The Branch We Were Sitting On

barnes_julian-19911205025R.2_png_380x600_crop_q85In the latest issue of the New York Review, Cathleen Schine reviews Levels of Life, a new book by Julian Barnes. It’s described as a three-part meditation on grief, following the death of Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh.

One of the things that is of no solace to Barnes (and there are many) is religion. He writes:

When we killed–or exiled–God, we also killed ourselves…. No God, no afterlife, no us. We were right to kill Him, of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway. But we sawed off the branch we were sitting on. And the view from there, from that height–even if it was only an illusion of a view–wasn’t so bad.

I can’t disagree. Atheists often proclaim the death of God in positively gleeful terms, but it’s important to recognize what was lost–a purpose in living, a natural place in the universe. The loss is not irretrievable; there is nothing that stops us from creating our own meaning even if there’s no supernatural overseer to hand one to us. But it’s a daunting task, one to which we haven’t really faced up.

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77 Responses to The Branch We Were Sitting On

  1. And of course a branch is a place for birds to twitter. Us human birds don’t seem to gather much anymore, and that was the whole point of church – a place to gather together, to sing, to learn civics and ethics and to have community of meditation. That is what church was – a gathering of humans. We seem to be tweeting electronically now.

  2. Rick says:

    Right. But there is also the possibility of a not-so-great afterlife, depending on who/what you have/haven’t been/not been venerating throughout your life.


  3. john zande says:

    I think you’ve hit upon the greatest challenge facing Humanism this century: the challenge to provide comfort.

  4. Joe Bloggs says:

    The data is there: religious/spiritual people are more likely to be happy. There is also the fact that atheists are much more likely to be young westerners living in comfortable/stable conditions. How does the secularist interpret these facts? I am wary of writing it off as a case of developing countries being less intellectually “advanced”.

  5. Matthew Helm says:

    Why do people seem to think we need to have a purpose for existing? If a rock is pulled toward the Earth, so be it. If humans emerge from the apparently relatively simple rules the universe obeys, so be it. I ate pizza for breakfast this morning because I felt like it, because of some chemicals in my brain or something, because of some previous phenomena, et al. I don’t need anything more than that, it only makes you sad if you let it, just like knowledge that you will die or that Santa doesn’t exist only makes you sad if you let it.

    Also SMBC covered this topic very well:

  6. Jack M says:

    Isn’t it so that to mourn the loss of purpose is to persist in the illusion of purpose?

  7. Carroll Robinson says:

    Interesting–but I don’t think that just because one believes in God defines a purpose for being, or else “God works in mysterious ways” would not be the cliche it is. But one thing I do believe in that is not religion, but the concept of the Rights of Man, that our constitution is based on, though seldom followed: That there are certain rights all men share–our founding fathers attributed them to our Creator–one today might say those rights we are born with and come into the world with–that are ours—by God, by nature, by existing as part of the universe?—whatever–that are ours because we live, that are not decided for us by the generosity of a government or state, and that we know intuitively when those rights are being abused. I do believe in those innate rights that our constitution is supposed to protect, perhaps more so because the times we live in are again challenging those common to all of us, and am not sure that science or atheism alone can justify that basic concept of otherness that is common with in us.

  8. Serge says:

    It is not possible to loose something that was never there. What was lost is the illusion of a purpose in living and a supernatural place in the universe.

  9. John says:

    God isn’t dead, He just exist and doesn’t exist at the same time. Last time I checked there where still churches for every neighborhood across the country and they don’t seem to be going out of business! The odd ones out of the bunch are truly the non-believers.

    I don’t think finding out there is no God would be a problem. It would be more of a problem if you found out if there was a God and He was every bit of a jealous God as the churches would make Him out to be.

  10. Serge says:

    @john zande
    True. However, I agree with Sam Harris, we should not be lying to others, nor to ourselves.

