I was recently accused by a commenter of being the wrong kind of atheist:
There is a difference between the honest atheism of the nihilist, who believes there really is no God and acknowledges the implications of such, and the self-delusionary humanism of the New Atheist, who does not really mean what he says when he says ‘there is no God’ but instead believes ‘there is a God and I am he.’ And by that I mean that he thinks he is the highest form of life there is — the noblest and most dignified Being there is (which gives him the ability — no, it’s more than that — the right, to determine that ‘all humans have equal value.’)
Apparently I am deluding myself because I’m just not sad enough. In order to be an ‘honest atheist’, I have to be a nihilist, recognizing nothing but abject sorrow and emptiness within the meaningless void of a random, uncaring universe. Otherwise I am exalting myself to heights of self-aggrandizing hauteur, imagining myself to be the single highest life form in existence.
Calling this a straw man or a caricature would be lowballing the audacity of this ridiculous lie almost to the point of being completely inaccurate in my labeling. Nothing in that paragraph, however well it may be written, describes anything that comes anywhere close to my personal beliefs. It is an argument that is the intellectual equivalent of drawing a moustache and goofy glasses on the portrait of a political opponent (I already wear glasses and have facial hair, so perhaps a better comparison is needed).
However, mulling this over in my mind did yield some fertile personal exploration about how I arrived by my atheism, and why I am not an abject nihilist. I am, save for occasional bouts of depression when reading news articles or following politics, an incredibly happy person. Ludicrously happy, in fact. At this particular moment in my life I am employed at a job I love and find challenging, am living in the city of my choosing surrounded by interesting, supportive, and (let’s face it) attractive friends. I have personal, musical, and political projects that occupy my free hours, and there are many more things out there for me to learn and explore.
It was not always so for me, this type of fulfilled contentment. There was once a time when I was in the throes of deep existential conflict – when I struggled day and night with questions that underlay the whole of my self-identity. I read voraciously, trying to find how other thinkers had addressed these problems in the past. These sojourns into the philosophical literature occasionally yielded a few weeks or months of respite, but inevitably I would find myself foundering once again on a sea of doubt and confusion.
I was raised Roman Catholic, and beginning in my late childhood I began taking my religion very seriously. Coming from a far more liberal family than average, my religious beliefs were not scripture-based, but rather ran along lines of a code of decency, generosity, humility, and above all, forgiveness. When good things happened, I would immediately thank and praise God. When bad things happened, I comforted myself in the understanding that there was ultimate justice awaiting all people. I was happy to reconcile my scientific understanding of the universe with the bits of the Bible I had read, glossing over the parts that didn’t make sense. I was actually voted valedictorian of my confirmation class (like a Bar Mitzvah for Catholics), and asked to give a speech on our religious journey. I planned to become a priest and share my insights into the loving God with congregations of faithful believers.
But, as it says in First Corinthians:
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
I began to see that the religion I belonged to in no way reflected my own beliefs. Our youth group received newsletters from anti-choice organizations filled with lies and distortions of facts. When I wrote to them demanding that they show some accountability, my letters were dismissed and ignored. I began to struggle with the hypocrisy and vulgar pomposity of the Church; idolatry on full display, hate passed off as divinely justified, a seeming abdication of the custodianship of humanity that was preached from the pulpit. It seemed as though the idea of a loving, forgiving and just God was put to the lie by the hate, insolence and moral emptiness of those who claimed His favour.
So I began to read: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Daniel Quinn, Ayn Rand, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Dickens, Terry Goodkind… anything I could get my hands on. At one particularly desperate point I attempted to read though the Bible, hoping to wrest some insight from its pages – sadly, the Bible is just the oral history of a bronze age tribe set in florid language; not particularly helpful. Thinking that my constant crisis of faith was due to laziness on my part, I redoubled my commitment to the church – reading from the lectern at mass, teaching Sunday school, playing viola with the choir. My father was of little help during this period, giving me pat answers to complex questions and becoming upset that I would even ask (even though it was he who taught me to question authority, a lesson I’m sure he regrets imparting now). I would pray every day that God would grant me some kind of solution to my constant queries, or that He would at least help me by silencing the voice in my head that kept pointing out the gaping flaws in my patchwork theology.
No help from above was forthcoming. I entered a long and bitter period in which I clung to the ribbons of my faith like a vagrant clings to the rags on his back, snarling angrily at anyone who would question me from either side. Believers were simple-minded fools who hadn’t asked the important questions, whereas atheists were simply denying the manifest truth of the majesty of the universe and the wonders of faith.
I can say without hyperbole that those intervening years were some of the most miserable of my life. Most assuredly, being an eccentric, chubby, racially outlying teenager probably contributed more than its fair share to my unhappiness. However, even in my private moments of introspective reflection, I could not escape the constant nagging doubt – a doubt that was a gaping hole in my entire outlook on life.
So when people rhapsodize to me about the joys of religious life, and the great comfort they find in their loving relationship with YahwAlladdha, it’s hard for me not to hearken back to those years when I reached with all my mind, body and soul for some measure of that comfort and fell repeatedly on my face. The only time when I was free from the torment was during the brief windows of time in which I was able to slap a band-aid explanation or trite bit of theology over a serious question and ignore it for a while.
Of course now I am much happier, and am no longer plagued with such angst, but I am well over my post-length limit, so I will have to save that part for next Monday.
TL/DR: I have not always been an atheist, but my religious faith (when I had it) was a constant source of trouble and pain for me. Far from making me a nihilist, my atheism has made me far happier than I have ever been as a believer.