It’s a common argument for religious belief: if you believe that everything ends with death, then what’s the point of life? But the finality of death is exactly what gives value to life, writes atheist Baal Caulfield.
“The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.”
– Carl Sagan
The other day, while outside filling the boot of my car with recycling, I saw a couple of women heading down the shared driveway. As I watched they knocked on the door of apartment 1, waited a minute, and when no one appeared they moved on to the second door. They were selling something, I knew that much, but what they were selling I didn’t know. It could have been electricity or a new ISP. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that sooner or later they’d wind up at my door. I went back inside and within two minutes they were there, wanting to share some good news about the Lord. What they were selling was religion.
I was patient and welcoming if not enthusiastic; as always with these types of people, I gave them the respect of hearing them out. As it turns out, I could be saved. My sins could be washed away and the good Lord could grant me eternal life. Eternal life? That’s one hell of sales pitch. I’d be mad to not take them up on the offer. Just one problem: I have already made up my mind – some years ago, in fact.
Once they had finished, I explained I was an existential nihilist and they were barking up the wrong tree with me. They asked what that meant. So I told them that I believed in nothing. Our lives are short and painful. Death is the only certainty and at the end of the day all your efforts in this world will be for nothing. Your life will end and your soul will be gone.
Game over, man, game over.
Their response was the one I normally get: “How can you find meaning in that? If life is so bleak, then why bother at all?”
That is an important question. I have never been much into philosophy, far preferring the hard sciences to questions of morality and the meaning of life. While I always thought life was pointless, I had no philosophical basis for that belief. I know that the spiral arms of galaxies sometimes collided, and life on this planet had in the past winked in and out of existence in our planet’s 4.5-billion-year history, all while a quantum foam of probability fizzled around me on the smallest of scales… none of this approached questions of meaning. That all changed when I started reading the existentialist philosophers, like the strange Sartre, the handsome playboy Albert Camus or the confused and often misunderstood Nietzsche.
Now I know that the belief in nothing is what gives my life meaning.
Just like you, I could be snuffed out any second – we all could just disappear, die and slowly be forgotten to history. Unless you cure AIDS, come up with a groundbreaking invention or, I suppose, commit a particularly vicious crime, you’ll soon be forgotten, with no afterlife or god to look forward to.
The fundamental truth, the inescapable fact of life, is that you’ll die. And that is the end.
But it is that finality which drives purpose. We all have just one shot at it, so make the best of it. Life is rich with colour, meaning, beauty and wonder. We are alive in this time and no other. We’re seeing landers on Mars, we’re sending probes to Titan to search for life, we have satellites flying around Europa ‘tasting’ the jets of liquid H20 and breaking down the molecules, sending the results back to Earth so we may study and understand the formation of the solar system and its potential to support life. We have theories about the true nature of reality and beginnings of the universe, a global database in the internet which gives us nearly the sum total of knowledge about our place in the world, from Newton’s Laws of Motion to what some guy thinks about Star Trek. We, all of us, were alive when David Bowie was alive, are alive while Robert Smith is still alive. Each second could be your last, so every second counts.
I have no god or gods, I know there is nothing beyond – no saving grace, no great scorekeeper in the sky. If I don’t do it now it’ll never be done because when that last breath leaves my body, time’s up. Cheque has been cashed and the bucket kicked.
This is where religious belief rubs me the wrong way, because if I am to believe there is a god, a heaven, a reincarnation, an afterlife, then I’ll miss what is now – because what is now is just a phase. Why should I care about the little moments if they are always going to be there?
Having nothing is the meaning to everything.
I have no doubt that people reading this will disagree. As with the people who knocked on my door, I will listen but also debate. If your belief makes you happy, then all power to you. I just happen to believe that a lack of belief makes life richer, more meaningful and stranger than not only can I know now, but can ever know. Grasp it with both hands, steer your own ship and do it now.
You’re not getting another chance.