  11. Tracy says:

    Thanks for this. I was raised Christian but by the time I was about 15 I could no longer reconcile those teachings with my experience, and reluctantly became a born-again atheist (so to speak). The grief and despair I faced — knowing my loved ones were not in heaven, they were just gone, and I would be, too — were overwhelming, and of course any time I tried to talk to anyone about it, I was told I was going to hell and it was my fault for rejecting god. On the extremely rare occasion I met another atheist, they would always deny having any difficulty with this, which mystified me and left me feeling more isolated. This was over 20 years ago so there were no internet blogs out there; I am so glad that has changed for people struggling with this now. A simple acknowledgment like this one would have helped me a lot then. Nicely done.

  12. I would sit on a branch about half way between theism-yearning and anti-theism. There is of course something wonderfully comforting about a belief in an afterlife, especially when grieving, but the afterlives we have imagined over the past few thousand years are all abominable. I may want an afterlife, but I don’t want any of the Judeo-Christian gods by a long way. But then we can say that this isn’t some revolutionary dismembering of our sense of identity because an afterlife simply isn’t worth it if the price is a god like that; instead, it’s just the burden of adulthood that we can’t imagine badness away. We can’t dream up worlds where everything works out for us. This doesn’t overturn any latent glory in religion, it faces up to the tragedy of humanity.

  13. Bill says:

    “When we killed–or exiled–God, we also killed ourselves”

    Actually we were already dead (spiritually) when we killed God on that cross on Calvary almost 2000 years ago. He allowed us to do that so that now we have a living hope.

    The former atheist C.S.Lewis observed that either Jesus was a lunatic, liar, or He was who He said He was. i.e. “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

    We can all come to our own conclusions — and do, but it’s not like we never had a chance to know the Truth.

  14. Bob G says:

    A post full of grace and some comfort!

  15. Before God was born, he was dead, right?

    So I ask myself, was it a daunting task to create social norms at time before we had religion? Maybe it was. Maybe there was never such a time.

    But I like to think, it was not much of a big deal then and we all have it with us.

  16. Pingback: The Branch We Were Sitting On – Life after religion. | Gordon's shares

  17. Scott B near Berkeley says:

    @Bill: the “cross” for criminals back in those times 2000 years ago was an “X”. That is one of many of the inaccuracies in the Christianity. @Markus: yet to be “born” is not the same as “dead”. You can only be dead after you live. @Tracy: the idea of promising the common person ascending into an afterlife was the single-most powerful idea of Christianity, and led to its dominance among competing metaphysics. We are all bombarded by images within, generated by words from without, about loved ones looking down from heaven. The more you hear of it, the more you are grieved by its loss. Simple as that, in my humble opinion.
    I was without religion until my mid-thirties, when I became an atheist. Our social pressures of “prayer” and “higher power” make it difficult to even drop those two “fuzzies” without feeling a psychic jolt. A powerful jolt. I feel no “glee” in proclaiming the non-existence of a supernatural force (SF) or being…that SF failed millions in World War II and other catastrophes. I only feel sympathy for those that cannot shed supernatural wishes and ‘certainties’, for they invariably are the seed of human catastrophies, such as wars, suicide bombings, and other malevolent acts. Rather than search for “meaning”, people should celebrate to themselves, every day, the incredible success against massive odds that put them here on this planet, looking out to the world with two amazing eyes, and understanding a lot of that world.

  18. Michael K Murray says:

    Surely the problem for most people isn’t the loss of purpose but the loss of even the slightest hope that loved ones who have died are somehow still somewhere. It helps that death in childhood is rare now rather than common. Thank you science! But as we age, unless we die unexpectedly soon, we inevitably lose people that we love. Sometimes suddenly, sometimes horribly, sometimes painfully slowly as their minds decay over a couple of decades. Personally I see no comfort in knowing that they live on in my memory, their atoms are at one with the larger cosmos, before I was born I was dead … etc, etc. It’s just a crap aspect of life.

