rhetoric sans pareil

November 13, 2008

The emotional impact of my atheism

Pigeon Mountain is a quick drive from my house. It’s not actually a mountain – that’s just the name. It’s a big hill though. I pass it on the way home some sometimes. Sometimes I’ll pass it at night if I’m coming home from a movie or something. And very occasionally – once every six months or so (more if I’m having a rough patch) – I’ll get the urge to go climb it at night.

At a brisk walk, it takes me about five minutes to get to the top – so no, it isn’t all that far, but it’s high enough. I don’t know if I imagine it or not, but it feels like I get less light pollution when I’m that far above the level of the street lights. The stars seem to stand out more. Pigeon Mountain is on a bit of a peninsula, so there’s pretty much constant sea winds. I wander up there in my jacket on a warm-ish night, and the wind fills my ears. I look up, and the night sky fills my vision.

I look up, and my mind fills the universe.

That infinite vacuum wheeling above my head… It grips hold of the edges of my consciousness, expands it out past my skull and up into the sky. Through the back of my skull, all the fascinating things I’ve learned about cosmology whirl behind my eyes, and in a few short instants I’ve gone off, racing across the universe, watching as stars birth, coalesce, burn, and then nova before my eyes. I think about the majestic interplay of all that energy in all its forms… all the light moving about in all directions, not just the directions I’m looking from, a sea of electromagnetic ripples overlapping one another in all ways and passing through a three-dimensional ocean.

This is all just in my head, of course. But even without knowledge of what they are, just looking up to watch the stars still pulls at the mind. My sense of self expands out, and it feels like it’s encompassing everything.

At this point, the wind has been stealing away all the warmth I built up walking up the hill. The chill sets in, and I’m suddenly aware that the universe, whilst beautiful and majestic, is nonetheless cold. Not cruel, exactly. Just impersonal. Indifferent. Moving, but unmoved by the softness or warmth of human life.

At that point, I cast my eyes down. I usually see a car going along the main road I follow on the way home. Looking down, that car could easily be me, driving along, my mind wrapped up snug in its little bubble of warm human foolishness. From the cold and alien place my mind is currently occupying, that little sliver of warmth seems so precious. Not only does it give the universe a little sliver of the warmth it lacks, but it is also precious because it is so fragile.

And it occurs to me that, whenever I’m driving, there will always exist some perspective of my car similar to the one I am taking now, atop this hill – even if it is just the perspective from the empty air above me. That preciousness will always be there, even when I’m not aware of it, and I can always let my mind expand out to take the long view so I can remind myself about it, should I need to.

Then I look about at the houses. Pigeon Mountain rises up above a comfortably middle-class suburban area. Each house is a little light, each light is a little bubble where a group of people have carved out a little life for themselves where their bubbles overlap, becoming bigger and stronger and warmer. Each home is a tiny little bubble among many – a frothing foam of warmth and softness and light, a sea of laughter and sorrows and life.

It’s all so precious, because it is so rare. And because it didn’t have to be. The universe dancing above my head stands as a mute sentinel over the fact that our world never had to be this way. The universe doesn’t care. It isn’t malevolent, just indifferent. It has nothing to care with.

The only things I know about in this universe that are capable of caring are human beings, with all our foibles and quirks and weaknesses. We are transient on the scale of the universe. In the eyes of the stars we exist but for a flicker. The universe has no purpose for us. How could it? The universe isn’t the kind of thing that can impose a purpose! It has nothing to have a purpose with. Just matter and motion, nothing more.

But from that matter and motion has come something very special – totally unexpected, totally unplanned, and perhaps unique. From the purposeless dust of the universe has come the means for imposing purpose on the universe. This is something that may never be replicated again. It is so precious. It is so fragile. It is so fleeting. And it matters so very, very much.

