Monday, January 13, 2014

Existential angst

Most atheists I know, myself included, just don't feel anything even remotely resembling "existential angst." In The Undergraduate Atheists, Unamuno, and Johnson, Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis describe the character of Miguel de Unamuno, the author whose story features prominently in Johnson's recent article (which I address in a earlier post). According to Golberg and Meis, for Unamuno, "true doubt is to put yourself at the heart of the contradiction between faith and reason, to be tormented by the questions marks. It is to spend life hovering over the abyss, terrified."

Some atheists, I suppose, feel this existential angst, but most of us atheists are simply not terrified by these contradictions, we are not afraid of the abyss; indeed, we don't really see any abyss. The authors quote Unamuno: "Since we only live in and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and the tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of victory, life is contradiction." We see a lot of tragedy in the world, of course, but we do not see the idea of life as perpetual struggle itself as some grand tragedy. That's just what life is. Whatever it is that intellectuals like Unamuno are feeling, a lot of us just don't feel it. We're born, we live a little while, and then we die. It doesn't scare us at all.

There are two possibilities. First, we are somehow "missing out" on an important part of the human experience. But if so, it doesn't seem to otherwise affect us. Atheists span the range of humanity, from the relatively poor to the ultra-wealthy, from the criminal to the the mundane to the great. We build houses, books, movies, scientific theories, nations, and ideologies. We are workers, thinkers, scientists, writers, doctors, actors, engineers. We are friends, lovers, spouses, and sometimes opponents and enemies. We are happy, sad, angry, frustrated, bored, excited, jealous, envious, satisfied, and dissatisfied. Other than this existential angst, we don't seem to do or feel anything different from those who do feel existential angst.

The alternative to the idea that we are "missing out" is that existential angst is just people driving themselves crazy. They can't stand the idea that there isn't some "higher purpose" to human life. They can't just say, "No higher purpose? Ok. So what?" Sure, we do not look at this question with any kind of "nuance" or "sophistication." There is no there there. Any one human life, indeed all of humanity, has not the slightest bit of cosmic or transcendental importance. So what? I am here now, I am enjoying my life now, what more do I need? We see existential angst as a kind of tragi-comic vanity. Tragic, because it really does cause people to suffer; comic, because the idea that your minuscule bag of carbon, water, and a few trace elements matters to an unimaginably immense universe (which may be only one of many) seems ridiculous to us.

Indeed, we see existential angst as a craziness inculcated to no small extent by religious institutions. Some people (Nietzsche) will feel it "naturally," but I think most people would never give Unamuno's "abyss" a second thought had they not been indoctrinated as children into the idea that human beings do have cosmic importance, an importance that cannot be reconciled with a clear-eyed look at the actual universe. Our understanding that the loss of religion will not only remove a way to satisfy our desire for cosmic importance, but also take away the desire to look for a solution.

We atheists don't have contempt for the ordinary religious believer. We're a little sad; we wish that religious believers didn't have the problems that religion seems to solve (or at least palliate), but hey, everyone has to get through the day.

We do, however, have a degree of contempt for those who say that we're broken and wrong because we don't share their terror, for those who insist that we shut up and play along with a delusion just so their vanity isn't further wounded.

If you feel existential angst, if you are terrified by the meaninglessness of the universe, if you feel like religion has to play some part in dealing with that angst and terror, then do what you have to do. But don't look down on me for not sharing your terror, and don't demand that I pretend to support your delusions.


  1. I would imagine that atheists who are living very unsatifying lives would feel worse about this that the average believer.

    The problem with having just this life to live is that you really feel like you are ruining your one shot at life if you aren't very happy with your circumstances. At least, this is how I personally feel about it.

  2. I argue a similar point with Benjamin Craig, who is very interested in pursuing intellectual, atheistic sense of the tragic in existence.

    His posts are lengthy but interesting.


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