  19. My father died 13 years ago. The stories I tell(both happy and sad) make him live forever in my mind and the friends of mine that did not know him now do. This is a living forever in my opinion. I feel very lucky that I was born without a need for the imaginary friend in the sky and yes I call it luck because it never took an effort for me not to believe. My hope is that we can all share what ever parts of reality we know and learn others reality. No! Your belief in a god is not a reality. Good luck everyone.

  20. Mike says:

    Oh, Mr. Carroll, I want so badly to hit you with my rhythm stick for this post.
    I can and do disagree. If I can’t actually hit you with my rhythm stick, I can at least shake it at you in a most furious manner! Perhaps I’m different because I never grew up with a God “purpose”.

    Is a false purpose a real purpose? Especially if that purpose is driving you over a cliff?
    Make no mistake, religion is driving us over a cliff. Look at the USA and the drive to put theism into politics and schools, to create a culture of ignorance. The same thing exists in Muslim cultures.

    I don’t need a God to look up too. My branch is the same branch it’s always been, from the same tree. The desire for a good life and a better life for my children. I pass that branch on to them, so they can water the tree that is humanity and watch it grow, and they can make a better world for their children. And if not for their own children, for others children. Others may have their own branch. Good for them.

    Now Mr. Carroll. Your penance:

    In the deserts of Sudan
    And the gardens of Japan
    From Milan to Yucatan
    Every woman, every man

    Hit me with your rhythm stick
    Hit me, hit me
    Je t’adore, ich liebe dich
    Hit me, hit me, hit me
    Hit me with your rhythm stick
    Hit me slowly, hit me quick
    Hit me, hit me, hit me

    In the wilds of Borneo
    And the vineyards of Bordeaux
    Eskimo, Arapaho
    Move their body to and fro

    Hit me with your rhythm stick
    Hit me, hit me
    Das ist gut! C’est fantastique
    Hit me, hit me, hit me
    Hit me with your rhythm stick
    It’s nice to be a lunatic
    Hit me, hit me, hit me

    Hit me, hit me, hit me

    In the dock of Tiger Bay
    On the road to Mandalay
    From Bombay to Santa Fe
    Over hills and far away

    Hit me with your rhythm stick
    Hit me, hit me
    C’est si bon, mm? Ist es nicht?
    Hit me, hit me, hit me
    Hit me with your rhythm stick
    Two fat persons, click, click, click
    Hit me, hit me, hit me

    Hit me, hit me, hit me
    Hit me, hit me, hit me, oww
    Hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me
    Hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me
    Hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me

  21. rolandc says:

    … you crybabies could not be more ‘wronger’ … one cannot lose what one never had … you were given a useless ‘input’ which made your brain open a file for it … that is all … you were given empty air … ghosts stories and although the ‘feeling’ is supposed to be real it is not … reflect upon this and look for the reality of that useless ‘command’ your brain has been trying to wrap itself around for all those decades … no need to believe this -one does not believe a fact- but your brain is still working on a ‘program/input’ it was given when you were a few days old … now that is a fact … and in all that crap there are a few glitches and sparks from unconnected ‘reflections’ … reflecting is what one does with what the brain puts forth in one’s brain … there is absolutely no mind no soul no spirit no NOTHING … deal with it … awareness and consciousness still are not the same doncha know …

  22. Jerry Lisantti says:

    I’m glad that you made this post since it has created a forum for your readers to express themselves on this topic. Thank you

  23. Neeti Sinha says:

    Killing god is equivalent to saving god…why bother ..of which there is no direct clue. Meaning (if at all) might still be in the space time, and not in god after all. At least we know of our inclinations surely.

  24. Well said. Atheists have a tendency to give short shrift to the comfort and meaning in religion, but people leading fraught lives grip it tightly. Economic security tends to lessen the need for it, but not for everyone. Unless we simply want to see the old religions eventually replaced with new ones, this is something that will eventually have to be faced.

  25. Count Biscotti says:

    Well said, Sean!