Atheism and the Unscratchable Itch

It is a fundamental datum of our experience that we all long for meaning; we long for a narrative in which to make sense of our lives, our passions, and our beliefs. But, if God doesn’t exist, the cold, hard truth is there is no meaning. We have a scratch, but no way to itch it. In an interview with Harper’s Magazine Christopher Beha, the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg states:

There is … in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’ words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.

What is the atheist to do? It seems there are three options, three atheist camps on the question of how to make sense of our longing for meaning in a godless world:

Camp 1: Dissatisfied Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp works hard to salvage the splendor of the religious view in a godless world.

Camp 2: Anesthestic Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp tries to anesthetize the desire for meaning, to rub it out, to reduce or explain it away.

 Camp 3: Apathetic Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp tries to ignore the desire for meaning.

I think the attempt of the dissatisfied atheist to salvage the splendor of the religious worldview in a godless world is doomed to fail. The best non-theistic option is some kind of Platonic atheism where objective values are identified with various Platonic Forms or abstract objects. The problem is Platonic atheism does not sufficiently ground moral duty, nor does it help in providing an over-arching story or compelling narrative for my life. To see why consider: we owe moral obligations to people, not things. For example, I have a moral obligation to tell you the truth, or to not steal your wallet. I don’t have a moral obligation to my chair to not (say) weigh 500 pounds. But, on the Platonic atheist story, I am told that my moral obligation is to a thing—a Platonic property—and this makes no sense. Further, on Platonic atheism, the Platonic Forms are just a brute non-personal reality. Like the universe, there is no explanation for why they exist; they just do. But then, they offer no hope of providing a story, a satisfying narrative, in which to find meaning in life.

It seems that atheism is best understood as naturalistic and a consistent atheist will find herself in Camp 2 or Camp 3. Alex Rosenberg firmly locates himself in Camp 2 and recommends anti-depressant drugs as a way to rub out the itch. Others simply try to ignore our longing for meaning and purpose. Apathy is the new virtue of the 21st century. The problem is we seem hard-wired for the itch. We long to live a life of meaning, purpose, and value. One could reasonably say this is a fundamental longing of the human heart. Perhaps it is time for us to take our longings seriously—for they reveal something about us and the world.

In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it this way:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.[ref]C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001 ed.), 136-137.[/ref]

Perhaps we can’t rub out or ignore the itch because the object of this itch (or: longing/desire) is God himself. Perhaps this is why, as I’ve argued in previous posts, religion is not going away—because God exists and is the object of our longing for meaning. It’s time to encourage our atheistic friends to stop trying to rub out or ignore the itch—it is remarkably resilient to our strivings … and to pay attention to it instead. If so, it may lead us, like a kind of ontological argument, to the ultimate object of our desire—God.

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This article first appeared on the blog of Paul Gould, assistant professor of philosophy and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter at @paulmgould.