A couple years ago I was sitting in the living room with a friend, talking about how life sometimes sucks hard. She’d gone through a rough patch recently, something that happened to her far too often. I think platitudes are nonsense, and while I was doing my best to be honest with her while she talked about her troubles, I wasn’t going to completely let her off the hook when some of her troubles were her own fault. The conversation never became heated or anything, I assure you. It was more like “Well, yes, this sucks, but you’re always telling me that your mother is crazy, I’ve seen her do crazy shit before, why did you expect a different outcome this time?” I was always on her side, but that didn’t mean I would avoid the more unfortunate questions.
And at one point during the conversation, she laughed at something I had said (I forget what), and she turned to me with a smile. “Oh Justin… You’re such a nihilist.”
I pulled back- “What? No I’m not.”
“Yes you are. You don’t believe in anything at all. Textbook definition. You’re such a nihilist you don’t even believe you’re a nihilist.”
And it’s been bothering me ever since.
* * *
Let’s get one thing abundantly clear from the start: My life is infinitely better than the lives of most people alive today, or at any other point in history. I’m a privileged, white middle-class male 20-something living in the USA. I’m in reasonable health, have an excellent job, and a cat to abuse my emotions. I have no real problems, and I’m aware of myself enough to know that. When the students who work for me complain about how much homework they have, I make fun of them to their faces, because guess what: most people are struggling just to find enough food, and they have been forever. Life in the First World is friggin’ great, and if you don’t believe that, then try visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I was raised Episcopalian, which is just Catholicism Lite (half the penance and none of that silly pope business). I’ve always been a thinker, a natural analyst, and I’m fiercely independent. I’m not much of a joiner, and that’s always been the trouble that I cause in larger groups: If something doesn’t make sense to me, especially if it feels wrong, my natural instinct is to openly question it. It started at a very young age, and definitely solidified in my teenage years, when I was openly questioning God’s actions in Sunday School, with all the self-righteous vigor that only a teenager can muster. It’s not that the questioning has stopped as I’ve matured, though. I’d just like to think I’m a little less blunt. I’m probably just bullshiting myself, though.
I don’t know if there is a god. And frankly, I think the whole question of “Is there or isn’t there?” isn’t nearly as important as a lot of people think it is. “God” means different things to different people, and is in no way verifiable to science. And as usual, when you can’t measure and test something with science, my opinion is basically “well, fuck it, who the hell knows?” “God” is a matter of faith and opinion, and my opinion is that it doesn’t really matter to me. Maybe it all comes down to math and chemicals, maybe some extra-dimensional entity thing built the universe out of boredom, and hell, maybe Pat Robertson is right and some bearded asshole in the sky is fucking with us. I don’t think it’s bloody likely, but hey, I’m the one admitting I don’t really know, so why the hell should my opinion be more accurate than his? Well… uh, actually, there is a reason.
There’s a chance you’re reading this at night, and if so, I want you to pause for a moment and go outside. And I want you to look up. If it’s really cloudy, or the weather is shitty, or if you just live in a major metropolitan area, then this won’t really work, but you can get the same effect by driving to the country or going to the planetarium or something. Anyway, you see all those stars out there? There are literally BILLIONS of them, and you actually can’t see most of them without a telescope. But standing outside on a clear night, gazing up at the billions upon billions of stars out there- there is an awe and majesty to all of it that is breath-taking and humbling in its beauty, more so than any awe I’ve experienced in any cathedral or church.
Really think about it. Billions of stars. Orbited by trillions of worlds. The universe is so fucking big, with beauties and terrors we are only just beginning to understand. And here you are, a tiny dust spec sitting on a mud-ball orbiting an insignificant star. HERE WE ALL ARE. In the grand scheme of existence, we are so tiny and pointless with our brief little lives that nothing we do can ever really matter, once you start thinking big enough. So I ask you, if there really is some all-knowing, omnipotent cosmic ruler of the universe, do you really think it could give a fuck what church you go to?
