The Honest Atheist

There are two types of atheist that exist, and only one intellectually honest position to take. On the one hand there are those atheists who claim that no god exists at all. This asserts a truth claim. The more intellectually honest position is the philosophically agnostic position. This group recognise it is not possible to even know whether god exists or not and therefore choose to take no position either way but otherwise live their lives (i.e. construct their moral edifice) as if no god involved itself. Fundamentally this is the only real difference between these two groups. In reality both live their lives as if god does not exist recognising that it is up to us humans to create the ‘heaven on earth’ which the religious seek in oblivion.

The likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris sit firmly within the former group I described above. Their work sets out to show the inconsistencies of religious doctrine by using the scientific method, or what might be termed more generally as rationalism. The latter group, though not necessarily representative of all, reject this rationalist atheism on the grounds that it fails on its own premises. The rationalist seeks to order and the universe and to make sense of it, just as the theist does, albeit by alternative means. These are evangelising claims to the masses that we no longer need religion to explain our existence and we can find meaning in the universe using science. Moreover, the religious claim to moral rectitude no longer retains its merit given the history of religious intolerance and willful ignorance. The rationalists is therefore similar to the theist by searching for meaning in the universe.

Camus was an atheist who famously rejected rationalism. Camus asserts, rather than demonstrate that rationalism fails because he thinks that humans do not have the capacity to comprehend the universe. This is a part of the human condition and is what makes life absurd. We struggle our entire lives to make sense of a meaningless universe that we cannot possibly ever hope to make sense of. This contradiction between man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe is at the heart of Camus’ notion of the Absurd: “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal” (Sisyphus, p. 17). He clarifies that it is only mankind’s relation between itself and the universe which is absurd. Neither are absurd in isolation, only when they come into contact with one another.

Placed in the meaningless universe, searching for meaning, man believes his actions to be meaningful while all the while the clock ticks down until it is his turn to die. This is another aspect of the absurd which becomes clear in the final pages of L’Etranger when Meursault is confronted by the priest. The absurdist man comes across as indifferent to the world around him, as Meursault does, when in reality he has just recognised the meaninglessness of it all. Camus adds the absurd man expresses what he calls a ‘confession of ignorance’, similar to Socrates’ famous maxim, “I know that I know nothing.” In those final pages of L’Etranger, Meursault tells the priest that he does not have time to think about matters such as the existence or not of god. Instead, Meursault focuses on his experience of the here and now. L’Etranger ends with Meursault saying that he “felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again” (L’Etrangerp 123). Meursault is in the final state described at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus claims that we must think of Sisyphus as happy as he descends from the mountain to push his rock once more up the hill (Sisyphus, p. 123). Thus, Camus’ Absurdism, prima facie is a rather pessimistic theory, but in reality is rather optimistic in its simplicity.

Camus rejects rationalism, and differs from the likes of Richard Dawkins, because, he says, our attempts to understand the universe are ultimately in vain, but only so for the reasons often ostensibly given for understanding the universe. Dawkins on the other hand claims that rationalism and science is just a better method for understanding the universe than a religious one. Ultimately Dawkins holds onto the notion that the universe has a meaning and which is best explained through science. Camus on the other hands says:

“You enumerate its laws (the universe’s) and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanisms and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me in an image. I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know…science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art” (Sisyphus, pp. 19-20).

The world just is and is, in itself, not reasonable. The questions metaphysicians and epistemologists ask about the nature of reality fundamentally do not concern Camus. The universe just is, and we are experiencing it. After all, it does not really matter if we are a brain in a vat someplace else; this is the reality we experience as it is:

“here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. The scents of grass and stars at night, certain feelings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world who’s power and strength I feel?” (Sisyphus, p. 19).

Camus invites us then in the face of such meaninglessness to embrace a philosophy of the here and now. To enjoy the world around us despite our vain efforts to understand it. Camus’ notion of an absurd universe is one that I believe is the more intellectually honest position to take for atheists. Camus does not prove that god does not exist. Instead his idea is an extension of Nietzsche’s idea that god is dead. Camus is therefore more like the epicurean who says that god might exist, but, that if he does he has no bearing on existence. Therefore, Camus is the agnostic atheist. The moral implications of Camus’ absurdism is a subject for another essay, except to say, that again, Camus offers us a much better theory than what rationalists such as Dawkins can ever offer us.