William James Found Atheism Lacking (and I do too)
Introduction: William James Critiques Atheism
In his 1902 masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, psychologist-philosopher William James (1842-1910) conjured an image that captured the melancholy of a godless universe. He wrote that “For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation."
We ignore death when we’re young and in the full bloom of health; indeed, I believe this is the healthy and natural thing to do. While the sun’s shining, go out and play on the ice, and try to ignore those surrounding cliffs. Time enough for memento mori later, trust me. But eventually, the question arises in all of us. How can life have any meaning if we are only blips of consciousness bookended by oblivion? Is death really the end? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started hearing the cracks on that frozen lake. The confident atheism of my younger years has given way to something more reflective and uncertain.
On that note, I want to explore two questions below.
First, what is the most persuasive atheist response to the fear of death that I've come across?
And second, why did James ultimately find it so unconvincing?
Finding Meaning in a Godless World
"There are no good reasons to believe in god." Dan Dennett
Secular philosophers have long tried to allay our fear of death, but with mixed results. The most eloquent of these attempts marvel at the wonder and opportunity we get in this one life while emphasizing its finite nature. But then they’ll tell you that when life is over, it’s over, and so are you; now go out and live mindfully, joyful at the opportunity you have. After all, someday, it’ll all be taken away.
These explanations add extra poignancy to all we do in the here and now and hearken back to James’s frozen lake metaphor above. While these are attractive ways to orient our perspectives without appealing to religion, they tend to founder when death is imminent. Indeed, finding meaning when staring into the void is a daunting task.
So look away.
As Martin Hägglund puts it in his recent book This Life, “The horizon of my death does not provide an answer to the question of what I ought to do with my life but renders intelligible how the question can matter to me” (Hägglund 202). Life gets its meaning and urgency with death as part of the equation. We must choose how we use our limited time and then use it well. In Hägglund’s view, secular immortality, if one can call it that, is to live such a meaningful life that we leave the world a better place for our posterity. In that way, we do not live in vain but as part of some grander project working toward humanity’s betterment. In a worldview like this, personal fulfillment complements social progress. It’s a noble ideal.
Hägglund’s defense of secularism is one of the best-reasoned I’ve come across. It zooms out and interprets personal fulfillment as inexorably intertwined with the collective good, a point of view I’ve long held. Our deaths are tragic, undeniably, but no longer meaningless in this context. We played our part but the show goes on, thanks in some small part to our modest contributions.
James would find much to agree with here. He would call this a “healthy-minded” approach to living, and one that emphasizes pragmatic optimism over gloomy pessimism. Much can be said for this approach. James recognized that healthy-minded secular perspectives like this are legitimate ways of orienting one’s life, at least up to a certain point. The difference was that such optimism doesn’t effectively address the primal fear we’re hard-wired to experience when we’re dying.
Humanistic philosophers like Hägglund and Sam Harris try to intellectualize away our fear of death, and they do a good job. They are convincing when the end feels far away. When my body is in its prime, and my mind sharper than ever, it’s easy to accept these arguments. Yet when the reality that all that you are and have been will soon be nothing at all, then all that philosophizing fails to alleviate the ugly and demoralizing facts of our demise.
Or, as James so eloquently puts it with his own seasonal metaphor:
“This [healthy-minded life] is a half life, impoverished for its willful ignorance of the other side, the dark and decaying side that always wins out in the end. Those who go through life thinking that the power of positive thinking is all that is needed to get by are like denizens of an imaginary land. For them, the sun always shines, the weather is fine, life is abundance. They don’t realize that summer doesn’t last forever, that the summer hut they’ve built for themselves will not stand the first frosty winds of autumn, never mind the winter. Such are the acolytes of perpetual joy. They embrace a philosophy that can only sustain itself in the vigor and energy of youth. When that goes, like the summer, they find themselves philosophically and spiritually ill-equipped to deal with the new conditions.”
