According to most recent surveys, over half of people in the UK no longer affiliate with any religion, representing a spiritual agnosticism which continues to flood our country. Faced with this however, many Christians still view convinced atheists, who in comparison constitute a measly 13 percent of the population, as the greater threat both to themselves and our faith; yet this is deeply mistaken.
In the Christian vacuum that this agnostic majority struggle to breath in, meaning and direction cannot be found in the world itself – being without conscious design – and so must in fact be designed from within the individual. This means that the agnostic is constantly at odds with the world around him; while he attempts to find depth and value, he seems always confronted with what Sartre called ‘the bare, valueless fact’ of his materialist existence.
Indeed, like that philosopher’s protagonist in his novel Nausea, in modern life without God, ‘things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them … there is nothing’. This is a much bleaker reality than faced by convinced atheists, who successfully reach ‘behind’ these things to implant their own meaning.
Thus, like Christians, atheists do not float helplessly between their beliefs and an indifferent world, but try to bridge this conflict through their values. They refute God and remodel him according to their own principles: whether in causes like environmentalism or veganism, or, more damagingly, in entrenched political world views. The atheist is so saved from agnostic uncertainty.
Of course, this solution is ultimately no more than self-delusion: a subjective projection of one’s beliefs onto an objective world, revealing only partial truths and yet demanding complete subservience to them. But at least the atheist achieves some meaning from his externally valueless existence; he does as the famous atheist Bertrand Russel expounded, and builds his life upon ‘the firm foundation of unyielding despair’ which so controls the life of the agnostic.
This further highlights the agnostic’s crushing predicament, in which, as Pascal stated, ‘I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go.’ And yet, in the face of this, the human reaction is often merely to find trivial distractions in everyday life instead of confronting one’s existence, which must inevitably lead to self-destruction. This therefore leaves an unresolved existentialism at the heart of the UK – which just manages to float above meaningful subsistence from day to day.
Thus, when the agnostic is faced with real world tragedy, without belief structure to interpret it as anything more than valueless violence, they easily sink below the surface of a world instantly made morally inexplicable. Indeed, this predicament may be able to correlate the rising agnosticism in our country with ever increasing rates of depression. In fact, according to a staggering recent survey, around 9 in 10 young Brits believe their life lacks purpose.
Christians should therefore spend much more attention reaching out to those who keep their heads down before God than those who defiantly turn away from him. For they both deserve our compassion and need our help. As Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’ (Matthew 9:10-13). And while convinced atheists ultimately may need our help too, they – escaping purposeless sickness to imitate the ‘supermen’ of Nietzsche’s philosophy – are at least safer from worldly harm. For their sickness is for another world.
Toby Pitchers is a student at Durham University studying Philosophy of Religion. He attends Christchurch, Durham.