What is my question?

Question from Michael:
Ever since puberty I have suffered from very heavy and constant depression. Having grown up with being nearly deaf, gay and somewhere between agnostic and atheist, I haven’t had a lot to fall back on in the way of faith, god and other such crutches, nor have I had many folks to speak candidly with. I don’t think I’m in search of a reason in the sense that others may be. I believe we are largely products of our society and upbringing (except where free thought and opinion manages to take us thru alternate routes) and subject to the firing of neurons and chemicals in our brains and little else. While some things about my life may suck a great deal, I find that when chemicals are on one side of the scale (be it nice weather, antidepressants, or other chemicals, legal or not–caffeine or alcohol for me) such things don’t bother me and I carry on with life, trying to be a good person, having fun and helping others…because that’s what I want out of life. But when chemicals are on the other side of the scale, I despise my body for its imperfect conditions (hearing and various other physical and mental issues), hate the general zombie-ness, close-mindedness and stupidity of society (tho I know I am far from perfect) and can hardly stand all of the wrongs and frustrations of the world and see little point of continuing on. Three things have kept me from ending my life….1) The sadness it would bring to my friends and family 2) The idea that killing myself could in the end be a terrible mistake (its a big decision to make and one that can not be undone, mind you) 3) My logic. I can tell myself that the feelings i am feeling are not normal….they are real feelings, but not necessarily a good indicator oh how things in my life are going. I remind myself that “all of this” is subjective…and tomorrow my outlook on life may be different.

Never the less I feel that some day my strength will wear away and I will have had all I can stand. The pain of being alive will overtake the three things that hold me to this world. It is also my belief that if one isn’t enjoying the party, one has the right to leave.

I feel as if I am waiting for my epiphany. Tonight I have learned of the Angelic quote “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do” It struck a chord and raises in me some curiosity and am giving things in that area some thought. My main question is…..”what is my question?”

Am I looking for reason? I don’t think so. If nothing really matters, then should I care when things don’t go the way I’d like them to? Perhaps if I quit wanting things, maybe I wouldn’t be so disappointed when I don’t get them? Should I go against the grain or with the grain? Is it worth it to fight for what I want, or just enjoy life and quit giving a crap about so many things? I guess my real question is, what do you guys think about such things?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, folks, in case anyone gets the wrong idea about the “Angelic quote”, it’s from the TV show Angel and it was either written or approved by Joss Whedon, a confirmed atheist.

It doesn’t matter if “nothing really matters” in some absolute, ethereal sense, because we have no way to determine whether it does and it seems to have no measurable effect on us. The important point is that there are things that matter to us. They can be anything from justice to freedom to love to a completed set of baseball cards, but the things that drive us are defined and decided upon by us and us alone. Some people claim to have a “higher purpose”, one handed down from divine authority, but the words of these nebulous authorities can be traced back to humans and human institutions such as churches.

Quite simply, you sound like you don’t know your purpose in life, and I think that’s your question. You’re certainly not alone there; many are waiting for inspiration to strike and for their future course to become clear. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t.

To go looking for it, go out and do stuff. Start with the obvious: you’re a deaf gay atheist (or near enough). Go meet other hearing-impaired, LGBT and/or non-religious people and see whether their causes (equality being the obvious one) appeal to you. Join clubs, read the news, try hobbies, whatever. What you’re doing now hasn’t given you ideas, so reach farther afield. It could be something as vague and all-encompassing as improving the world.

It need not just be one thing, by the way. My day-to-day purpose is to help my friends, family, co-workers and clients, to be good to my wife, to man this “post” for atheism and to experience different fantasies through art and fiction (though not all at once). Some of the goals involved in that lot are more long-term than others, and some are so far off I haven’t even thought of them today. Not too ambitious really, but it gets me out of bed.

Best of luck. Let us know how you do.

Why Do We Die?

Question from Casey:
How do you comprehend death? How do manage to remain sane knowing that someone has been ripped from your lives for what you believe to be no reason?

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Casey,

I don’t see death as being “no reason.” As a science buff/journalist, I see it more as the natural order of things, as far as old age goes (please see the law of entropy).

If death is due to sickness or murder (not that I can speak from experience in latter case), I find it much more comforting to think of it as being a random event that we have no control over, rather than some capricious god who chose to “off” someone “just because.”

My dear grandmother passed away from old age and she often told me she was afraid of dying alone. There was not much I could do, since my life is not in Europe, but what I did do was visit for the summers and write a postcard to her every 1-2 weeks. I think it helped.

Often we say to ourselves, we’ll do this and that with this person sometime. But in my case, I did what I could then, and when she passed away I felt awful and missed her very much, but it made me feel so much better that I did what I could while she was alive.
And that’s all you can do.

I’m not sure what your situation is with respect to this question, but please accept my sympathies if they are warranted, and I’m so sorry there’s probably nothing I can say that time won’t eventually take care of.

Best to you,

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s always a reason why people die. There may not be any purpose to it, but there’s always a reason: they were old, or they were murdered, or there was an accident, or their immune system failed them. When we ask why someone has died, this kind of answer is always available to some extent. Furthermore, this kind of answer is often useful in the prevention of other deaths, for example by catching the killer, fencing off the cliff edge or preventing the disease.

To my mind, knowing that there’s no purpose to a loved one’s death is no worse that believing there is a purpose but having no idea what it is, and no hope of ever knowing. The suffering and death of a good person is hard to explain in a world with an all-powerful, benevolent guardian watching over us (though that doesn’t stop people from explaining it…in many different ways), but it’s really very easy to explain in a world with no such being: it happened because of this and this, and it’s sad that the person is gone but they left their mark on the world.

If you imagine that atheists are completely at a loss when confronted with death then you imagine that our worldviews are simply the Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole in it. (This is becoming a catchphrase with me.) It sounds obvious but it’s worth specifically considering that when one doesn’t believe in a god, one also doesn’t believe that meaning and purpose in life depend entirely on a god. Therefore the common existential challenge of comprehending death, while certainly a challenge (see this earlier question), does not automatically shatter an atheist.

If a recent death affecting your life is the reason you asked this question, I sympathise along with Andrea.

The Basics

“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”

Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?

3. What is the purpose of human existence?

4. How do you know what is right and wrong?

5. What happens to a person at death?

I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.

1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.

2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?

Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.

3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.

If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.

4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.

Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.

5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.

Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.