Pick your metaphor: James’s frozen lake that melts and drowns us. Or the winter of life arriving only to reveal that our summertime philosophies offer no warmth. Tell me, is life truly amazing and wonderful and beautiful and a gift for those in the nursing home or the hospice? No, arguably, it’s not. That’s why we keep the dying out of sight in our modern world of eternal youth and good vibes where the sun always shines and death is a distant abstraction.
The “acolytes of perpetual joy” have become the high priests of our modern world. They fill every bookstore self-help section with quick and easy life hacks to make you happier, more productive, and better able to frame your reality with positivity. Yet the stakes are never high, no one need ever hold themselves up to any higher ideals beyond the satisfaction of the self's constantly shifting identities.
Sacrificing personal desires for something greater is the exception rather than the rule today. A life of moral self-discipline serving some higher moral ideal was what James called “strenuous living” or living in a “strenuous mood.” Atheist philosophies offered ways and means to live thus, no doubt, but James believed doing so in a strenuous mood wasn’t sustainable in the end. What was the answer?
“And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away” (VRE 48).
James thus believed religion had essential value for our psychological well-being. As such, it shouldn’t be mocked and marginalized from society as the more militant atheists like Richard Dawkins hope, but accepted with tenderness as a natural human response to the mystery of existence. The critique that religious belief isn’t scientific or objectively verifiable misses the point.
For James, what matters is that faith in a higher power provides real benefits that help people lead fulfilling lives right down to the last breath. If a dying person trusts they are about to be delivered into God’s loving hands, isn’t that better - even if it is not true - than the dying atheist who goes in numb apathy or terrified awareness? I'm not so sure anymore.
The strenuous mood will only hold up in the strongest of atheists, and even then, not with any joy and acceptance of the afterlife to come, just a stoic, stiff-upper-lipped resignation will be possible. For those less philosophically braced for the end, they’ll go into the night kicking and screaming.
That was Tolstoy’s theme in The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Ivan lived a decent life, with a decent job and a decent family. His life was good, yet it was one of near-complete moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Ivan ate, drank, played bridge with his friends, and merrily pursued his little worldly ambitions with nary a thought about death. But then he got sick. When Ivan realized his illness would kill him, he was left drowning in despair and self-pity. This was not a man who believed that “something more” wonderfully transcendent waited on the other side of this life. No, just nothingness, a thought that terrified him to the core.
“When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing. Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying? No, I don’t want to!” - Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych
James probably would have agreed with Tolstoy’s interpretation. Tolstoy was making a point in narrative form that James was making philosophically. Like Tolstoy, James felt that because science couldn’t explain everything, particularly on questions of value, personal religious belief wasn’t irrational. In fact, it has real psychological benefits that help us cope with profound existential questions like meaning, purpose, and death. Ivan could have used a little bit of genuine belief in his final days.
Religion wasn’t about doctrines and sacraments dictated and enforced from the top down by authorities. On the contrary, the true nature of belief emerged from the range of religious experiences people undergo, with no “one essence” binding them all (Rée 410). The only unifying theme among religious experiences was a metaphysical connection to the divine, the sublime, God, the “unseen order” - define it how you will - each manifesting uniquely to the individual.
James felt that we’re hardwired to tap into experiences that “belong to a region deeper, & more vital and practical than that which the intellect inhabits” (Rée 413). This was the error of western institutional religion, by the way - i.e., to take what was at heart a primal emotional connection to “something more” that defied easy expression and then intellectualizing it to death with reason. Indeed, the consistent folly of organized religion for the last two millennia comes from these spiritually mutilating attempts to express the inexpressible in rational human terms. It’s a fool’s errand.
“Ever Not Quite” - James's Pluralistic Universe
Institutional religion’s other fatal error (and philosophy’s too), the instinct for monism, wasn’t the answer, either. James hypothesized that we live in a pluralistic universe. He defined pluralism as the philosophical view that no single, overarching reality or truth exists, but instead, there are many competing truths or perspectives that all have some validity. This was the polar opposite of monism. We simply can’t grasp it all and never will because there is no "all" to grasp. “Ever not quite” was the way James described our noble but futile attempts at total enlightenment and understanding.
