A Church-Shaped Hole in Our Lives

For many, God is dead. But some atheists regret no longer having the comforts and psychological benefits that stem from religion.

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One common dilemma today is this: Knowing what we now know — from geology, cosmology and evolutionary biology — many people find it just impossible to believe in any kind of supernatural entity. At the same time, however, many atheists regret no longer having the comforts and psychological benefits that stem from religion.

This is just as true of highbrow philosophers as it is of the rest of us. Thinkers as varied as Ronald Dworkin, an American, and Jürgen Habermas, a German, have written recently of the need for “religion without God.” What they mean is that the churches used to provide, and still do provide for believers, the basis of a moral community, where people can share not just their supernatural beliefs but also very earthly virtues which provide satisfaction and a sense of meaning in lives. This is something almost all of us want — religious or not.

The alternatives are limited but by no means nonexistent. One initiative is going strong in Great Britain and Australia and was launched recently in the U.S. It is called Sunday Assembly, and under this scheme, groups of atheists in any one locality meet in a hall (and sometimes in “off-duty” churches) for a couple of hours on a Sunday. There is music, songs are sung (pop songs, “standards,” not hymns), and there are speeches (definitely not sermons), readings from literature and debate. Usually some modern ethical dilemma is aired, and the various members of the group speak out. The aim of the “services” is to be both enjoyable and serious at the same time and to introduce like-minded atheists to others in their area.

So far as atheism is concerned, there is the Atheist Book Club, Atheism Unleashed, Anti-Theist and — most relaxed — Atheism TGIF. These groups by no means exhaust what is available. There are national and local organizations of varying sizes, from the American Secular Union to the Atheist Community of Austin to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard, Mass. People lose their faith in a variety of ways, and it has never been easier to find those in your own area who have similar concerns.

In my own case, I went back to Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared, in 1882, “God is dead!” — adding that we had killed him — and I worked forward from there, focusing on well-known thinkers (painters, playwrights, poets, psychologists, philosophers) who have in their work addressed this very problem: how to live without God and still find meaning in our lives.

I can’t claim to have found any one overriding answer or substitute. Indeed, that is one defining characteristic of the modern condition, that there is no one overbearing idea that will do for all of us. Instead, what you find when you survey the large number of people who have sought to address this matter — Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, George Santayana, William James, Wallace Stevens, Eugene O’Neill, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, among others — is that they have all concluded that if there is no afterlife, which they accept cannot be, we must attempt to make our lives on Earth as intense as possible: this is the only meaning we can have.

People as varied as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats, in addition to those mentioned earlier, all shared the idea that life cannot be lived at maximum intensity all the time, that intensity is possible only in “moments of pure being” (Woolf), moments bienheureux (Proust) or “flashes of spiritual value” (Ibsen), but that we should observe closely the world around us, so as to maximize the occurrence of these precious moments.

An allied theme is summed up by a delicious phrase used by the Spanish poet Frederick García Lorca, who referred to “the angel in our cheek,” meaning that the poet’s power of words, his or her ability to draw attention to the details of the particular, helps slow the world down as it otherwise rushes past. This too is how we help intensify our lives. The great abstractions of existence — capitalism, say, or evolution, or the expanding universe — are no more consequential in our lives than, as Gide insisted, “the voluptuousness of objects.”

The great American poet Wallace Stevens agreed but was wittier. “A poet,” he said, “looks out on the world rather like a man looks at a woman.” Not politically correct anymore, but a lovely metaphor for how to get the most out of this life.

Peter Watson’s book, The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, was published in February by Simon & Schuster.

24 comments
MDCooks
MDCooks

A disbelief by many no matter their experiences or arguments at the attempts to justify such disbelief  is not any proof of nonexistence, but only a provocation to the belief of the opposite.


For those with faith of the existence of God, it is the keystone to which holds the knowledge and understanding.


tcement
tcement

Now what can we KNOW about god or gods?


Well, if there was one single male progenitor it is clear that he was not married when he set about creating the firmament (infirm-a-mint, impermanent?) Otherwise he'd still be building it, with the Mrs. changing her mind about color schemes, how deep is the ocean, how high is the sky. Never gonna be finished.


