To Bear Life as It Is
On metaphysical atheism
I don’t consider myself a very polemical atheist. There are times when my inner Hitchens itches to prick, sure, but deep down what interests me is not the question of God’s existence so much as the repercussions of there not being a god. I’m almost tempted to say that I don’t really care if God exists or not, though that would be absurd and not quite true. (I don’t believe he exists and I don’t want him to exist, but that’s another matter.) What I mean is that God’s nonexistence is not where my atheism ends but where it begins.
There is an important distinction between what we might call rationalist atheism (e.g., Dawkins, Harris, Pinker) and metaphysical atheism. (I’m also fond of the philosopher Philip Kitcher’s more palliative phrase “soft atheism.”) For the rationalists, the sole purpose of atheism is to debunk what they regard as so much childish superstition. To them, believing in God is something one eventually grows out of, just as one grows out of believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy—two examples Richard Dawkins routinely gives.
Metaphysical atheists regard these rationalists with contempt for their religious and metaphysical tone deafness. For the same reason, you’ll never encounter any engagement with Dostoevsky or Nietzsche or Camus in their writing (Steven Pinker does discuss Nietzsche in Enlightenment Now, though only enough to make it clear that he has never read any Nietzsche). But what is most objectionable of all is the limiting notion that reason, or rationality, or science—or whatever they want to call their ersatz man in the sky—is somehow enough to address and reconcile us to the suffering that is inextricably woven into the texture of a human life.
In a way, metaphysical atheists have more in common with theists than they do with rationalists. Like religion, atheism is not actually a very rational position. The more rational position is surely some form of agnosticism, in which you accept that there are things you cannot know for certain and then move on with your life. Metaphysical atheism, on the other hand, is analogous to religious conviction because it acknowledges that atheism is itself a belief rather than an epistemic claim, and that, like any belief, it can waver one day and harden the next. In My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, the poet Christian Wiman writes: “Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions.”
So it is with atheism. There are moments—hours, days, weeks—when, for all sorts of reasons, some of which I am perhaps only dimly aware, I feel myself more inclined to religious belief, just as there are moments when I find the whole “vast moth-eaten musical brocade” preposterous, absurd—offensive, even.
At the end of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s great novel Niels Lyhne (1880), the titular hero, a once idealistic young poet, has buried his parents, his friend, his wife, and his son. Life’s cruel adversities have whittled Niels’s proudly defiant atheism down to the bitterest disillusionment. All his previous beliefs, he decides, were really just “tinsel names for the one simple idea: to bear life as it was! To let life shape itself according to its own laws.”
To bear life as it is—that is where metaphysical atheism begins. The challenge consists in affirming life even when life is at its most unbearable, when we suffer what the philosopher Mark Johnston calls the “large-scale structural defects of human life”: arbitrary suffering, aging, illness, and death. I recently saw, at Skagen’s Museum in Denmark, a famous painting by Michael Ancher depicting the moments immediately after a drowned fisherman has been retrieved from the sea and placed on a wooden table, surrounded by his family and the fellow fishermen who found his body. Looking at the stunned and grief-stricken expressions on their faces, especially the faces of the fisherman’s young son and wife, I was suddenly present at this little scene of sorrow and desperation, this ordinary human drama, and I recalled that line in Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”: “Most things may never happen: this one will.”
But how do we live with the knowledge that—on a day not of our own choosing, without any regard for the loved ones who will survive us, heedless of whatever plans and hopes and dreams we may yet have—we will be wrenched from this existence into unknowable oblivion? I fear this is a banal and unanswerable question, perhaps even an adolescent one. I can’t get it out of my head. Larkin again: “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die.”
In the end, there probably aren’t any answers to be had. Perhaps there needn’t be. I know a man whose wife died of cancer at the age of forty-four, leaving him to care and provide for their two children by himself. It was just the kind of loss I imagined would undo a person entirely, and yet he not only succeeded in salvaging the remains of his little family, he even regained the joyful, life-affirming demeanor his friends and family had always known him for. And so far as I know, he managed all this without any clear ideas about God or life or the meaning of it all. He simply muddled through, the way most people have, one day at a time, bearing life as it was.
All of which makes me think of the gentle Pastor Niemeyer, in Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, who says: “What do I think of life? A little and a lot. Sometimes a great deal, sometimes very little.”