Yesterday my article “Do you have enough faith to be a theist? Or an atheist?” drew an interesting comment from a reader named Bilbo who reflected:
“At a very dark perod [sic] in my life, when I was angry at God for everything, I tried living as an atheist for a few years. The bleakness of a godless universe overwhelmed me. I realized that I could not live in such a world, and gave up my attempt at being an atheist. My hat is off to those of you hardy enough to do so.”
Bilbo’s comment reflects the experience of many. Indeed, that kind of experience serves as the basis for an existential argument for God’s existence. I discuss the existential argument for God’s existence in the aptly titled “In defense of existential arguments for belief in God” (which, interestingly enough, was prompted by Bilbo as well!) See also “The Existential Argument and Sam Harris’ Big Diamond.”
Even as theists like Bilbo attest that they were drawn to theism because they found atheism unlivable, atheists often retort that they have no problem with a godless universe. (To be sure, not all atheists are so cavalier about the loss. Some atheists grit their teeth and accept the loss of meaning in the manner of Bertrand Russell’s famous excerpt from “A Free Man’s Worship”: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.”)
But what can be said to the atheist who attests to having no problem whatsoever with the loss of objective meaning and the prospect of impending individual and collective annihilation?
In one sense, one might see this as a standoff of intuitions. And it may be that. But a theist like Bilbo is not obliged to interpret it in those terms. He might instead conclude that the atheist who attests to having no existential problem whatsoever with their worldview is simply failing to grasp certain facts that ought to cause them problems.
Imagine, for example, that your friend invites you over to his house. You walk in the door and are immediately overcome by the stench of raw sewage. “What’s that smell?” you say, doing your best to retain a nonchalant demeanor even as you barely suppress a gag. “Smell?” he replies, “I don’t smell anything.”
Can you imagine if he then suggested that because he doesn’t smell it, the problem must lie with you? That would be absurd. Similarly, when an atheist claims to have no problem with the existential predicament posed by her worldview, the theist is certainly within her rights to conclude that the atheist is simply failing to grapple with an objective loss in parallel to the man unable to grasp the foul smell.