On the other hand, let's say there are multiple gods. ("There are multiple gods.") Now let's say that they--male and female--are not entirely unlike what they created (are creating?) So. Conflict. Disagreement. Mountain god builds up a molehill, wind and water gods wear them down. Desert god dries things up, storm god invents monsoon or later.


Which, if we must have god or gods, seems more likely. A malevolent designer or a squabbling mob.


Not that I understand it, but I've read that the math says something rather than nothing and 13.8 billion years on we're stuck with what we've got.

BillDonnelly
BillDonnelly

Sorry..the truth is the truth.  If you want something to believe in, try the Easter bunny

DanBruce
DanBruce

I get tired of hearing people with little knowledge of the Bible say there is no evidence for the supernatural, and no evidence of God's control of history. In my lifetime, that attitude has been proven false by events that were seen by the entire world. The 1967 liberation of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by Israeli paratroopers was foretold in the Book of Daniel, written more than 2000 years ago, to happen exactly when it happened. If anyone cares to check out the explanation, which doesn't require faith but simply common sense, see http://www.prophecysociety.org/wordpress/?p=2401

JimboJonesIV
JimboJonesIV

Other than the most primitive types of religious believers, there is now a scientific consensus that sexual orientation is mostly innate, and hence not something that can be ethically discriminated against. What's going to happen when it is shown that religion is also in our genes?

sixtymile
sixtymile

Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we get there? These are very abstract but very important questions people have in their lives every day; science does not attempt to answer.

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

If the lack of religion leaves a hole in your heart ? (not for me, I saw through the scam when I was 9) ,then for sure religion leaves a hole in your intellect .

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

As sympathetic as this article is towards Atheists/Atheism, both the believers and the belief are still wrong.


They can gather in whatever kinds of communities they want, and can say what they will.  They may get away with it on Earth, but will still be held answerable to God in the end.

TallusRip
TallusRip

Okay, there it is...the first claim made about atheists in the very first paragraph.


It's not RELIGION and FAITH that atheists cling to if they were religious before.  It's the COMMUNITY.  It's why some areas are coming up with Secular community gatherings on Sundays, to give these former believers somewhere to go and someone to hang out with once a week.  It has absolutely NOTHING to do with beliefs.


Every single one of us is an atheist in reality anyway.  The only difference is whether you've been conned into believing something different....whether you were lied to as a child by someone else who was lied to as a child.  But you know what?  If I were taught that the mythology of the Lord of the Rings was literally true for my entire childhood, I would eventually have to come to terms with the fact that it's NOT true, because nothing about the story makes any sense in comparison to everything we currently know.  There is no such thing as magic rings, dragons, trees that can walk/talk, orcs, elves or otherwise.  It may suck to find out these things aren't real, but every kid eventually learns that the Tooth Fairy and Santa aren't real, either.   Learning Jesus and God are made up shouldn't be that freaking traumatic.  There's no such thing as Hell either...that was a pretty recent scare-tactic created by the church to get people to believe in something they didn't before, and have something to threaten them with if they didn't.  You remember how they recently changed their position on Purgatory because of all the mothers who freaked out over their unbaptized infants that had died?  Yeah, the church has a habit of inventing and changing a lot of things.  Up to and including the tired old creator and savior myth.

ColbertFan2008
ColbertFan2008

Yes, atheist communities are great. My college has two wonderful atheist groups which are much more fulfilling than the church that my religious parents take me to whenever I visit them. I go to their church to make my aging parents happy, but there's nothing there for me- I feel distant from its community. The atheist groups contain my friends. We meet on weekdays to discuss a few topics, wander off-topic frequently, eat together, and just chill for awhile. It's a great way to make friends, receive and offer support/advice, and expose each other to our favorite books, music, movies, etc. It's good to escape from the religious environment of the Bible Belt.

BillDonnelly
BillDonnelly

@DanBruce   All scientific evidence indicates what Christians believe was the creation was about 8 billion years earlier. In addition, the "creation" is still going on..ie new galaxies and planets form NOW.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@JimboJonesIV  Religion is NOT in our genes..  It never has been and it never will be.  It isn't even in the brains of many.

Here's the thing about the history of religions  - they are all of them invented by primitive peoples who were trying to find answers to questions such as "why is this not the time to plant grains?" and "how are babies made?".  They invented all kinds of answers to those questions, answers based on OBSERVATION of the world around them.  Observation - what a curious word to use there, since observation is the very basis of science.

