I recently discovered an excellent atheist website, The Thinking Atheist, and listened to several of Seth Andrews's (The Think Atheist) podcasts. The Thinking Atheist is very easy listening (he is a professional broadcaster and has an excellent voice) and free of the hard edge found in many outspoken atheists; he is, for instance, willing to admit that most Christians are genuinely good and loving people even if he thinks they are gravely mistaken about the fundamental nature of things. This is clearly a sincere man who is following the truth as he knows it.
What interests me here is an extended exchange he had in one of his podcasts with a Christian named Erin. Erin wondered how Seth could find meaning in life without a hereafter; Seth gave the answer, common among atheists, that the lack of a hereafter makes this life all the more important, since it is the only one we have. As Seth put it, we must "maximize every moment" we have, since we will have no more once we are dead. He mentioned how much he enjoys learning about science, history, etc.
I have always had a great deal of sympathy for this view, and it may constitute the greatest temptation I face as a Catholic. And it is a temptation. For though I would like to maximize every moment of my life, I have come to be quite certain that the meaning of life cannot be found by maximizing it, but only by minimizing it. In fact, it was through years of attempting to maximize life that I finally came to face the fact that it was a fool's errand, although I believe I suspected such a thing all along.
When I was in high school, my friend Joe used to chide me about my "kicks". I would throw myself passionately into something - ping pong or chess, for example - for a month or two, then give it up and move on to something else. Eventually I might come back to the same things. Meanwhile I also spent a lot of time playing tennis, reading history and Agatha Christie novels, or playing the fiddle, among other pursuits. I knew the reason I never stuck with anything too long. It was opportunity cost. On the one hand, I envied the sort of person who was passionate about one thing, and stuck with it long enough to master it or make something of it. I wished I could feel that way about something. And I would, for a time. But eventually whatever I was doing would become stale, and I would move on to something else. More than this, I could never shake the feeling that I was missing out on something by being dedicated to one or a small number of things. Other people were passionately pursuing something else, so there must be something to those things as well, right? How did I know it was better to pursue this thing passionately rather than that thing? My answer, as it turned out in practice, was just to pursue things in rotation (which should bring to mind associations for Kierkegaard fans.) I knew even at the time what was happening, but didn't know what else to do. If life isn't about doing stuff, and I had always been told it was, then what was it about? I didn't want life to pass me by.
For all intents and purposes, I was a case study in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage of existence. I was even self-aware enough to have an inkling of what was going on, although nothing like the revelation that Kierkegaard gave me when I later discovered him. And SK accurately diagnosed the alternative I faced (which I vaguely understood at the time), which was either to change my mode of life at its root or continue down a path which was essentially one of despair. My decision to join the Marine Corps was finally based on the recognition that I needed to believe in something, not in a theoretical sense, but in the practical (existential) sense of actually submitting whole to something greater and grander than myself. The alternative to trying to find things to put into your life is to put your life into something. In SK's terms, it was the decision to become ethical and not merely aesthetic.
The essence of the ethical life is that one no longer tries to "maximize" his own life; instead, the individual sacrifices his own "maximization" for the sake of "maximizing" something worthy of the sacrifice - nation, God, Corps, family or, perhaps, his neighbors (as George Bailey does in It's A Wonderful Life). The ethical life has its own deep struggle, just as does the aesthetic life. The struggle at the heart of the aesthetic life is to keep at bay the despair that is at its core; the struggle at the heart of the ethical life is to perform the sacrifices demanded by duty (and this is why someone in the ethical stage of existence may not always seem "ethical" outwardly; the ethical stage of existence doesn't mean one is always good, it only means that life is lived in terms of duty and its fulfillment, even if there is an occasional failure to fulfill the demands of duty.)
But as George Bailey discovered, a life of duty is a kind of death. One sacrifices one's own hopes and dreams, one's own goals and pursuits, for others. It is a minimization of the self and feels like a slow dying. There is anxiety and despair in such a life because, on the one hand, the individual sees all the wonderful things out there that are genuinely worthy of pursuit, and on the other, he senses that the nature of things just is that he must sacrifice those things for the sake of others.
The answer to this dilemma (an existential answer, not a theoretical one) is religion; specifically the Christian God who "minimized" himself for the sake of mankind and promises the strength of grace to do the same to all who ask for it - "for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." In this light Christianity and atheism aren't competitors, because atheism isn't an answer to the existential question for which Christ is the answer: The question isn't "Is there a God?", but "Who shall save me in the duty I must perform yet that is extinguishing me?"