A Comfortable Emptiness

It may have been Richard Dawkins on the Colbert Report…or someone else somewhere else…but I remember the quote:

Nobody in this audience believes in Odin or Zeus. Some of us just go one god further.

And it’s true. To believe in the Christian God or Allah or Yahweh or whathaveyou is just as ludicrous as believing in Thor or Osiris or Camazotz or the Spaghetti Monster.

Recently I had a discussion with a coworker about religion and the meaning of life. I had told him I was an atheist, he asked me a bunch of questions, said that my answers made sense, and a few days later said to me “I tried being an atheist for a couple days and it scared the shit out of me.”

People need their comfort. They need to know that there is more to life than what they see. They need a reassurance that the universe is not a cold, heartless, random Lovecraftian uncertainty. They need the comfort of order and meaning.

Imagine a universe completely devoid of meaning. Imagine a life that has absolutely no greater purpose or meaning. No cosmic significance. No spiritual purpose. No plan. No goal.

Imagine a person without a soul.

That is my life. I am living my life with no expectations beyond what I experience with my senses and extrapolate through reason. I have no immortal soul that will exist after my body dies, in a paradisal afterlife or otherwise. I have no one to answer to for my deeds except myself. I could die tomorrow or I could die in 60 years, and when I do so, my thoughts and memories will be gone and everything that is my being will be worm food. I am not part of any great plan.

Does that make me a bad person? Can a person who believes these things be a moral person? What possible purpose could he have to go on living? Is it true what some religious people say, that atheism = amorality?

Well my friends, I don’t need the threat of Hell or the scrutiny of any deity to keep me from gouging your eyes out just for the thrill of it. It just so happens that I like life, in all its cosmic pointlessness. I like treating people well because it makes me feel good and engenders reciprocation. I like enriching the world around me because frankly, I’m selfish. Selfish enough to want an enriched world for me to live in. I don’t steal and I have never cheated on a girlfriend or fooled around with someone in a committed relationship (and yes the situation has presented itself). I have promised myself I will never inflict violence on another person, or kill another even to defend myself.* Certainly I have made some bad choices in my time and made a few mistakes, but the goals and rules that I set for myself are my own, and I believe that they are highly moral, at least relatively speaking. The meaning I make for my life is my own – it’s not because of God’s judgment or ancient commandments or any other made-up hocus pocus.

Some people need the comfort of religious faith and the comfort of a meaningful life. I guess the comfort I find is in my own rationality and the strength of my convictions. That and a cozy bed with Kodos, and maybe some nachos.

People also seem to need the comfort of tradition (which interesting enough also ties heavily into religion), but that’s another post.

*of course some things you can never really know until the situation comes up, but that’s the promise, anyway.

4 Replies to “A Comfortable Emptiness”

  1. Testify Brother! I alway say that morality is hardwired into us by evolution, for whatever reason, and we can’t help but BE moral because that’s we’re designed to be. God or no.

    Sadly, that only works in small groups so our success as a species in populating the world has outpaced our morality in small groups. Thusly, you get wars between nations and even small group against small group. Thats why you mourn the loss of your son as if it were the end of hope but don’t give a rat’s about that guy who died in a car wreck you never met. Our feelings only reach so far.

    Knowing our evolutionary limitiations helps us to overcome them though! THAT’S why accepting reality in the LONG run is better for humanity! Once you get over the fear of the pointless universe you’re free to fill it with the best of what we can be. That fear doesn’t last too long once you know you have that power.

    Tell your co worker he’s a pussy.

  2. Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly) introduced me to an existential viewpoint on meaninglessness. I believe the quote is from Angel: “If nothing we do matters then the only thing that matters is what we do.”

    My own personal morality comes from my basic instincts that being nice to others is “good”, but also from a cognitive awareness of the “social contract” — I recognize that not being completely self-centered might not immediately be in my best interest, but if I and everyone else agrees to work together as a social group to make life better for all it’ll, well, work out better for us all. The Christians simplified this to “do unto others” showing that there are good moral lessons even in fairy stories.

  3. My morality is also selfishly based. I know exactly what I like to be treated like. I also know that the best way to obtain that type of treatment is to give that type of treatment back. Lead by example if you will. You have no right to complain about something if you do it as well. Since I like complaining, I figure I better live up to my standards!

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