And it is here that I find myself overcome with the… silliness of most religious thought. It often seems that the whole point of religion is to trick us into thinking that we matter because we will live forever. It’s as if the present moment – the only thing that is ever really real – is meaningless to the religious mind. So in despair, it turns away from the present and towards the eternity of the stars – but there it turns away in horror at the cold indifference it finds in the depths of the void. So the religious mind pretends that the universe has its own bubble of warmth and life and personality, its own reassuring cocoon of personality and purpose. And the religious mind calls this fantasy-bubble ‘God’. But it is not real. It is a comforting illusion only. The real warmth – the warmth that really matters – comes from that which is really alive. Life.

Where such a mind goes wrong is at the very beginning. The transient and impermanent moment isn’t meaningless. Nothing lasts, but it matters while it does. And it matters because it matters to us, because we are. Purpose isn’t something that is granted to us mortals by eternity. No. It’s the other way around. It is eternity that is granted a meaning by us, the transient and fragile mortal minds that breathe life, lust and love into a cold and impersonal universe.

And the entire basis of religious thought just seems so… silly really is the only word that fits. There are more sophisticated arguments against the existence of God than this – clever devices of rhetoric, complex philosophy, simple observation, the fruits of critical thinking, and so forth. But it all pales in comparison when you can grasp how deeply and profoundly silly the root of religious thought really is.

And that’s the emotional impact of my atheism. I can feel in my bones how silly and human the myth of God really is. It’s so… limiting. It makes our brief, special, vibrant lives into nothing more than an entrance examination for an eternity that will never come, and wouldn’t matter even if it did. What matters is here and now. Tomorrow will only matter when it becomes the new here and now – it is the hereness and the nowness that gives a moment its meaning, not its place within eternity. It is kairos that grants meaning, not chronos. And even once we are gone, there will still be meaning and light and life in those we leave behind. Funerals are rites for the living, not the dead.

Religion denies the only thing we have that really matters in favor of a myth that wouldn’t matter even if it was real. It’s just so silly. And so very, very tragic.

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22 Comments »

  1. That piece of prose is the most inspirational piece I have read since hearing Sagan’s “Pale Blue dot” monologue. Bravo. It is an apt response to the “Atheists, Enlighten Me!” blog entry where you originally posted this as a reply.

    Comment by James — November 14, 2008 @ 3:39 am

  2. [...] has anything grabbed me so bodily and forced my attention. It is a beautiful read. Wisely s/he has reposted the essay on the blog: rhetoric sans pareil. Give it a read and be inspired. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)About Me « [...]

    Pingback by Who would want to be a soulless atheist meat-machine? « Acinonyx Scepticus — November 14, 2008 @ 4:38 am

  3. James:

    I know I’ve already said this on your blog, but I think it needs to be said again: Thank you!

    It rocks me a little that anyone should compare me to the likes of Carl Sagan. I’m tempted towards being self-deprecating about the whole thing, but that would be unworthy. It’s a helluva compliment, and there’s only one way to take a compliment: Thank you.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — November 14, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  4. I’m really glad to see that you submitted it to COTG-this is an awesome post. Truly inspirational and it captures perfectly what I mean when I tell people that you can be “spiritual” (for lack of a better word) and still be an atheist.

    Comment by mathyoo — November 14, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  5. Wow. Just Wow! Are you a writer? If not, you have missed your calling by a mile. If so, you are well on your way. One of the best things I have read in a long time.

    Comment by And-U-Say — November 15, 2008 @ 3:17 am

  6. mathyoo:

    Cheers mate! Looking forward to the next issue.

    And-U-Say:

    Ha! I’m getting such awesome feedback from this. This is probably bad for my ego.

    Anyway: At uni, I spent my first year dividing up between my two favorite subjects at high school: English and Computer Science. The B.Sc. won – I’m currently employed as a software developer. But I still like to write. Most of what I produce is trash, but every one in a while something takes over and writes something good for me.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — November 15, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  7. Thism is something I knew, and have tried to say, just nowhere near as well as you said it. Thank you!

