Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What can an atheist look forward to?

I must admit that sometimes being an atheist is hard. (The only thing harder than being an atheist is being an agnostic- and I hope I will write about why that is so sometime.... ). Especially when things go wrong. You cannot believe that ultimately good will triumph- even if you have put in all your efforts into something, nothing really stops anything from going wrong. No, I am not trying to be defeatist here, but the truth is that believing something good will happen out of the blue, or that there is something that rewards hard work is still belief in the supernatural- just without the baggage that God is forced to carry around most of the time. Anyway, when things are going bad for you, you cannot simply pray to some supernatural power and hope that he will set things right. You cannot believe in any sort of essential fairness in the world. If there is any law that governs life for you- it is survival of the fittest (which is a different form of fairness, in my opinion.. But anyway..) and then maybe the laws of physics. But these laws cannot provide solace- you simply cannot hope that Newton's third law will slap that guy who was mean to you at the store this morning. 

The other problem is- what ultimate goal do you have? Most religions advocate some kind of heaven or salvation- something to look forward to. To work towards. There is no such goal in atheism. We are simply insignificant chemical specks in a vast universe that may or may not have its own agenda. We are products of our genes which are simply fighting for their own "selfish" reasons. (Yes, I am oversimplifying things here- but the details aren't particularly comforting either..) We do have some role in modifying nature- we can and have affected it in many ways, but that is not something you can work towards. Nor is it something you can look forward to, because many of these changes will have a sizeable impact only long after you are gone. Yes, many atheists find joy in serving the poor and improving life conditions of the underprivileged- so much as to say that service is their God. Unfortunately, not everyone can feel that. Some atheists can work for improving life conditions of others, but cannot see it as their goal (Objectivists, for example). It is like saying- "I like making people happy, but I cannot live for it". So then, what CAN an atheist (like me) look forward to? Is there anything at all that can be labeled the "joy of being an atheist"? (Click on "Read more" to continue..)

This question was answered quite eloquently (by my own mind, of course- because, remember there is no supernatural entity waiting to answer my questions in the form of coincidences?) a few weeks ago. I started writing this post then, but couldn't finish it. So, here is how this post was supposed to begin:

Right now, I am in that one hour break I get between classes on a typical hectic Georgia Tech day. My to-do list is almost endless, and it is one of those times when I really cannot afford to spare a single minute. But I am going to spend this hour writing, come what may..

The reason I am doing so is because right now I am feeling too happy. (When people say I am so happy, I could cry- I used to find it ridiculous. But that is precisely how I feel right now!!) The closest anybody got to describing this feeling is- "Magizhchi meerudhe, vaanai thaandudhe, saaga thondrudhe....." (My happiness is going out of bounds, it crosses the skies and I want to die this minute- Not the best translation, hopefully somebody will write it more poetically!) A close equivalent in Hindi would be- "Ek raat me jee le, hum ek raat me mar jaayen.. ek raat me mar jaayen!"

Reading this, you might think it is because something big happened- like I got a job or published a paper or as in most people's lives, got engaged. But no, nothing special happened. I just attended a nonlinear dynamics class. And it was so cool I really have no words to describe how beautiful it was. The unsurpassable (Grammar Nazi warning: this word does not exist!) beauty of this world was so poetic, even though all we were discussing were ODEs and phase planes. One cool thing we were discussing was reversibility. Say you roll a pen on the table. It eventually comes to a stop. The energy it had, got converted to random motion of its atoms inside- which we perceive as heat. Now nothing really prevents this energy from getting back and rolling the pen from rest. (Yes, The second law of thermodynamics does, but then why does the second law exist in the first place?) We were also discussing how animals move- this is a topic I never paid particular attention to. But when I think about it, animals can walk/crawl/hop/whatever on all kinds of surfaces. At most angles. When we try building robots to do that they do not get anywhere close to biological systems. The sheer dynamics problem of how an animal balances itself on one foot while keeping the other forward, how it shifts its weight between feet almost nonchalantly, and so on is fascinating.

And when I walked out, I was floating in the clouds that there is so much to learn in this world, there is so much to know. There is so much we don't know about this world that we should find out. Science is like a mystery novel where you find newer clues each day and you are getting closer and closer to solving the mystery. The mystery is like an intricately woven web and it is so beautiful in itself that the process of solving is a breathtaking experience. Attributing the beauty of all this mystery to a single entity seems to almost trivialize it. I have felt awe at such an entity while I was still a theist, but I think that the kind of awe you feel for the world when you know that it is all in place without anyone having put it there is of a different class altogether...

And then I remembered something I wonder about many times. What joy is there in life for an atheist?

Well, here it is.....


  1. I think the joy is in trying to attain something. Once that thing is attained though, the joy is immediately gone!

    That's one reason why I wouldn't want to unlock all the mysteries of nature. All our hopes might get dashed and the world might become a boring place to live, then.

    Might, not Will.

  2. I'm not an atheist or a believer. I'm mostly an agnostic, a believer when I need hope and an atheist during my long hours of deliberations and thought.
    But I've always believed that God as an entity is necessary for some people for hope more than for anything else. I've always assumed the atheists don't have anything ultimate/big to look forward to or to look op to.
    This is a beautifully written post. Reading the last part, I was in awe, I was lost in thought. The world for a second seemed so beautiful, like a toy train where every screw, every nut, every little metallic part, moves gracefully and rhythmically all by themselves. The beauty indeed lies in wondering how it all works perfectly with no one controlling it from up above.
    Beautiful post.

  3. @Unknown: Thank you! And I agree, I have traveled from one end of the spectrum (strong theist) to the other and there has been a time when I also took for granted the fact that religion is consoling etc. I guess people use that argument so often that almost every non-believer concedes to them.

    And I love your toy train comparison :)

  4. @SWH Energy: I have written about this a long time ago. We often think that the beauty is lost if we understand everything underlying it. But what if the understanding adds to your appreciation? The more I have expanded my knowledge, the more I have realized that that is a fallacy- the more I have learnt, the more I am in awe at the beauty of this universe. The world is truly so complex and beautiful that even if we really unlock all its mysteries it will still be breathtaking. I don't think it will get boring- ever.

    And that is just my opinion, I am sure many people would disagree..

  5. I'm Ashwini, dunno why unknown comes :/
    Read my blog sometime - http://intrigued-dreamer.blogspot.com/

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. @Ashwini: It seems to be something with your Google Profile (and yes, I am seeing your blog now- 2 years later!!!)


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