Ask an Atheist: Longing for the Blue Pill

Hi Robert;

I’ve cannibalized most of the day in a most enjoyable fashion — reading bits and pieces from your blog. I’m writing to you in hopes you might share a few thoughts with a struggling agnostic teetering on the edge of atheism. Or, put another way, as a former minister who thought his way out of faith, I still find myself longing for that damn blue pill, and I’m curious if there are others like me out there.

Did you have (or still have) these feelings — what Russell called the “inescapable void”? That is, the absence of something greater than ourselves? I can extrapolate that even a family and all the human love in the world would not suffice. Then again, I have no intention of winding up like Tolstoy.

Perhaps this is my own weakness…my own flaw. Unlike yourself, I live alone, although not by choice. I won’t bore you with the soap opera-like details. Perhaps the love of family grants you an elegant solution to the vacuum that exists within those less fortunate who opted out of the god delusion. Or, like myself, who still long for that one missing piece of the puzzle that will allow a beautiful faith to return without all those nagging apologetic issues to burden its blossom.

I am not using this hope as a reason to believe. I am beyond that at this point; though, like you, open to additional data.

The bottom line is that I ‘wish’ there was a personal God — that Fellow I grew up with and sacrificed so many things in order to draw closer to. Despite many friends, the lack of a growing, reciprocal love in my life is intensely draining. And, despite being able to form a nice argument to the contrary, I do not see much of a deeper purpose to life without love.

I had that once with my god, who apparently either never was, or is simply so inhumane as to not warrant my devotion. That sucks.

May I ask how you dealt with it?


Name Withheld

Sure, I still look off into that yawning void from time to time and wish it weren’t there— at least, not for me, not right now. And of course, it isn’t there for me right now; I’m only 42, healthy, and lead a fairly risk-averse lifestyle. But I know it will be there for me someday— perhaps I’ll see it coming, and perhaps I won’t. And while I never say I want to live forever, to me 70, 80, or 90 years seems like a disappointingly narrow window of time to experience what life has to offer and make a significant positive contribution to the world— the few who manage to do so in that amount of time are quite fortunate. So I also harbor the distant hope that perhaps some of my generation will, thanks to science, be the first to experience an indefinite lifespan, and that if I keep myself healthy enough, I may be among them.

Even that, of course, would be no replacement for love. By nature humans are social animals, and our need for contact, affection, and community are innate. I think this is part of why we strive for God— our species has survived for so long not primarily on the strength of solitary individuals, but on our ability to submerge (to some degree) our individuality into a collective identity. This gives us the wholesome sense of “being at one with something greater.”

But just as the chemicals that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain can be isolated, synthesized, and then ingested with addictive and ultimately damaging effects, my view is that religion is an analogous isolation and refinement of the natural formula for “being at one with something greater.” And like many drugs that have been with mankind forever, that isn’t always a bad thing. There are lots of good religious people out there. Using alcohol, tobacco, pot, or anything of that sort doesn’t make one a “bad person,” and is arguably beneficial in some cases. But addiction is quite powerful, and over the long term there are debilitating effects to be reckoned with. In times gone by, when the average lifespan was shorter and life was generally more dangerous, the effects of substance abuse was less noticeable. Now, we know (on average) how many years smoking or drinking cuts off your life. Similarly, for our forebears (and many of our contemporaries) religion provides that extra “kick” to life that helps integrate the individual into the whole. But now, we know more about how the world really works, and we see that religion has problems associated with it that just don’t go away— the only real solution is to kick the habit.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us faced with the prospect of cultivating a truly normal human life. I know that sounds strange, because most “normal” people in our society are religious. So what is “normal” without religion? For the human animal, it is more than simple pleasure-seeking. All the best character traits we have been taught still apply, but not in the stark and often comic-bookish style that the pious hold up in church. Chemically, candy is simple— real food is complex, with subtle flavor to appreciate, and takes time to digest. Real ethics, philosophy, science, and relationships are never simple, and the sooner someone learns to like them “raw,” the sooner and more fully they can reach their peak of mental and social health.

For me, taking the Red Pill and escaping the Matrix of religion was extremely scary at first. The real world has aspects that are harsh and unforgiving: impermanence and the finality of death chief among them. But in the end, my decision was based on my longing to see clearly, without blinders— and coming to the point where I fully realized I had blinders on simply compelled me rip them away.

Although I can never go back, I understand the longing for the Blue Pill. But nature has provided a natural “Blue Pill” too: imagination. Sadly dismissed as the province of children and shamed out of adults, imagination is in fact an innate and indispensable human faculty. Through our imagination, we can take flights of fancy to anywhere, be anything, do anything, say anything to anyone. I think the creative and healing powers of imagination are vastly underrated. And, our ability to visualize the non-existent often shines light on the way to a better real world.

For me, the love of family is one important ingredient in a larger mix, the composition of which changes subtly over time. My work, my friends, my contributions to various causes both online and off, and my love of learning all play vital roles. The important thing is to keep the mix complex and to keep it real. One pronounced thing I noticed when I left the church in which I had been raised was that a number of longstanding friends of mine, while still amiable, were no longer really friends because our religion was our “single point of contact.” At the same time, other friendships I already had deepened and took on new dimension— I discovered that the relationships that really lasted had long had multiple points of contact. Alas, I see this pattern too often: the only thing in common among the religious is their religion, so that is a chief barrier to even considering the Red Pill, because they are dimly aware that taking it would destroy everything they know: families, friendships, and sometimes even careers.

The fact I’ve learned about real life is that while not everyone is worth being around, there are real, caring people everywhere. And the best way to attract them is to be real, caring, and as open about who you are as circumstances permit, and then strive to make a contribution where it will make the most difference.

Purity is too much to expect of ourselves or anyone else, but simple kindness is both precious and common— the true living water of humanity. It is not “better to give than to receive.” Even when helping the weak, the helper is rewarded— not necessarily in goods, but in a rightful sense of accomplishment and pride, and the gratitude of those helped. If that is not sufficient reward, then that person should not provide that sort of help, and should not feel guilty about refraining. It is equally good and necessary to give and receive. When we complete the cycle by allowing kindness to flow through us, receiving and giving, then we are truly fulfilled.

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