    Comment by kentucky boy — November 15, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  8. To quote my email quote:
    “The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.” – Paul Valery

    Remember this.

    Comment by Zeli — November 17, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

  9. kentucky boy:

    You’re welcome – and thanking you for the kind words. Good to know other people have felt the same thing – shows I’m not just some lone crackpot. :P

    Zeli:

    Hey man. ‘Morning.

    I’ll see your Valery and raise you a Voltaire:

    A witty saying proves nothing.

    - Voltaire

    :P

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — November 17, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  10. Agreed

    Comment by Zeli — November 23, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  11. I also thought of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot while reading this; Sagan just had a higher hilltop from which to gaze. Atheism means caring for this life, on this Earth, as contrasted to some afterlife elsewhere. Take life one world at a time.

    Comment by John Hodges — November 25, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  12. Well said. I think that many of us atheists find it difficult to compete with the perceived superiority of the emotional impact that the religious say that their god imbues in their lives. We are bombarded with stories of the faithful feeling awed or elevated in some way by their faith. I’m glad that you were able to so eloquently communicate the powerful emotion just of being alive and aware.

    Comment by CyberLizard — November 26, 2008 @ 4:47 am

  13. This is an extraordinary, emotional, beautiful essay! Thank you for bringing a tear to my eyes – Bravo!

    Comment by steveC — November 29, 2008 @ 2:05 am

  14. It is wonderful to hear someone expressing sentiments that I’ve had for a while.

    I’m talking here about marvelling at the universe, and thinking about all those people down their–totally unique and unknowable mysteries in themselves that will never be replicated.

    I appreciate that you have your reasons for your beliefs. But this:

    “It often seems that the whole point of religion is to trick us into thinking that we matter because we will live forever. It’s as if the present moment – the only thing that is ever really real – is meaningless to the religious mind.”

    well, this really shows an ignorance of theology. Well, lemme qualify that. I can only speak about Orthodox Christian theology, which has a deep and venerable tradition that, I assure you, amounts to more than clever tricks of rhetoric.

    I’m constantly reminded, from Scripture, from Patristic sources, from the Liturgy that I am fortunate enough to participate in daily as a seminarian (a Liturgy which has remained largely unchanged for 1600 years), that the only moment we really have is the present. In fact, it’s the only thing that exists. That past is done, the future might not happen. The present is really the closest thing to eternity that we can experience.

    I encourage you to investigate this a little bit–you seem to have an openness and a poetic soul, two things that are safe bets to lead someone, in the end, to the living God.

    Comment by Aleksei — December 5, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  15. Hey Che,
    Just came by to re-read this when I noticed that I didn’t add my support the first time around. It’s a great piece. One of my favorite lines is “Purpose isn’t something that is granted to us mortals by eternity. No. It’s the other way around. It is eternity that is granted a meaning by us…”

    Thing is, -if you want my critique- I think you could do a lot better! Not to say you did bad, but it seems you’re only scratching the surface of what you really want to say. -what you really want to though the skulls of people who don’t appreciate the delicateness of life.

    In any case, thanks for taking the time to produce this. I hope it stirs the “soul” of other atheistic and naturalistic people and inspires them to write similar pieces. This is an area I feel is vastly lacking. I’m hoping to create my own bit soon.

    I’m reminded of the question often posed to atheists that “if religion were abolished, what would replace it?” The usual response is “nothing; it’s not needed”, but I’m not too sure of that. There should be something there to inspire awe and to quell the restless so-called soul, but who’s to say that a naturalistic viewpoint isn’t well equipped (if not better equipped) to do just that.

    -Zhatt

    Comment by Zhatt — December 12, 2008 @ 10:08 am

  16. Hey Zhatt!

    Sorry it took so long to get back to you – I’ve had a stupidly busy couple of months with no internet connection at home, and what little free time I’ve has been spent with a woman I recently got together with. So I’ve been a little bit preoccupied lately. ^_^

    I’m at a net caf now, and I’ve been meaning to flick you a response.

