Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 27 issue 4


Tom Flynn

The Big M

I should be nice to Philip Kitcher. This prolific philosopher’s new book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, was the first winner of the Prometheus Prize, instituted by the American Philo¬sophical Association with the cooperation of Prometheus Books and presented to Kitcher by Paul Kurtz. Toward the end of Living with Darwin, Kitcher reflects on the human implications of wholeheartedly accepting Darwinism and, with it, the austere, soulless worldview of scientific naturalism. Kitcher is not sure most people can handle it: “There is truth in Marx’s dictum that religion, more precisely supernaturalistic and providentialist religion, is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug—but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpalliated, pain too intense for their stark atheism to be a viable solution.”

I’ll say more later about “the pain.” But first, does Kitcher’s analogy of religion as more like medicine than a drug of abuse hold up? Before we tackle that question, a semantic matter: religion is a fuzzy word with infinite redefinitions. Can’t we narrow things down? A more precise way to speak of religion-in-the-abstract might be to speak of the conviction that there exists an exterior source of Meaning with a capital M—Meaning that is unitary in nature, cosmic in scope, and eternal in duration. When believers of many types describe what they get from their faiths, this sense of transcendent Meaning—for brevity, the Big M—often tops their lists.

If capital-M Meaning really works like a medicine to palliate some unpleasant, chronic malady (say, existential despair), we should expect epidemic angst among those who refuse to “take their medicine.” Conversely, few persons should attain psychological health without the Big M. Well, I know more atheists and secular humanists than most people get to meet, and, excepting the ones in Russian novels, hardly any of them seem despondent. Granted, that’s mere anecdote—but there do seem to be enough happy, mentally healthy atheists around to challenge any claim that the Big M offers some uniquely potent remedy against psychological decay.

On the other hand—and, sad to say, contra Kitcher—the parallels between faith and a typical recreational opiate are almost elegant. Please don’t take this next phrase the wrong way, but take heroin—you know, The Big H. Heroin has no power over those who have never used it. Try it a while, become addicted, and its absence will be intolerable. This is quite different from the need for oxygen. Everyone dies without oxygen; opiate withdrawal holds terror only for addicts.

Doesn’t religion, and, in particular, the Big M, show the same pattern? Lifelong unbelievers (nonaddicts) often find nothing particularly frightening in the thought that there is no Meaning in life, only the more limited—and plural—meanings we create for ourselves. In contrast, those who believe (or who believed until only recently) resemble addicts for whom the prospect of withdrawal from Meaning can be genuinely terrifying. After years of dependence on the Big M, “trading down” to the more prosaic small-m meanings with which secular humanists adorn their lives can seem unbearable.

On this view, religion in its role as guarantor of Meaning is not only analogous to a recreational drug, it is more like disease than cure. Yes, it palliates the fear of Meaninglessness, but, in so doing, it is merely relieving a syndrome that it itself fomented when it convinced believers that any such thing as Meaning was available to them in the first place.

Still, the parallel between Big-H addiction and Big-M addiction isn’t perfect. While Big-H addiction is a minority pursuit—most people are not addicted to heroin—most Americans are Big-M addicts. In this country, it’s hard not to have picked up a Meaning habit, unless you grew up in a second- or third-generation atheist household.


I’m Tom, and I’m a Big-M-aholic. Sure, I’m in recovery, but you know what they say: once an addict, always an addict. I grew up religious, and the hardest part of jettisoning my faith was precisely the process of admitting to myself that universal, cosmic, and eternal Meaning did not exist. I could never have it again, because it had never been real; it was just something people made up. So I know firsthand the pain of which Kitcher writes. When I let go of the Big M, I resolved to accept that pain, to live with it, and to leave it unpalliated as the price of truth. It may be my most courageous act. After years of conversations with atheists and secular humanists, I know that many report similar experiences—though not all; for some lucky stiffs, the loss of Meaning was never traumatic.

Yet Kitcher views the absence of Meaning as a shortcoming that renders “stark atheism” nonviable. To ameliorate the emptiness and make naturalism more palatable, he recommends a shopping list of strategies, from righting social injustices to community building. But I think Kitcher underestimates the extent to which recognizing that life is Meaningless—accepting that insight fully, then living bravely on the brink of the absurd—is an indispensable part of secular humanism as some of us practice it.

Admitting that small-m meanings are all you’ll ever have takes guts, especially for people who’ve known the addictive comfort of believing in something more. Kitcher would have us turn away from the abyss and keep our hands busy, but that means passing up the chance to celebrate the fortitude of men and women who day by day face down their addictions to Meaning. Their robust existential courage is, to me, one of the most stirring aspects of living without religion. Some of us take deep pride in acknowledging that aching place where God and certainty and Meaning used to be—and in resolutely leaving it empty, even though it hurts, because we know it as a place where nothing true can dwell.

Bertrand Russell once suggested that “the secret of happiness”—the secret of happiness!—“is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible . . . you must feel it deeply and not brush it aside.” Not everyone sees existential courage and the dark joy of its achievement so vividly. In particular, Kitcher seems to have little use for it. With due respect, I think he’s selling short what serves some humanists as the boldest and most moving attainment of their personal odysseys.

The good news is that, for some of us, at least, living with Darwin may be easier than Philip Kitcher expects.

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007).

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