Most of us live without knowing what we live for. Surely this is life’s greatest tragedy, far worse than death. Living for no reason is not living, but mere existing, mere surviving. As Viktor Frankl found in a Nazi concentration camp, our deepest, rock-bottom need is not pleasure, as Freud thought, or power, as Adler thought, but meaning and purpose, “a reason to live and a reason to die”. We need a meaning to life more than we need life itself.
Millions all around us are living the tragedy of meaningless life, the “life” of spiritual death. That is what makes our society more radically different from every society in history: not that it can fly to the moon, enfranchise more voters, have the grossest national product, conquer disease, or even blow up the entire planet, but that it does not know why it exists.
Every past society gave its members answers to all three great questions. It transmitted the teachings of its sages, saints, mystics, gurus, philosophers, or gods through tradition. For the first time in history, society no longer regards tradition as sacred; in fact, it no longer regards it at all. We are the first tree that has uprooted itself from the universal soil. If we are to find an answer to the question “For what may I hope?” we must find the answer individually; our society simply does not know. The only sound we hear from our noisy society concerning the most important questions in the world is the sound of silence.
How has this silence come about? How is it that the society that “knows it all” about everything knows nothing about Everything? How has the knowledge explosion exploded away the supreme knowledge? Why have we thrown away the road map just as we’ve souped up the engine? We must retrace the steps by which we have come to this dead end . . .
From the Renaissance emerged something radically new in human history: a secular society with a secular summum bonum. Of the twenty-one civilizations Toynbee distinguishes in his monumental Study of History, the first twenty kept some sort of religious basis and purpose; ours is history’s most unique experiment. It remains to be seen how long a civilization can survive without the use of spiritual energy, without a supernatural source of life.
–Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing
The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the gates of this world.
But . . . we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere. If, then, you are a pessimist . . . forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think is so clear, deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture, give up the very jewel of your pride, abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.
Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos; his house waits for him . . . Man has always been looking for that home . . . But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on the earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.
Old-school atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche
recognized that atheism utterly failed
to answer the most profound of human questions,
and thus atheism, he believed, led inexorably
Nowadays, most atheists are very uncomfortable with nihilism and want to distance themselves from their intellectual forefathers. Just because God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that life can’t be vibrant and meaningful, right?
Well, it seems that not every atheist has abandoned Nietzsche’s insights. Atheist professor Alex Rosenberg provides the following summary of atheism’s answers to life’s most profound questions:
Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Is there a soul? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What is the difference between right/wrong, good/bad? There is no moral difference between them.
He concludes, “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”
Rosenberg left out other depressing atheist answers like the following:
Will there be justice for all those who have been wronged? No way.
Is there life after death? Are you joking?
Where did mankind come from? A prebiotic slime.
Wow! What a positive outlook on life! No wonder more people don’t become atheists. It casts such a stunning vision for mankind, doesn’t it?