    I had to crack the hell up when I read your critique! I can always rely on you to see through to the heart of the matter I’m getting at, even if no-one else can. You quoted exactly the phrase around which I built that essay. Nicely done!

    So yeah – maybe later I’ll do a slightly more intellectual piece on the subject of bottom-up systems of spirituality meaningfulness. The best possible merit of the bottom-up way of looking at the universe is that it’s true to how the universe actually works. But for many, that isn’t enough – and in all fairness, I can understand why it wouldn’t be.

    Consider this my first stab at writing persuasively in favor of the naturalistic worldview. The central theme of the next piece in this series: “Not only is it true, it’s also better!”

    ^_^

    Edit: Also, methinks I need to get a hold of some of Carl Sagan’s writing to see what everyone’s on about. So far, I’ve only heard him. I’ve never read him.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — January 25, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  17. I know how it is. I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends and my new romance since the holidays leaving little time for anything else. Thank goodness for work, else I might never get to waste time in the internet!

    I can’t wait to read your next pieces.

    What is this “net caf” you speak of?

    Comment by Zhatt — January 28, 2009 @ 7:32 am

  18. Its true that on the subject of belief some of the most eloquent arguments are written for atheism but they lack the profound assurence for your life, that is what holds for Christianity its major appeal. The Christian Belief gives people peace. It lets them know that someone loves them, that somebody cares, yes that they matter.
    After all…I did find this quote quite meaningful..
    A witty saying proves nothing.

    – Voltaire

    In this article it states that those with belief in God are tragic.
    What is tragic about knowing that you are in this world for a reason and a purpose?
    The atheist is tragic, because all he knows is that he exisits, he lives, and when it is over it is over and there is nothing more to life. To believe that you are insignificant in the universe is a daunting and somewhat depressing thought….isnt life hard enough as it is, without the added weight of believing that nothing and noone really cares about you? That you are essentially worthless?
    This life that the atheist holds so dearly as the only thing that matters…how poorly he regards it if he says that its most precious moment is only now. What then? Now is gone? We are born…oh joy of life…we live…oh joy of life…then death…joy of life is gone forever. There is no point…and how could it matter how it is that we live now, because in the end we all die and cease to exist without a measure of how we all lived our lives. There is no measure of existance, there is no measure of an afterlife…therefore how is it that we know that there are right and wrong ways to live?
    Wrong and right actions?
    Doesn’t then anything matter?
    Other than this present moment in time?

    If this is all that I have…what am I doing wasting my precious moments arguing the absense of an afterlife? If i really belived this…then why in the world would I want to waste my precious one and only life in the pursit of giving others the same hopeless feeling that I am doomed to be in possesion of?

    If there is no other reason for believing in an after life, then believe in it for your own happiness and well being. How much more wonderful life is once you know that you will go to a better place once you’re gone.

    By counting on it you lose nothing. You may gain nothing either, if it is not true, except the happy knowledge throughout your life that you have something better awaiting you. But why disregard this wonderful peace you could have, on the off chance that it wont be true and that you are only expecting fantasy?

    I see no cons to believing. If it is all lies, then it wont matter, but how much more of a hope filled life you have lived. And if it is true…why then you are having everything that you could have ever wished for to be.

    It cannot hurt to believe in something that maybe you cannot see. You do more damage to deny yourself the hope of going through life knowing that you have something better to look forward to.

    Allow us then who have that something better to look forward to….to live our lives with more joy than you…and to continue long after….you have ceased to exist…

    Comment by aliatan — March 18, 2009 @ 2:15 am

  19. aliatan:

    A thoughtful and well-written response. I get where you’re coming from, I really, really do. I understand your point and your thinking – it is exactly this kind of thinking that I was referring to in my article. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    You’ve completely missed the point.

