Atheism is a word that carries with it a considerable burden.
It’s weighed down by the venom others sometimes inject it with, a venom streaked with moral condescension and a naiveté based in too much humanism. This is a hard yoke to shed, and the word never usually ushers in a philosophical discussion, but instead more of a disingenuous inquiry. “You’re an atheist?”— eyes glaze, the middle-distance emits an intriguing light.
I’m not here to pitch atheism, or theism or anything in between. I’ve found in reading though, that there is a presentation of atheistic philosophy that I think everyone would do well to heed. It is not focused on the main question most people think of when the debate between atheists and theists begins: the belief in whether there is a God. Instead, this strain of “atheism,” seems to actually focus on engaging with the natural. Of course, a strong sense of naturalism can lead to a rejection of God, but there is more to it. Atheism can extend outside the realm of religious things, or at least be practiced without explicit attention to religion, which makes its message one of encompassing profundity. This philosophy is a humanism made brighter by atheism, a study of this world made clearer by lack of a heavenly pivot. Put simply, it is a call to engage.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous existentialist philosopher, was asked by his wife, Simone De Beauvoir, if he wanted to add anything to their dialogues, which were to be published. Sartre responded, to paraphrase, that on the whole, the two of them had lived without paying much attention to God. Beauvoir agreed with him. But the power of Sartre lies within his follow-up response: “‘And yet we have lived; we feel that we’ve taken an interest in our world and that we’ve tried to see and understand it.’” This simple explanation jolted me when I first read it. My brain’s sights made the one-click adjustment, and blinked into lucidity. It was searing. I realized Sartre’s intellectual toilings did not concern themselves with abstractions. His calling was to explain what’s here, not speculate on what may be reaches above or fathoms below.
Whenever I try to characterize this notion, the term “human” always seems to vibrate like neon. This sort of philosophy is like a skin; it’s close, intimate, reassuring. It is also explosive and panoramic. It is love, it is being, it is a true attempt at an encompassing life not driven or hampered by phantoms. It’s not necessarily science-based, in the sense of myopic experimenting or hermetic scribbling; instead, it is more based in living a truly authentic life.
Engaging directly and passionately with the world we’re in is emboldening. To do so intelligently and continuously is a noble thing; it is the duty of a thinking man. But it is also scary to invest everything in this life, to refrain from even a 10 percent withdrawal from the world, to let action not be dictated by a potentially sumptuous future.
When you put your hands on someone’s shoulders, you inevitably have to look them in the eyes. This is man’s plight, the sort of Manichean battle between what’s here and what’ll be there. But whether or not you believe in the great beyond, you are here for a little while, that much is sure.
Don’t let answers to questions swirl upward in the hope of a divine answer. Investigate, explore, live.
You’ll probably only experience earth this once, so you might as well try to get a bead on it.