What they found they could not explain, and so they considered these things to be supernatural events.  And supernatural events need a driving force behind them.  That driving force is called by different names, depending on where you were, but each of them was given a title of/equivalent to, that of a "god".  AKA, all gods are man-made.  The "holy books" were oral accounts of things that had already happened (which is why biblical prophecies all seem, when read after the fact, to have come true).  When they were each of them codified, it was frequently generations later, with details that had been lost to the "the fogs of time", so they were already shown to be mutable.  They were transcribed over and over and over again (how many generations of photocopies can one make before they start to get blurry, to fade in some spots, etc - it's the same thing), but in many cases, it was done by people who didn't read, or even speak, the language in which it was written, so smudges, etc, were interpreted and then rewritten by those who didn't understand them.  Words got smashed together into nonsense, and other words were badly mangled or were missing completely, and even problems were included in the texts.  Then there's the number of whole passages that were removed completely and replaced by a politically expedient word or phrase, and never returned to it's prior meaning.

Then there's this - many holy books are written in allegory, a literary form well-understood by the relatively primitive people of the time, but relatively misunderstood by everyone today.  So, those who choose to read them as being immutable, the absolute word for their particular deity, etc., are exhibiting an ignorance so broad and so astonishing as to be completely unintelligible to anyone who applies even the tiniest bit of logic or critical thought.

BTW, you might start your conversion to the rational by learning about the ancient Egyption man-god named Horus.  Pay close attention, and keep your brain open as you do so.  You ought to be shocked at what you find.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@sixtymile  Science has always attempted to answer all of those questions and many, many more.  Please, familiarize yourself with the history of science, which is also the history of the world.  That way, you won't ever again post comments that are this misguided.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@RoyShastid  I'm not so certain that it leaves a hole in your intellect so much as it blocks the tools that are used to see through the scam.  If you or I could get one person to start thinking critically about the concept of the supernatural, there would be one (or two) more people on this planet who can THINK and therefore can see the error of their (and their predecessors) ways.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@mrbomb13  Hardly.  You, however, and the rest of those who fail to think will never be held accountable for anything, including misleading your own children on this one, because there is no being held accountable, by any "authority" after you're dead.  At that point, you simply become fertilizer.  That is everyone's end.  It's just too bad that so many people can't/refuse to try to think critically about anything.

NikhilChouhan
NikhilChouhan

@mrbomb13  believers are free to believe, but I have a problem with them shoving religion into mouths of others and superior city complex over others

DanBruce
DanBruce

@ColbertFan2008 I can sympathize with your finding church to be dead. Many are. However, the shortcoming of people is no reason to give up on God. Take a Bible and read it for yourself. If you aren't persuaded, then so be it. God has said that not all will believe. He gives us free will between birth and death, but there is more to life than here. Even science says that information cannot be destroyed. Nor can life.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@BillDonnelly @DanBruce You have been listening to a sect of Christians that believes the Earth is 6000 years old. They make a lot of noise but have little to back it up. If you had read the Bible for yourself, you would know that the Bible never says that. It says that mankind will never know what God has done from the beginning to the end. As for your 8-billion year figure, most scientist would say that is incorrect, the age of the universe being about 13.785 billion years, give or take a few years. If you are going to argue against the Bible with science, get your facts right, okay?  

sixtymile
sixtymile

@rpearlston @sixtymile Misguided would be attempting to apply science to abstract and fundamentally philosophical questions, apparently in disregard to the history of religion, human experience, culture and philosophy, there being a great deal more to the history of the world than science alone describes.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@BethHarper Read the link I gave above explaining the prediction of the 1967 liberation of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the fulfillment of a prophecy given 2000 years before it happened, showing that it is supernatural in origin. It is up to you to prove the Bible wrong, not for me to prove it right, although I have done that in the explanation, an extra bonus for doubters like you. But, don't take my word for it. Use your own intellect to examine the evidence.

BethHarper
BethHarper

Do you realize how silly your last sentence is? Argue against the bible? An old book written and rewritten by long-dead men that is taken as gospel. Get YOUR facts right. The bible is NOT fact.