As we all navigate our way through the global COVID-19 pandemic, it can feel like the world is ending. A number of Christian authors have been keen to notice that we are experiencing a very real apocalypse, in the biblical sense (when properly understood). Viewing our present circumstances through an apocalyptic lens can give people of faith a guiding narrative for making sense of it all.
But what about atheists? What about people who generally don’t subscribe to a religious hermeneutic? Today’s guest post comes from my good friend John Mark. John grew up a Christian, but became an atheist as an adult. As he shares his own efforts to wrestle with how to make sense of the world as it currently is, I believe his perspective is both harrowingly honest, and yet oddly comforting. Enjoy!
Apocalypse is a dramatic word. There’s no small apocalypse, no medium apocalypse—it’s all apocalypse or no apocalypse. Theism offers comfort that there’s someone at the helm of disaster, but how do atheists react to what feels like the end times? I can only speak for one atheist—I hurt, then I steal.
A religious apocalypse carries with it a sense of purpose. Yes there will be pain, but what emerges will be broken yet purified. Implying a beautiful cleansing element when something omnivolent conjures a wave of death has been an incredible source of hope for our storytelling species. Sure, people are dying, but look at what good is coming of it! “There are dolphins in Venice,” was an obnoxiously poetic echo of Captain America’s, “I saw a pod of whales in the Hudson,” after a 12-foot purple alien erased half of life. I hate this mindset, and I’m incredibly jealous of it. For me an apocalypse is a great dying, a true end for many. People will be lost, forever. I don’t believe that our characters respawn on some different level (though I’d love to be surprised). An apocalypse means that unique lights are snuffed out, forever. Fuck that some lights will shine brighter because of it. When I think of an apocalypse my initial reaction is pain, loss, and sorrow. I hurt.
Aching during the recent COVID-19 pandemic is what I find myself craving. I lap up the devastating headlines like licking a cut—it stings a little, and I just can’t stop. Since I don’t believe that some cosmic conductor is orchestrating it I can’t jump right to the optimism that theism provides. I have to accept death without reboots. I have to accept that my parents are in real danger. I’m sad, I’m isolated, I’m hopeless. I’ve regularly felt that atheism is playing life on “hard mode.” This likely stems from my beautiful religious upbringing. Religion never hurt me, abused me, or ruined me like it has for many who claim the title of atheist. For me religion was something beautiful. I just slowly found that I couldn’t believe the stories anymore. And man, life with the certainty of faith now feels like playing the game with cheat codes. I’m lazy by nature, but knowing that an all-powerful creator was watching got me off my ass. I’m selfish by nature, but knowing that an all-loving savior sacrificed for me inspired me to sacrifice for others. My journey toward the label “atheist” forced me to come up with new stories why I shouldn’t be lazy, why not to be an asshole. But to be vulnerable, my own stories aren’t as genius as religious stories that have been market-tested and refined over millennia.
So when waves of fear and dread sweep through my world like they are now. I can’t jump to the positives. First, I ache. Really ache. Then, like a good atheist… I steal.
I don’t believe in the “T”ruth of religious stories. But I’ll act as if they are true. I think our species has woven the concepts “real,” and “valuable” together as into “truth.” And often nerdy nerds will nerd over this (see the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris to dive into the nerdery). So while I don’t believe that a deity is “up there,” I have no problem accepting how valuable that story is to human survival, or to human flourishing. And while I can’t know that an apocalypse brings something beautiful, I can steal from how the religious have survived and flourished in apocalyptic moments far more devastating than this current one.
So I read Psalms. And I’m a little more at peace. I practice metta meditation, and I’m less anxious. I read the Qur’an, and I’m confused. My atheism has led me to respect religion more, not less. I grew up knowing there was one true restaurant, and that anyone who dined elsewhere was not really nourished. Now I eat out. Mediterranean, Indian, Sushi, Ethiopian… whatcha got? That’s all my atheism is, not a rejection of the meal, but a humble acceptance that there is no “one-true-food.” I’m no longer picky, just hungry.
So what do I do when I’m ready to stop aching at the real pain of the end? The real devastation of an apocalypse? I look to ancient stories for truth. Not the “this really happened” truth—the “this really helps” truth. I steal.
And the optimism of religion during an apocalypse? For at least one atheist… that bullshit really helps.