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Confessions of an atheist philosopher. Part 4: The empty promises of “be here now”

Stefani Ruper is a philosopher specialising in the ethics of belief and Associate Member of Christ Church College, Oxford. She received her PhD from the Theology & Religion faculty at the University of Oxford in 2020.

In the fourth of a series, philosopher Stefani Ruper tries the most popular advice given by atheist philosophers.
A graffited wall shows a stick man face next to 'what now'
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

My name is Stefani. I was a committed atheist for almost my entire life. I studied religion to try to figure out how to have spiritual fulfillment without God. I tried writing books on spirituality for agnostics and atheists, but I gave up because the answers were terrible. Two years after completing my PhD, I finally realised that that’s because the answer is God.   

Today, I explain how and why I decided to walk into Christian faith.   

Here at Seen and Unseen I am publishing a six-article series highlighting key turning points or realisations I made on my walk into faith. It tells my story, and it tells our story too.   


I spent the first thirty years of my life looking for ways to have spiritual fulfillment as an atheist. I even got a PhD studying theology trying to figure out how to get the same peace and joy my religious friends had without believing in God.  

For a brief period after finishing my PhD I thought I might have found some solutions. I tried writing books about them titled things like How to Have an Existential Crisis and Agnosticism: The Real Spiritual Truth and Joy. But they were not good books. When I shared this opinion with my friends, they all thought I was being too hard on myself. But I knew the truth: the answers I was providing just weren’t good enough. They didn’t make me feel happy or peaceful. Why would they work for anyone else? 

I had one last resort to try: giving up, which is the advice most atheist philosophers provide. According to them, happiness lies not in finding the meaning of life, but in accepting that there is none. Relax, they say. Stop searching for something that isn’t there! Be a good person. Enjoy the present moment. Be here now!  

I decided to give it a try—and I really did try my best. I got a prestigious job. I rented an expensive apartment with a balcony overlooking Harvard Square. I bought a brand-new car and paid an extra $600 for a special-edition paint colour. I partied a few nights a week. I meditated every day. I cultivated friendships. I dated. I went hiking and sat on park benches and wondered at the beauty of nature. 

Everyone who followed me on Instagram thought I was having the time of my life. But I have never been more miserable. 

“Be here now” reduces meaning and possibilities for spiritual fulfillment 

Of course, there are beautiful aspects to being present. It is true that being aware, mindful, and grateful in each moment enriches life. 

But when that’s all there is, you run into three big problems. 

1: Meaning is flimsy 

All religions offer meaning that has what Donald Crosby calls a personal-cosmic link—that is, a way to explain our personal stories in terms of a bigger, ultimate story. These stories call us to be the best versions of ourselves for the sake of something beyond us. They give us reason to actualize. They provide solace when we falter or suffer. They offer meaning that is fulfilling, reliable, and concrete. 

In contrast, when meaning exists only in the here and now, it’s not out a real thing out there to be discovered, but only something you can make up if you feel like it. Such meaning is flimsy, easily transgressed, and forgotten.  

2: The universe is a cold, empty, meaningless void

Believing in God or some transcendent source turns existence into what William James calls a thou. Humans are naturally social beings and always in relationship. Being able to have a relationship with the source of all existence adds great potential for love, awe, adoration, belonging, and homecoming to life. In contrast, when the present moment is all there is, the universe is a cold, empty, meaningless void you just bumble along in until you die. 

3: Life is unsatisfying, pain harder to bear, and effort more difficult

“Why bother?” is a common refrain in modern culture. There are many reasons, including unjust systems and corrupt institutions. But one major reason is that living only in the here and now traps what counts as “good” and “evil” in the here and now, too. 

The highest good can only ever be pleasure (things like ‘flourishing' and 'well-being' are measurable only by how good they feel), and the worst evil can only ever be pain (suffering and injustice are similarly measurable only by how bad they feel).   

Pleasure, however, never lasts. Dopamine, the neuromodulator that creates a feeling of satisfaction every time you obtain something you want (a meal, an achievement, a date with a crush), falls right back down after you get it, typically to levels lower than when you started. No matter how much you love, or how hard you party, or how much you sacrifice to help others feel good, you (and they) end up in the same state of longing you started in—or worse.  

The only solution is to keep pursuing more pleasure. Many fall prey to all sorts of unhealthy attachments such as to substances, sex, and entertainment. Personally, I was most attached to professional success, food, and romantic love. I kept chasing ultimate satisfaction—while realising more every day that it was never going to come. 

