Saturday, November 14, 2009

atheistic existentialist and the choice to ignore god

Considered from the existentialist viewpoint, god is not only a subject of contention, but seems to be an atheistic existentialist’s nightmare. Although the freedom of existentialism may be full of anxiety due to the burden it places upon individuals to create his or her own purpose out of an inherently meaningless life, the opposite, that there is a god that creates our purposes, seems even more troubling according to an atheistic existentialist philosophy.

For example, consider that a meteor falls out of the sky and lands directly upon, and kills, a single person in a large crowd. For existentialist, this example would be an appropriate illustration of the absurdity and meaningless of life. That a person is killed by a meteor that has flown through space for thousands of years which have unfortunately coincided with the thousands of years leading up through the generations of the single person’s family history, with both culminating in a single moment when meteor and person meet is an almost funny event- it forces one to consider the absurdity of life that is so unlikely, so unpredictable, and so impossible to predict that it doesn’t make any sense to attribute meaning to the events that occur within it.

This understanding comes up in the movie No Country for Old Men, with the coin toss. Taken not as an illustration of fate, the random chance of coin toss in one sense drives home the objective lack of meaning in life. Life is just a toss of a coin, which has no meaning other than that which is created for it.

For one who believes in god though, it would be tempting to say that meteor accident happened for a reason, that it is not an illustration of absurdity or coincidence, but of purpose. This consideration seems much more terrifying for existentialist than the absurd. Believing that all things happen for a purpose, for purposes that one will likely never ever know but is trapped in anyways, forces questions such as what the purpose is, and why. Existentialist would argue that adhering to the belief that there is an objective purpose to life reveals all humans to be nothing more than Dostoevsky’s piano keys, limited in how they will live by their order in a set piece that is written and conducted by a god. All of the philosophers we have read run from this illustration of human life. No one wants to be a piano key, and so we are encouraged to rebel by spiting the meaningless of life and to create and live freely instead, to not accept what “they” say is our purpose but to make our own, to break out of the limits ascribed by others, to believe in the freedom and eternity of our own subjective meaning.

As a result, on the side of existentialism is an exhilarating freedom where each individual creates their own limits and is creator of their own purposes and values. Although the anxiety of living with so much possibility may be debilitating for some, for others it provides the room necessary to live a subjectively meaningful life that one may feel joy in living over again and again. Believing that god controls purposes and meaning, though, consigns humans to only ever living one set of events that are out of their control. Good or bad, there is no responsibility for what happens as the pressure and explanation of life is lifted onto god. While this may be a more comfortable existence than existentialism, since existentialist can only ever say that life happens while believers may say that it happens for a reason, atheistic existentialist would abhor this belief in god as ultimately constricting their potential for free meaning making and creativity.

Perhaps in the end neither side can be objectively proven though. Existentialist will only ever feel comfortable believing that we are each free to be totally and individually responsible for our lives, while believers in god will argue that though we live freely it is ultimately in accordance with a plan and under the guidance of god. Atheistic existentialists, though, would force the issue by asking not only on what basis anyone believes in god, but more importantly why anyone would ever want to, even in the case that god actually did exist. Given the troubling questions that come with accepting an objectively meaningful life as guided by god, answers to which all involve taking away responsibility and freedom from the individual while limiting the subjective creative and purposive meaning making processes of life, in the end atheistic existentialists would argue that even if god was objectively proven to exist, that it would be better for everyone to try hard and ignore this evidence, to live their lives believing with conviction that god is dead.


  1. I really like this post, Brendan. I also posted a bit on No Country for Old Men a while back on my own blog, which you can read here if you're interested.

  2. This post brought about many excellent points. I believe it was Sartre who said that we tend to slough off our responsibility on God when we choose to act upon or nihilate certain possibilities. To the existentialist, they do not want to assume their utmost freedom, as it is comforting/easier if they live according to "God's plan." Thus, it makes perfect sense when you say that atheistic existentialists would ask why we would want to believe in such a God. Not only do we deny our freedom, but all of our actions, whether detrimental or beneficial to our lives, are pre-determined by some Being whose existence we can’t even prove.

    When we discussed this topic in class, several students felt that God's grant of free will to humans suggests that belief in God' existence can be supported in existentialism. However, this means that there is still a higher being in control, and we are not entirely free. Personally, I do not have an issue with the idea of some God that creates us with an idea of our character. Call me a piano key or what not. But it certainly is problematic in the existentialist world.

  3. Lots of great stuff in this post, Brendan. Unlike the majority of our class, though, I'm not completely sold on the idea that God and religion are fundamentally incompatible with existentialism, although i'd definitely agree that at least 90% of religions (with ideas like "God's plan") are incompatible with existentialism.

    If the religious view put forth is that simply that God as a kind of clockmaker who created humans as free agents then removed himself/herself/itself from interfering with the world, I don't see exactly what severely undermines our freedom...aren't we then just simply beings that are thrown into the world and condemned to be free? Yes, God might be all powerful, and in some sense could intervene, but if God (or gods) doesn't then how does that matter? I suppose it's unavoidable on that picture that to some extent God is responsible for what happens in the world (as he could act, but by not acting, effectively he still is making a choice), but I don't see how him partly having responsibility somehow detracts from our own responsibility.

    I'll give an example to illustrate this point. Randy is an ex-Israeli commando with elite level martial arts training. One day while pumping gas into his car he gets held up at gunpoint at point blank range by Jack. Randy could easily disarm Jack, but Randy has recently become a pacifist and no longer believes in violence. During the hold up, Jack ends up shooting up Randy and killing him. Now, is Jack any less responsible for killing Randy, because Randy could have stopped Jack from killing him? I don't think so. Randy may be partly responsible for his own death, but in no way does his responsibility for that diminish Jack's culpability in killing Randy. I think our mistake when entertaining the existence of God/gods is to assume that shared responsibility automatically means that no one person can bear the burden of being fully responsible. Actually, it's possible that all parties involved could be fully responsible or responsible to different degrees.

  4. In class I said that if God is all-powerful then it is completely within his power to give humans freedom. However, as I think Dr J pointed out, if that is the case, how much freedom did he give us? For example, a rabbit may be free, but only to hop around its cage. Or another one, when I play Grand Theft Auto I am free to do just about whatever I want-- within the limits of the game. So if God created us, how much freedom do we really have? The answer is only as much as he gives us. If we were really free we would not be subject to God at all. This is why I find it hard to for God and existentialism to be compatible.

  5. Good points, Cole. But can't we say the same thing about our freedom being contained within a specific body or being subject to natural laws? E.g. If I was really free I wouldn't have to be 5'10", have to age, digest food, not have wings, etc. I guess with God we typically posit some kind of intelligent design to our being, which we think complicates the issue, whereas in nature we just sort of take these kinds of things as given.

    Yet, even for Sartre, we don't have to be free to obtain what we want/intend, but we have to at least be free to intend something other than what is the case (iow, be capable of imagining a negation of the present facts). Sartre would still say that the man chained up in a basement for eternity was free, though his freedom certainly is heavily constrained. Accordingly, I don't exactly see why any conception of an omnipotent God or gods necessarily must destroy our freedom.


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