Atheist Hope? Death, Nihilism & the Meaning of Life
Honest Atheism - Part II
In the 2013 thriller Gravity, actress Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone finds herself in the middle of a nightmare 254 miles above the the earth. Stone’s crew receives a message from mission control that the Russians would be shooting down a defunct satellite. After a major miscalculation about the effects of the impact, a massive debris field from the destroyed satellite hurtles through space right into the path of Stone and her fellow astronauts. The impact from the debris field ripped through the shuttle, the HSS (Hubble Space Telescope), and severely damaged the ISS (the International Space Station).
Dr. Stone survived the impact, but became completely detached from the shuttle arm to which she was attached. She had nothing solid, stable or stationary to stop her from spinning wildly through space. There was no reference point except the blue-white earth beneath her. Because space is a vacuum, she would have continued to spin and drift in space unless she could find something to stabilize her. Stone’s predicament is a frightening scenario if it had actually happened, but also makes for an intense drama and thrilling cinema!
Gravity - Warner Brothers - 2013
Astronaut Stone’s predicament is an appropriate analogy for atheists whose worldview has nothing to anchor ultimate meaning, objective morality, and ultimate purpose, or any hope beyond the grave. This might seem like an unfair assessment, and I am positive that there are atheists who will disagree with this.
In my previous article Honest Atheism my purpose wasn’t to construct an air tight argument, but to pose an honest existential question - “Why aren’t atheists following their wordlview to it’s logical conclusion?” I only wrote it to provoke thought and introspection by those who lack a belief in God, and I am grateful for the feedback from several atheists who have helped me to understand where they are coming from, and also for helping me clarify some of my own ideas on the matter. It is my hope that this follow-up article will provide further clarification and meaningful dialogue.
WHAT I AM NOT SAYING ABOUT ATHEISTS AND ATHEISM
That Atheists Can’t Have Convictions About Meaning & Value
Many atheists find great meaning, significance and enjoy very fulfilling lives. On a personal level I know many who would fall under this category, and I also know this is true by reading and listening to people from various backgrounds who happen to be atheists. So, I do understand why many atheists or non-religious people say that they don’t need God or religion to make them happy. Even C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Atheists can certainly find meaning and significance in this present life and enjoy it very much.
A similar issue which I would like to clarify are my thoughts on the philosophy of nihilism as it relates to atheism. I am very well aware, and acknowledge that not all atheists are nihilists, and that not all nihilists deny meaning or value. I can certainly understand why someone who read Honest Atheism might get that impression.
John Marmysz makes this point precisely in his excellent book, Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism (2003). He writes:
Though the nihilist must despair of attaining the absolute, this is not an unequivocally negative situation. In finding every actual thing to be worthless and without value, the nihilist still retains an ideal notion of what would constitute value. Thus, it is not quite correct to claim that nihilism is a doctrine holding everything is worthless .
So to be clear, I admit that not all atheists are existentialists, nor nihilists, nor do they deny meaning. Just as the theist’s camp is composed of a myriad of personalities, reasons and variations of beliefs; the same is true for atheists and atheism. Sadly today, many Christians demonize atheists and the atheistic position, but that is certainly not my purpose here or anywhere else. Atheists also love their families, and provide for them (I would even argue better than many professing Christians). Carl Sagan had a very happy, healthy and loving family life, and it should be praised, alongside some of his best scientific accomplishments.
But, the question at hand is not who loves their families better, or who believes in meaning, but which view can provide assurance and hope beyond the grave, and can anchor an ultimate meaning to life, to an eternal, transcendent Being, and to reality?
