Be sure to check out Goodness Over God, the counter-apologetics podcast hosted by myself and philosopher Michael Long!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The sadness of nontheism

Some folks experience conversion from theism to nontheism as a kind of awakening or liberation from the shackles of faith, and delight in their new-found freedom. Not so for me. When I lost my Christian belief, I flew into a panic which lasted several days, and after finally settling down and sorting through my thoughts, I found myself deeply saddened at the emptiness left for me in a nontheistic view of the world.

I've tried various ways of looking at the situation, taking hints from popular atheist authors such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. Sagan, for instance, once wrote,
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked and science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?" Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths (Pale Blue Dot, p50).

Dawkins echoes his sentiments:
...the universe is genuinely mysterious, grand, beautiful, awe inspiring. The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is. The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited ("A Survival Machine").

I cannot disagree more with this kind of assessment. To be sure, the universe is a grand and mysterious place, and sparks our imaginations to wonder and awe. However, as marvelous as is the real world, the human stories told by religions such as Christianity and Judaism touch us in a far more personal way. Instead of nontheism's mysterious and mindless sea of stars, black holes and quantum fluctuations, Abrahamic religion offers to enrich our cultural history by weaving into it a sympathetic creator who has designed us in his image, and who cares about our well-being and shelters us from evil. And speaking of good and evil, religion tries to paint these concepts as monolithic forces vying for supremacy in this world---a romantic struggle in which we may take an active role. And on top of all this, theism still retains almost all the wondrous mystery of the physical universe!

I'm tempted to write that none of this means I wish I was a theist. But it wouldn't be true. Sure, I want to be satisfied by the truth, and by epistemic responsibility, but that doesn't mean I am. I may well be better off as a Christian, even if God doesn't exist. In fact, I'm inclined to think that I would be a much happier person.

I was recently reminded of this while reading George MacDonald's Phantastes. It's about a young man named Anodos who discovers he has fairy ancestry, and embarks on a journey through "Fairy Land," where he encounters all manner of wild and exotic fairy beings and elements. But after having been tricked by an ogre-woman, he is haunted by his "shadow," which follows him through Fairy Land and disenchants all upon which it falls. At one point, for example, he meets a wonderful little fairy child with magical fairy trinkets; but when the shadow wraps around him, Anodos suddenly sees only an ordinary boy with a straw hat and unremarkable toys. This sort of thing happens several times, whereupon Anodos begins to reflect on his situation. From the novel:
But the most dreadful thing of all was, that I now began to feel something like satisfaction in the presence of the shadow. I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself; "In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live" (pp103-104).

This passage struck me rather hard. What a lamentable position has nontheism put us in! On one hand, we value the truth, and knowing our place in the world. But this does nothing to mitigate the terrible absence of higher purpose, or of grand design.

What then, is left for us? Shall we accept Pascal's wager, as it were, and drown ourselves in Christian culture and influence in order that we might have a better chance of one day finding ourselves duped or seduced into believing the unbelievable? I think not. As wonderful as that might be for each of us individually, we have a moral responsibility to promote truth for the sake of those others who would benefit from it. But neither can I approve of those propagating the evidently false notion that religion is somehow smaller in imagination than nontheism. Honesty will not permit it.


awatkins69 said...

I'm curious, do you think that in some way this innate desire, this fact that theism is fulfilling, pace certain atheists that you mention, is itself some evidence for theism?

(1) No life centered on love of someone who never exists is a flourishing life.
(2) Some people lead a flourishing life centered on love of God.
(3) Therefore, it is false that God never exists.
(4) God either always exists or never exists.
(5) God always exists.

You seem to be affirming the second premise in some way in your post. So I guess the first premise would be wrong for you? Or maybe I'm wrong, and you wouldn't accept the second premise? I got this from Alexander Pruss by the way. Your post also reminds me of the argument from desire.

As for your post though, I think there's something to it and I also might have some reservations. I've always felt that losing my faith wouldn't hurt me so much per se (I'll come back to this in a moment), but rather that it would hurt me to let people I know down. I have some family, friends, and others who look up to me when it comes to these things, and I would be breaking their hearts because my loss of faith would lead them to doubt their own faith. This is a strong emotional reason for me to not lose faith. This isn't to imply that I don't think there are rational reasons for believing in God. One doesn't necessarily negate the other.

On the other hand, if I didn't have these ties, that would be one less reason I have to be a theist. (By the way, I do also have friends, family, etc. who would be happy to see me become an atheist, but the difference is that my staying in my current state won't cause them any sort of devastation, whereas the same doesn't hold true the other way.)I think that in a way atheism would be comforting. I think concepts such as moral responsibility and free will make a lot more sense in a theistic universe, and make little sense in an atheistic one. So if I were to accept the atheistic view, I think I'd be committing myself to a view without responsibility and freedom. And in this sense I'm liberated from guilt for anything I do. I can enjoy the good things without feeling sorrow for the bad, since it wasn't up to me anyway. Sartre talks about this in his "Existentialism is a Humanism". He believes the denial of personal responsibility is for the weak because it is comforting and it's easy. Well, I'll give it to Sartre, it is a comforting thought.

So those are my thoughts. On the one hand I understand where you're coming from. But on the other I think there's at least something to be said for the atheistic worldview.

Thomas Larsen said...

Out of interest, why did you lose your Christian beliefs?

Ben Wallis said...


I was extremely troubled by the lack of evidence for the existence of God. Even in my childhood I understood that this was a problem, but I managed to put it aside for many years. For most of that time I told myself that I didn't need any evidence because the Holy Spirit was working in me to keep me believing. But eventually that self-talk stopped being reassuring enough to keep hold of my slipping faith. My doubts grew and grew, and when I was 22 or so I finally admitted to myself that I no longer believed. And that was the end of my religious years.


Ben Wallis said...


No, I don't regard it as evidence for theism. A term like "flourishing life" can be squishy, but given its most natural (IMO) interpretation I would have to disagree with (1). It's easy to point to people who lead flourishing lives centered on the love of different gods, for instance of the Jewish, Zoroastrian, Christian, pagan and Islamic gods.