How Long Do You Want Me To Be Scared?

Accorting to SlateMichael Robbins’s Slate book review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species is one of Slate‘s more circulated articles, probably because few subjects (except porn) drive traffic as much as atheist trolling. (Maybe atheist trolling porn… Excuse me, I’ve got to open a new Bluehost account.)

I’ll leave it to others to produce more comprehensive critiques of Robbins’s screed. I’ll limit myself to one aspect, the one where Robbins insists that, as a serious atheist, I should feel awful about the nonexistence of gods:

“The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists,” Hart has written, “is rereading Nietzsche.”

This is wise counsel for believers and atheists alike. In Nietzsche we find the full power and terror that atheism is capable of, for Nietzsche scorned mere unbelievers, who, Hart writes,

do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

Well here’s the rub: I’ve never taken any gods–be they of the “man in the sky” or the Robbins’s “ground of all being” description–seriously. I’m well aware that other people can’t help doing so. My grandmother spent her final years dying of a disease we couldn’t diagnose because she was a Christian Scientist. And I endured six years of life in Utah, a place where every aspect of life revolves around people’s belief in a man who said he used a magic stone in his hat to read golden plates. I’ve spent a lot of time around people who take their religious passions seriously. I’ve just never shared them. For as long as I can remember pondering what the universe means, I’ve thought the only real meaning it has is whatever we’ve chosen to assign to it. I’ve accepted that life is contingent and absurd, that deserve has got little to do with anything, and that when life ends, it ends. But unlike Nietzsche, or the existentialists who followed him, I see nothing frightening in this.

Does this make me a shallower atheist than Nietzsche? Maybe. Or maybe it means that having lived in a country where it had been intellectually defensible to live without gods for over two hundred years, I see fear as an overheated response to the idea of divine nonexistence. The matter puts me in mind of an exchange from Get Shorty:

Karen Flores: Weren’t you scared back there?

Chili Palmer: You bet.

Karen Flores: You don’t act like it.

Chili Palmer: Well, I was scared then, but I’m not scared now. How long do you want me to be scared?

So I don’t feel bad about the nonexistence of gods, and I feel no impulse to prove my depth to Mr. Robbins and his ilk by pretending otherwise. If you’d like to know what does bother me, I’ll tell you. It bothers me that atheists in Indonesia can be tossed into prison for saying they’re atheists on Facebook. It bothers me that gays and lesbians in Uganda are threatened with long prison sentences for merely existing. It bothers me that poor people around the world, including the US, have almost no chance of escaping poverty. It bothers me that we haven’t done enough to reform the financial industry to make credit crises less likely. It bothers me that Europe can’t get its economic shit together. It bothers me that women have to deal with rape, and with men who don’t take rape seriously. It bothers me that the US congress is so shot through with global warming deniers that we remain paralyzed in the face of the problem.  It bothers me that innocent people are falsely convicted of crimes and are forced to waste their lives behind bars. It bothers me that people are so ignorant of history and of the sciences.

(And this doesn’t even get to all the personal shit that bothers me. Take me out to dinner and I’ll talk your ear off about that.)

All these things that bother me have one thing in common: they are real problems that can be solved through human action. They are many and varied, and the solutions will require millions of us to work hard and long, but this work must be done, because no god is going to swoop in to do it for us. Knowing all the energy, mental and physical, that solving these problems will demand, I think the shallow ones are those who burn even one calorie bemoaning the nonexistence of the nonexistent.

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