Life without God?

In this week’s New York Review of Books, Steven Weinberg writes:

“Let’s grant that science and religion are not incompatible—there are after all some (though not many) excellent scientists, like Charles Townes and Francis Collins, who have strong religious beliefs. Still, I think that between science and religion there is, if not an incompatibility, at least what the philosopher Susan Haack has called a tension, that has been gradually weakening serious religious belief, especially in the West, where science has been most advanced. Here I would like to trace out some of the sources of this tension, and then offer a few remarks about the very difficult question raised by the consequent decline of belief, the question of how it will be possible to live without God.”

As you can see, this is some serious heady stuff, the kind of “big” questions (if not THE big question) that just might excite the minds of corruptible youth like yours truly.

Weinberg does a pretty good job of describing some sources of tension between science and religion, and although some of it is oversimplified, one can cut him some slack for trying to fit such a huge topic in a short essay. However, this is not what interests me about the article; what interests me is the implication (the correct one, in my opinion) about non-belief in God:

“Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.”

This has to be the correct conclusion for any committed naturalist: namely, that not only does one have to reject the existence of any supernatural deity, but also that one must reject everything supernatural completely.

In other words, it is not enough that one be an atheist–it must be the case that one is, and cannot be, spiritual. After all, there is nothing spiritual if everything is physical. Yet a lot of people, who are otherwise atheists, claim themselves to be spiritual. To me, this is merely evading the logical conclusion of naturalism.

Of course, this does not mean that being a complete and utter naturalist is good: in fact, it makes life miserable, and there is the constant danger, as Weinberg rightly points out, of slipping into nihilism. If life is either completely deterministic (in a Newtonian kind of way) or completely random at its most basic, sub-atomic level (in a quantum mechanics kind of way), then nothing matters.

But if one rejects God and faith, what else is left? This is the real question that confronts us. Writers, philosophers, and theologians have grappled with this question for the last century, but in my opinion, none has offered a convincing alternative.

In my mind, four thinkers have offered what I consider to be four paradigmatic way of grappling with nihilism. They are: Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, and Nietzsche. Of the four, Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard offer what I consider to be “Christian” alternatives while Camus and Nietzsche offer the “non-Christian” alternatives.

I. The Christian Alternatives

  1. Dostoyevsky: One way to confront nihilism is to affirm Christianity all the more, which is what Dostoyevsky does in all of his works of fiction. They all feature an alienated, nihilistic individual who can only be redeemed by the suffering of other pious Christian individuals (usuaully a woman). But this isn’t just a straight up re-affirmation of Christianity: rather, it is an assertion of a specific kind of Christianity, namely, the Eastern Orthodox kind which explicitly rejects the Protestanism of Western Europe. The solution to nihilism, as the Elder Zosima says in The Brothers Karamazov, is to recognize that one is responsible for everyone else’s sins and suffer for them. In other words, everyone must become like Christ, and redemption can only lie in suffering for one’s own and others’ sins.
  2. Kierkegaard: Unlike Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard does not advocate embracing a religious institution like Eastern Orthodoxy. Instead, he takes the opposite tack and advocates a radically individualistic religious consciousness. Nihilism is overcome by the individual’s faith (absurd and totally incommensurate with reason) in some defining commitment. Here, man’s duty is not to any organized religion (Christendom) but rather to a singular God, but even this duty is incommunicable to anyone else. Again, it’s worth noting that like Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard does not defend traditional Christianity. Rather, he proposes an alternative conception of Christianity that is radically different from orthodoxy.

II. The Non-Christian Alternatives

  1. Camus: An simplistic way of saying something about Camus’ alternative is that it’s Kierkegaard without God; this would not be a bad way of putting it. For Camus, God’s non-existence is already taken for granted, but man, like Sysphus, must create his own meaning in the absurd.
  2. Nietzsche: In some ways, it might seem misleading to characterize Nietzsche as a philosopher against nihilism, since he’s always portrayed as a nihilistic thinker. The finer distinction here is that Nietzsche is for a certain kind of nihilism while also being against another. The nihilism that he rejects is the kind that leads to passivity, to despair that impedes action. The nihilism he embraces is the active kind, the kind whose realization will set the individual free to create new meanings and new values for himself, the kind of nihilism that will create his famous Overman.

Having briefly outlined these alternatives, I have to ask: is any of them any good? The answer, sadly, is no. The Christian alternatives are rejected out of hand because they both posit the existence of God, which, as a committed naturalist, one must reject. The non-Christian alternatives are simply too demanding as to be feasible: I know of no one who is strong enough to laugh in the face of apparent meaningless and be joyful. Sysphus might find joy while pushing the boulder up and down for an infinity, but mortals like us will inevitably despair. Similarly, Nietzsche’s Overman is an ideal, which he even acknowledges will not be realized anytime soon. Therefore, none of these alternatives offer any real hope for an ordinary person to overcome nihilism.

But Weinberg apparently has another alternative—humor:

“One thing that helps is humor, a quality not abundant in Emerson. Just as we laugh with sympathy but not scorn when we see a one-year-old struggling to stay erect when she takes her first steps, we can feel a sympathetic merriment at ourselves, trying to live balanced on a knife-edge. In some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, just when the action is about to reach an unbearable climax, the tragic heroes are confronted with some “rude mechanical” offering comic observations: a gravedigger, or a doorkeeper, or a pair of gardeners, or a man with a basket of figs. The tragedy is not lessened, but the humor puts it in perspective.”

Yet laughter can fend off death only for so long, and the joke is only funny if it’s morbid (see the gravedigger in Hamlet). Ultimately, the joke is that we all die, and that there is nothing after death. The joke mocks our desperate desire that somehow our existence continues after death.

Weinberg ultimately acknowledges a fairly grim conclusion:

“Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God.”

But I’m just not sure if we can even have that little bit of a grim satisfaction. I think Weinberg overstates the case that most people can in fact face up to our condition without either despair or wishful thinking.

In the end, the one person with whom I identify the most, as far as nihilism is concerned, is Kafka: there is ultimately no meaning in life (this much is certain), but more importantly, the quest for such meaning will inevitably prove to be fruitless and frustrating. We will never gain entrance to the Castle, never find out what crimes we are guilty of, all in a world we cannot comprehend, seemingly governed by rules and people just outside of our sight.


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