Pain, the greatest evil, is unavoidable. It can never be overcome. This makes us its victims, “helpless cogs in a cruel machine,” as Tim Keller puts it. This can create a victim mentality as well as a sense of futility, as there is nothing you can do to escape it or give it meaning. Many consider it their purpose in life to fight pain, but as none of us can ever put a significant dent in it, such efforts can feel pointless. Personally, I felt hammered by successive loss and the absurdity of injustice. I had no way to cope other than to escape with pleasure or to numb myself.  

Back to the drawing board 

Living in my sky rise apartment overlooking Harvard, I would often make a cup of tea and go stand on the balcony. I’d stare off into the horizon, my heart thudding dull and sluggish in my chest, and wonder: is this all there is? 

It had been more than twenty years since the first time I read a book on philosophy and started my lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment without God. I had remained hopeful that I would find an answer. And if there wasn’t an answer to be found, I would create one.  

But as I sipped my tea and watched the sun slip below the horizon, night after night, I began to suspect that I was going to fail. I had just tried the most popular advice given by the most esteemed atheist philosophers and came up empty handed. 

After just nine months, I pulled the plug on the experiment. A professor in France had recently published a paper on atheism I found intriguing. I terminated my lease, quit my job, and hopped on a plane. Two days later I dropped my books on a desk in the university bibliothèque and settled in to keep learning.   

Little did I know, the program of research I’d given myself wasn’t about to deepen my understanding of atheism. 

It was about to lead me to the one place I never thought I’d end up: in the loving arms of God. 

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Parliament’s floor tiles that empowered a queen

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

From Palace of Westminster floor tiles fit for a Queen to feminist theology, Belle Tindall takes a thought journey.
A grand highly dercorated hall in the neo-gothic style, with encaustic tiles in the foreground.
The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament.
Houses of Parliament 360° virtual tour.

Engraved into the floor tiles of Westminster’s Royal Gallery are the words Cor Reginae in Manu Domini, which is the Latin script from the biblical book of Proverbs. However, there is one salient difference, one which has caught both my attention and imagination. In English, the original Proverb reads, 

‘in the Lord’s hand is the king’s heart’ 

But what is written on the floor of the Royal Gallery is, 

‘the Queen’s heart is in the hand of the Lord’  

Right there, on the floor of the Palace of Westminster, is a little piece of feminist theology. 

In a parliament that was the apogee of Victorian values and sentiment, the political and cultural epicentre of an Age that was (ironically) remembered in reference to a woman but was nevertheless pontificated on laws that treated women as chattels, these tiles were theological dynamite (as opposed to literal dynamite – that was a century or two earlier).  

Female empowerment was present below the feet, if not within the hearts and minds, of the men who oversaw an era of undeniable and near-absolute patriarchy.   

Feminism: A little context 

Feminism is not an easy concept to define. It isn’t black and white, however much we wish that it were. In truth, it more accurately resembles the entirety of the grey scale. It cannot claim to be singular any more than the female experience is singular. In reality, it is brimming with nuance, complexity, and subjectivity. What’s more, I would confidently wage a bet that you have arrived at this article with an already in-tact pre-conception of the term. None of us approach feminism neutrally, be weary of anyone who claims to do so – it is simply impossible. Therefore, we are not only faced with the endless external nuances of feminism, but we’re also tasked with sifting through our differing internal understandings. Like I say, it’s about as definable as the shade of grey.  

Nevertheless, for the sake of being on the same page, allow me a moment to try. A moment to (briefly) unpack what I mean by the term feminism. For that, I will borrow the words of award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who influentially declared that feminism is the belief in ‘the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’  

That’s it.  

To me, feminism is nothing more, and certainly nothing less than that. Of course, as a self-proclaimed feminist, it’s necessary for me to plunge the dark depths of the subjective nature of such a belief. But it is more important to ensure that I continually come back up to the surface for a deep breath of air, and I consider Chimamanda’s over-arching definition to be that air.  

With Chimamanda’s words filling our lungs, let us dive beneath the surface for a moment.  

Feminism has, and still does, get worked out in the most tangible of ways: through marches on the streets, protests outside government buildings, petitions, boycotts, legal battles and demands. All of which is advocating for the empowerment of women, the restoring of an equilibrium, and the ensuring of that all-important equality of the sexes. 

