Why Live?

YouTube user Religious Fiction considers a question that she has heard from many believers: If there is no God, why live?  The question itself puzzles her, and she suggests that YouTubers should have a big conversation about it:

She says that no theist has ever explained to her “why living with the assumption that there is a God is so great.”  She finds it “hard to imagine that there are gobs of theists out there who would honestly think that they have no reason to live if their assumptions and their doctrine just slipped a bit or maybe even had a profound change.”

It’s true that quite a lot of people do talk as if belief in God were the only thing that made life tolerable, and that it is quite strange of them to do so.  Few people, after all, commit suicide, and most of those who do exhibit one of a very small number of psychological disorders.  The idea of suicide may have a compelling power over many imaginations, but in terms of actual practice suicide is an eccentricity.  When Albert Camus opens his Myth of Sisyphus with the claim that the  only serious philosophical question is whether life is worth living, therefore, it is as if he had said that the only serious philosophical question is whether one ought to ride a unicycle.

That much said, does the frequency with which believers suggest that life would not be tolerable without their beliefs show that they are mentally ill?  I say not.  I think Thomas Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons Not to Be an Atheist,” discussed below, explain why a happy, well-adjusted person could believe that a loss of religious faith would mean a loss of the will to live.

I would focus on the third and fourth of Fleming’s five reasons.  “Atheists have no religious calendars” and “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots.”  These points show, first, that it is not as propositions that the doctrines of a religion have power for its adherents, but as narratives.  The doctrines of a faith are a story in which the believer is given roles to play; the calendar is set of occasions on which the believer will enact those roles one by one, and will join with others as they play their own roles in the same story.  The sacred narrative consecrates particular places, places where key events in the narrative have taken place or will take place.  People can bond with each other as they share a relationship to these places.  Thus, the sacred narrative gives structure to a believer’s  experience of both time and space.  Discard the sacred narrative, and we may choose between a life with no sense of narrative structure or the acceptance of a new master narrative to create a new sense of structure.  “Life with no sense of narrative structure” sounds like a definition of clinical depression.  If we experience life as just one thing after another, we may very well wonder what the point is of living.  “The acceptance of a new master narrative,” on the other hand, sounds less like the outgrowing of illusions for which atheists strive than like a conversion from one religion to another.

The most interesting reply to ReligiousFiction’s invitation that I’ve seen is from QualiaSoup.

QualiaSoup usually does an excellent job explaining where arguments against a secular interpretation of physical phenomena go wrong; there’s a fine example here.  Addressing this question,  he proposes a master narrative about knowledge vindicating ignorance.  Scientific advances and antiracist action make life worth living because they both represent blows against ignorance.  QualiaSoup in fact takes on something of the character of a prophet when laying out this narrative.  Indeed, he presents himself as a prophet who brings not peace, but a sword; his image of a family is a group of people divided by various dark lines, such as “prejudice” and “hate”; these lines cannot be erased until all submit together to the liberating power of knowledge.  Otherwise, our prophet will set a man at variance with his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and the enemies shall be of one household.  He makes this point at greater length here.

Many commenters on QualiaSoup’s video say that people should be hurt if their relatives say that life would be intolerable without religious faith.  I disagree with this position, for two reasons.  First, it is through narrative that family relationships are defined.  Two people may have common ancestors within living memory, and yet feel no kinship at all.  Meanwhile, many people quite seriously regard pets with whom they have no common ancestor in the last 100,000,000 years as family members.  Change the narrative you accept, and your relationships with others will change in ways that cannot be predicted.

Second, let us assume that some person (say, a man named Bob) does live simply for the sake of his or her family.  Let us assume further that Bob lives in a society where it is a great advantage to be classified as “white,” and that the people Bob recognizes as close kin are all classified that way.  How could Bob justify working to abolish that advantage?  Indeed, if Bob considers his life worth living solely or chiefly because he wants to serve the interests of his family, would it not seem natural to him to lay down his life for the sake of perpetuating discrimination in favor of whites?  I certainly agree that Bob ought to find value in his family and enjoy sharing his life with them, but unless he adopts a narrative that can sometimes override that value in the name of a broader kinship he will be doomed to support white supremacy.

Need an unstructured life be dismal?  Certainly there are experiences that are pleasurable whether or not we see them as connected to any other experience.  The physical satisfaction that follows a vigorous workout is pleasurable even if we never give a thought to the benefits it might have for our health; a successful sexual encounter is enjoyable even if it does not strengthen the bond between the partners; solving a problem brings a thrill even if that problem is not part of an important research program.  To keep those self-contained pleasures fresh, however, we must continually increase our level of activity.  For example, when I was in graduate school I was a postmodernist.  The first few years I worked happily, convinced that what I was doing was of value because it was part of the postmodernist contribution to the study of ancient Greek and Latin.  There came a time when I decided that postmodernism was a dead end.  Rather than give up, I began to work much harder.  I found that if I put in 100 hours a week, each piece of work I did still gave me a thrill, even though I no longer believed in the overall project that had once justified it.  I couldn’t sustain that frenzied pace, but many do.  And isn’t frenzied activity one of the worst problems our world faces?  What is behind war, what is behind the destruction of our natural environment, if not people who have thrown themselves into ever-more frenzied activity rather than taking pleasure in the traditional rewards of life?

Irving Babbitt used to say that peace was a religious virtue.  This was a bit of a paradox, since Babbitt himself was not all religious and not at all warlike.  I think the paradox is resolvable, however.  A sacred narrative, with its religious calendar and its holy places, gives its believers something steady and finite.  If the world around them is at peace, they can find meaning and satisfaction without disrupting it.  On the other hand, those who try to live without a sacred narrative cannot be still, regardless of the conditions in which they find themselves.

Helping others, hurting oneself

In a recent issue of The Nation, Miriam Markowitz reviewed a biography of a remarkable figure named George Price.  The opening paragraph is an attention-grabber:

George Price was born a Jewish half-breed to parents who kept his Semitic side a secret; lived much of his life an aggressive atheist and skeptic of the supernatural; and died a Christian, twice converted, albeit, to his mind, a defeated one. Several years before he abandoned his career in a mission to shelter and comfort homeless alcoholics, he made a number of extraordinary contributions to evolutionary biology, a field in which he had no training. Educated as a chemist, Price had worked previously for the Manhattan Project on uranium enrichment, helped develop radiation therapy for cancer, invented computer-aided design with IBM and dabbled in journalism.

I suppose if your name is Miriam Markowitz you can use phrases like “Jewish half-breed,” though I for one would just as soon you didn’t.

In 1970, Price used a mathematical model rooted in game theory to revise an equation that William D. Hamilton had proposed as a means of analyzing altruistic behavior.  Hamilton and others saw that Price’s equation made it possible to analyze self-sacrificing behavior at many levels of selection at once, and to do so without appealing to notions of group selection.   This last point was especially attractive to Hamilton; as Markowitz explains, “Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness was a riposte to what he considered the naïve and ‘woolly’ group selectionism in vogue until the late 1960s, which explained altruistic behaviors with vague gestures toward ‘the good of the species.'”  Hamilton’s consistent opposition to all forms of group selectionism, be they woolly or threadbare, was one of the reasons Richard Dawkins named him as one who may have been “the greatest Darwinian since Darwin.”   Price’s theoretical work is basic to biological explanations of altruistic behavior; his own personal determination to lead a life of altruism, however, was infinitely less successful.  None of the homeless alcoholics he sought to help took much interest in his ministrations.  Despairing, Price committed suicide in 1974.