Atheism and the Meaning of Life, Again

The above article by Jennifer Fulwiler, who converted from atheism to Catholicism, raises the perennial issue of the meaning of life for atheists. For me, the most engaging part of the piece is the quote from Ross Douthat. Douthat apparently concedes that an atheist’s joys and sorrows can feel as intensely meaningful as they do for the theist. However, he proposes an interesting analogy. In warfare, the motivation for a soldier to fight will be the bonds of comradeship formed with fellow soldiers, one’s “band of brothers.” You fight for your buddy, not some “ism” or other abstraction like king or country. Therefore, the soldier’s experience will seem meaningful, whatever the ultimate reason for the war. Still, as Douthat notes, it does matter why a soldier has been sent to fight and very possibly die. That is, the larger context, the overall point of the enterprise, matters as well as the motivation of the individual soldier. He says, “…just as it surely makes a (if you will) meaningful difference why the war itself is being waged, it surely makes a rather large difference whether our joys and sorrows take place in, say, C.S. Lewis’s Christian universe or Richard Dawkins’s godless cosmos.”

Of course, it does matter very much why soldiers are sent to war. It matters profoundly, for instance, whether, on the one hand, their mission is to destroy the monstrous evil of Nazism, or whether, on the other hand, they are sent to interdict weapons of mass destruction that exist only in the fantasies of ideologues. Sending soldiers to fight for an imaginary, trivial, or evil cause is fundamentally unjust. How, though, is this relevant to the question of the meaning of life?

First, let’s note that there is an ambiguity in the meaning of “the meaning of life.” On the one hand, to say that a life is meaningful can mean that a life matters. On the other hand, the phrase can refer to the meaning that life has for the individual. Clearly, a life can have meaning in the first sense even though it is badly deprived of meaning in the latter sense. Consider someone who is burned to death in a house fire in early infancy. Clearly, that life was meaningful in the sense that it mattered. It mattered very much. Yet such a life was tragically deprived of meaning for that individual. He or she died painfully at a very early age and never had the opportunity to experience those things that constitute the meaning of life for individuals. Meaning in the sense of mattering is independent of the experience of the individual; meaning for the individual necessarily involves the individual’s experiences.

I think, then, that Douthat’s implication is that theism has the advantage over atheism in that it can explain why a life matters, even one grossly deprived of meaningful experience, whereas atheism, viewing human life as the unintended product of an impersonal universe, has no good answer. For the theist, a life matters, even one tragically cut short, because each life is a part of God’s plan. The Campus Crusade for Christ used to publish a tract titled The Four Spiritual Laws. The First Law was, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Christians believe—and must believe— that this applies even to those for whom God’s “wonderful plan” is that they be burned to death as infants. In some manner, unknown or perhaps unknowable to us, that apparently wasted life will turn out, in the long run (sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza put it), to have been an essential element for the fulfillment of God’s supremely good purposes. The atheist, of course, can offer no such account.

The theist can also argue that theism does offer greater meaning for life as experienced. It does so precisely by offering the believer the comfort that events that appear to be pointlessly horrible are in fact deeply significant. John Hick notes that at the core of theistic religion is a cosmic optimism, the faith that, in the end, and despite all appearances otherwise, all things will be well (see Chapter 4 of An Interpretation of Religion). Further, religion offers a much more personal consolation. The believer is promised reunion with loved ones in the hereafter. Also, believers can be assured that their lives matter, however obscure their circumstances, and that, in the end, God will compensate the long-suffering believer for any pains and injustices endured in this world. In pagan Rome, intellectuals often disdained Christianity as “a religion of women and slaves.” To the extent that this was true, it is quite understandable that Christianity would appeal to the down and out. Those marginalized in this life can be assured of a crown of glory in the hereafter. Obviously, atheists cannot offer such comfort.

The atheist’s response must be straightforward and uncompromising: There is indeed no transcendent or cosmic significance of human life. We are not the purpose of the cosmos, or, indeed, any part of its purpose. It has no purpose. There is no grand, overarching, eternal Plan towards which each individual event is an increment leading to a glorious fruition. The existence of the human race is indeed an unintended effect of impersonal laws. We are neither gods nor the children of gods. We are children of the earth, products of natural selection and the manifold vagaries of earth’s history just as much as the lion, the whale, or the tapeworm.

