An Awareness of What is Missing

 The other day I mentioned Isaac Asimov’s (and my) agnosticism-qua-atheism and how it’s different than a militant atheism (in The Proper Use of the Pitchfork).

Whenever it comes up, I invariably get asked to join an atheist group. I never do.

Atheists, I’ve found, are very poorly fraternal (although I’m sure there are exceptions). Like an eternal opposition coalition, doomed forever to sit on the back bench heckling the speaker, they are a cobbled mass of interests with no common goal — kind of like the Tea Party now that I think about it — because they’re defined by what they’re not rather than by what they are. They’re defined by an absence of something.

Whenever I say this, there’s always the guy — and it does always seem to be a guy for some reason — who says that atheists really do have shared values, even if they don’t know it, because to be a REAL atheist means such-and-such particular thing.

Yes, there are fundamentalist atheists, and yes, they’re just as dangerous as their theist counterparts.

If you stop to think about it, an atheist discussion — properly labeled (that’s important) — is all about how wrong the other guys are. And that’s about it. Yes, you can also talk about science, or humanism, or moral philosophy. But so can other people. Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists talk about science all the time, and completely separately from their religious beliefs. It’s almost like they’re normal people!

Atheism is not science, or humanism, or moral philosophy, and it doesn’t have a monopoly on those things. Atheism is also not video games, or professional sports, or politics, or the weather, or anything else you might talk about other than a-theism — the absence of belief — and how wrong the majority party is.

But this is a problem. Those of us who think about such things often develop, as even Jürgen Habermas has lately acknowledged, “an awareness of what is missing.”

“No, what’s missing is not God” I say to my religious friends as I thank them for coming, and for the delicious pie, and show them to the door. Nice to see you again! Do keep in touch!

Religion does many things besides provide a structured worship of the divine. That’s one of the reasons I find it so fascinating. It’s rich with meaning and intention, just like the architecture it produces — an altar and a castle and a political haven and a school and a library and a publishing house and an art gallery and a tax station and a civil services station all at the same time. Somewhere in there is a fundamental reconciliation.

Most religions, for example, claim that this world doesn’t really count. It’s only the qualifying round. The real show comes later, after we die. Your rank-and-file goosestepping militant atheist will tell you this is to discourage political action and enforce the status quo. And I freely admit that in the worst cases — the Catholic Church until just recently — that does seem to be going on. But to stop the analysis there is to look down on most of humanity from the warm, comfortable privilege of life in the 21st century West, where your chance of death by violence or infectious disease or starvation is the lowest in the history of our species.

The belief in an afterlife — beyond its patent tangibility to many people, beyond its ability to inspire incredible art and music — reconciles two opposing truths: a person’s dignity and their treatment at the hands of the world. Personally, I doubt there is such a thing, but I won’t go so far as to say someone is stupid for believing it. Among other things, it commits one to the belief that Plato and Isaac Newton and Gandhi were idiots, and that you know better than they do.

But that still leaves us with our awareness of what is missing, which these days can only be filled by the creation of your own coherent myth.

A myth is not a falsehood. A myth is a story that reveals something about the world, something that is believed for reasons beyond proof. A myth isn’t right or wrong. That dichotomy simply doesn’t apply. Myth-making happens whenever the myths received from our nurturing society are inadequate for our circumstance — which is a near universal condition in the modern age. We’ve obliterated them all.

Most people seem to believe myths are old fashioned things about dragons and witches and children with poor decision-making skills, as if a plot is a myth. The myth is the “meta” story, not the direct narrative but the one revealed about the world and how it works, and therefore what you should expect of it and what is expected of you as a person thrust into it at a time and place completely outside your control.

For example, one of the most common myths of our era, repeated over and over in every movie and TV show, is that the world is fundamentally fair. Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts get together in the end. The quirky TV family resolves their drama in 24 minutes, plus commercials.

Now, almost no one admits to believing the world is fair. It’s such a blatant lie. Almost everyone tells you, if not themselves, that “life’s not fair, man.” But almost no one’s behavior actually follows. (Again, a myth simply doesn’t address truth or falsity.)

Where in the old days we had a complete myth, a coherent, sensible one with both the narrative of fairness and its mechanism, today we’re schizophrenic. Today, we believe only one half of the story, and so we’re left frustrated at every slight and bereft at each catastrophe.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“My one and only life deserves to better than this.”

This is a symptom of what is missing and why you must develop an awareness of it — to create your own coherent myth — and why your average atheist rant is so wholly irrelevant to anything other than a battle of facts.