The Glamour of Atheism
The title of this article risks overstatement. Consequently, I hope the reader will do me the courtesy of not regarding it as a cheap ploy for attention. My aim is simple: I wish to examine an aspect of atheism’s imaginative appeal. Christians are frequently accused of wishful thinking, of retreating to the church in the face of a vast and pitiless universe. Though this is clearly a double-edged sword (wishful thinking works both ways), my reason for focusing on the “glamour” of atheism is not so much to craft a rejoinder as to train a lens on a frequently overlooked issue.
Atheism, like any belief system, makes a loud appeal to the imagination, and if we overlook this striking fact we turn a blind eye to one of the key sources of its persuasive power. Specifically, I want to suggest that death is atheism’s ultimate appeal, and that death lends atheism its special glamour. It is in the arena of popular culture in particular that this glamour frequently announces itself most vocally. My hope is that this thesis will seem less controversial and even less outrageous as we progress.
A new type of character has emerged in popular television. Not only is this character a hardened naturalist, this character is a principled cynic when it comes to human motive, an inveterate pessimist on all matters of progress, and an outright fatalist where man’s destiny is concerned. This character sees through everything and everyone, and is not afraid to issue shrill reports on his or her unseemly findings. It goes without saying that “said character” is usually some kind of investigator, preferably a medical doctor or a detective, and that said character usually dispenses with all social formalities in the name of blunt honesty that often borders on misanthropy. After all, said character cannot be bothered with the usual conventions that govern civil society. Said character’s only allegiance is to the truth, and truth rarely agrees with our sense of decorum.
Have you met this character? He goes by the name of Gregory House in the television series House, M.D. We see him in the current BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, and his latest incarnation is detective Rustin (aptly shortened to Rust) Cohle in HBO’s True Detective.
The following is a brief sampling of detective Rust’s worldview: The world is a “giant gutter in outer space.” Rust says that human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself; we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. Rather, we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self—this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact everybody’s nobody. Hence, argues Rust, “The honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand-in-hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
When Rust’s partner poses the very reasonable question of how he manages to get out of bed in the morning, Rust replies, “I tell myself I bear witness. But the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.”
As is often the case with this kind of character, a direct correlation is drawn between Rust’s unflinching outlook and his misery. He is a functional alcoholic throughout most of the show and occasionally abuses drugs in order to subtract sleep from his obsessive work routine. We catch brief glimpses of him working through the details of his case in his spartanly furnished home, the walls decorated with crime-scene photos. He has no friends. His marriage crumbled beneath the weight of a tragedy that took his daughter’s life—a tragedy he describes in positive terms when he is under the influence of his nihilistic worldview. His partner repeatedly describes him as “unstable,” and it is visibly evident that he walks a thin line between genius and madness.
So, what in any of the foregoing could possibly be construed as appealing? As articulate as Rust is on the subject of human nature (or the lack thereof), few will find much inspiration in his conclusion that “everybody’s nobody,” and fewer still will feel compelled to “deny our programming” and waltz headlong into extinction. And yet, I think there is a powerful appeal to Rust’s bleak philosophy, and even a kind of austere beauty to it.
In a masterful essay entitled “Is Theology Poetry?” C.S. Lewis frames atheism in mythological terms, and names Man as the tragic hero of the story. Here is man’s trajectory in brief: From complete emptiness, certain forces and molecules appear and collide, and the cosmos is born from their chaotic convulsions. In the wake of ageless eons and a diverse set of biological wardrobe changes, mankind emerges on faltering steps, survives by brute force and instinct, worships a god fashioned in his own image, becomes enlightened, throws off the shackles of religion to awake in the dawn of a new era of reason and progress where all illusions are well and truly vanquished. But the last act lends the special poignancy to the story that elevates it from melodrama to high art: In the end, nature has her revenge, matter winds down, and man is extinguished as easily as the flame on a candle’s wick. This is atheism in the tradition of high tragedy.
What is the chief appeal of atheism? In a word, death. This story begins and ends with nothingness. Carbon-based life is a brief reprieve between two absolute abysses. We have our minute sliver of time on this minute patch of existence, both of which will be swallowed by oblivion in the long run. Seen in this light, suicide—“denying our programming”—is the most potent and naked expression of human free will on display, a great cosmic revolt against the material upheavals that accidentally produced us in the first place.
This is why atheism is a zero-sum game, a philosophy of death that can offer nothing but death. This is why the rising tide of secularism in the Western world is fostering an indefatigable culture of death. Forged in a crucible of nothingness, we wander as cosmic orphans back to the yawning void from which we were so tragically ejected. In such a stark context, anything more than death, or on the side of life, or even minimally optimistic must be regarded with either pity or callous derision because it is obviously deluded, naïve, or dishonest.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence.” In other words, we have no stable or fixed identity that precedes us. The burden of identity, selfhood, and meaning rests solely on our shoulders. But, again, if we came from nothing and are returning inextricably to nothing, life is a temporary accident, and death is the only authentic currency at our disposal. Why is death authentic? Because it is life that is artificial and nothingness that is essential. It is not that this worldview tries to be especially morbid—in many cases it makes a valiant attempt to be life-affirming—it’s simply that it has literally nothing else to offer, or, rather, it has precisely nothing to offer.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that it is impossible for atheists to lead exemplary and even noble lives. Clearly, many do. What I am saying is that, from the standpoint of scientific naturalism, such behavior is an anomaly because naturalism, devoid of any and all metaphysical underpinnings, can provide neither the motivation nor the justification for a truly selfless life. Such values must be borrowed, or smuggled in, so to speak. In a provocative article, the journalist Matthew Parris, himself an avowed atheist, reluctantly concedes that removing Christian evangelism from the continent of Africa would be disastrous. Why? “In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” My point is not that atheists can’t be good people. My point is that it is manifestly impossible for atheism to “change people’s hearts,” to inspire transformation and rebirth on its own steam. Those wishing to find the ethical resources for such an undertaking must look elsewhere.
The apostle Paul tells us that the mind set on the flesh is death (Romans 8:6). An honest materialist will agree with this statement. If the material universe traces its lineage back to a cosmic accident, then life cannot be regarded as anything other than alien, an intrusion where emptiness will ultimately prevail. So, the materialist mind is set preeminently on emptiness and death.
Part of our unique and pastoral mission as Christian men and women is to revive in people a love of life in a culture of death. We need to work carefully to restore the appeal of life in all of its vital glory. We need to remind this culture of death that life, not emptiness, is essential, primal, and original. In fact, we have value and purpose precisely because we have been created by a personal God in his image, fashioned for intimacy and joy with God as well as with others. We can preach nothing less than eternal life, because anything less than eternal life is simply a temporary loan from a bankrupt universe. Indeed, the poverty of atheism is so total that it is powerless to offer anything more than death.
It is this life offered by Christ that stands in stark contrast to the materialist mindset. As RZIM colleague Os Guinness says, “Comparison is the mother of clarity.” My intent has not been to isolate those who resolutely deny any kind of divinity. Rather, my honest hope is that the radical nature of the life that Christ offers us might come into sharp focus when set against the unsparing backdrop of consistent materialism.
David Bentley Hart has said that we have only two options at our disposal: Christ or Nothing. A casual survey of our cultural landscape makes it abundantly clear that our love of life is in desperate need of resuscitation. I believe Christ alone can accomplish this resuscitation.
Cameron McAllister is a member of the speaking and writing team at RZIM.