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH & ULTIMATE MEANING FOR ATHEISM
The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw dirt over your head and it is finished for ever. (Pascal, Penseé, 165)
So, what am I saying about atheism? What I am simply saying is that death is a problem for the atheists’ position. What I attempted to say in Honest Atheism, and what I am trying to articulate here, is that the nihilists (& absurdists) actually have it right - despair and absurdity are what an atheistic worldview entails and implies. In my view, the atheistic-nihilists are the most honest of the various views that exist within atheism, and I am calling for other atheists to have the honesty to own up to the fact that atheism can’t give ultimate meaning in either life or death. Kierkegaard would call the atheists position on life and death an immanentalist position, and the Judeo-Christian view a transcendentalist position, in the sense that meaning, life and death as value that is transcendent. In her excellent article on Kierkegaard’s analysis of death and how it figures into his overall philosophy, Julia Watkin helps us to see how the two views of reality (of life & death) are different:
In his description of the Greek world, Judaism and Christianity, Kierkegaard gives us concrete examples of mans response to death in societies of an immanentalist, semi-immanentalist and transcendentalist type. In the immanentalist or semi-immanentalist types Kierkegaard shows us that the norm is to assume that man is meant to be as happy as possible in this life, even if there is nothing else after death. One must make the best of human existence, even if it cannot be given a meaning or significance that really transcends immanence. Even where belief in an actual transcendence begins to appear, it is a shadowy version of this life, whereas for a strongly transcendentalist outlook it is this life that is merely a sketch of what is to come: ‘The more intense earthly life is, the weaker eternity becomes’ says Kierkegaard….
For their part, Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir stressed the absurdity of life in light of death. This fact - the fact of death - seeps into every crevasse of life and make it absurd and ultimately meaningless. It is certainly a depressing way to look at life, but it is also an honest one too. This is what makes atheism unlivable. As Kierkegaard points out, atheists must live as though their lives do indeed have significance, and that there is a transcendent meaning that goes beyond the here and now. As a philosophy, however, it is unlivable. It must borrow capital from a more transcendentalist outlook such as Christianity, etc…
Kierkegaard and Sartre flirted with the idea of suicide as an escape from absurdity, but eventually tempered their views on it. The notion of life’s meaninglessness wasn’t merely the conclusion of these few thinkers, others throughout history have said similar things.
The author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes actually sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, Camus or Sartre:
Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. - Ecclesiastes 1:2-8
And elsewhere he wrote:
But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. And they have no reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished. Nevermore will they have a share in anything under the sun. - Ecclesiastes 9:4-6
Death is certainly problematic for atheists and atheism, whether they like to admit it or not.
CAN THE SOUL FLY? IS IT IMMORTAL?
It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal. (Pascal, Penseès, 164)
Having studied and taught archaeology for over 20 years, I’ve come to some very interesting observations and conclusions. One observation, is that atheism is virtually non-existent among ancient peoples, and the majority of our ancestors had a robust view of the afterlife, which in turn strongly affected their view of life and how it was to be lived. The two are intimately linked together. This truth is especially pronounced in the ancient Egyptians. In a recent scholarly publication on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Egyptologist Foy Scalf clears up a common misconception about the title and theme of the Book of the Dead. He writes:
The title “Book of the Dead” is a modern designation, derived from the German name Totenbuch used in the nineteenth century, itself perhaps influenced by the Arabic phrase al-umwat “books of the dead” used by Egyptian villagers to describe papyri found in tombs. Ancient Egyptians called the composition “Book of Going Forth by Day.” “Going forth by day” refers to the soul, called the ba in the Egyptian language, with the ability to leave the tomb, fly out into the daylight, and join the sun god in his long journey across the heavens. Book of the Dead spell 15B, Section 3, elaborates the concept of going forth by day: ‘As for any spirit for whom this book is made, his soul (ba) goes forth with the living. It goes forth by day. It is mighty among the gods .
The spiritual (ba) [soul] of Tjenena in the form of a human-headed bird, hovers over his desiccated corpse in the vignette from the Book of the Dead , spell 89 (Louvre, Paris. N3074)
Under atheism, death is the annihilation of consciousness and personhood (however it may be defined). In a purely materialistic/naturalistic outlook, there is no such thing as a soul - it does not fly, nor does it survive death. At death, personality and personhood completely vanish forever. Whatever the person has done or accomplished in their lifetime will eventually be forgotten and annihilated into meaningless oblivion. Ultimate (i.e. eternal) meaning and significance is only illusory. Therefore, ultimate meaning does not and cannot exist for atheists or atheism.