    I won’t go into detail of what you’ve written here – it would take too long. I’ll just touch on two things.

    Its true that on the subject of belief some of the most eloquent arguments are written for atheism but they lack the profound assurence for your life, that is what holds for Christianity its major appeal. The Christian Belief gives people peace. It lets them know that someone loves them, that somebody cares, yes that they matter.

    The entire point of my article is to show that in the absence of the Christian Belief we matter anyway. In fact, we matter more. The universe throbs with meaning and purpose, all on its own.

    The Christian Belief comes along and blinds us to all that. It tells us: No, none of this means anything, actually. I declare that the touch of a lover’s kiss, a warm and full belly, a smiling face over a mug of coffee, sunlight, friends, family, the art of conversation… Nothing that you can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or think is meaningful – so here I am, the Capitalized Christian Belief, come to save the day! Here is an idle fantasy of angels and fluffy clouds and a loving imaginary friend that, should you delude yourself into accepting it, will return unto you the merest shimmering ghost of the meaning that I have just stripped from you! And you’ll be ever so grateful, because that will be the only right that I, the Christian Belief, will permit unto you: Thou Shalt Be Grateful.

    To which I reply: Of what nihilism do you, the Christian Belief, speak? It is You that is revealed as the source of the nihilism over which you wring your hands and lament! My life is saturated with meaning and purpose and lightning, beyond its capacity to hold. The denial of that meaning and purpose and lightning as somehow inadequate is the true act of nihilism. Of what use are your fluffy clouds and imaginary friends to me? There is no need for them, save that need that you yourself invented! What a clever fox you are, oh Mighty Christian Belief: The greatest act of marketing ever sold.

    By counting on it [life after death] you lose nothing. You may gain nothing either, if it is not true, except the happy knowledge throughout your life that you have something better awaiting you. But why disregard this wonderful peace you could have, on the off chance that it wont be true and that you are only expecting fantasy?

    So here we have it! You’ve bought the weak and nasty lie that beats at the heart of The Christian Belief – its brutal lure has found your cheek a willing receptacle for that hook. Of course it seems natural to you to accept the glittery little bauble it has offered in return for all it has stolen: You have yet to realize the theft!

    The Christian Belief, that mighty vampire, has bled from you the essence of your very life in one moment, and refunded you with the barest fraction of the cost in the form of a mean and hollow fabrication the next. And as far as fabrications go, it’s not even particularly beautiful or rewarding. The Vedas suffer from all the same faults as does The Christian Belief, but at least they are beauty and poetry and passion. If you really desire fabrications and illusions so badly, I advise you to become a Hindu; I’d take Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma or even Buddha over the character of Yahweh/Jesus/Allah any day.

    Because The Christian Belief is just so… petty. As if the Creator of the universe were a petulant tyrant, a disassociated perfectionist and sadist, a being so devoid of any shred of compassion, morality or mercy as to be incapable of forgiveness unless said forgiveness be paid in the price of a brutal, humiliating, and cruel human sacrifice. This will not do.

    It is revealing that the Christian Belief is founded upon an narrative of death, and that its supporters can barely restrain their lip-smacking glee at the thought of following the protagonist of that narrative, the infamous Judas Goat, into the very jaws of death. The Christian Belief is founded upon a denial of the vitality in life and the glorification of the death of vitality.

    Here you, aliatan, have just denied to all and sundry the vitality in life:

    There is no point…and how could it matter how it is that we live now, because in the end we all die and cease to exist without a measure of how we all lived our lives. There is no measure of existance, there is no measure of an afterlife…therefore how is it that we know that there are right and wrong ways to live?

    You have denied the vitality of life. The answer is simple: We know that there are right and wrong ways to live because we are living!

    And here you, aliatan, have just announced to all and sundry that you actually look forward to death:

    It cannot hurt to believe in something that maybe you cannot see. You do more damage to deny yourself the hope of going through life knowing that you have something better to look forward to.

