My atheist existentialism is rather more coherent. It declares that God does not exist, yet there is still a being in whom existence precedes essence, a being which exists before being defined by any concept, and this being is man or, as Heidegger puts it, human reality. That means that man first exists, encounters himself and emerges in the world, to be defined afterwards. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. It is man who conceives himself, who propels himself towards existence. Man becomes nothing other than what is actually done, not what he will want to be.
And when we say that man takes responsibility for himself, we say more than that – he is in his choices responsible for all men. All our acts of creating ourselves create at the same time an image of man such as we believe he must be. Thus, our personal responsibility is vast, because it engages all humanity.
If I want, say, to marry and have children, such choice may depend on my situation, my passion, my desire, but by it I engage not only myself, but all humanity in the way of the monogamy. In fashioning myself, I fashion man. This helps us to understand some rather grandiloquent words like anguish, abandonment, despair.
The existentialist declares that man is in anguish, meaning that he who chooses cannot escape a deep responsibility for all humanity. Admittedly, few people appear to be anxious; but we claim that they mask their anguish, that they flee it. This is what Kierkegaard called the anguish of Abraham. You know the old story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. But anyone in such a case would wonder straight away, is this an angel? am I the Abraham? If we hear voices from the sky, what proves that they come not from hell, or the subconscious, or some pathological state? Who proves that they are addressed to me?
Each man must say to himself: am I right to set the standard for all humanity? To deny that is to mask the anguish. When, for example, a military leader sends men to their deaths, he may have his orders, but at the bottom it is he alone who chooses.
And when we speak about ‘abandonment’, we want to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to follow this conclusion to its end.
The existentialist is strongly against that sloppy morality which tries to remove God without ethical expense, like the French professors of the 1880’s who saw God as a useless and expensive assumption but still wanted definitive rules like ‘do not lie’ to exist a priori.
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it rather embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him any possibility of finding values in a heaven. Dostoevsky wrote “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; that is the starting point of existentialism.
We are alone, without excuses. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. There is no power of ‘beautiful passions’ which propel men to their actions, we think, rather, that man is responsible for his own passions.
The existentialist cannot accept that man can be helped by any sign on earth, for he will interpret the sign as he chooses. As Ponge has truly written “Man is the future of man”.