Tuesday, 25 September 2007

The Meaning of Life. Or, do theists ever even talk to atheists?

The above video is an advert for the Alpha Course (A course taught by churches that aims to introduce people to Christianity), that has recently been showing on UK television. It features a man and a woman traveling along a conveyor belt from birth to death, and ends abruptly with their being buried in a coffin. A tag line of "Is there more to life than this?" appears, with the obvious implication that no, this isn't all there is - come along and we'll tell you about all this other great stuff that will add meaning and joy to your life.

This has always been something that's confused me about theists - the view that without God there can be no meaning, and its corollary that all atheists go around in a perpetual depressed state, despairing at the pointlessness of existence, and wishing there was some way to add meaning to their lives. Where do they get this idea from? Have they ever actually talked to any atheists about this? I don't know a single atheist who has such a depressing view of life. The view that a life without God is pointless seems to only be held, funnily enough, by those who hold that God is the point of life.

So this argument cannot be taken directly from their experience of atheists, but where does it come from? It seems to me that there are two main strands of reasoning theists use to come to this conclusion. The first is that God, as an absolute omnipotent being, is the only source of an absolute meaning for the universe, and by his action our lives are given meaning. What meaning? Well, whatever he wants - to 'give greater glory to God' seems to be a fairly standard Christian answer when confronted with the question of meaning. This view, that meaning can only ever be imposed from the outside, seems to me to be a pessimistic, limiting, and (dare I say it) depressing conclusion. We make our own meaning in this life - we can choose what we are here for, and I find this far more worthy of celebrating than the forced imposal of another's will on our life. I certainly do not find it depressing. Look on it as a choice between admiring the works of another painter, or being given an easel, a canvas and a palette and told to paint what you want - I know which I would find the more liberating.

The second argument concerns death, and follows the lines of "Well, if you're just going to die at the end and that's it, what's the point of doing anything anyway?". I've been in churches where the preacher has stated he can't "understand why atheists grieve when someone dies, if that's all there is to life?". This approach confuses me even more. I cannot understand why theists can't realise that if once you die, you are gone completely, then that is even more of a reason to a) mourn someone's passing, and b) value both your and other people's lives more while you and they can live them, as opposed to how you would feel if you treated life as just a rest stop on the way to eternal bliss. The second part of the argument appears to be based on the assertion that if life has no permanence, then nothing we do can last, and things that do not last are worthless. I find this statement frankly bizarre. What has permanence to do with meaning, with emotion, with joy? I'll leave it to Tennyson to sum up my objections to this one:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

-Alfred Lord Tennyson. In Memoriam, 1850
Thanks Alf.

Finally, and on the subject of death, I'd like to give another great 19th century figure, Thomas Huxley, the final word and reproduce an extract from his letter to Charles Kingsley, written 147 years ago, almost to the day, after the death of his son from scarlet fever. Before theists start preaching on the meaningless and nihilism of atheism, this passage at least should be required reading - I defy you to read this extract and tell me that it requires God to feel sorrow and joy, and to give life meaning. Over to Huxley:
As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, "If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality ? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction – and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy's grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, "Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders."

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is – a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

- Thomas Huxley, September 23rd, 1860


Matt said...

You bring up some excellent points about the assumptions of Christians. Three points in particular stood out to me. 1)Many theists/Christians tend to assume the feelings and beliefs of atheists, but have never talked to or even met one. 2)Many theists/Christians have an odd belief that there is no reason for sorrow when one dies, because eternal life...or at least life after death is assumed. 3)Life is often treated as a "rest stop on the way to eternal bliss." If I'm understanding you correctly, this assumption likely leads one to treat life as less precious and that our actions tend to be less important. Great points, assuming I'm not putting words in your mouth.

I suppose I should say at this point that I'm a Christian, but found your article challenging nonetheless. If I have a criticism to offer, it would be that I think you have lumped all theists and people who claim to be Christians under one general category. Some of what you said hits home for me, but much of it is not true of what I believe, nor do I believe the Bible teaches some of what you've heard from other Christians. A few friendly points:

1) In my own life I do not know any atheists, but that doesn't stop me from getting a general idea of what they think and feel (I'm reading your blog, and I've been trying to make it a habit to read others in order to challenge my own assumptions). There are not very many Christians like me who care to challenge themselves by stretching their faith, but there are some. Your point is granted that some of the most vocal Christians ought not to speak for atheists, because they have not really looked into what they in reality believe.

