Nihil Est Machina: Finding Literary Beauty in a Godless Universe
In the volatile world of the internet, I still occasionally come across the notion that not believing in a god is to not believe in anything. Non-believers are still all too frequently seen as cold and cynical, undervaluing the world if they value it at all.As an ardent non-believer, I can say with some confidence that this is not the case. If there were any proof that one need not believe in the supernatural to be moved and to feel transcendence, then literature and its atheistic champions are it.
It would be unfair, and, well, wrong, to claim that history’s greatest writers had or have leanings towards atheism. There is, however, a solid history of objectively great writers questioning the dogmas of their day, and indeed producing staggering works of literature that simply could not have come about if it were not for their lack of belief.
Some writers that come to mind include Christopher Hitchens, whose charming, hilarious and beautifully compiled book “God Is Not Great” gave him an ironic god-like status in the secular world; Nietzsche, whose genius or views on God hardly need reiterating; Shelley, whose brave and concise “Necessity of Atheism” got him expelled from Oxford University, and Philip Larkin, whose poem “Church Going” is one of the finest in the English language. Along with them there’s De Beauvoir, Mark Twain, Marlowe, Carol Ann Duffy, Neruda, Saramago, Woolf and, though some may find it controversial (but I’m fairly convinced), Shakespeare himself, who have all undoubtedly created moving works while betraying their religious doubts.
I’m not trying to say that these people are talented because they are unreligious, or that religious people can’t produce good literature. That would be an unforgivably stupid claim. What I am saying is that atheism is not often given enough credit for the beauty and meaning that it can incite. Not enough people appreciate the beauty that can come from an acceptance that the world is built on entropy and chaos.
But enough about chaos. Let’s talk about me. I have not believed in gods for as long as I have been able to bathe myself. If we can resist making a joke about me not being able to bathe myself until the age of 24, then we can start to follow the road through my primary school days and puberty to see how a purely material worldview has formed the way I write.
I went to a Church of England school, which, as far as I can tell, is a school that sings hymns, has a chapel service every half semester and occasionally invites the local holy man to come in and tell children why God is so terrific while they sit on a cold assembly floor thinking about Pokémon cards. We were all believers, because at that age a child will take authority’s word for it.
Despite the sermons and prayers and colorful Bible stories that entranced me, I came to realize that I was not someone inclined to belief. I would like to say that I came to that thought through the examination of evidence, or by coming to learn that religion is inherently oppressive and limiting, but that is not the case. I simply found myself not of a mind that could support believing in something for no good reason.
Throughout my childhood, I started to think (without any outside influence but rather natural intuition) that a world without religion was a cold one. I thought that one perhaps could not find enough wonder in a random, chaotic world to create worthwhile art from it.
Art that came from and fell back into the void was depressing. I thought creating art because you thought it was a god-given talent, or to celebrate a designer’s good, work seemed less pointless. But as I came to be more convinced in my views, and less inclined to teenage nihilism, I began to see that the world was even more beautiful precisely because of its transience. My ability to be awestruck grows each time I remember how insignificant a part of it I am.
Now I’m older (wiser?), I find that much of my writing contains religious themes and characters struggling with the question of creators themselves. I find this topic fascinating because humanity has believed for so long that it is the center of a meaningful universe and being told the contrary, that you are ultimately pointless and doomed, seems incomprehensible.
Coming to terms with it is a lifelong, unfailingly interesting effort. Seeing how characters work this question out for themselves allows me to come closer to making peace with it myself. Whether that coming-to-terms involves compiling evidence for or against a deity, or pursuing the physical properties of and reasons for our universe, or simply settling down and having kids, is inconsequential. It is the effort itself that matters and makes good literature, because it makes a reader feel a little less alone in their confusion and despair.
With unbelief often comes a strength of imagination in order to follow Camus’ advice to create your way out of an absurd existence. I am tempted to conclude that believing in a creator means one lacks imagination. It must be said that giving an unprovable divine entity the credit for existence seems a rather easy and unsatisfying way of wrapping things up, and not a habit that makes a good writer. Of course, there is no unbreakable connection between the way people show faith and the way they write, so I might be being unfair. I still can’t help but think that filling in gaps of knowledge with magical beings is not a good lesson in craft.
So I for one am glad that there is no chance that I will be satisfied with any deus ex machina in a story of mine. I’m glad that I do not consider myself servile to a great power, but rather obligated to continue questioning the universe and using my frustration and ignorance to fuel the fire of my godless writing.
There is beauty in this world that can sometimes only be brought out when one has nothing definite to shape their existence around. God from the machine has become beauty from the void. And boy is it beautiful.
Josh King received his MFA from Adelphi University in New York, and now lives in the UK. He divides his time between writing fiction, drama and drawing comics.
Originally published at Newfound.