Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dogmatic atheism?

Seeing as I've been talking about metaphysics a lot lately, I thought I'd share an article I wrote 2 years ago for our Daily Newspaper (one of the few freelance articles I was paid for...)

It is incredible what rational and intelligent humans place their faith in. Millions, especially in the Western world, have the utmost faith in an entity that has never been proved by science, whose existence defies all logic and which not one being has ever witnessed. So steadfast is their belief that they live out their short lives on planet earth guided by this intuitive certainty.

What am I talking about? God? Religion? No, I am talking about nothingness – the holy grail of the millions of atheists in our secular midst. Ask an atheist what awaits them upon their death and they will invariably reply “Why, nothing of course, we will fertilise the flowers.”

But let’s take a closer look at this slippery “nothingness” concept. Right up front I must say that a distinction needs to be drawn between “nothing” and “nothingness”. “Nothing” as a term in everyday language is a most useful concept. If I remove a solitary jar from a shelf, I can say “Now there is nothing on the shelf”. Indeed it was this pragmatic quality of absence that inspired the ancient Indian mathematicians to invent the zero. This latecomer to the family of numerals was greeted with misgivings right from the start. “How could this symbol represent both something and nothing at the same time?” leading thinkers challenged. For if zero was really something, it couldn’t be nothing; if nothing then not something. It’s difficult to get your head around. As John Cage once quipped “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

Despite the paradoxes, the usefulness of this new mathematical entity secured it a permanent position amongst the other numerals which we use today. Even attacks by the Christian church during the Middle Ages failed to dislodge the “Devil’s number”. (No coincidence that the word “naughty” shares its etymological roots with the enigmatic nought.)

So let us accept that zero is an indispensable mathematical tool, just as the horizontal eight figure of infinity (equally paradoxical) is an essential mathematical tool. And that “nothing” is an extremely useful term in everyday language. But what about nothingness? Surely this is what the atheists are alluding to when they consider the afterlife. It is one thing to say that there is now nothing in Mr Joe Bloggs’ bed, the good man having being lowered six foot into the earth at his funeral the day before. But where does the consciousness that was Mr Joe Bloggs go? Into nothingness?

Send a team of the top hundred scientists with a billion dollar budget out into the world for ten years to search for nothingness and what would they come back with? Nothing. But not nothingness! Not surprising then that the nothingness concept has been left to the philosophers to grapple with. But it was only at the turn of the nineteenth century that nothingness made any real impact on philosophy. The German philosopher Heidegger expounded on how short and meaningless our lives are, born as we are into a random set of circumstances not of our choosing (“throwness” he called it) only to slip back into the void after a paltry three score and ten years. The Frenchman Sartre picked up on the theme, his seminal work “Being and Nothingness” pioneering the school of Existentialism. Man, according to the existentialists, is a meaningless creature living in a meaningless world, perpetually riddled with profound angst about his impending demise into nothingness. With nihilism like this it is no wonder we are living in such anxiety ridden times.

There were, however, a few philosophers that challenged Heidegger’s conception of nothingness. One such thinker was Levinas, a Lithuanian Jew, settled in France (whose work was translated into English by an Italian and lectured to me at the University of Stellenbosch in Afrikaans). Heidegger had taken Being (existence) and Non-Being (nothingness) as his starting point and in good philosophical fashion Levinas questioned this dualistic premise. He posited a third entity, the “ilya” from which both existence and nothingness were derived. An even more obscure term, the “ilya” is the fundamental condition of the universe, a condition that “not even death can escape”.

World religions have always pointed to an afterlife. Both Christ and Mohammed preached that the afterlife is the essential reason for living on earth. The Hindus and Buddhists believe that we are trapped in an eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. How unbelievably lucky the person who escapes their misdemeanours on earth to the sanctuary of pure and eternal nothingness. Indeed, how different would eternal nothingness be from the almost-impossible-to-attain state of Buddhist Nirvana?

“But we were born from nothingness”, the sceptics cry, “so surely that proves that nothingness exists.” Does it? Do you remember the day you were born? No? Then how can you remember what came before that?

But best we dismiss the speculative afterlife of the religions. Who after all, would place their faith in such unfounded, unproved and inconceivable gibberish? Only fools would buy into such dogma.

Maybe it was Socrates that had the best take on the whole situation. Socrates was another man who was put to death by the authorities of his day for “inciting the crowds” with his unwavering beliefs. He philosophised thus: “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know.”


  1. I'm a devoted reader of your blog and a fellow bipolar compadre, but --

    Your critique of atheism strikes me as something of a rhetorical non-sequitur. No atheist of my acquaintance presents their case in the manner you assert. Indeed, most of them find the word atheist itself of little value considering that it carries the same real content as a word like non-astrologer [Sam Harris]. The only assertion the atheist makes (indeed, can make) is: "I see no compelling evidence at this time for the claims of theism."

  2. existentialism doesn't fill me with anxiety or dread, but in fact i find it a compelling reason to enjoy my life while i have it. i have no problem acknowledging that this is all there is.

    i really like this article bpg!

  3. Interesting. This nothingness reminds me of an experience of a so called "Pregnant Void" mystics talk about and which I experienced on a dose of mushrooms. The Void (which we came from and will return to at death) feels both empty and yet at the same time as full and pregnant with Everything (in potential form). A strange experience... but it's a strange world we live in. Nice blog. Keep it up!

  4. The concept of an afterlife was introduced to Buddhism by the Mahayana school -- early texts have the Buddha saying that he has nothing to say on the issue and that worrying about one's previous incarnations was a waste of time.

  5. Personally, given that there is no definitive means of testing for an afterlife, I choose to have no opion about it.

    Am I a militant agnostic? I dunno.


Recent Posts