But why would atheists insist upon seeing themselves in such a bleak, comfortless, seemingly inhuman way, a way that, surely, most human beings can never accept? We accept it because we think it true. We think that everything we know about the cosmos forbids us the false comfort of a spurious self-elevation. We see the theistic view of human meaning as wishful thinking at best, or, at worst, egocentric self-glorification. Undoubtedly, most would sympathize with the Victorian matron, wife of an Anglican bishop who exclaimed upon first hearing of Darwin’s theory, “Oh! My dear! Descended from apes! Let us hope that it is not true! Or, if true, let us hope that it does not become generally known!” That humans were not created a little lower than the angels, but are products of a natural process of descent with modification, leaving them a bit higher than the apes, is a thought so terrible that it should be suppressed. Surely, though, there is something craven and distasteful about refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. Can illusions even genuinely comfort us if we suspect that they are illusions? Facts faced are always less terrifying.

Well, then, do people not matter for atheists? Of course they do. But why? Different atheists will give different answers. I will give mine: I see our concern for our fellow humans as based in human biology and completed by human rationality. Like our closest relatives among the great apes, we are by nature social creatures that form intense emotional bonds with each other. We naturally form strong attachments with relatives, friends, and tribe. We also care deeply about ourselves, of course. But how do we come to care about those whom we have never met? Why do we care about those who are not relatives, friends, or members of our tribe? We care about those others because, unlike the great apes, we are also capable of rational reflection. We can reflect that those whom we have never met have hopes, fears, loves, dreams, cares, curiosity, and other such personal characteristics just as we do. We care about these qualities with respect to ourselves and our loved ones, and we can value them in those we have never met. In short, we come to care about others when we perceive in them a shared humanity. God has nothing to do with it.

It seems then that people matter for atheists too, but atheists see no need for a transcendent or metaphysical grounding for human meaning. The natural qualities that humans share are sufficient to provide a basis for the fact that we matter to each other. If I am told that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life I have to wonder what God’s love could possibly amount to and why it should mean anything at all to me. Does God’s putative love for me mean that he will protect me or my loved ones from horrible suffering and harm? Apparently not. Every day people allegedly loved by God die in excruciating agony. Well, does God’s love mean that he will save my soul if I believe in him? But he will only be saving me from what he will do to me if I do not believe in him, right? What would you think of someone that said he loved you and would show his love by refraining from killing you if you love him back? Sorry, but none of this makes any sense to me. For me, the upshot is that my wife’s love matters the world to me, but God’s supposed love matters not at all.

So, humans matter for atheists and, as Douthat seems to concede, atheists can also have meaning in life in the sense that they have deeply meaningful experiences. Fulwiler, however, does not concede this. As she sees it, Atheists are living in a fool’s paradise. They may experience their lives as meaningful, but such experience is really a sad delusion if atheism is true. On the atheist’s view those experiences that seem meaningful are actually accidental products of a meaningless universe. Further, human life, whether considered individually or collectively, occurs during a negligible instant in the cosmic expanse of time and on what is effectively a geometric point in the vastness of space. Indeed, those seemingly meaningful experiences are nothing but the firings of neurons in a very temporarily-existent brain. The atheist, rather pathetically, clings to these experiences for a few years before surrendering to unending nothingness.

First, a tangential point: There is no reason why consciousness caused by a brain has to be less real than consciousness caused by a soul. Why would one be a mirage and the other not? Fulwiler just seems to be indulging in gratuitous rhetoric here.

The assumption behind Fulwiler’s argument seems to be that if something comes to an end someday it cannot have been meaningful. Why assume that? I see no rational basis whatsoever for such an assumption. Indeed, why not assume the opposite and see temporary things as more meaningful precisely because they are evanescent? Why not enjoy the blush of the rose even more because we know how soon it will fade? Likewise, knowing that life is short, are we not motivated to fill its days with the things that matter to us? Why not see the very finitude of things as making them all the more significant? For the atheist, the infant burned in the house fire or the life ruined by drug addiction or the mind wasted on irrational obsessions are true tragedies because there is only the one life, and if it is ruined, there are no more. The very limits of life are what gives it overwhelming meaning.

Homer knew this. Why are his Olympian gods petty, jealous, childish, cruel, and fatuous? Because their vacuous eternal lives make them miserable, and they can only get enjoyment by obsessing on the doings of mortals, whose lives are incomparably richer and more meaningful than theirs. Doomed Hector’s life is vastly more significant than any of the trivial lives of that ragtag rabble of gods.