The Personalist Project

Is atheism something we can live with? Can it make sense of the world? Can it sustain us? Give meaning and direction to our lives?

These are the questions taken up by the "New New Atheists" (Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, and Alain de Botton) discussed by Chrisopher R. Beha in a recent issue of Harper's Magazine. (The article is available to subscribers only, but Beha also talks about it here. Hat-tip to a facebook friend.)

That God does not exist, these men take to be a firmly established truth. But where does it leave us, in terms of our personal lives? Can atheism replace the consolations and splendors of religion? Can it satisfy man's longing for a good and meaningful life?

It is an old question really, expressed most powerfully by Nietzsche in his famous "God is dead" passage:

What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun [i.e. God]? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even Gods putrify! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!

How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it?

The three atheists discussed by Beha give different responses to all this. But Rosenberg's is — given the new atheist's premises — the most consistent and convincing. It is also the most devastating. Rosenberg begins with a good will, claiming that scientific atheism offers "a demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality." We must put religion and other fairy tales behind us, and face the facts boldly. There is no design to the universe, and no reason for our existence. We are the result of blind material forces. Likewise, there is no free will, no objective values. There is no good and evil, just pleasure and pain. Evolution has taught us, indeed, to cooperate with one another, and even to include women and minorities in this cooperative effort. But strictly speaking, such mutual cooperation is not good; it is only advantageous.

There is no need to draw out the consequences in detail. It is already clear, as Beha observes, "how much [atheistic] scientism takes from us, and how little it offers in return." The godless world of Rosenberg is very cold and depressing indeed. But don't worry, Rosenberg has an answer: Prozac.

It is futile to seek "a good reason for living, because there isn't any." Beha quotes him further:

So, what should we scientistic folks do when overcome by Weltschmerz (world-weariness)? Take two of whatever neuro-pharmacology prescribes. If you don't feel better in the morning … or three weeks from now, switch to another one. Three weeks is often how long it takes serotonin reuptake suppression drugs like Prozac, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, or Luvox to kick in. And if one doesn't work, another one probably will.

Mood-altering drugs are not the only possible solution. One could also distract oneself with money-making and consumerism. Or, like Beha himself, seek solace in art and literature. The latter seems more noble and fitting for human beings. But at bottom, Rosenberg would insist, all these efforts come to the same thing. Their value is only therapeutic. Their purpose is to hide the truth from ourselves.

So much for Rosenberg's claim that atheism implies a "demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality."

Comments (5)

Michael Healy

#1, Aug 24, 2012 5:47pm

Jules--Great post!  To add some more fuel to the fire, here is a quote from Elizabeth Wurzel's Prozac Nation (her italics). She attributes her depression (and subsequent dependence on Prozac) to her parents' divorce, her father walking out, the breakdown of her family.

Sometimes I think that I was forced to withdraw into depression because it was the only rightful protest I could throw in the face of a world that said it was all right for people to come and go as they please, that there were simply no real obligations left.... 

My father had a child that he didn't have too much trouble walking away from; it seems only natural that so many of us have pregnancies that we can abandon even more easily.  After awhile, meaning and implication detach themselves from everything.  If one can be a father and assume no obligations, it follows that one can be a boyfriend and do nothing at all.  ...Pretty soon it seems unreasonable to be bothered or outraged by much of anything because, well, what did you expect?  In a world where the core social unit--the family-- is so dispensable, how much can anything else mean?

Michael Healy

#2, Aug 24, 2012 5:49pm

Continuing the quote:

There is such a chill as I think of the way in which being deprived of normal feelings has the paradoxical effect of turning me into an emotional wreck.  As Russian writer Aleksandr Kuprin put it: "Do you understand, gentlemen, that all the horror is in just this: that there is no horror!"

As an atheist herself, Miss Wurtzel has no transcendent anchor beyond the horrors of this world, nothing which could put those horrors in perspective in light of the Cross--so she is merely subject to the horror.  Her only recourse is Prozac.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Aug 24, 2012 8:47pm

It's the existential vacuum, isn't it?

Victor Frankl had the key: Man cannot endure the lack of meaning.

Stephen Granderson

#4, Aug 25, 2012 10:17pm

I wonder if Rosenberg realizes that he is advising everyone to get addicted to drugs.  Addiction would be practically inevitable if you are taking drugs because you can't face reality.  I fail to see how this would be preferable to believing in God, even if he doesn't exist.


#5, Aug 26, 2012 3:18pm

Thanks for everyone's post.  I would just like to say: 

In order to bring to consciousness what needs resolution in our lives in the case of depression, we must be careful not to yield immediately to idealism in it's strict philosophical sense, taking it to be our enduring antidote.  This will not do.

What we must do, however, is recover our memories of when we were forced to repress our true needs and feelings of profound sadness and grief, as children or even as adults in order to survive our environments.  

We must then courageously integrate these feelings - which we split off in order to survive our environments - back into our persons.  

It is only after we have undergone this courageous process of integrating our split off feelings that we can live authentic spiritual lives, free as persons as we were meant to be.  

I do not see atheism or existentialism as reasons for depression, nor do I see belief in God as an antidote.

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