Man must either fall in love
with Someone or Something,
or else fall ill.

— W.H. Auden

Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Yet I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realisation that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?

We had the annual charity women’s powerlifting event at the gym yesterday. The Lady of the House handled the spreadsheet duties, as usual, and this year she generously volunteered my services to help with spotting and loading the bar. A good time was had by all, though it was a bit disconcerting for me, an average student in math, to have the other guys ask me to check behind them to make sure they loaded the correct plates. Still, under my stewardship, the weights were all correct and the squat rack was adjusted to the correct height each time, so it was a personal success.

Before we started, everyone involved gathered in the group fitness room for a few quick words of encouragement, followed by a brief prayer. The gym owner thanked the Lord for our health and the ability to “do what we love here today,” and asked to keep us safe (given the date, there were words of thanks for our veterans as well). Of course, I’m all for expressions of gratitude, even if I don’t believe in the literal existence of the intended recipient. The ritual, the habit, of being appreciative is good enough for me. I looked at the two ladies in front of me, their heads bowed, one woman’s arm across the other’s shoulder, their other hands clasping those of the women beside them, and thought However we got here, it’s good to see it. Personally, I can reinterpret Christian ideas and practices in a symbolic or metaphorical way, but one way in which I differ from the spiritual-not-religious is that I think it would be condescending to act as if I understand the true symbolic essence of the faith, while all those devout believers are just benighted. I respect the truth claims enough to openly say I disagree with them and call myself an atheist, even if that raises someone’s ire, rather than act like a cuckoo, secretly laying my eggs in Christian nests.

I’m sure Hirsi Ali’s announcement will ruffle some rational feathers. Stuart Ritchie calls it “daft” and wonders how she could possibly be ignorant of all the obvious rebuttals to these silly, uniformly terrible arguments. Well, I don’t know exactly how one would go about arguing decisively, pro or con, that the West is becoming dangerously decadent, self-loathing, and incapable of withstanding challenges from its enemies. How would one “prove” that our nation has used up its allotted great deal of ruin, except after the fact? Likewise, as with Athens and Jerusalem, what does argument have to do with a desire for spiritual solace?  There are certainly many conversations to be had there, but what do I care if we ultimately arrive at different conclusions? She may be incorrect, but is she wrong? I’ll resist the urge to elaborate and trust that you get the distinction I’m making.

If Hirsi Ali were a friend of mine, I would say something like this: most of what you see as good and beautiful, I do, too. I can’t tell you how to handle your need for solace; all I can say is that in my own case, my resolution to the existential angst of my youth didn’t come in the form of an answer, like a religious doctrine, but in the realization that I’d been asking all the wrong questions. The angst disappeared on its own, just like the frustration before I realized I’d been reading the instructions wrong while trying to assemble the bookcase. Of course that bolt doesn’t fit there! This may be more of a logical or intellectual approach than you’re looking for, but hey, there’s a spiritual version of that, too.

As for the meaning and purpose of life, well, I think it’s partially the wrong question, in the sense that meaning and purpose aren’t “out there,” pre-existing, waiting to be discovered or commanded to us. They do exist. In fact, we all largely recognize them when we see them. But no, I don’t think they are inherent to existence. Some assembly is required. On a biological level, it’s all just fighting, feasting and fornicating until we die. Humans, though, ask “Why?” and set about providing justifications. All of those provisional answers — art, music, writing, sport, religion, communal tasks, and the basic care and maintenance of the conditions necessary for them — are something we create and share with each other. Those things all exist and have meaning as long as we keep them alive by practicing them. “Where two or three are gathered together” in the name of meaning and purpose, you might say. It may seem bleak to say that, no, I don’t think there are any guarantees involved. Good and beautiful things can disappear forever, especially if we fail to work for their preservation. All I can say is, well, you know me. I don’t find it depressing or demoralizing. And anyway, whatever you believe, you still have to show up and put in the necessary work.

So we gather together and do the things we love. We put aside self-centeredness and petty concerns and create something beautiful and meaningful to share. I think that’s good enough.