For atheists the call to a higher power for support or guidance is an empty one. Still, the reports of death tolls and lost loved ones leaves a painful spiritual wound, even for the majority of us who do not personally know anyone whose life was stolen. We were witnesses to the worst terrorist attack in history, but now we need to rebuild and move on with our lives.
Nathaniel Branden, in his talk "What are Our Spiritual Needs?," describes spirituality as
"the longing to feel at home in the universe, to feel benevolently connected to
all that exists and to the ultimate source - whatever that might be - of all that
Events as horrific and terrifying as the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks tear a gash in our spirituality. We are torn from the normal context of our lives and thrown into a seemingly inescapable world of chaos and unknown terrors. These events destroy, at least temporarily, the connection we feel with reality; they disturb the harmony we feel with the world. We feel lost, alone, and without a way to make sense of the world.
The loss of our connection isolates us from the things that give our lives meaning and purpose. It makes it hard, as many people experienced, to focus on mundane tasks and everyday activities. These lost their meaning and made our lives feel as if they were without meaning. This alienation is part of what makes these events so terrifying.
Until this connection is repaired, we are unable to go on with our lives effectively. The anxiety this event caused stays with us. The world remains chaotic and inhospitable. When this connection to reality is restored, the anxiety, terror, and chaos can be dealt with and life can go on. The world becomes hospitable and comprehensible again.
If one is religious, one turns to his belief in God to restore his connection to reality. Because of his faith, a religious person believes that he is connected to God and this helps him feel connected to the world. His faith gives him a framework of religious beliefs that give him a sense of meaning and purpose, allowing him to repair his connections to the world after such a horrible event.
What is it that atheists have that keep them connected to the world? Values. Our values connect us to the world because we need to interact with and be a part of reality and this world in order to acquire and create the values we need. The pursuit and enjoyment of one's values define the meaning and purpose of one's life; one does not need to look to God or faith to give his life meaning and purpose.
For example, a very important value for an individual is the manner in which he spends the majority of his life's productive hours - his career. The choice of career greatly helps to define his world and his place in it. It gives him purposes and goals to pursue, and a course of action to follow in order to succeed. An atheist does not need faith or belief in God to give his career meaning; his actions are filled with the meaning his career goals give him.
During tragic and terrifying events like this recent attack, we don't suddenly need to look to faith or God. Our pursuit of values gives us the support we need by tieing us back to the world. Our values help us to restore our connection to existence. Our values are what sustain our lives and give them meaning - even at terrible times like this.
After tragedies individuals often feel a deep need to "do something," to feel efficacious. One wants to help out and to be a part of something. One may feel that they need to volunteer at a relief center or to be involved in some other kind of action that helps to make the situation a little better. A great deal of what is behind this need is an attempt to restore the torn connections with the world. One is not only trying to keep one's self busy just to avoid focusing on the tragedy, but also trying to find a purpose and place in the world by being active in it. By getting out into the world and doing something, we are trying to seek out values and maintain our connection to reality.
Take for example the thousands of courageous volunteers for the rescue efforts. Or the millions of dollars that already have been generously donated for disaster relief. These volunteers and contributors may not have lost immediate loved ones, but they recognize that they need to act to protect their values. Even in the face of heartbreaking odds, the purpose and sense of efficacy that the rescue effort gives these individuals propels them to continue and makes life during this tragedy bearable.
As the emergency is dealt with and the rescue efforts end, we need to restore our own lives back to their normal conditions. We need to get on with our own lives. We need to go back to work, back to school, and back to play. It is hard to think about enjoying your son's soccer game or to focus on a marketing campaign for your corporation's newest product. We feel guilty for beginning to enjoy ourselves again whether at home or at work. But we shouldn't, we have a right to our own lives and our own happiness. We have to get ourselves back into our lives, and this means continuing to seek and create values.
This attack was an attack on the idea that life is about seeking this-worldly values and goals. It was an attack on the principle that we do have a right to our own lives and happiness. To allow ourselves to be frightened from the pursuit of our values or to be scared into accepting restrictions on liberty, and hence our ability to seek values, does not serve our lives or our values. It is victory for the terrorists and all those who seek to destroy freedom and civilization.
But it is in going back to work and continuing with value-seeking, that we bring harmony back to our connection with existence and with others. It is in this, sometimes painful, process that we can repair the gash in our spirituality and feel at home again in our lives and in our country. And this is the greatest victory over the terror and hatred directed at us on September 11, 2001.
This article was originally published in the October 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.