Brother Nothing

It’s seductively easy for the educated Christian to poke holes ten ways to Sunday on this apologia of atheism which puts forward a distraught mom as the best defender of theodicy and firmly grounds the freethinker’s moral sentiments on a foundation of nothing at all.

On the morning of the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon retreated from the most advantageous positions to make himself appear weak and crush Coalition forces in their overconfident advance. It seems that the intellectual Christian always pulls the same maneuver when faced with intellectual atheists: the language of reason, atheists think, grants them the advantage; let them come, and I will defeat them on their ground. And indeed, executed properly the maneuver works like a charm: most contemporary proponents of atheism, in their contempt, are often quite ill-prepared for the arsenal of argument that Christian apologia has built over the centuries. Upon reading, say, this excellent effort by TAS Overlord Ross Douthat, one is tempted to utter “one sharp blow and the war is over.”

But while I enjoy a bout of metaphysical fencing as much as any other former philosophy freshman, I kind of want to step back for a minute and highlight this kind of atheism for what it plainly is, which is a natural outgrowth of Christianity.

There are many flavors of atheism, but the kind on display here and from the most prominent atheists of this generation (and the one before that) is clearly a phenomenon with Christian roots, and inseparable from them.

This atheism, first and foremost, demands an omnibenevolent God and an omnibenevolent man, just like Christianity. But of course the idea that God should be omnibenevolent exists only because of Christianity. It’s ridiculous to demand benevolence of, say, the Greek pantheon of vain bickerers and adulterers. It’s Christianity that puts forward the idea of a God of universal love who—therefore—demands universal love of His creatures. This kind of atheism cannot (and indeed, historically, does not) exist without the assumptions that Christianity has buried deep within the Western psyche.

So far so good. Plenty of Christians have noted this, but they usually deploy it as a sort of gotcha. I want to ask what it means.

And here it is: Christianity is a story that begs for disbelief. It makes claims whose extravagance go beyond those of any other religion. A pantheon of deathless jerks who screw us for kicks is a much more acceptable answer to “Why do bad things happen to good people?” than a kiss on the lips.

A deeply weird universe demands a deeply weird metaphysics, and boy, does Christianity deliver. It’s the you couldn’t make it up if you tried religion. And that’s fine. Great and proper, even. But let’s recognize it for what it is. Christianity is ludicrous. That’s why it’s true. But that’s also why it causes unbelief.

Brother Nothing stalks the heart of the believing Christian. Upon hearing, as I did recently, of the serious and vicious illness of a friend’s toddler, upon seeing the dried tears at the corners of her mother’s reddened eyes, how could I not have a pang of doubt-rebellion, how could I not ask myself “How could the God of Love let this happen? What if it’s all bullshit?” Maybe my faith is weak. (“The leads are weak? You’re weak.”) But I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

Atheism as a psychological phenomenon and philosophical stance is the logical product of a religious story that makes incredible claims about God. It’s what makes it easy for Christians to dismiss it—of course we have all the answers, it takes the questions from us!—but it’s also what makes Brother Nothing our companion.

A friend once wrote “I am a Christian because it is the most optimistic hypothesis, and therefore the most likely one.” It’s a good line, and I think I could say it and mean it, but the retort is obviously that the most optimistic hypothesis is rarely the most likely one.

Trite and true: faith requires a leap. But there is no leap without chasm. Without an abyss of nothingness stretching before you, beckoning you as you teeter over the edge, a ball of ice in your stomach, staring at the void with perverse fascination.

So yes, atheism is kind of silly philosophically, and pointing it out is fine, but it’s also our Brother Nothing. A God of Love, personal and incarnate, is an idea so outlandish that once you utter it you invite even nothingness as an alternative.

This world, where the void feels like both the default setting and the most appealing hypothesis, is the one we made, with our absurd ideas.

And I think it’s a good thing, too. In a world where Brother Nothing jabs his finger at our chest with every atrocity, Christianity needs to be properly Christian to survive. Christianity can’t be a social convention or a a prop for social order, not with Brother Nothing stalking us. It can’t be “Your kid died because God works in mysterious, dickish ways. But he loves you, like, totally.” It has to be a kiss, a fire, an embrace of warmth. Nothing else will stop the void which travels with us.