Atheism and the Unscratchable Itch
by Paul Gould
It is a fundamental datum of our experience that we all long for meaning; we long for a narrative in which to make sense of our lives, our passions, and our beliefs. But, if God doesn’t exist, the cold, hard truth is there is no meaning. We have a scratch, but no way to itch it.In an interview with Harper’s Magazine Christopher Beha, the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg states:
There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.
What is the atheist to do? It seems there are three options, three atheist camps on the question of how to make sense of our longing for meaning in a godless world:
Camp 1: Dissatisfied Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp works hard to salvage the splendor of the religious view in a godless world.
Camp 2: Anesthestic Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp tries to anesthetize the desire for meaning, to rub it out, to reduce or explain it away.
Camp 3: Apathetic Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp tries to ignore the desire for meaning.
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I think the attempt of the dissatisfied atheist to salvage the splendor of the religious worldview in a godless world is doomed to fail. The best non-theistic option is some kind of Platonic atheism where objective values are identified with various Platonic Forms or abstract object. The problem is Platonic atheism does not sufficiently ground moral duty, nor does it help in providing an over-arching story or compelling narrative for my life. To see why consider: we owe moral obligations to people, not things. For example, I have a moral obligation to tell you the truth, or to not steal your wallet…
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