Atheists may object and state that their life DOES indeed have significance, value and meaning, to which I would agree. But, I would also add that having temporal signifcance, value and meaning is only diversion from the real question of death. One’s entire view of the meaning of life should also include a view of death as well. Death is just as much a part of life as life, and it should be included for a comprehensive view of one’s existence. This is was what Kierkegaard argued in many of his books. Watkins accurately conveys this idea. She writes:
Søren Kierkegaard shows in his writings that one’s view of death is very much linked to one’s total view of existence. In his discussion of various attitudes to, and beliefs about, death, he lets an important distinction emerge between views that presuppose only the world order as we know it, and views that presuppose in addition, a transcendent order of existence. …[he] reminds us that in ordinary human terms death is the only finality and certainty, an uncertain certainty because it can strike us down at any time. The dead return to dust, to nothing, their efforts to leave any lasting form of immortality of name behind them are frustrated by the hand of time. Death in itself offers no explanation to account for the perpetual annihilation of creation, to account for the event that reduces all to one common mould, mocking distinctions made in life. This is what the physical position [i.e. those who think that this present world is all there is] really is regarding death: man is finite, the human race is finite - individuals and cultures pass away, everything eventually passes away .
Right in line with Kierkegaard, Peter Kreeft states:
"Death is the most unsentimental of facts: simple decisive, businesslike. There is no non-sense, no evasion, no “nuancing,” no little mental “two-steps” about death. …It can ruin your whole day. In death, you lose everything. No matter what you've acquired in life, no matter how happy you've been in life, even if you've conquered the whole world, we all know that we're going to lose it all in death. Death drains oceans away. Death drains the universe away." 
Death is the one reality in which ALL people including atheists must come to terms. The reality of death can’t be fully solved with modal logic, nor will a well crafted syllogism rescue one from death’s cold grasp. It is a vital existential question to which each person must ponder alone in his or her own heart and mind.
In 2015 research physician and writer, Raymond Tallis published a book with a fascinating title and subject matter:The Black Mirror: Looking at Life through Death (Yale University Press). Tallis approaches the question through several lenses; philosophy, personal anecdotes and an occasional foray into the physiology of death. In my view, Tallis’s book has a critically important subject, but it doesn’t provide any novel insights or hope other than, “Think about death, because it will affect how you live and hopefully provide you some guidance on how to live your life.”
Death is a reality for all people, regardless of one’s cultural background, intelligence, wealth or age.
FIVE OPTIONS WHEN DEALING WITH DEATH
In his excellent book and mini-commentary on Pascal’s Penseés, Kreeft lists five options that all people have when it comes to death . They are well worth pondering here. As I’ve stated in Honest Atheism, I believe, like R.C. Sproul, that in actuality, only two of these options reflect the truth of things.
(1). DIVERSION (BURY THY HEAD IN THE SAND)
We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop seeing it. (Pascal, Penseès, 166)
This first option, or “solution” to the problem of death that Kreeft offers is diversion, or perhaps a better word might be evasion. In this solution we simply don’t look at death, think about death or give it a second thought. The idea is to stay busy, pour yourself into your work, hobbies, video games (where ironically, death is not real and life can be “re-set” or lives “added” by the push of a button), or whatever. Stay busy - keep it “off the radar.” Diversions, however, do not solve the problem, they only put it off until the end - it is only a pseudo-solution. I would venture to say that moderns, especially young people today (millennials in particular) don’t give a nano-second’s thought about death or their own mortality. Our heads are buried not in the sand like an ostrich, but in our cell phones like zombies or crack addicts.
(2). STOICISM or EPICUREANISM (HOLD YOUR CHIN UP! ENJOY LIFE!)
For the best explanation of this view imagine the R.M.S. Titanic on it’s maiden voyage across the North Atlantic, steaming full power ahead towards it’s destination. At around 11 pm the ship strikes an iceberg and begins to take on water. It becomes apparent that the ship will sink and go down to the bottom of the Atlantic. Many of the crew members carry on their duties as long as they are able, with chins held high, including the band who played on as the ship sank into the icy waters beneath them. “Death will take us all, but we’ll do our damnedest to keep our dignity until the bitter end. Good show, ole boy! Good show!” The end…
A variation of this would be indifference. Indifference to the question of death and God’s existence is probably more widespread and dangerous than militant atheism, or methodical naturalism combined. Indifference is a colossal yawn to the big philosophical questions: whether or not God exists; or whether or not the soul exists and survives death. “Perpetual indifference,” writes Kreeft, “…is like turning off the alarm clock and going back to sleep when the house you are in, which you have built on the sand, is about to be washed out to sea.” 
