1. In his recent book, The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought To Live Since the Death of God (Simon and Schuster, 2014), Peter Watson, himself an atheist, endeavors to illustrate how it's possible for atheists to lead meaningful lives.
2. Watson's analysis is focused on philosophers, poets, playwrights, and novelists. One oversight is his failure to note the way in which music, with its unique emotional power, can be a persuasive medium to propagandize atheism, viz. Berlioz, Wagner, Debussy, Ravel.
Wagner was influenced by Feuerbach and Schopenhauer. Not to mention the tangled relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche. Another example is where a secular composer (Debussy) sets to music the text (Les fleurs du mal) of a secular poet (Baudelaire).
3. In another oversight, one common thread which Watson fails to note is the number of artists who were both homosexual (or bisexual) and atheistic, viz. E. M. Forster, Gide, Keynes, Henry James, Jean Cocteau, Thomas Mann, Proust, Poulenc, Santayana, Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thompson, Oscar Wilde, Wittgenstein, Woolf. There's a natural affinity between homosexuality and atheism inasmuch as the amorality of atheism liberates the homosexual. Put another way, it's not surprising that homosexuals are antagonistic to traditional Christian ethics, and the religion that sponsors traditional Christian ethics: it condemns their lifestyle.
Of course, the same could be said for heterosexual libertines, viz. Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, D. H. Lawrence, Edmund Wilson, Hemingway, Yeats, Sartre, Camus. Indeed, the Bloomsbury Group was notorious for its sexual libertinism, be it straight or gay. As Dorothy Parker quipped, the Bloomsbury Group "lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles".
5. In yet another oversight, there's the connection between Jews and atheism, viz. Freud, Kafka, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein. This reflects the plight of the European Jew. Once Jews were freed from the ghetto, they no longer had that artificial solidarity. Unmoored from their religious roots, they had to navigate in a nominally Christian, antisemitic environment. Their hereditary religious identity became self-alienating, leaving many spiritually estranged.
6. Ironically, Watson's documentation sabotages his thesis that atheists and can and should lead meaningful lives. That's because, in so many of his examples, the artists and their fictional characters are abjectly miserable, and that's directly connected to their acute consciousness of living in a godless universe. To quote a few examples:
As he [James Joyce] expressed himself to Arthur Power…In realism you get down to the facts on which the world is based; that sudden reality which smashes romanticism into a pulp. What makes most people's lives unhappy is some disappointed romanticism, some unrealizable misconceived idea. In fact, you may say that idealism is the ruin of man, and if we lived down to the fact, as primitive man had to, we would be better off. That is what we are made for. Nature is quite unromantic (264).
Valéry felt that disappointment "inevitably" arose in all earthly experiences because "they are never quite adequate to what the self might hope to derive from them" (161).
In all of his later plays the dominant them is the protagonist's search for a moral order within him- or herself, to counter the "cosmic emptiness" and the chaos around him or her. For this Ibsen there is no order and no God–except insofar as his characters conceive of him…His later plays are inevitably dramas of "spiritual distress," describing his character's search for consolation in the shadow of death and their attempts to manufacture some form of Paradise here and now. "Redemption from cosmic nothingness, from meaninglessness–this is the nature of the Romantic quest which Ibsen's people share with those of Byron and Stendhal.
Hardly any of the main characters in Ibsen's later plays fail to conduct themselves on the basis of a deus absconditus (a hidden God) or lead lives that are not governed by that awareness. These characters are either pagan acolytes of Dionysus or self-declared apostates, defrocked priests or freethinkers; they are atheist rebels or agnostics. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda dreams for being a free spirit, "irradiated by the orgiastic religion of ancient Greece"…And in Little Eyolf, "Allmer's predicament seems the paradigm of the romantic dilemma in Ibsen's drama, which, to state in its simplest and crudest terms, is to be trapped between a traumatic sense of existence as process, change and death in a world devoid of consistent value, and a longing for a lost world of static hierarchies where death has no dominion. And in order to resolve this dilemma, the atheist/agnostic/apostate will fashion out of the raw material existence his analogue of that lost Eden–a Symbolic Paradise which promises eternal life, and which he seeks to possess, not as metaphor but as fact (92-93).
This is highlighted and countered in the plays not just by the lurking presence of death (often in the form of terminal illness–syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer) but also in the fact that those who die are the last of their line: this is not just death, but extinction. In a famous article, "Symbols of Eternity: The Victorian Escape from Time," Jerome Buckley grouped Ibsen with Coleridge, Rossetti, Wordsworth, Pater and William Morris in their attempts to "fashion worlds of artifice beyond the reach of change…What Ibsen's plays explore are the pain and tragedy almost inevitably involved in trying to create something of lasting value amid the flux and ceaseless flow of change, the experimental nature of life and reality (93-94).
After Eyolf, the crippled and thus half-unwanted son, is drowned, lured into the sea by the Rat-Wife, Alfred and his wife, Rita, resolve to do more for the poor children in their area. To help these children in a way they never helped their own infirm and less-than-perfect child brings them together in a way they have not been together before. The value they now see in their lives–to help the children–is an absolute value, in this world, the small world that is theirs, that surrounds them (95).