I don’t mean to depress, only to explain my viewpoint. Star Trek V is a ridiculous, crazy-ass film, arguably the worst of the franchise*, but it does have my favorite religious-related line ever in it. When the crew of the Enterprise meet “God”, and “God” insists that they bring the ship to it, a confused (and quickly annoyed) Captain Kirk asks the simple question “What does ‘God’ need with a starship?” I love it, because it’s the perfect question for dealing with religious non-logic. “God” can do anything, what possible reason would he need the Enterprise? And in real life, doesn’t “God” have better things to do than worry about your dating life, or whether you should go to medical school, or what grade you get on your Spanish test?
The classic response to this question is always “God loves every one of us.” Even if you buy into that, can you explain what it means, or to what extent God personally intervenes in your life? I know, you can’t, its faith, and according to my friend at the top, I don’t have any of any kind. But there’s no testable examination for it. It’s just something you say and believe, and it is easily taken to stupid extremes. Here’s an example of my problem with this logic: I remember one particularly grating Sunday School lesson in high school, when the teacher asked if anyone had prayed for anything that week, and someone said they were praying to God for help in winning their basketball game in the coming week. This infuriated me then, and still kind of does today. Am I really supposed to believe that the all-knowing, all-powerful master of the universe is SO PETTY as to actually give a good goddamn about your frivolous little high school basketball game? REALLY?!? Do you have any idea how fucking ridiculous that sounds?
I know, I know. “Faith”. “Belief”. I won’t drink the kool-aid, thus I can never understand. But here’s the thing, I think maybe I actually do. Because life is hard, sometimes. Life can be awful, miserable, generally fucked up, and often it can become these things very quickly. And believing that “It’s all a part of God’s plan” makes those hard times easier. When a loved one dies; when you become a victim; when you lose your job because your bosses were goddamn morons who refused to listen to you; it can feel empowering to believe that it was all “God’s will”, that it’s all part of the plan. In those moments it’s easy to forget that if it’s all part of “God’s plan”, then a child suffering from elephantiasis, or the mass raping of girls in Haiti is all part of the plan too. Is that okay with you? Are you okay with an immoral master?
“Well, what about free will?” Uh huh. Keep digging deeper. The free will argument is trying to have it both ways. It’s all a part of “God’s plan”, except when it isn’t. God knows everything, and can do anything, and he loves us, but indiscriminate rape, murder, and horrific diseases are still just a part of life, because “free will” allows those things to happen. Am I the only one who finds that totally condescending? If I had been “saved” would I magically understand how that argument isn’t rubbish?
But I question everything. And because I question everything, my perception is skewed by a lifetime of skepticism and a profound refusal to trust other people until they’ve been deemed “worthy of my trust”. From the beginning, I’m assuming that everyone, everywhere is awful. And when a lot of people hear that, they think I’m a depressed, broken human being.
But I’m not. And the reason why, is because an assumption isn’t always a belief. I know most people aren’t awful, but by assuming they are until they do prove otherwise, life is full of pleasant surprises. Most people are good, most people who believe in a god have nothing but the best of intentions, and they’re good people. We’re all insignificant specs, remember, and therefore we are all we have. Each other. You don’t need a god to tell you not to be a shitty human being, because you and I both know that shitty human beings suck ass.
We should work to make life better, not for God’s sake, but our own. My sake. Your sake. Sure, that’s selfish, but being selfish (to a point) is one of the reasons we became an awesome species. And the other reason is because we worked together. Working together because it benefits all of us. THAT is the real reason for morality, not because we’re afraid of some hell.
Here I am. Here, we all are. Adrift in the darkness, with each other. Sure, we’re all going to die, but who cares? Think of the cool stuff we can do between now and then, if we give it a shot? Human beings are going to colonize Mars and the Moon, I’m betting within my lifetime. Holy shit, that is amazing! Look at all the amazing advances in medicine and technology over the last 50 years; I literally can’t even imagine what we’ll learn in the next 50 (and I have a pretty good imagination)! Life is getting better all the time, and we shouldn’t be afraid of progress.
My friend was wrong in the end. I’m not a nihilist. I do have faith, because I believe in the future. All of our futures. Humanity has its inherent base, animal awfulness; but we continue to grow and transform ourselves into something better. We have accomplished amazing things, simply because we wanted to and we could. It won’t always be easy, but we’ll keep doing amazing things in the coming ages, with nothing but our minds and our man-made tools to accomplish them.
Believe it or not, I don’t think we need God’s help.
*= … Until “Nemesis”, that is….