Epicureanism - Pleasure is our highest aim in life. This option is self-explanitory. There is only one life (YOLO - you only live once!), so make the best of it. To be clear, classical Epicureanism is not the same as hedonism, because it stresses moderaton, but the goal of life is still the same - pleasure.
(3). DESPAIR (AWAITING YOUR TURN TO DIE)
Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are butchered in the sight of others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. (Pascal, Penseès, 434)
In Either/Or the response of Kierkegaard’s young aesthete to this situation is one of despair. He wants to view enjoyment as life’s ‘purpose’ but sees man as tragically at the mercy of fate, suffering and death robbing him of pleasure and happiness: [Kierkegaard writes], ‘No one returns from the land of the dead, no one has come into the world without weeping; no one asks one if one wants to come in, none when one wants to go out. Even ‘Life’s highest and richest moment of enjoyment is accompanied by death. Thus, pleasure cannot be the meaning of life….
(4) TECHNOLOGY (PUT YOUR HOPE IN DR. FRANKENSTEIN)
This view looks to technology for eternal life, immortality, and hope beyond the grave. It is the story of Prometheus and Frankenstein. Will we humans we ever learn? Will the science of cryogenics, genetic engineering, artifical intelligence or brain transplants into a different body (or a genetically engeineered body), give us immortality? This has been the hope of mankind since Renaissance alchemy. Technology and science is a weak hope indeed to place all of one’s hope, value and meaning.
(5) CHRISTIANITY (TRUST IN CHRIST & THE RESURRECTION)
Between us and heaven or hell there is only life half-way, the most fragile thing in the world. (Pascal, Penseès, 152)
By all accounts, Blaise Pascal is one of Christainity’s most interesting converts. Simply put, he was a genius. Pascal made major contributions in mathematics, probability theory, calculus, hydrodynamics, and a device that could be considered the pre-curser to the modern computer. It would be convenient to say that Pascal converted to Christianity through a careful contemplation of Theistic arguments, but that is not true. On November 23, 1654 between 10:30 pm and 12:30 am, Pascal had an intense religious experience and became a devout believer in Christ and His resurrection from the dead.
One of his most famous arguments, that most people know is the Wager. The essence of this argument is simply that we (humans) are all playing the same game (life), and we are betting our lives and our souls that either God exists, or he doesn’t. Much has been written on this argument, and my point is not to re-hash it all here, but I would like to make a couple of points about it.
- It is possible to test whether or not God exists. Examine the evidence, pro and con.
- It is not possible to test whether there is an afterlife or not, until it is too late.
Kreeft makes two important observations on these facts above:
- At death we will find the coin of life coming down in one of two ways: either “heads” — you see God face to face — or “tails” — God’s retreat, God’s death, God’s non-existence. At death you will find out which one of the two possibilities is true, atheism or theism.
- But now before death, you must choose to believe one way or the other. Both theism and atheism are leaps of faith, bets, wagers, chances. [which one has the better evidence?] .
Of all options open to a person alive today only Christianity in the person of Jesus Christ offers any hope for life beyond the grave. Only in Christianity is the cardinal doctrine - a physical, bodily resurrection from the grave by it's founder, Jesus Christ.
All other contenders in the effort to give life meaning and hope beyond the grace pale in significance to Christ and His resurrection.
On what, will you place your bet? Where will you place your hope? What will you choose?
. John Marmysz, Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003), p.157. For similar ideas see also Robert Solomon’s “A More Severe Morality: Nietzche’s Affirmative Ethics” in his, From Hegel to Existentialism (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 105-121; and Walter Kaufman’s, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridian Books, 1989), pp. 11-51.
. Julia Watkin, “Kiergegaard’s View of Death,” in History of European Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Pergamon Press, Great Britain), p. 68.
. Foy Scalf, “What Is the Book of the Dead,” in Roy Scalf, Ed. Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt (Chicago: Oriential Institute Museum Publications 39, The Oriential Instiute of the University of Chicago), pp. 22-3.
. Watkin, “Kierkegaard’s View of Death,” pp.65-66
. Peter Kreeft, in his Christianity for Modern Pagans, pg. 141, and also in https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/philosophy/death-and-sin.html (accessed, 29 March, 2018).
. Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Penseés Edited, Outlined & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 145-6.
. Ibid., pg. 189.
. Watkin, p. 68.
 Kreeft, 298.