“Is there a God? No
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal. Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and evil? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.”
These are the words of Alex Rosenberg, the Department Chair and R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, and they are taken from the opening chapter of his recent work, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.”
His terse Q and A really needs no explanation. And in many ways, it encapsulates his book, so there’s no need to say anything further about it. I suppose my point in highlighting this quote runs along different currents. As a longtime listener of Point of Inquiry, an atheistic/humanistic podcast devoted to spreading the “joy” of atheism, I am often surprised at how often they continue to cling to purpose even when their worldview eviscerates it. They want to make a lasting impact. They want to advance their cause, spread their message, and sway convictions. They are in every way purposeful, even evangelistic, aiming to make a significant difference in this world.
But why? Why when there’s no real point in the end?
Yeah, sure, they would say that they might as well make the most of the one short life they have. But again, why? Who among us, after all, when we really reflect on the endless, pointless silence of unconscious blackness awaiting us (given atheism), can seriously look into the camera of life and say, “Oh boy, I’m excited about such and such cause because it’s going to make a big difference?”
I genuinely don’t know how they do it, or rather, how they sustain it. With the infinite weight of grim nothingness ever looming on the horizon, how does such a prospect not swallow one’s drive? What is a mere flicker of existence anyway? One second after death and everything becomes infinitely meaningless; so meaningless in fact, so utterly vacuous, that there isn’t even space for sad reflection. Consciousness is snuffed out. We’re talking nothing-nothing, the greatest conceivable nothing. No reflection. No awareness. Complete and utter void.
In order for one to press forward, let alone press forward with zeal, it would require a strong dose of self-delusion or distraction to live at all normally with such knowledge. Either fool yourself or try not to think about it (or maybe drug yourself up). But both are sad. In the former instance, it’s akin to a person writing a fairy tale and then turning around and trying to believe it’s real. “Life is ultimately meaningless, but I’m going to paste a sticky note on it that reads, ‘Meaning for me.’ I’m going to squeeze my eyes tightly shut, and just keep saying, ‘This does matter. My life does count for something.’”
I suppose there are those who try to summon bravado in the face of such hopelessness. They try to stare it down, as it were; joke about it, mock it; or use it to somehow infuse their brief existence with more meaning. “It’s the only life, so let’s get living!” Some do that. But it is done so in vain. For in this instance, it’s like a man who has been sentenced for life to solitary confinement trying to convince himself that the next two days before being locked up can be lived out normally. Who can go about their normal business with such a sentence hanging over them? No sane mind can wave it off fully. It inevitably affects the soul.
So if there’s a positive side to a book like “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality,” it is this: It reminds us again of the logical implications of atheism. And for those who might fall into the camp known as the new atheists, those men and women who do try to cling to morality and meaning apart from God, this book is a sober reminder that such ambitions are folly at best. It’s a simple case of trying to keep your cake and eat it too. And for that, I suppose I’m reluctantly thankful for Professor Rosenberg’s awful reminder.