Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit. As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything. Sweep the demon of religion out the door and, like the story in the Gospels, you may only succeed in making room for an evil spirit worse than the first — this one accompanied by seven friends (Luke 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45). Zealous atheism can perform this role of demonic pseudoreligion.
This language could have come straight out of a Christian gospel tract: saying that atheists are in the grip of self-delusion, that we’re worse than the violent zealots we condemn, or that we’re practicing a “demonic pseudoreligion”. And, lest I overlook it, this passage clearly implies that it’s necessary to believe in God to be a UU – or even just to be a good person. I expect this kind of hostile, sneering denunciation from Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but to hear it from the mouth of a Unitarian Universalist minister was an awful shock.
I don’t really care what the official UU stance is on atheism; as a doctrinaire grouchomarxist, I likewise declare that I wouldn’t want to belong to any group that would have me as a member. No, my eye was caught by the other excerpt. With all due disrespect to C.S. Lewis, he’s so full of shit, I’m surprised he wasn’t covered in flies when he wrote that.
I was recently called a nihilist in all innocence; no insult intended. It’s just one of those things we take for granted — you don’t believe in God, so you must believe in nothing, right? Well, no. Now, bear with me here. I’m not splitting hairs to be difficult; this is just a fine but very important distinction. A nihilist is someone who is still desperate to believe in something, anything. Nihilists take the concept of nothingness and reify it, raise it to the level of Absolute Truth where their God used to reside. They still want to believe in the sort of one-size-fits-all universal truth common to Platonic philosophy and Christianity, but if they can’t believe anymore in some kind of eternal meaning, they’ll settle for believing that nothing ever means anything. The enveloping, inescapable rule of Nothingness becomes the blanket they cover up with to keep out any existential drafts. It’s what allows them the security of being able to shrug off responsibility and say “I was just following orders.” The poor melodramatic fellow we had such fun laughing at last month is a nihilist; he’s just frantically trying to cover up the sour stink of his fear with some Jesus-scented air freshener, and probably not even fooling himself. Nihilism is quite literally the shadow of God.
I feel that it’s quite apparent to anyone who looks carefully that there is no inherent meaning in anything. There are no souls, no absolutes, no guarantees. Meaning is something we create out of the contingent pieces of our shared existences, themselves contingent, and it is always an unfinished work. The absence of belief in inherent meaning is not a positive affirmation of the substance of meaninglessness. So how, then, as my interlocutor asked, does the non-nihilist person live in the absence of such active belief? Well, as Suzuki Roshi said, you do it every day.