perhaps especially in that my mind rebels against the idea of not being a mind at all, but rather a deterministric process of chemical reactions.

    In the end, free will is the great selling point of religion from an intellectual point of view, or at least from mine.

    So perhaps it’s not so much the lack of afterlife but the lack of soul and lack of purpose in the world (indeed the lack of a mind in a meaningful sense) that I find so thoroughly uncongenial about atheism.

  20. M_David

    1.) I want to believe in God and an afterlife.
    2.) Therefore God exists.

    If I follow this logic here, you mean:

    1) “I want to believe in something I cannot prove experimentally and cannot prove logically (God/afterlife)” so therefore
    2) “I choose to believe God exists against the evidence”.

    I think this reasoning is flawed – it leads to things such as:

    1) I want to believe in love
    2) So, therefore love exists

    or

    1) I want to believe in objective reality
    2) So, therefore reality exists

    You can see the problem with this analysis. Just like the vast majority of us believe in love, the world is not a dream, etc. without evidence or proof, the VAST majority also believe in a divinity without proof.

    So what? It doesn’t mean it’s “just because we want to”. I want to believe in love, but still think it objectively exists not because I want to but because I just think it does. I want to believe I’m filthy rich, but I still don’t. So the logic doesn’t take us home here. The vast majority of human life cannot be “proven” – but most of us wouldn’t give it up or think it’s not real.

    Also, if one didn’t believe that the soul was eternal, what meaning would any virtue have? Or vice? Nothing would have any meaning at all. We are just a lump of carbon and water. In a sense, the life of an athiest, lived out truly, would be that of an insane man by the rest of humanity.

  21. M_David

    Atheism is simply a lack of religious belief.

    Actually, I think the lack of belief is agnosticism.

    Atheism is not the lack of belief, but an active belief: one that there is no God.

    Also, religion may or may not have anything to do with it. For example, Einstein and TJ were not “religious” but still believed in God. One doesn’t have to be a bible-thumper or subscribe to a doctrine to believe in the Divine. All those “spiritual” folk out there will start to take offense at us if we don’t be careful! 🙂

  22. SteveK

    Atheism is not the lack of belief, but an active belief: one that there is no God.

    I wouldn’t say it this way, but I would say atheism is a product of looking at evidence/reality through a particular filter, or worldview. This is also true for theism by the way. Some atheists reject the evidence for God because the evidence gets filtered out resulting in no evidence.

    I suspect this is why Professor Chaos can say, with confidence, that there is no evidence for God and an afterlife. He looks at the pile of evidence that Christian’s bring to him and he says “What evidence?”.

  23. M_David

    SteveK;

    I wasn’t giving my opinion what what atheist is, just trying to keep everyone talking on the same page.

    Merriam-Webster defines atheist as:

    one who believes that there is no deity.

    and an agnostic as:

    a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable

    BTW, I do agree with your point – when faced with a question without a clear proof, one’s bias certainly drives the outcome.

    Rather clever of God, eh? Now that’s what you call true free will – the ability to deny the existence of your own creator…

  24. SteveK

    Rather clever of God, eh? Now that’s what you call true free will – the ability to deny the existence of your own creator…

    I’ve come to this conclusion as well. It’s a clever method that reveals the true desires and heart of each person – much like a Rorschach ink blot test.

  25. Professor Chaos

    I suspect this is why Professor Chaos can say, with confidence, that there is no evidence for God and an afterlife. He looks at the pile of evidence that Christian’s bring to him and he says “What evidence?”.

    Well, if you want to call horrible evidence “evidence,” then I guess you’re right. But the “evidence” that Christians bring would be comparable to me saying, “I chew Juicy Fruit gum. Therefore, Pitt will win the NCAA tournament.”

    You can call anything you want “evidence.” 🙂

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