An Agnostic’s Agony: The Striking Similarity Between Atheism and Faith
I was on the road to liberation, strolling along quietly, content to walk until I either reached my destination or collapsed from exhaustion.
But then something unexpected happened.
The further I progressed, the wider the road became. It continued to widen until I suddenly found myself standing in the middle of a spiritual cul-de-sac, and I’ve been trapped here ever since.
My descent into this circular dungeon was relatively unremarkable. You’ve no doubt heard the story before; young man grows up in a religious household, leaves the nest, experiences a series of life-altering events, realizes his faith in God is starting to waver, and eventually embarks on a long and arduous incursion into the unexplored regions of his mind with a view to discovering the fundamental truths about existence.
Like I said, it’s a rather unremarkable story.
Almost every person I know has experienced an existential crisis. And as far as I’m aware, each and every one of them managed to emerge unscathed, which may be why I was never fearful of having to tangle with the difficult questions posed by such a crisis. As far as I was concerned, it was an inevitability, so there wasn’t much point in getting worked up about it.
Yet here I am, many years later, still walking, talking and thinking in circles, still wondering if this particular crisis will ever resolve itself — or if there can be any resolution to it at all.
I have heard many (though certainly not all) atheists say that faith is nothing more than a crutch for weak-minded, emotionally-stunted individuals who can’t figure out how to reconcile their naturally selfish desires with the cold indifference of a Godless universe. This argument rests on the assumption that if you can’t come to terms with the improbability of the existence of God or the afterlife, can’t handle the pain of knowing that you will most likely never see your friends or loved ones again after they’ve passed, and can’t manage to roll yourself out of bed every day without latching onto the illusion that your life has some grand cosmic purpose, then you’re either a coward or a victim of indoctrination.
I don’t agree with that characterization of religious faith. I certainly didn’t agree with it when I was a religious man, and I don’t agree with it now. To the contrary, the less religious I become, the more I recognize the overwhelming appeal of faith.
To be clear, I have no doubt that there are many religious people for whom faith is a never-ending source of hope, and that they hold onto that faith precisely because they can’t bear to endure the challenges of life without the hope that faith provides. My question is, in the context of the atheist’s universe — a universe with no God, no afterlife, and no objective moral code or rules by which we’re required to live — what exactly is wrong with using faith as a crutch?
Frankly, I’m somewhat envious of the faithful. I can just barely recall how reassuring it was to know that my worst mistakes in life could be forgiven, and that any pain I’d inflicted upon others, as well as any pain that was inflicted upon me, would one day by washed away by the divine grace of forgiveness. I remember how heartwarming it was to go through each day with the knowledge that death wasn’t the insurmountable barrier it appeared to be, and that the time would come when I would be reunited with the people for whom I would have sacrificed anything, including my own existence.
Simply put, my faith liberated me from the shackles of loss and regret. I just didn’t notice it until I was able to reexamine that faith in a more dispassionate fashion than I could have as a young man. And now I find myself yearning — in vain, I suspect — for the very peace of mind that accompanied that liberation.
I imagine quite a few atheists would object to the implications of the claims I’ve made thus far, and I don’t necessarily blame them. As a man who values truth, I’m inclined to believe that the pursuit of truth is at least as noble and worthwhile as the pursuit of happiness. That’s why I walked away from my faith in the first place.
On the other hand, if the unpleasant truth is that humanity is indeed a cosmic accident caught between the dispiriting awareness of its own mortality and a primitive desire for eternal fellowship with the souls of friends and lovers lost to time, on what basis can I or anyone else argue that truth is of supreme importance? Would it not be fair to say that, in an (objectively) meaningless universe in which good, bad, right and wrong are essentially figments of human imagination, ignorance could actually be a virtue if it enhances and sustains a person’s emotional and psychological well-being?
If that is the case, though, why can’t I let myself fall back in love with faith? Why don’t I turn around when I feel it gently tugging on me, encouraging me to abandon the unending game of spiritual tug-of-war that I’ve been playing with myself since God stopped calling to me?
I have heard many (though certainly not all) religious believers say that atheism is nothing more than a crutch for weak-minded, emotionally-stunted individuals who lack either the will or the capacity to recognize the guiding hand of a higher power in their everyday lives. This argument seems to assume that if you’re not ready to welcome God’s judgment and take responsibility for your sinful ways, can’t bring yourself to acknowledge the magnificence of a universe so precisely tuned for life that it couldn’t possibly exist by chance, and refuse to humble yourself in the presence of a force far greater than humanity could ever hope to become, then you’re either a coward or a pawn of some villainous deity.
