"The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog"   Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

“The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”
Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer
Caspar David Friedrich, 1818


 I’m not an atheist at present, but I’ve been one. So, why did I go there and why, eventually, did I turn back?

I can tell you one thing: life is very different for the atheist from what it is for the person of faith. Different emotionally, morally, cognitively, aesthetically and probably sexually. Let no one tell you it’s a distinction without a difference.

Since there are all kinds of atheists and all varieties of faith – and there’s little to be learned from listing all the kinds – let me confine myself to my own experience.

There are people who hold that life need not include a tragic element, that our troubles should in principle admit of problem-solving remedies, but I’m not one of those problem-solving types. There was a time in my life when effort after effort to be happy, or happier, or more realized as a person, or less disappointed, failed – and failed for what I saw as incurable reasons. Even so, I would strive to avoid cynicism, to keep hope alive, to act on every opportunity to get to higher ground. Precisely because of this hopeful striving, I could not fail to notice one life prop after another being knocked flat.

Finally, all that hoping and striving and refusal of cynicism began to look absurd. When I told a young colleague that I’d just become an atheist, he said, “Well, your belief in God looked like a string of tin cans bumping along behind you. Now you’ve cut the string.”

Some might say that I had decided to preempt and cauterize disappointment. To me, it was more like cleaning up my act. I had effected an intellectual simplification, employing Ockham’s razor: “Don’t multiply explanatory principles.” It was my attempt to travel lighter, to cut down expenses, to stop running in the red.

It did not turn out that way. The space occupied by religion is not neutral space. If you break it off with the real God, other gods will move in. Since at that point you have even less to lose, you will put your trust in princes less credible than the one you trusted before. Like the girl who turns to other candidates after her first love has proved a disappointment, the successors will – to the discerning eye – promise less and deliver less.

Finally one of the new troubles got so severe that I was willing to pray for help – I mean HELP – detailed, specific, customized to me and to the situation I was in. I was not trying to merge with the All of the cosmos. What I needed to do was tell the Someone who really knew who I was, exactly how I felt and what I had been through, all this time.

It was like reclaiming a lost intimacy with the girl I had been and the life she had really desired – but a claim seasoned and weathered by the long sojourn away.

The other day, I had lunch with an atheist friend — as good and decent a person as you’d want to know. As we broke it up and I drove home, there was an after-feeling that was metallic, and I wondered why. It was as if the atheist friend inhabited a Quonset hut or a metal prefab of some kind, which fitted him fine.

Its only defect was that it shut out the sky.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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