Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Have Faith in Atheism
That is, having faith in God to pull you through. Having faith that there is a plan for you, having faith that there is a meaning in the universe and a reason for everything.
Of course, no one is without doubt. Even the most devout believers must at times struggle to hold on to their faith. But they have a faith to hold on to. They have a deep and enduring story that, at least in theory, accounts for everything in their lives. It tells of a universe designed with them in mind, with special details and guarantees that promise not only an ultimate reward in the afterlife, but a better life now. It spins tragedy into harmony, grief into glory, pain into love. There may not be any specific answer to specific problems, but in faith it is promised that a deeper purpose exists, and faith will carry one through.
Unfortunately, I have no such reassurances. As an Atheist, I have no reason to believe that there is any higher purpose to my life. The universe was not designed with me in mind. It simply exists, according to a relatively limited set of physical laws. These laws have set in motion an unbelievably vast and complex series of interactions, my body and mind composed of elements forged in the ebb and flow of stellar supernovae, brought together by interactions of gravity and electromagnetics, propelled by energies as distant as the Milky Way galaxy within which our Sun orbits, and as close as the very bonds that hold my sub-atomic particles together. Within this vast cosmic dance, I do my thing.
So, what is "my thing", and more importantly, why do I do it? A question for the ages, right? What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of life? Having already declared my Atheism, I have already submitted that there is no purpose.
Seven years ago, I tried to kill myself by overdosing on prescription pills. For twenty five years I have gone about my daily life in varying degrees of chronic pain. Sometimes it feels like the walls are closing in all around me. It is all I can do to focus my mental powers like invisible rods and struts, holding back the vice grip of gnawing muscle tension. At other times the pain is barely noticeable, lurking in the background but easily ignored. My life has been torn apart; who knows how it could have been had I not had that surfboard accident in 1989.
In my darkest moments - which thankfully, are much further far and in-between than they used to be before the suicide came as somewhat of a watershed - I do not have God to comfort me. My footsteps are my own. I cannot bend my knee and take solace in a faith that there is a purpose to my pain. There is no "lesson" that I am to learn. There were no sins that I am paying for now, redeemable for a ticket into heaven when I die. There is only the cold machinery of the universe, of which I have been on the receiving end of misfortune.
It is true that we all need purpose. I know as well as anyone what it feels like to reach the end of the tether which attaches me to my will to live. We need a reason to live. We need a reason to push on despite horrible pain, anguish and tragedy. We cannot live without purpose. Purpose is what gives our lives beauty and reminds us in moments of challenge that there is much to be thankful for. Purpose is what drives us to be better, more honest, more caring, more supportive people, to do better things, to set ambitious goals and struggle to accomplish them. Without purpose, our lives become aimless and superficial, stumbling over minor obstacles and sidetracking us towards short-term satisfactions.
If there is no God, or supernatural story within which our lives are fixed, which gives ultimate purpose to our lives, carrying us through the pain and propelling us towards the fulfillment of our best natures, how is it that the Atheist is not destined for all that accompanies a life devoid of purpose?
Some might take solace in the notion that it is Atheism itself which destroys purpose. After all, how can one ever prove that there is no God, or supernatural force that guides our destiny? Partly a semantic issue, Atheism is not incompatible with such agnosticism. It can as easily be said that one can never really prove a negative. Two plus two may equal four this time, but no one can know the future. Just because there is no evidence for God at all, and an inexhaustible supply of evidence for causal mechanisms in the natural world that need no creator to be explained. Aside from the creation of natural laws themselves, we have every reason to believe they are enough in and of themselves to explain everything that exists in the universe. Agnosticism should be the basis not only for supernatural questions, but our stance towards reality itself. However, it is merely a baseline. Acting with purpose requires so much more. While nothing may be able to be completely disproven, we live in a practical world and Occam's Razor requires us to make practical decisions. I may not know that two plus two will always equal four, but I can't sit around waiting to find out. There is just as little purpose in agnosticism as there is in Atheism.
While Atheism can give us no purpose, it makes a stronger statement about purpose in general: that we make our own purpose. In fact, in Atheism we see that all religious faiths (all but one of them being untrue, by default) are in fact man-made. Therefore, the purpose that they purport to offer the faithful is man-made as well.
Unfortunately, as a non-believing Atheist, I cannot simply adopt the purpose of the faithful as my own. And thus I cannot collect the rewards - the comfort, the inspiration. And so I must find my own. Limited to the natural world, I cannot simply invent convenient stories, hiding away in the mysticism that "everything happens for a reason", knowing full well that it doesn't. We offer no such hubris to the billions of animals that die of starvation or predation each year in the wild. The reason? That's life.
But maybe the stoicism of the natural world offers us a clue in how to make sense of a harsh reality. It has been theorized that at root, humanity's existential despair comes from our larger cognitive capacity. Our brains have evolved as sense-making machines. And yet, when faced with senseless tragedy, we are at a loss. Our brain is a hammer looking for a nail, and unfortunately one does not exist.
Or does it? In our quest to make sense of the world, we have invented powerful mythologies with the ultimate goal of finding purpose where there seems to be none. It is a highly useful story to tell, yet everyone knows all but one are wrong - Atheists simply claim that one is wrong too.
But what if we had a story to tell about purpose that didn't require the supernatural. Is there not enough to live for here on earth? Is there not enough to get us through the tragedies, the hardships, to inspire us with ambition, to want to make the world a better place?
When I look into the eyes of the woman I love, I feel a purpose. When I laugh along with my two daughters, I feel purpose. When my family and friends remind me of our shared memories, I feel a purpose. When I see my smiling neighbor walking past my house everyday after returning from the bustop after work, I feel purpose. When I pull weeds in my garden I feel purpose. When I finish writing a new song with my guitar I feel a purpose. When I listen to a new record that inspires me to go back and write again, I feel purpose. The roadrunner that struts across my garden wall gives me a sense of purpose. The way the tendrils of the grapevine reach out in slow motion for a new handhold, I feel purpose.
Of course, I will forget all of these things. I will become overwhelmed. I will allow negative thoughts to creep over my consciousness and push away all of the good things in my life. But time will pass, and I will overcome. I will be reminded of all of these things that give me purpose, and I will embrace them. I will have faith in their ability to change my life. I will have faith that they do indeed exist, that I will come to feel their effects again. These things are real. They exist in the natural word. I can touch them. I can make real connections with them. I have faith in these things, and through them, I have faith in Atheism.