Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Existence is futile?

I've been pondering on the fact that I call myself an atheist and an existentialist, all the while admitting that I am not altogether certain exactly what constitutes existentialism, and wondering if there is any difference between them. Am I, for example, an atheist existentialist or an existentialist atheist? There is a difference.

Well, after a bit of thought and comparison with other people out there, I think I know which I am - I am an atheist existentialist. Why, I hear you ask...

It's kinda complicated and I am by no means an expert in philosophy. But this is how it looks from where I'm standing. Feel free to disagree!

I am an atheist because I see no need for God as an explanation of how we got here; evolution does the trick perfectly well on its own. But atheism is not a philosophy in itself, it is a reaction to theism. So atheism describes that part of me; the part that has rejected religion - a fundamental, very important and hard-won part but still only one aspect of how I see the world.

Existentialism, on the other hand, is a way of looking at the world, a way of living one's life, a way indeed of dealing with the fallout from becoming an atheist. Life can be pretty scary once you have given up the fantasy of an afterlife and all that stuff. Existentialism says - okay, so now you know that life's a bitch and then you die. What are you going to do about it?

I don't want in any way to diminish atheism. I think the rejection of religion is absolutely vital to humanity's future and I admire those who are brave enough to take the battle out into the public arena. But simply rejecting religion is not sufficient; as long as we define our philosophy in terms that even mention religion, if only to say that we are against it, we are still in the trap. By calling myself an atheist existentialist - an existentialist who has no belief in God - I am refusing to give religion that dominance.


Greg said...

Existentialism and theology are two different things. Soren Kierkegaard, who I consider the existentialist was a devout Christian.

Nobody agrees as to a definition of existentialism because it has come to cover a lot of ground. It's kind of like if I said I live in the "new world." That gives a very general geographic location, but nothing too specific. At least you might know which side of the world I live in.

I personally differentiate existentialists based on their position on knowledge. Prior to Kierkegaard, Plato dominated with his view of a priori knowledge. He thought we knew everything, forgot when we were born into this world, and then started remembering stuff. Kierkegaard was radically different in that he believed that we were Tabula Rasa's and each time we learned something new, we actually became something new.

This does not preclude the existence of gods or unicorns or whatever you want to add to the mix. It doesn't have anything to do with that stuff unless you want it to and attempt to build that argument. Existentialism is simply a different way of approaching a basic understanding of knowledge. From this point you can go in a lot of different directions.

I disagree that a universal rejection of religion is vital to any future. Religion isn't bad, it's people that are bad. Without religion, the majority of people would be worse. Most people cannot handle the philosophical rigor required of not having someone else tell them what to do and how to behave.

Now I would say that anyone interested in advancing technology or thought must get rid of dogma, or at least get it under control.

Yes religion seems responsible for a lot of suffering and death, but without it, I'm convinced there would be much more. Religion regulates people who can't regulate themselves.

Puddock said...

Hmmm...lots there to think about, Greg. I am, of course, aware that you can be a Christian and be an existentialist too, or vice versa.

I definitely tend to the French style of existentialism, not least because it is, at least as expressed by Camus, so compassionate and understanding of the human situation.

Obviously, as an atheist, I disagree that religion is necessary to society. I sympathise to an extent with your fear of what might befall society if, suddenly, people did not have religion to give them a moral code but, on the other hand, I don't see religion doing a particularly good job at keeping them in line either. I also trust that you are not suggesting that an atheist cannot have a personal code of ethics.

Greg said...

French existentialism tends to be a downer. Once you get rid of gods and all the hocus pocus and realize that life is it, that's all there is, it should make it more special. But they tend to bemoan everything.

Anyone can have a code of ethics. I would not describe my position as a fear, but a strong speculation. Thinkers often make the assumption that others will be rational when presented with a good argument. That is more often not the case. While both of us may have outgrown religion and gods, we cannot assume others have also.

Your questions and concerns about how to be a positive existentialist hints at this. Most people are not rational. Most people are followers. They need something to follow. So for that general mass, they need some kind of religion. It doesn't matter who or what they call a god, only that there is a notion of order and purpose.

I would concede that it would be possible to get rid of an otherworldly or magical god, but it would be replaced with a god on Earth type of person, like a totalitarian dictator. As people educate themselves they can get rid of the myths, but until that point, myth is all they have. And without that commonality, society fragments. The Romans recognized this as well as other civilizations.

Me said...

Granted, you dont believe in God and all. But why mess with the tag 'atheist'. As Greg says here existentialism is not necessarily incompatible with God. Sartre was totally confused.

Do you think you would still be an 'existential atheist' if Camus, Sartre etc. didn't exist? Since the question is: can one DEFINE ONESELF as anything: theist, atheist, whatever? Doesn't your self go beyond all definition? Isn't THAT existentialism, if anything?

Puddock said...

Hi me,

thanks for your comment. It made me think. You are probably quite right about labels. I don't know enough about the history of existentialism yet to comment. I haven't read any Sartre at all. But I have read Camus and find myself completely in tune with his thoughts, so maybe I'm not an existentialist but a Camusian.

I'm not a great fan of labels or movements at all. I'd rather not have to call myself an atheist - I am what I am. Everyone has their own philosophy based on their own experience of life, what they've read, how they were brought up etc. I doubt if any two people who call themselves Christian or existentialist or nihilist would agree on every aspect of their chosen doctrine. It aint easy, that's for sure.