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.
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