Wisdom From an Atheist

David Foster Wallace, a writer, professor and committed atheist, died on Sept 12, 2008. He was perhaps best known for his book about John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Wallace was a thoroughgoing postmodernist — and thereby solidly possessed of the notion that there is no capital-T Truth.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an essay, adapted from a commencement speech he delivered in 2005, upon which I stumbled by the usual spidery web of disconnected URL links (HT: Touchstone Magazine and Signs of the Times). It is in many ways a stunning piece in its insight and wit.


A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

And this:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Not bad for a postmodern atheist. And also tragically prophetic:

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

He committed suicide, by hanging, at age 46.

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7 thoughts on “Wisdom From an Atheist

  1. Hi Dr. Bob – I felt badly for this guy when I read the news about a week ago. I tried to read Infinite Jest but found it rather Joycean and couldn’t get through it. Yeah, I confess, I can never understand James Joyce either, I must be unschooled in proper literature…

    I didn’t know about DFW being an atheist but that makes sense and makes the fact of his life and death even sadder. What a loss. I guess that’s all I have to say. Jess

  2. Reminds me of a the aetheist’s aetheist, Nietzsche (God is dead, I am the anti-Christ), who completed the modern rejection of God that started with Machiavelli. The implications of his aetheism were a world beyond the mundane concepts of good and evil for the little people. He was an aristocrat who had better things to do and to think. His megalomanic obsession with all things not-God lead him down a darker and darker path to his own madness. I believe he went home to live with his mother and before his death spent hours screaming chants in her home like “I am dead because I am stupid….I am stupid because I am dead….”

    His insanity and writings had a profound impact on Lenin, and of course his fellow German, Adolph Hitler.

    Sad stuff. What a difference a Gospel makes and its power to renew your mind.

  3. What a tragedy, one of millions, unfortunately. To have lived and pursued meaning so passionately and yet fundamentally missed the point of it all is truly tragic. The idea of “wisdom from an aetheist” is oxymoronic.

  4. Jess –
    Try some of David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, or Consider the Lobster). I _adore_ his nonfiction, but find his fiction unreadable.

  5. So much insight, so much wisdom into what he ultimately did…but he did it, anyway. This will sound simplistic to many, but this isn’t my blog; I can’t develop it here.

    The fundamental Truth that I will forever cling to is this: Jesus Christ is Lord. I tried being my own god, relying on my own understanding. My praise is that He is a God of second chances…or third, fourth, fifth…and His grace and mercy will never fail.

  6. what a stunning last sentence on any blog piece. Poor man, he was so close……..and only He knows our heart. and only HE will judge.

    I hope this man rests in peace. With Him.

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