At best, we’ll only be dimly aware of bits and pieces of truths that outstrip our abilities to comprehend. Or as James wrote in his essay A Pluralistic Universe: “We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.” Even James’s concept of God falls under the infinitude of the pluralistic universe; James's God was a super-powerful being worthy of awe and worship. But this God was also a finite being.
James believed science was our best tool for revealing facts about the universe, but it’s up to us to interpret our experience, find meaning, and align ourselves to the “unseen order.” Or not, if you're an atheist. The universe contains many paths to the center and ways to interpret reality. Genuine belief “in some form of superhuman life with which we may, unknown to ourselves, be co-conscious” is the best we can do under these circumstances. Spiritual well-being in a pluralistic universe tends to happen when our best efforts align with the “superhuman life” [James’s “God”], however that is defined.
Meanwhile, James found the godless perspective sad and flat by comparison.
“This sadness lies at the heart of every merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic scheme of philosophy. Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet. In the practical life of the individual, we know how his whole gloom or glee about any present fact depends on the remoter schemes and hopes with which it stands related. Its significance and framing give it the chief part of its value. Let it be known to lead nowhere, and however agreeable it may be in its immediacy, its glow and gilding vanish. The old man, sick with an insidious internal disease, may laugh and quaff his wine at first as well as ever, but he knows his fate now, for the doctors have revealed it; and the knowledge knocks the satisfaction out of all these functions. They are partners of death and the worm is their brother, and they turn to a mere flatness.”
There’s something here. Perhaps James was right and the “merely” naturalistic view of the world lacks the grandeur of its religious opposite. This gets to James’s main point about religion. It doesn’t matter if religious claims are objectively true or scientifically verifiable. They are not. However, if one has belief in heaven or nirvana, or simply some vague sense that there’s a mysterious higher purpose to our existence, then that belief has practical value, making it true enough to orient one’s life around.
Final Thoughts: Belief Doesn't Have to Be Stupid
"If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever." Tao Te Ching
In closing, faith in some unseen order shapes perspectives in ways that enhance our psychological well-being. The true believer lives assured it’ll all work out in the end, confident that a higher power is looking out for them. The utility of belief should not be underestimated. It’s a powerful moral motivator. As James put it: “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our moral life."
In this way, the believer looks at the same world as the atheist but does not see it as some indifferent machine (however beautiful) that teases us with sentience before grinding us back into dead atoms again. The atheist finds no consolation in the face of death beyond the prospect of nullity.
I discovered this a few years ago when bacterial meningitis almost killed me. One day I was out running ten miles through Brasilia’s suburbs, strong and fit as ever. The next, I had a raging fever and skull-cracking headache. Two days after that, I was intubated and in a medically induced coma clinging to life. It happened that quickly.
When I woke up a week later in a Fort Lauderdale hospital half-paralyzed, barely able to speak, and unsure what the future would hold, I had some time to reflect. The experience rattled me, to say the least. I fully recovered after several months, but it was a wake-up call to reassess my assumptions. You see, atheism requires a very strenuous philosophy to provide comfort in the face of death. To my shame, I found my own lacking when the time came. My brush with mortality showed I was more like poor Ivan Ilych than the brave Stoic Seneca.
No, I didn’t find God after that. I didn’t give myself back to Jesus Christ and repent for my sinful ways. Road-to-Damascus conversions don’t happen like that for most of us. Two decades of studied atheism doesn’t disappear just like that. In any case, there was insight in my atheism, however inadequate that appears in retrospect. I was better for it, but now understand that it only be a phase toward something better.
Like James, my skepticism toward organized religions remains intact. I’m unlikely to subscribe to one ever again. Yet the near-death experience re-opened my mind, shaking my smug assumptions about what it means to be alive and what it will mean to die.
I've been searching for the “something more” James was talking about ever since. I don’t expect that search will ever yield any final Truth, for I’m convinced there is no such thing that is humanly understandable. But if I find some insights and truths along the way and keep my mind open to receive them, I will be a better person for it. As James put it so eloquently, the search for wisdom and truth is one of “ever not quite.”
That’s not a bad way to look at it.
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Falls Church, Virginia