If You’re a Doubter, You’re Not Alone
Peter Schjeldahl is an art critic who has been writing for The New Yorker since 1988. In 2019 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Some weeks later, in one of the first pieces he wrote following the diagnosis, he describes the cancer as “rampant.” Almost flippantly, he adds, “No surprise. I’ve smoked since I was sixteen.”
The article contains the kind of reflections you might expect from someone who’s come face-to-face with their mortality in the later years of their life. Appreciation of loved ones and of being loved. Regret for things he’s done or neglected to do. He’s still haunted by a friend’s suicide that happened decades ago, and you can feel his anguish as he wonders about the “what ifs,” the possibilities of what might have been – what if he could have intervened?
He’s haunted by other questions too, some he had long ignored—or effectively held at a great distance—but which seem to press in with renewed vigor now that death has come knocking. In one place he writes, “‘I believe in God’ is a false statement for me because it is voiced by my ego, which is compulsively skeptical. But the rest of me tends otherwise. Staying on an ‘as if’ basis with ‘God,’ for short, hugely improves my life.”
When he was younger Schjeldahl was an avowed atheist. But he claims that growing older, and especially sobriety—which he achieved in middle age—have softened him, warming him a bit to the possibility of God. Still, “God” is in scare quotes, left undefined, generalized, possible but unknown.
Haunted by a Possibility
Maybe this is what it is to be haunted. Schjeldahl is admittedly not religious, but the idea of God, the possibility of God, remains for him not just a “what if?”, but an “as if.” No longer denied, yet still held perhaps further away than even arm’s length. The reader wonders, “why?” The author is cagey about his answer, saying about his rather tentative belief, “it hugely improves my life.” How, one wonders? On this point he’s even more elusive. “Disbelieving is toilsome,” he says. “It can be a pleasure for adolescent brains with energy to spare, but hanging on to it later saps and rigidifies.”
To allow oneself to be haunted by the possibility of God is, it seems, less laborious than to maintain a thoroughgoing disbelief.
Surprising as it might seem in an age where religion and belief in God are often considered unenlightened and even unfashionable, Schjeldahl’s sensibility is not as uncommon as you might think.
Philosopher James K. A. Smith (who put me on to Schjeldahl’s piece) notably describes the hauntedness and even ambiguity of belief in our present age when he highlights a brief moment from the life of Steve Jobs. Well known as one of the founders of Apple, Jobs was undoubtedly influential in the creation of the device upon which this piece was written. And it’s very likely his creativity impinges directly or indirectly on the device upon which you’re reading this.
Smith cites Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, who recounted,
One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death… “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” he said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”
Spiritual but Not Religious
In this regard, Jobs is well within the majority. While growing numbers of people are disaffiliating with traditional or institutional versions of religion, unbelief as such is not growing. To be “spiritual but not religious” is becoming more and more common. According to a new study by the Fetzer Institute, only about 11% of people claim to be neither spiritual nor religious. The rest are somewhere on the spectrum of slightly spiritual or religious to very much so.
Isaacson’s account of Jobs’ reflecting on death in his backyard garden continues,
He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. “I like to think that something survives after you die,” he said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”
He fell silent for a very long time. “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.”
Then he paused again and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”
If there is anyone who represents the enlightened view that religion is at best unnecessary and at worst, silly, one might think a technological innovator like Jobs would be near the top of the list. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, here he is, reflecting back to us that even he was haunted by the specter of “God” and the eternality of the soul.
Accepting our Fate
We’re all gonna die.
Sorry about the obviousness of that fact.
It’s jarring, I know.
I don’t really like it either.
But we all know it’s true.
I don’t want to die. Presumably, you don’t either. This is normal.
Our drive to preserve our lives is often called “survival instinct.” It’s claimed this instinct is inherent in our genetic code to keep ourselves alive and pass on our genes. Furthermore, science claims that the processes of evolution function to promote and advance those traits that create the best conditions for survival.
Lots of people believe those claims. They’re highly plausible. You can easily grasp the concept without years of scientific or theoretical training.
But what if they’re not the only claims on offer? That is, what if our drive to preserve our lives can be explained otherwise, using other sources? Why, when facing death, do we suddenly become more reflective on questions of God and the afterlife?
