Atheism’s ‘Eccentric’ Nature

COMMENTARY: If a loving God is my center, then all my actions have meaning because they are related to the Absolute.

Our search for meaning is really our search for God.
Our search for meaning is really our search for God. (photo: IngridHS / Shutterstock)

Circles, planets, cities, churches and theaters all have something in common: They all have centers. The center of a circle is where all the radii converge. 

Planets have a gravitational center toward which all objects fall. Cities have centers that serve as meccas for shoppers. Churches and theaters have center aisles. Centers are important. The question naturally arises, “Do I have a center?” Is there a center that gives consistent meaning to my life, one toward which all my actions gravitate? 

One might refer to his family or to his job as the centers of his life. But not everyone has a family, and jobs are temporary. Is there a center for all human beings that gives their lives both direction and significance? Tradition holds that being “eccentric” is in some way being unbalanced or off base.

W. Somerset Maugham was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest-paid author during the 1930-40s. His most popular novel, The Razor’s Edge (1944), made into a most successful movie two years later, is about the search for meaning. The protagonist cannot endure the self-centered people who surround him and is driven to find a meaning to life other than the pursuit of money and material comfort. He discovers, however, that the path to meaning is as narrow and sharp as a razor’s edge, an image that resonates with Christ’s reference to the “narrow path” (Matthew 7:13-4).

Maugham’s character may very well have reflected the author’s own unrest. He was torn between his own search for meaning and his atheism. In the final year of his life (1965) he became terrified of dying and possibly being judged by a just and holy God. His life, he admitted, was one of debauchery and decadence. On his deathbed, he was losing his faith in secularism and tortured by the possibility that God exists. He summoned the well-known atheist philosopher Alfred Ayer to his deathbed and begged for reassurance that he was on the brink of oblivion and not divine judgment. 

“Don’t worry, old boy,” Ayer said to him, “God does not exist, and you will have no suffering in the afterlife.”

Nonetheless, oblivion is not a state in which anyone can find comfort, let alone meaning. Ayer did not resolve Maugham’s dilemma. He simply affirmed one of its horns and denied the existence of the other. For Ayer, there was no center to which the poles of the paradox converge and harmonize.

In his autobiography, The Summing Up, Maugham alludes to what he believed to be the contradiction that all life poses. 

“To myself I am the most important person in the world; though I do not forget that, not even taking into consideration so grand a concept of the absolute, I am of no consequence to the universe if I had never existed.” 

For those far from a Christ-centered outlook, how does one reconcile pride with common sense? Maugham was unable to reconcile a subjective perspective (I am all important) with an objective one (I am of no importance). To him, life, therefore, is an unresolvable contradiction. But is it? Maugham’s atheism prevented him from understanding the harmony that can exist between these two perspectives. 

If God exists, then he, not I, is the center of all things. And if he is a loving God, then he is the absolute center to which all personal centers, including W. Somerset Maugham, are related. In the words of Jacques Maritain, “It is only from above that the antinomy can be resolved. If God exists, then not I, but He is the center, and this time not in relation to a certain perspective ... but speaking absolutely, and as transcendent subjectivity to which all subjectivities are referred.” 

Life is not a contradiction but a paradox. If a loving God is my center, then all my actions have meaning because they are related to the Absolute. In this way my importance as a unique person and my exercise of common sense are harmonized. The problem with atheism, therefore, is that the atheist has not found the center that will resolve the apparent contradiction between the importance of the self and the value of common sense.

The dilemma for the atheist is that he is compelled to oscillate unhappily between self-importance and no importance. St. Augustine has told us that our hearts will not find restfulness until they rest in God. Christ advised that we must “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 10:38-9). 

Our search for meaning is really our search for God. Without a center, we fail to balance personal meaning with common sense. As a result, we are confused. 

In this confusion we may live as if our ego is the center of the universe. Our mortality, however, is a sufficient refutation of this ploy. Moreover, if we take common sense as our only guideline, we lose sight of the importance of our own unique personality and edge toward despair.

To be related to a loving God affirms our uniqueness and at the same time honors our commonsense realism.

As Pope St. John Paul II put it at World Youth Day 2000, “It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”