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.