Questions beyond the limits
Philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, and many other experts have noted that the claims of science are limited when it comes to a variety of subjects. Some questions simply extend beyond the purview of science: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What happens when we die? Where did we come from?
That’s not to say that science doesn’t propose some answers to those questions. But science is nevertheless limited in what can be claimed in response to them. For example, trying to answer the question about the beginning of all things is immensely fascinating. A great deal of scientific work and expertise has offered us exceedingly complicated yet highly descriptive accounts of the beginning. But there’s always a barrier, and place beyond which science cannot go.
This is because science is committed to a “metaphysics.” Metaphysics is a philosophical account of what constitutes reality, dealing with questions such as “what is reality?” and “what does it mean to be?” The metaphysics to which science is committed is one that claims that reality is entirely physical.
Claims about the beginning of all things then, from a scientific perspective, will always be limited to theoretical physics. While there’s much to be gained here, we remain unable to answer questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” The metaphysics to which science is committed prohibits us from pursuing that question scientifically; that is, theoretical physics cannot answer it. In fact, according to theoretical physics, it’s almost non-sensical to pose the question at all.
So we pursue it via other avenues, such as philosophically like the Greeks did, or religiously like Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others have for millennia.
Metaphysics also asks questions like “do we have souls?” and “if there is such as thing as a soul, what kind of thing is it?” It’s questions like these that function to demarcate some of the boundaries of science, such that when we begin to explore them, we are dipping our toes into the world of religion.
Daring to consider religion
Which brings me back to the fact that we’re all gonna die. I don’t like to think about this. In fact, I’d rather not because it makes me feel all kinds of feelings that are just uncomfortable and sad and gross.
Yet, facing the fact that we’re gonna die often raises questions similar to those above: What happens after we die? Is there such a thing as an afterlife? Does the way we conduct our life have consequences for an afterlife? Do we live on as disembodied souls (and does our body matter)?
Here we return to the reflectiveness of Schjeldahl and Jobs. Their questions are common. Many of us ask them from time to time. It’s as if we’re haunted by these questions. They press in at key moments in life (for Schjeldahl and Jobs, both were approaching death). As much as we try to ignore them, even exorcise them, it’s as if they chase us down.
What if? Could it be true?
We wonder. Perhaps we hope.
To draw once again on philosopher James K. A. Smith, in another place he discusses the fascinating reflections of the English writer Julian Barnes. Borrowing a phrase from French, Barnes writes in one of his books about what he calls le reveil mortel. Roughly translated (according to Smith, who is fluent in French), the phrase can be rendered this way: “the wake-up call to mortality.” Barnes admits that it “sounds a bit like a hotel service.” Smith finds Barnes’ rendering uncannily accurate, citing him further, saying,
“It is like being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant’s setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic, and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.”
That the thought “we’re all gonna die” can act as this kind of wake-up call, inspiring questions like those asked by Jobs and Schjeldahl, and it indicates how persistently we are haunted by the possibility that there might be something more, something unseen, something enchanted, something beyond.
In another place, Barnes, who is an agnostic, nevertheless says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
Could there be other indications haunting us about the possibility of something more? We love movies and stories and images that present alternative realities. Filled with magic, powerful beings, and mystical conflicts embedded in the storied lore of the fantasy world, these stories generate dramas and suspense that pull us in time and time again.
What if, like Barnes, our love of enchanted stories persists because we “miss” a reality like this, causing us to wonder if there might not be more than we can see, something transcendent…maybe even God? What if we were created for such a reality as this?
Maybe you’re a doubter, an agnostic. Like Schjeldahl, Jobs, or Barnes, you’re skeptical of religious claims. And sometimes, you’re proud of it—the famous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche thought it brave to disbelieve, throwing off the so-called comforts of religion in the face of cold, hard reality.
Yet, perhaps sometimes, when you’re alone, awoken in the middle of the night by who knows what, you’re confronted by the fact that sometimes you doubt your doubts. Maybe there is a transcendent reality. Maybe there is life after death. What would it mean if it were true?
Want to explore more? Read or view these other pieces.