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Woody Allen: The Honest Atheist

There’s probably no more dishonest atheists than there are dishonest Christians. Or dishonest dentists. Or dishonest cattle ranchers. Atheists don’t have a corner on the market of dishonesty.

However, pretending there is a good reason to live while denying the existence of anything eternal is just… unrealistic. Or blatantly dishonest.

Which is probably why I’ve always liked Woody Allen.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent interview with the director, Older, Mellower, But Still Woody, is a great example of Allen’s unflinching appraisal of his own atheistic assumptions. Here’s the portion of the interview where we get down and dirty:

WSJ: Some say your view is that life is pointless, and others say you’re a romantic realist who believes in being true to yourself. Which is it?

Allen: I think that’s the best you can do, but the true situation is a hopeless one because nothing does last. If we reduce it absurdly for a moment, you know the sun will burn out. You know the universe is falling apart at a fantastically accelerating rate and that at some point there won’t be anything at all. So whether you are Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo, your stuff’s not going to last. So, given that, even if you were immortal, that time is going to come. Of course, you have to deal with a much more critical problem, which is that you’re not going to last microscopically close to that. So, nothing does last. You do your things. One day some guy wakes up and gets the Times and says, “Hey, Woody Allen died. He keeled over in the shower singing. So, where do you want to have lunch today?”

WSJ: So, what do you do to distract yourself from these depressing thoughts? Knicks games? Or is that depressing, too?

Allen: The Knicks are one kind of distraction. For the two hours you’re at the Garden you’re only focused on that… I am a big sports fan, baseball and basketball, everything. People will say to me, “Does it really matter if the Knicks beat the Celtics?” And I think to myself, “Well, it’s just as important as human existence.”

WSJ: Really?

Allen: Really. It may not seem so, but if you step back and look they are equivalent. (emphasis mine)

In the atheist’s worldview, the Knicks beating the Celtics is equivalent to… “human existence.” Translation: Nothing is better or worse, more significant or less significant, than anything else. Mein Kampf and the Bible share the same fate.  The Holocaust, the Black Plague, and the Knicks 1969-70 World Championship (in which they beat the L.A. Lakers) are “equivalent.” Because “nothing does last” Allen rightly concludes “the true situation is a hopeless one.”

Thank you very much.

Which is probably why most attempts by atheists to frame their existence as something other than “a hopeless one” usually come up sounding… dishonest. At least silly. Like this one from About.com’s Agnosticism / Atheism site. Site moderator Austin Cline, in answering the “myth” that “Atheism leads to hopelessness and despair,” writes:

What do I have to look forward to? Life — an enjoyable life doing the things I love and being with the people I love. Why do I live? Because of the people I love and the things I love — basically, because I enjoy life. Does it matter that, eventually, I am going to die and the life I enjoy will end? I admit that that will be unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that doing what I enjoy now is therefore worthless. After all, every individual action I am doing will end — every good meal end, every trip to an amusement park ends, every good book ends.

Mr. Cline, let me introduce you to Woody Allen, the honest atheist: “…the true situation is a hopeless one because nothing does last.”

“[U]nfortunate” is an understatement.

Of course, atheists can lead “an enjoyable life.” Atheists can be good, kind, and exceedingly happy. The problem is… they have no reason to be. Like the band playing on the sinking Titanic, what does it matter if they’re in key and enjoying it? The icy waters of Oblivion await.

Which could be why there’s so few “honest atheists.”

The honest atheist is one who admits the hopelessness demanded by their worldview. There is no way around it. To allege to live “an enjoyable life” under the shadow of some smoldering cosmic Vesuvius is rather laughable. To pretend that your life — much less your films or art or music — is something more than just a diversion, is simply… dishonest.

Which is why I applaud Woody Allen.

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{ 160 comments… add one }
  • Slatt July 23, 2014, 7:19 PM

    If anyone thinks he/she lacks faith, or has not had an experience of God, it’s because faith and/or desire remain idle. Think of it this way: everyone has something called faith at his/her disposal, in his/her toolbox. This is true because we all know what it means to have complete trust….in something. So whether one chooses to apply faith is really up to them. So by applying faith (complete trust in something) one can come to know God and build a relationship with God. But, of course, there must also be a desire to know God—One could have faith in the existence of a “significant other” that exists exclusively for them, but also lack desire to find that other, and to know that other. If one has a desire to meet someone special, form a relationship and fall in love, one cannot sit at home. So there must be a desire and the application of faith–a faith that says, “yes”, the person (or God) is out there –and then one must act on this belief, one must get out and find the “other”. Same with God, very simple. If one has no desire to know or experience God, and/or chooses not to “trust” that God is out there, then a experience of a God relationship —of any relationship for that matter–cannot exist.

    • Charles August 2, 2015, 12:02 PM

      First off, let me just point out that I understand this comment is very late to the conversation, and am not trying to re-spark the conversation. I am just pointing out something that I see as a flaw in this person’s definition.

      I do believe that’s using the incorrect definition of faith (“complete trust in something”) for the context. Sure, someone may have complete trust in something, but that tends to be reserved for things or people who repeatedly deem themselves worth of trust (aka: evidence). I do not have faith that if I drop a ball, it will hit the ground. I understand that it will because I have at least a basic understanding of gravity.

      My definition of faith falls more along the lines of “Belief in something without proof of existence.” In this case, I do not have faith in the ball falling, because I have evidence showing that it will.

      I do not have faith that a god does not exist, it is not a matter of trust. It is a matter of evidence. If I did have faith that a god did in fact exist, it would be with a lack of evidence, fitting the definition. However, I do not like placing belief in things with no evidence. I reserve my belief for things demonstrated to be correct or true. Continuing from that point, because I have no evidence pointing to a god, I reserve belief in any deity.

      And that is not faith.

  • Paul Brocklehurst June 12, 2015, 5:32 AM

    I disagree with the statement regarding unbelief:

    ‘However, pretending there is a good reason to live while denying the existence of anything eternal is just… unrealistic. Or blatantly dishonest.’

    No it isn’t! Atheists have EVERYTHING to live for & NOTHING to die for. When you hear about a suicide bomber on the news do you think ‘Probably an atheist’ or ‘Probably another religious fundamentalist’? < BE HONEST!

  • Sophia July 14, 2015, 2:20 PM

    Atheists have no good reason for life and theists have no good reason for God’s existence. Lol the whole “debate” amuses me very much.

  • John August 2, 2015, 10:14 AM

    Atheists have no reason to be (happy)? What utter bullshit. My family, my friends, my hobbies, my passions, discoveries, arts and interests, my career, my goals and my objectives and my dreams… these are my reasons to be happy. Meaning is what we make for ourselves.

    This is in no way impeded by the disbelief in a celestial dictator looming overhead. Even if it were, my would-be delusions (for sake of comfort) matter not in the slightest bit in what is objectively true.

  • Steve J August 2, 2015, 4:43 PM

    Mike have you read any Buddhist teachings? Your reasoning seems to ignore a lot of profound thinking on suffering from that philosophy. If that sounds too difficult for you I suggest watching a happy dog or cat – you might learn something. [Just realized this post is years old…]

  • Everette Hatcher September 15, 2015, 1:21 PM

    Great post and I reblogged it at my blog. Keep up the good work. Woody Allen is refreshingly honest about the ramifications of his atheism and I do think he should be complimented for that.

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