from After Disbelief: On Disenchantment, Disappointment, Eternity, and Joy
Yale University Press, 2022
reproduced with permission of the author
In the academic circles in which I live and work, the only respectable view of God is that he doesn’t exist. The question of the meaning of life is one we have to work out for ourselves in the interval between birth and death. There is no God who directs our decisions, or judges our actions, and no afterlife in which the significance of what we do will be confirmed one way or another.
Of course, even my most adamantly atheistic friends believe that the world will go on for some time after they die. They acknowledge that the meaning of what they do in their lives rests on the implicit assumption that the world is relatively more lasting than they are — those parts of it, at least, to which they give their time, energy, and love. If the world disappeared the moment we do, what would be the point of writing books or having children? What nearly all my friends hotly deny is that the purposefulness and value of their lives depend on their connection to anything everlasting. This was my mother’s view too.
Many people in the world outside our colleges and universities see things differently. They believe that to be meaningful in an ultimate sense, their hopes and dreams, and lives as a whole, must be anchored in a reality that is not merely more durable than themselves, but absolutely immune to the vicissitudes of time. Only this can quiet what is for them the supremely discouraging thought that if everyone and every thing to which they are devoted is destined to disappear too, then their lives have no final, secure goal to guarantee their significance and value.
In the past, this way of thinking was nearly universal. The belief that there is an eternal order of some kind, and that we human beings are connected to it, was so well-supported by a vast scaffolding of institutions, habits, and ideas that few even noticed the belief, let alone thought it could be challenged. All the banal routines of life confirmed it. So did the speculations of philosophers and theologians. The idea that nothing lasts forever seemed incredible if not insane.
Then, slowly at times, quickly at others, more acutely in one place than another, this idea became more plausible. It be came easier to believe that everything eventually disappears even the stars, which once seemed beyond time’s reach — and to disbelieve that the meaning of our lives depends on their connection to something eternal. The process has lasted for more than half a millennium. It is a great hydraulic force, boundless, irresistible, cutting every old religious truth loose from its ancient moorings.
This is the meaning of the familiar claim that the world today is disenchanted — that God is dead. Our world is godless not because we have all abandoned the belief that only a connection to eternity can save human life from futility and despair. Many still believe this. It is godless because the presence of an eternal order, natural or supernatural, is no longer so intimately woven into the fabric of everyday life that the existence of this order is as obvious as that of the world itself.
The loss of this sense of obviousness has not destroyed the possibility of belief in God. Nothing could do that. But it has put an unprecedented burden on those who, in the face of this loss, continue to insist that the meaning of life depends on its connection to an eternal reality that is invulnerable to the corrosive power of time.
Those who believe this must now struggle to hold on to their conviction in a world of scientific, literary, and historical “truths” that challenge it at every turn. Many succeed, though their victory is often hard-won. Others give up completely. They resign themselves to disbelief. The liquidation of all the old eternities, banal and refined, that once seemed so palpable and near speeds them along.
This is the setting in which modern atheism flourishes.
The loss of the everyday presence of eternity in the lives of human beings — of the cathedral bell tolling the hours by which those in the market measure their days — gives atheism a credibility it never had before. The critical power of modern ideas provides further support. To many, some version of my mother’s view of life now seems the only rational one.
The atheist says that the meaning and value of human life have in truth never depended on our connection to anything eternal. It was always an illusion to think that they do. After a long historical struggle, we now see this with clear eyes. It is enough that the things we admire and love have a (somewhat) longer life than our own. There is no need for them to be connected to an eternal order of any kind, whether in the world or beyond it.
The contrary belief is, in the atheist’s view, a crippling superstition. It has long stood in the way of achieving our human potential. To be fully and actively human, we must put this belief aside. We need to reconcile ourselves to the brevity and finality of our existence in time. The death of God is not a catastrophe. It is a liberation.
The most assertive take a further step. They say that all the things we value in life would lose their value if our wish to be connected to eternity could be fulfilled. It is the fact that nothing lasts, they say, that gives poignancy and meaning to the short-lived attachments we form. These are meaningful because we know they must come to an end. Montaigne and Hume were early if cautious defenders of this view. Camus and Sartre advanced it more aggressively. Martin Hagglund’s recent book, This Life, is a stirring restatement of what he calls the “secular” view of life. The meaning of the relations we cherish vanishes, Hagglund says, when they are extracted from time and transposed to some imagined condition of life everlasting.
Those who defend this point of view regard themselves as the champions of humanity. They are the prophets of modernity, at home in a godless world that religiously minded men and women naively refuse to accept. They view those who still long for a connection to eternity as backward children.
Atheistic humanism of this aggressive sort is not widely shared. It has the same extravagance as many forms of religious belief. But it represents the most serious intellectual challenge that those who say they believe in God, or even want to, face in our age of disbelief. That is because it harmonizes with many of our scientific and cultural attitudes. It draws strength from these attitudes and reinforces them in turn. It fits the mood of the times. As a result, it has growing appeal among the most enlightened citizens of our increasingly secular world. But it is wrong. Indeed, it is worse than that. It is inhumane. It misrepresents the human condition and distorts the prospects for a meaningful life. For a rounded picture of the human condition it substitutes a cartoon.
To defeat this brand of militant atheism, it is not enough merely to affirm one’s belief in God, even with the greatest sincerity, or to invoke the authority of some sacred tradition or text. All appeals of this kind fall on deaf ears. To the atheist, they are irrational dogmas unworthy of a response.
There is only one way to blunt this attack.
The longing for eternity, which the atheist derides, must be shown to be a constituent element of our humanity, not an avertable threat to it — a feature, not a bug. To defeat the most articulate version of the antireligious dogma that many educated people now accept as the best expression of the highest ideal of life still available to them, humanism must be rescued from the grip of the atheist. It has to be restored to the possession of those who love God without shame. The longing for eternity needs to be put back at the center of the human condition, where it has always been, and still belongs today.