Michael W. Nicholson claims that the atheists he most wants to engage are those “who wrestle seriously with the implications of their affirmation that the Deus Absconditus is finally the Deus Absentia.” He puts Albert Camus at the top of that list:
Beginning with his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus focused his literary investigations on the question of how to overcome nihilism in an absurd world in which, he believed somewhat paradoxically, reason and logic pointed to a cosmos with no meaning for man: “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
Camus’s starting-point was the assumption that humanity’s own rational, scientific enterprise had revealed that the heart of existence was a closed material universe that itself was utterly indifferent to the deepest human longings. In such a universe, “suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.” While Camus was not the first to examine the existential question of modern man’s sense of alienation, his works—The Stranger, The Plague, The Rebel, The Fall, The Myth of Sisyphus—were the eloquent high-water mark of the postwar existential sensibility (though Camus rejected the “Existentialist” label).
It is easy to like Camus. Algerian born, member of the French resistance, thoughtful and kind, but an inveterate womanizer. He was the Bogart of atheist existentialism; larger than life, romantic, complex, a “code hero”. No writer since has taken so seriously and expressed so well the implications of the modernist acceptance of a closed universe and the denial of transcendent meaning. Camus’s attempt to assert human value beyond the absurdity of a world without God is imaginative and appealing, but turns out to be only a loop with no exit. Camus, who believed in decency, courage, and compassion, can only assert these traditional values; he can give no foundational reasons for preferring them over selfishness, depravity, and evil.
It’s worth revisiting William Faulkner’s famous obituary for Camus, which touches on these themes. An excerpt:
Despite himself, as all artists are, he spent that life searching himself and demanding of himself answers which only God could know; when he became the Nobel laureate of his year, I wired him ‘On salue l’âme qui constamment se cherche et se demande’; why did he not quit then, if he did not want to believe in God? At the very instant he struck the tree [in the car accident that killed him], he was still searching and demanding of himself; I do not believe that in that bright instant he found them. I do no believe they are to be found. I believe they are only to be searched for, constantly, always by some fragile member of the human absurdity. Of which there are never many, but always somewhere at least one, and one will always be enough.
People will say he was too young; he did not have time to finish. But it is not How long, it is not How much; it is, simply What. When the door shut for him, he had already written on this side of it that which every artist who also carries through life with him that one same foreknowledge and hatred of death, is hoping to do: I was here. He was doing that, and perhaps in that bright second he even knew he had succeeded. What more could he want?
Related Dish on “favorite heretics” here.
(Portrait of Camus from New York World-Telegram and Sun Photograph Collection, 1957, via Wikimedia Commons)