I was young when I first embraced atheism. Probably a little too young.
I grew up in a semi-religious household, but it wasn’t extreme. At the time, though, I had started to despise even the few rules that it did impose on me.
I learned at an early age that my parents weren’t always right and not long thereafter, I started to question pretty much everything else that they told me, too. I have never been an easy person to teach, and I probably wasn’t the easiest kid to raise.
There were a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me about the values my parents tried to instill in me, so I did what I could to challenge them with whatever faculty of reason that I had.
Why do they pray? What difference does it make to an omnipotent God whether or not I do? What exactly does it mean to have faith in something?
Over the next few years, my questions got more sophisticated, and the places I began to look for answers started to go beyond just internet searches. I had started to read books, and I had taken a liking to philosophy. At this point, my questions were mostly answered, and my mind made up.
While the idea of indoctrinating young children with beliefs they don’t yet have the capacity to argue against left a bad taste in my mouth, I, fortunately, managed to resist the urge to buy into the other dogmatic extreme — that religion is always bad and should be banished. That militant atheism is the answer. Something told me that this, too, was an over-simplification.
In my last few years of high school and then throughout my time at university, I shifted my attention to other matters.
I continued to read, and I still had questions, but my focus slowly turned to the complexities of the world around me rather than the philosophical inquiries that had driven me earlier. I essentially lived in a social petri dish, and this was the time to explore and experiment.
Over the next few years, I saw and experienced pretty much everything that most people romanticize when they think of youth. I also did many things that very few people romanticize. I learned from both.
The interesting thing about this period, however, was that I was very uninterested in my education and my future. It wasn’t that I was shortsighted or that I didn’t know any better — in fact, I’d argue that I thought about the consequences of these things more than most people — but that I had genuinely convinced myself that they just didn’t matter.
I was happy (or so I thought), and I felt a sense of confidence that I could sustain it by taking things on a day to day basis. By selectively opting out of the social constructs around me, like the idea of a career or the allure of accumulating wealth, for example, I could rely on reason to guide me towards a less rigid and more fluid life, as long as certain conditions were met.
None of this required any foundation of belief regarding myself or the world. All I needed was enough variety in my life to not succumb to boredom. In fact, a fear of boredom was largely what drove me to this outlook in the first place.
For a long time, I had everything I could ever want. Except orientation.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives; who will wipe this blood off us?”
Friedrich Nietzsche first wrote this passage in The Gay Science in the 1880s.
It’s been misinterpreted many times and so have his ideas. Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche wasn’t trying to encourage nihilism. He was quite aggressively against it, and his central concern was actually very noble. It may even be one of most pertinent philosophical questions of our time.
Ever since the progress that occurred in the Age of Enlightenment, we have seen an increasing decline in religion. While it still dominates in many ways, reason and skepticism have led us in a different direction.
The question Nietzsche asked was whether or not humans would be able to survive this decline. Even if we forget for a second the arguments about true and false, it’s very hard to overlook the purpose of religion — to add a very necessarily layer of order, direction, and meaning to our lives.
There is a reason that beliefs of this kind have stood the test of time. They’re incredibly useful, and despite whatever shortcomings you may attribute to them, we don’t have anything else that has been replicated with as much success for as many people for as long of a period.
Nihilism may be intellectually seductive, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. You may even temporarily be able to entertain the idea that everything is meaningless and that life is still worth living in spite of that fact, but over time, this isn’t a very strong foundation to build your life on.
For rationality to do its job of leading you through life in a way that has been purposeful and worthwhile, it needs some sort of a belief preceding it.
I still don’t think that I was entirely wrong about my intuition that life is best lived in a fluid way. In a place somewhere between order and disorder. Between routine and autonomy. Between safety and danger.
I did, however, overlook the need for some sort of an overarching purpose — a directional value system that defines a general outline for the future.
I was naive to the fact that relying on daily variety and excitement to fight boredom, without accounting for tomorrow, is actually the exact formula for maximizing the amount of boredom and dissatisfaction in your life. None of it lasts when it’s all you have to look forward to.
Most of all, though, I failed to comprehend that the best things in life aren’t things that are visibly sexy on the surface. They don’t scream for attention, and they rarely invite adrenaline. Rather, they come from quiet commitment, respectful engagement, and a love of something greater than yourself.
I see these things in the work of artists that I admire. I sense them in the eyes of people who truly trust and care for each other. I feel them in the energy of optimists who are willing to risk harm for what they believe in.
These things are almost universally meaningful to all of us when identified elsewhere, but in our own lives, they take a lot of time and effort to bring out. They require a kind of conviction and dedication that can’t quite be sustained without an underlying belief system.
Traditionally, religion gave us values, and for those who still rigidly abide by these values, the work is mostly done. The rest of us, however, including many believers who haven’t fully embraced each and every one of their teachings, we need to do the hard work ourselves. Not tacitly, but intentionally.
We need to figure out what is important and what is not, and we need to do so before we do anything else because this foundation is ultimately the source of the mental toughness required to endure through the good, bad, and the ugly.
People often think of belief as being irrational. From a survival perspective, I can’t think of anything more rational than finding something to live for.
Either practice a religion or create one. Everything else is secondary.
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