    No. This will not do!

    It can hurt to believe in things that you cannot see – reflect a while on the case of Jim Jones.

    You do more damage to yourself by ignoring the life that is going on before your very eyes, this very moment, in favor of a fabrication of things that will never come. The Christian Belief is a grimy moocher – always willing to pay you back for what it has taken tomorrow, tomorrow, ever tomorrow.

    Yes, the present moment is what matters – because everything passes through to you via the medium of the present, and everything matters. This increases the amount by which the universe matters to Super Mega Happy Size! It is a generous approach.

    The Christian Belief is a thief, a miser, a vampire, and a moocher. It is not generous. There is as of yet no antonym for ‘generous’ strong enough to accurately describe The Christian Belief, saving perhaps ‘christian’. It does not affirm life – it spreads death and disease of the vital forces, ever reproducing through the mouths of blind corpses.

    What need have I of peace? If we lie to the meek and poor in spirit that they shall inherit the earth, then shall they not be peaceful – and ever the more meek and poor in spirit for their very peacefulness? I haven’t the stomach for such a contemptuous deceit – instead I’ve the taste for lightning, and a far more nourishing diet it is, too.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — March 18, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

  20. [...] emotional impact of my atheism « rhetoric sans pareil By | Published: November 14, 2008 The emotional impact of my atheism « rhetoric sans pareil Quelle: rhetoricsanspareil.w… Pigeon Mountain is a quick drive from my house. It’s [...]

    Pingback by The emotional impact of my atheism « rhetoric sans pareil — May 18, 2009 @ 7:11 am

  21. Beautifully written. You have a talent, Ubiquitous. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

    But of course, you know that throughout the ages, dare I say even among genius, the real silliness has been perceived in the worldview that all of this is simply an accident. Nothing could be sillier, scientifically speaking or otherwise, than to assume that this life with all its love, joy, passion, intelligence, humor, logic, morality, desire, hurt, pain, and wonder is some peculiar cosmic fluke spawned from matter and motion.

    It is common reflex in atheism to quickly point out the alternative. Are we to believe in burning bushes, parting seas, and raising the dead? Doesn’t that sound more far-fetched?

    Well, not at all if there is indeed purpose behind it. Not if there is indeed purpose behind *everything*. Surely the atheist believes this purpose is man-made. It may come as a surprise to hear this but I too find much in religion to be an invention of man. But the problem comes when we throw the baby out with the bath water. The atheist rejects anything that resembles divine activity so that he can be left in the comfort of a dark accident. Again, nothing could be sillier. I mean, really.

    That aside, I really do enjoy your style and prose. Consider yourself bookmarked!

    Comment by Michael Turner — September 23, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  22. A minor quibble: You wrote “The only things I know about in this universe that are capable of caring are human beings, with all our foibles and quirks and weaknesses.

    I think you mean “The only things … capable of caring about things like eternity, etc…” but it’s not really clear. You’re also making a point that the universe is “uncaring” because it lacks consciousness; it has no brain or other substrate to care with.

    On the other hand, talking about the richness of life … do you have a pet, or have you ever had one? It’s very clear that dogs and cats care about all sorts of things. Especially the breeds that have long been used as pets; they’ve evolved under domestication to become empathetic toward humans … they care not just in general, but also about how humans feel.

    On the other hand, most wild or domestic animals, if anyone/thing tries to kill them, will fight vigorously to stay alive. They care dearly about their life and existence. In many types of birds, a parent will pretend to have a broken wing to draw predators away from the young; they care not just about their own lives, but their kins’ as well.

    Like I said, this is but a minor quibble, although it’s perhaps also food for thought. There’s no reason to think my cat has any religious ideas of any sort, but she still likes to sit on my lap and “commune” with the hooman.

    Comment by Forrest — December 19, 2009 @ 7:24 am


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