Is atheism dead?

My belief in no God, which has sustained me since high school, is starting to feel shaky.

Published July 12, 2007 10:13AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm an average 38-year-old man with a good, calm life. No drama to speak of.

I've been a nonbeliever in Christianity since the sixth grade, and an atheist since high school. As a "good" atheist, I know that my lack of religion isn't supposed to be a problem for me. My life is supposed to have just as much meaning and beauty in it as a believer's, and the fact that there is no such thing as a spiritual world isn't supposed to bother me one bit.

But it does. For many years I never thought much about the consequences of my atheism, but as the years go by it sinks in more and more, and very gradually I'm losing any sense of purpose in my life, and even my ability to enjoy the things I once did. It's truly horrifying for me to understand, viscerally, that someday I and everyone and everything I love will be gone forever.

If I could flip a switch in my brain that would instantly make myself believe that there's a loving god out there who will someday reunite me with my loved ones, I would do it, in order to live out my days with some peace and purpose, however illusory. It sounds crazy, but it's really how I feel.

I don't know anything about your spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on my situation.

- E.D. (Existential Depression) Sufferer

Dear E.D.,

I think first of all you should discard the assumption that because you declared yourself an atheist in high school you have settled the most vexing and unsettling question in the universe. It may be a little more complicated than that.

That's OK. You are not required to settle this question. In fact, the assumption that you can settle this question may lie at the heart of your current philosophical discomfort.

I do not see how a thinking person can expect to be untroubled by the most troubling question of all. The structure, history and underlying laws of the universe remain a mystery. We have it on good authority that any number of seemingly miraculous events are occurring as we speak (if the phrase "as we speak" has any meaning in this discussion). Fusion is occurring in the heart of the sun. Black holes are sucking up light and everything else around them, including, presumably, time as we know it. I have heard it suggested that everything may have already occurred in a backward-running dimension rushing "past us" as we rush "forward."

In other words, our world is exceedingly strange and beyond our ken. So in the midst of all this to posit the existence of God does not seem to be all that much of a stretch.

You say that your life had been generally calm and you thought you had settled these questions. But you are approaching 40, when men freak out. So freak out. Seek God, as John From Cincinnati says.

I read in the paper this morning about a woman who did a writing exercise in which she composed her own obituary and that freaked her out so much she rowed across the Atlantic Ocean.

So go ahead and freak out. There is no shame in reaching the limit of your rational understanding and feeling the need to turn to something beyond yourself. You may have thought you had settled this in high school ... but you were in high school!

We sometimes have to adjust the suppositions we make about the nature of our existence or we will go mad.

You may want to consider William James' notion of the Will to Believe. The general idea, as I understand it, is that the decision to believe something may in some cases necessarily precede the effects of that belief.

When I was young I lived among evangelical Christians in the small-town South and was invited more than once by children my age to proclaim the ritual words that would ensure me everlasting life. I'm sure Christian faith is more complex than that, but that is how it was portrayed to me: Say these words and have everlasting life. Abracadabra. As a child I even tried saying those words once or twice to see what would happen. Nothing seemed to happen. I probably didn't do it right. But for all I know, if those simple-minded children were telling the truth, I achieved in that one act an insurance policy that will indeed pay off upon my death. That was a kind of childish pragmatism, sort of like Pascal's Wager.

As an adult, on the other hand, in order to recover from addiction I did find it necessary to quite soberly and sincerely posit the existence of a higher power. If you're at the end of your rope and nothing else has worked, you just do it. That is a kind of pragmatism, too.

So I urge you to keep an open mind about these things. If you need to cultivate some form of belief, do so.

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