As well as the macro-examples that adorn the history books and media outlets, we must also acknowledge the micro-battles; the thousands upon thousands of non-news-worthy conversations, changes, and decisions that nudge the individuals and communities involved toward the very same goal of equality. Afterall, feminism is as personal as it is political. And all of these actions, past and present, whether they be macro or micro in scale, are (often imperfectly) working toward the practical, tangible, measurable flourishing of women and therefore society.  

And so, with all of that practical work going on – with the many battles won and the many more that are raging on - why on earth would we need something as abstract, as contemplative, as time-swallowingly-indulgent as feminist theology?  

I’m glad you asked.  

Feminist theology as an imaginative endeavour  

By way of an answer, I’d like to return to those words on the floor of the Palace of Westminster. Victoria was the Queen. She wore the crown, she sat on the throne, she lived in the palace, she presided over the government, she ruled over the country. All the evidence was there; it would have taken a rather large dose of delusion for anyone to have questioned it. And yet, according to the existence of those floor tiles, the tangible evidence wasn’t quite enough.  

Queen Victoria’s right to be such was ultimately held by the divine. So much so, that the intangible was made tangible, literally carved into the ground that she (and others) would walk upon. And therein lies the need for feminist theology.  

Whether one considers themselves to be Christian or not – or even religious, for that matter – we all have ‘imaginative landscapes’. Not ‘imaginative’ as in fantasy, but rather, ‘imaginative’ as in our landscapes of thought. These are the interior places where we attach meaning to our experiences, and therefore judge the significance of every waking moment. As Francis Spufford so eloquently puts it,

"we are meaning-making creatures. We cannot stop making enchantments.' 

This is also the realm in which we wonder about the existence of God, the mysteries of our universe, and the significance of ourselves.  

And so, it’s in those places, as well as the practical, that work is being done toward the equality of the sexes. It’s in those places that we must grapple with the inherent value of women. Because, in many ways, those are the truest places. Those are the places where reality is crafted, ordered, and understood. It is in those places where truth is sought, viewpoints are galvanised, and actions are decided upon. Feminist Theologian, Serene Jones, writes it this way, 

‘Closely tied to the view of practical transformation is feminist theology's contention that changing society requires both changing laws and practices and challenging the categories and processes we use to think about life and to make sense of our world.’ 

In short, feminism has work to do in both the seen and the unseen. Feminist theology, therefore, is an imaginative endeavour. Which makes it a profoundly important one.  

It is the work of digging into biblical texts with an un-denied bias, a particular mission, a sole question that needs answering. We do so in order to uncover what the maker thinks of the made (the maker being God, the made being women), and from there do all other feminist inclinations flow. We find evidence of the empowerment of women in the divine agenda, so it naturally gets included in ours. We spot profound equality of the sexes present in the original blueprint of a flourishing earth, and so we work in partnership with it. We find validation of female worth, value and power in the pages of the Bible, and then work about writing it into the pages of the history books. And on it goes. We get things straight in our imaginative landscapes, and then we get them straight everywhere else.  

Did the fact that Queen Vicotria walked upon those affirming floor tiles eradicate any possibility of sexism or misogyny? I doubt it. But I like to think that it was a profound start-line, a radical piece of feminist theology that we are still running to catch up with. 

You may be thinking that this is interesting, albeit utterly irrelevant. Because we now live in a secular society, one where we don’t need any kind of God to legitimate the way we perceive anything – least of all ourselves. This is not the good old Victorian era, after all.  

And to such arguments, I may be tempted to direct you toward the work of Nick Spencer or Tom Holland and suggest that we’re not quite as secular in our values as we first appear. Or perhaps I could point you to the discography of Nick Cave, Lauryn Hill, Paul Simon or Stormzy and question whether our craving for something truer than what we can see is a craving we’ve truly progressed beyond? Or even bring to your attention the fact that the Barbie Movie is the highest grossing film of the year (you didn’t really expect me to not mention that film in an article about feminism, did you?), and argue that we’re obsessed with wondering what we’re for, what makes us who we are, what generates our value. It is an itch we cannot stop scratching.  

I could point to all those things. But oddly, I don’t feel the need to. Because I think you know, as do I, that our imaginative landscape is there, and it matters. We know it, we engage it, we feel it. 

And that’s why feminist theology matters. At least, to me.  

Gosh. All those thoughts from a few floor tiles. Maybe I need to get out more.  



All insights into the Palace of Westminster are curtesy of Richard Hall; architectural historian and author of The Palace of Westminster: Faith, Art, and Architecture: an illustrated guidebook that uncovers the Christian legacy that underpins the visual culture of the Palace of Westminster.