Personally, I don’t agree with that characterization of atheism. I certainly didn’t agree with it when I left my faith behind, and I still don’t agree with it now. To the contrary, the more I bemoan my faith’s demise, the more I recognize atheism’s overwhelming appeal.
To be clear, I have no doubt that there are many non-believers for whom atheism is a never-ending source of comfort, and that they hold onto it precisely because they can’t bear the thought of having to answer to anyone other than themselves. As the famous English writer Aldous Huxley admitted, a philosophy of meaninglessness is “essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality.” And it’s obviously quite impossible to subscribe to such a philosophy without first embracing atheism.
That being said, I’m somewhat envious of atheists. I can only imagine how reassuring it would be to know that my worst mistakes in life will be forgotten, and that any pain I’d inflicted upon others, as well as any pain that was inflicted upon me, would one day be washed away by the divine grace of impermanence. I can only dream of the relief I would undoubtedly feel as I passed away into oblivion, never again having to worry about whether I had managed to live up the expectations of relatives and friends, all of whom I have almost certainly disappointed at one time or another. And to be honest, I would welcome the opportunity to exorcise from my mind every memory I have of doing battle with, and frequently losing to, my obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Simply put, it appears to me that atheism is at least as liberating as faith, if not more so. I just didn’t notice it until I was able to reexamine atheism in a more dispassionate fashion than I could have as a young man. And now I find myself yearning — in vain, I suspect — for the peace of mind that typically accompanies such liberation.
I imagine quite a few religious folks would object to the implications of the claims I’ve made thus far, and I don’t necessarily blame them. However, I’d like to remind those people that it isn’t my intention to equate religious accountability with enslavement. Furthermore, as much as I would like to abolish the most painful memories of my life from my mind — and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that regard — I’m not unaware of the all-important role that life’s challenges play in helping us become stronger and better people than we would have been otherwise.
On the other hand, life is, for many, much more painful and difficult than it ought to be, and one of the indisputable benefits of a universe with no higher power or afterlife is the eventual eradication of the most miserable memories we carry within ourselves. Yes, those memories do indeed play a critically important role in determining who we are now and who we will ultimately become, but that doesn’t make the relief one would feel upon the banishment of those memories any less real or satisfying. In that respect, a Godless universe might fairly be described as even more merciful than one in which we are eternally stalked by the indestructible shadows of our most sorrowful experiences.
Additionally, I’ve never been able to soothe the quiet anger of my rationalistic side whenever I consider the possibility of a God who would punish someone with eternal suffering for the crime of refusing to submit to an authority that deliberately hides itself from its subjects. The lack of empirical evidence in support of the existence of heaven and hell only makes it all the more difficult to believe in such places.
Yet despite my skepticism, I’ve never been able to fully receive atheism into my life. Why don’t I turn around when I feel it gently tugging on me, encouraging me to abandon the unending game of spiritual tug-of-war that I’ve been playing with myself since the dissipation of my faith? Why am I willing to let it put one leg through the door but not the other?
In hindsight, it’s quite ironic how I arrived here. I left my faith behind because I believed that truth — the unvarnished, unpolished, objective truth — was the key to personal liberation. I never rejected my faith, but I felt weighed down by it. I didn’t want to lose it, but I felt like I had outgrown it. It was all very organic, very authentic, and very gradual. Yet here I am, espousing the benefits of faith, defending its adherents, and wistfully gazing into its eyes as though it’s a long-lost lover who has mercifully decided to welcome me home. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to return home. I would very much like to reacquaint myself with that wonderful old friend named faith and indulge myself in the freedom that she gifted me in my youth.
But is it even possible for me to go back to that home? I understand why so many of my friends and relatives continue to live there, and I’ll have words with anyone who would dare condemn them for choosing that life, but I can’t see myself returning to that place — or that time. The search for truth is much too important to me, even if truth itself is of no (objective) importance. And if the truth is that there is no God or afterlife, and an eternal emancipation from the trials and tribulations of existence is all that awaits any of us upon our deaths, perhaps that emancipation will be enough to keep me comfortable in my final moments.
Then again, maybe it won’t.
I just…don’t know.