"The characters in [Henry] James's novels seem to pay little heed to articulated religious belief. Indeed, they often seem to inhabit a moral world in which absolute measures of value such as those associated with God are no longer available" (132).
For James, shared fictions take the place of more traditional religious beliefs…whether the protagonist will tell a "necessary lie" in order to maintain the illusion in which a community would prefer to live"…We can act as if there were a God. In other words, faced with a world without God and at the same time an ostensible moral base deriving from God, if we are to live together we must maintain fictions–even if, on occasion, they are lies–if they oil the wheels of the community to which we wish to belong…"In the fallen world of James's novels, the shared fiction seems to be the only remnant of faith that can allow James's characters to live together. The problem for James, his characters, and his readers is that these shared fictions can hardly be distinguished from lies"…James's characters, especially in The Golden Bowl, are both conscious of evil and aware of the absence of supernatural intervention in the modern world (133-34).
Jean-Paul Sartre, in Mallarmé, or the Poet of Nothingness, places the poet centrally in the death-of-God narrative at least in France…All the poets of the mid-century (in France, that is) were unbelievers, he says, though not without a nostalgia "for the reassuring symmetry of a God-ordered universe"…Sartre therefore concluded that poets, more than anyone else, are "God's orphans," and even here Mallarmé stood out because his mother had died when he was five and his sister when he was fifteen, so that they "fused" together into a single absence-"absence" being the crucial term..a "commanding absence," or a "hovering absence"…For Mallarmé, says Sartre, "his mother never stops dying," and it left a "pathological gap in his "being-in-the-world.'" This was important for Sartre, who saw Mallarmé as the herald of the twentieth century and someone who "more profoundly than Nietzsche, experienced the death of God" (148-49).
"The most tragic thing about the war [WWI] was not that it made so many dead men, but that it destroyed the tragedy of death. Not only did the young suffer in the war, but so did every abstraction that would have sustained and given dignity to their suffering"…And, as Edmund Wilson noted about Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned: "The hero and heroine are strange creatures without purpose or method, who give themselves up to wild debaucheries and do not, from the beginning to end of the book, perform a single serious act: but you somehow get the impression that, in spite of their madness, they are the most rational people…in such a civilization, the sanest and most credible thing is to live for the jazz of the moment…There was [Idema] said, an "extraordinary increase" in neurosis, in divorce, in sexual and emotional conflict, which was reflected in both the literature of the time [the Twenties] and in the personal lives of the authors. Sherwood Anderson's Beyond Desire was originally to be called No God (240-41).
What [Eugene O'Neil] is saying is that there is no reality; there are no firm values no ultimate meanings, so all of us need our pipe dreams and illusions (our fictions, if you like)…and that brings with it the necessity of the "life-lie, the idea that a man cannot live without illusions…men's lives "are without any meaning whatever, human life is a silly disappointment, a liar's promise, a daily appointment with peace and happiness in which we wait day after day, hoping against hope (252, 254).
Elsewhere, one brother says to the other, "I love you much more than I hate you"… (253)…The love-hate within a family, the closeness-distance, the loneliness within a togetherness, the guilt and need for forgiveness, the knowing and not knowing a loved one, the bewilderment in the face of a mysterious determinism–this is the human condition…they are sharing the death of hope…Families, for O'Neill, are full of private spaces, secrets and concealments in which, despite all, understanding and forgiveness must be found..as the site where our illusions cannot be maintained because fellow family members know too much, were excuses can never be offered or accepted as explanations (253,255-6).
7. Atheism leads to existential nihilism along at least two different paths:
i) The problem of mortality. How things end really does make a difference to how we evaluate what went before. Suppose an accountant for the mob embezzles his employer, then skips town. For a time he lives well. One day takes his family on a picnic. It's a glorious summer day. But he can see a car shadowing him in the rearview mirror. The mob tracked him down.
In a park, by the lake, everything is outwardly idyllic. His wife and kids are oblivious to the fateful denouement. All the time, he can see the hit-man's car in the parking lot, just waiting for him. When the picnic is over, and he must return to the parking lot, he knows ahead of time that he will be abducted, taken to a remote location, and shot in the head. That advance knowledge casts a wee bit of a pall over the proceedings. He can't be happy foreknowing how the story ends.
ii) Atheism is like the characters in Dark City. They have false memories, implanted by aliens. That gives them an ersatz sense of community and rootedness. They imagine they have a history with each other, as friends, lovers, spouses. Fond childhood recollections. But some of them come to suspect that their identity is an illusion. Their memories are delusive.
Likewise, according to naturalistic evolution, we've been brainwashed to be altruistic. But like false memories, once you realize that the significance you attach to things is conditioned and arbitrary, there's nothing to fall back on. Life was a cheat.
8. Atheism has a silver lining. The bleak backdrop of atheism intensifies the value of Christian hope. When honest atheists, by their own words and deeds, live in despair, they bear witness to the irreplaceable value of the Gospel. Ironically, if everyone was Christian, we'd fail to fully appreciate the surpassing value of the faith, which shines all the brighter in outside the shadow of atheism.