Friday, December 09, 2016

The Absurdity of Objectless Anger

Under a bridge in Monroe

Years ago I knew a couple. Let's call them X and Y. Details of this common (to me) story have been altered.

X used to be a theist, but told us she became an atheist because of hypocrisy she saw in Christians. Her reasoning was: 

1. Christian hypocrites exist.
2. Therefore, God does not exist.

This was irrational on X's part, since there is no logical claim of inference here. 

X was hurt by Christians. Her response was to leave the faith entirely. When she's hurt by some hypocritical atheist will she leave that, too? (Yes, they exist; e.g., atheists who believe some things are "wrong.")

X fell in love with the atheist Y. Y had no Christian background like X did. Y lived only for his own pleasure. Y's goal in life was to "be happy." For Y, at least as it seemed to some of us, the purpose of X was to make him happy. X was one of Y's gratification objects. Happiness, as Aristotle told us, is a horrible life goal, since people get objectified as a means to an end.

Then, tragically and suddenly, Y died. We were all saddened, and grieved with X. I prayed for X, even though she didn't believe there was any God to pray to. Nonetheless, I believe. Therefore, I prayed.

We attended the funeral. Sometimes I have been asked to do the funerals of atheists like Y. I have accepted, on the condition that I will share about my belief in and hope in God. I've experienced the losses of many loved ones, including a son. I would not have made it through that event were it not for my already-existing belief and trust in God. I'll welcome the opportunity to share that at any funeral. I've had conversations with funeral-attending atheists over the years. They want to meet with me over coffee and talk about the hope I have in Jesus.

Y, in the aftermath, self-medicated to cope. When I talked with her she was angry.

"I am angry at God for taking Y!!!" "I hate God!!!" "I want nothing to do with God!!!"

"Why?" I wondered to myself. After all, X is an atheist, so there's no God to be angry at. On atheism there's nothing to be angry at, just as, in a similar way, atheist Julian Barnes brilliantly wrote Nothing to Be Frightened Of (reify the word "Nothing").

X seemed angry at people like me who believe in God. But why? We didn't take Y's life. Just like I didn't kill my own son.

Was X angry at the world? At the universe? At the theory of evolution? I'm not making light of X's grief. I have been with many who grieve, and have been with myself in my own grieving. X's version of atheism was not allowing her to grieve well.

Let's get this much clear: If God does not exist, then there's no one and nothing to be angry at in our times of loss. Anger makes no sense if there is nothing or no one to be angry towards. 

X's anger was objectless. In the language of existentialism, her emotion of anger was "absurd." Senseless. This is not an argument for theism. It is to make the Nietzschean point that, let's not be village atheists who act like theists when the tragedies of life hit.

I like how physicist and atheist Stephen Weinberg describes the absurdity of the atheistic life. He writes:

"Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair."

How might Weinberg have counseled Y? He writes (Ib.):

"What, then, can we do? One thing that helps is humor, a quality not abundant in Emerson. Just as we laugh with sympathy but not scorn when we see a one-year-old struggling to stay erect when she takes her first steps, we can feel a sympathetic merriment at ourselves, trying to live balanced on a knife-edge. In some of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, just when the action is about to reach an unbearable climax, the tragic heroes are confronted with some "rude mechanical" offering comic observations: a gravedigger, or a doorkeeper, or a pair of gardeners, or a man with a basket of figs. The tragedy is not lessened, but the humor puts it in perspective."

As one whose job description includes being with grieving people, I'm glad I didn't suggest this to X, or tell her a joke. I'm glad the doctors didn't try to get me to smile and laugh when my baby son died.

Nihilism follows from an atheistic worldview. On atheism there's no greater meaning to life, nothing redemptive about our sufferings, and nothing to be angry at. I don't think all this is that funny, either.