I recently got into a disheartening debate with a young woman, a fellow intern at RFE/RL, about religion. My heart sank so much because, at no older than eighteen years old, she already has a rigid, cynical, and contradictory view of the world. On the one hand, this life is all there is, and it should be sufficient — all kinds of metaphysical talk about God, the soul, afterlives, and so on, is only unprovable distracting claptrap. On the other hand, this life is also insufficient — human beings are evil, civilization is a moral failure, and the empirical, measurable universe is a cold, indifferent wasteland.
I tried to explain my point of view: human beings aren’t evil, they’re stumbling in the dark, and civilization is only a moral failure if we hold it to an impossible and abstract standard. Evil exists, yes, but, ironically, it’s not always so evil. We never know the true fruits of actions. For example, had the Khmer Rouge never brutalized Cambodia, I would never have known my first love, and had Socrates not suffered injustice, Plato might never have written his dialogues and Aristotle his meditations, and who knows how art and science would have fared without them?
As to the universe being a cold, indifferent wasteland, one might be surprised to discover the contrary. Astronomers often remark about the miracleness of our planet — so much has had to go right, from the position of the moon to the placidity of our immediate cosmic neighborhood — that sometimes it seems the universe is actually conspiring on our behalf. But even if the universe is indeed a blind machine, then, as Nietzsche thought, could it not be the mission of intelligent species (ours and perhaps others) to inject moral and aesthetic order into this mechanistic order?
Finally, turning to her Sartrian argument against metaphysics, this seemed to be at the core of her logic: essentially, either there is God, and therefore no freedom and value in life, or there is no God, and therefore this life is all that we have — and yet, precisely because it is transient, it is also naggingly empty. I struggled to find the words for my response at the time, but alas, they come to me only now.