The absurdity of life without God, pt. 1.

(or, what this absurdity is not)

St. Thomas and Sartre agree that life without God is absurd. Contemporary atheism disagrees with both Aquinas and Sartre and argues for a third way: a generally pleasant, dutiful, decent atheism- or at least an atheism that doesn’t embrace an absurd existence indifferent to good and evil. After all, what about Sweden? The overwhelming majority of Swedes are atheist- is Swedish life simply absurd? How is it any more absurd than life in Africa, where atheism is statistically non-existent?

Neither St. Thomas nor Sartre would deny that there are places like, say, Sweden or Norway or most of western Europe where the populations are both overwhelmingly irreligious, often thoroughly atheist, and yet prosperous and free of violent conflict. St. Thomas was well aware from reading Scripture that there could be such places. Scripture, taken as a whole, is quite clear that there is no dependable relation between peace, prosperity, and religious piety. It could be somewhat disconcerting, for example, for a rich, successful person with a comfortable life to read the New Testament (“woe to you rich”, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”, “the man went away sad for he had many possessions”… the story of Lazarus and the rich man, etc). What is most to the point, however, is that when scripture gives one of the most persuasive and insightful arguments for the absurdity and futility of life, it put the narrative in the mouth of the most prosperous person in Israel, living in the most prosperous and peaceful moment spoken of in Scripture. Ecclesiastes laments the futility and meaninglessness of life and concludes that the only course of action in the face of it is to follow the commandments of God. Absent this, one is left with only the given futility and vanity of all things.

But the futility and vanity is, to an outside observer, hardly apparent. Ecclesiastes lives in a world that is as prosperous, peaceful, and orderly as Sweden. None of the details of his book, moreover, would have to change much if he lived in poverty and desperation in a time of war. The absurdity of life apart from the following of God is not given in a dramatic, romantic, and sensible way. It is a mistake to think, as some have, that the sort of absurdity that characterizes the life without God (at least as understood by Aquinas and Sartre) is such that it allows one to expect an atheist regime to degenerate quickly into dramatic displays of murder, lewdness and violence (or at least murder and violence). The absurdity of life without God can exist just fine in times of peace and prosperity. Such peace and prosperity, moreover, might disguise the absurdity of life without God or make it more acute- it depends. There is a great deal more involved in understanding how ones soul will relate to the Absolute beyond knowing where one lives and what its GDP is. Obviously.

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