2)I've also heard a number of Christians make stupid statements like, "There is no reason to mourn the death of so-and-so, they are in a better place." In my belief, it is true they are in a better place, but certainly death is something to grieve. Jesus himself wept when one of his best friends died. Christians believe that death is the enemy. We do look forward in hope of the resurrection of the dead and the opportunity to see loved ones again in the future, but that in no way means we should no mourn in the present. Death is a very sad thing. Christians who believe otherwise are not reading the same Bible that I am.

3)I think you also rightly imply that Christians can tend to put little importance on this life because it is just a "rest stop." This is true of many people who call themselves Christians, but I do not believe this attitude should be the Christian perspective. The Bible does teach that we have eternity for which to look forward, but that should inspire us to use the time we have in diligent obedience of what God has called us to do. We are certainly to have the perspective that this life is all there is, but such a perspective should not lead us to live life as though it is not important. Sadly many who call themselves Christians do not think that the way they live their lives matters. I would question whether or not they are really Christians...let alone if they've ever really read the same Bible that I read. (Feel free to identify a post where you cover this...I'd be interested to read it).

4)I think you've rightly identified a default answer Christians give to many questions of meaning in life: "to give greater glory to God." As a Christian I think this is the ultimate answer that we must give. I, however, don't think that most people who call themselves Christians really understand what that looks like practically. It is a concept which at some point we must take by faith. I look at all the evidence around me and come to the firm conclusion that there is indeed a God and that he must be worshiped. You look at all the evidence and have concluded that there is no God. My point of contention with your point is that you are making the opposite assumption...one that you eventually have to make when you come to the conclusion of atheism, namely that "We make our own meaning in this life - we can choose what we are here for," etc. My challenge to you is, what has led you to believe that we make our own meaning in life? Maybe you've already answered that somewhere else in your archives, so I might find it at some point in the future.

I suppose there is more that can be said both positively about your article and points at which I have some contention, but I'll leave it at this for now and hope for some positive correspondence in the future. I'll check back to this post soon and I'll snoop around your other articles. So far I find what you have to say very challenging.

Ben D said...

Matt - thanks for commenting. I'm always interested in hearing other points of view, and feel free to stop by anytime. Of course, I don't believe that all Christians fit into one particular category, or that all believe exactly the same things - but I do believe the points of view I set out are very prevalent in the way Christians view atheists, and it's much easier to write without continually making exceptions, or qualifiers such as 'many theists'! Maybe I should have a permanent disclaimer on my site somewhere, that I'm aware that my characterisation of theists for the purpose of articles is not universally applicable? As to what has led me to believe that we make our own meaning in life, I can't really see how it could be any other way. Meaning is only ever relevant to yourself - if you feel that the meaning of life is to give greater glory to god, that's only because you personally attach meaning to this. I'm afraid my blog has only been going for a little over a month so I don't have an extensive back archive yet, but you raise some interesting points that I will definitely think about blogging on in the future.

Oryx Orange said...

Huxley was an interesting and enlightened 19th century mind. Nice quote. Started a good bloodline, too.

I'm more of a heaven on earth guy, so I definitely agree with you on the overly simplistic depiction in that Alpha Course ad. Seems they are looking for sheep, not shepherds.

I'm not a Christian, but I am a theist, though I acknowledge no proof beyond intuition of the existence of God. As I just commented on the "et tu" blog, where I found yours, to me the more relevant question that "Does God exist?" is "Will my life be better with a God in it?". If the answer were no for me, I would be an atheist.

By the way, I'd say that over half of my friends are atheists.

No Experts Needed said...

Google is always serving me 'meaning of life' posts, but I wanted to stop here and thank you for the very interesting post(s).

I've made it my business to ask the MOL question to everyone I meet. If you're breathing, I ask for your meaning of life answer...but I never "pre-qualify" a person based on their belief system. Viva la difference and all that.

Now that I'm older (ahem, I mean wiser), I stick closer to the 'keep it simple' rule. For me, it simply comes down to just talking to the person sitting next to you...with the intention to learn, not with the purpose of changing their mind. When you do this, you are set on an amazing journey of discovery.

With the assumption that you're breathing while reading this, I want to thank you by extending an open invitation to everyone to vist the contact page of my website www.noexpertsneeded.com and submit your MOL answer for future books in the series.

Again, thank you very much for the honest, insightful, and respectful writing.

Long live the art of conversation..

take care,
Louise Lewis, Author
"No Experts Needed: The Meaning of Life According to You!"
(Google Book Search for free chapters)

Matt said...

Ben - Thanks for the kind response. I'm curious whether or not you believe that we are in complete control of our destiny. I will definitely continue to check back.

If I'm understanding your reply correctly, I gather that at the very least you believe that we are in charge of attaching meaning to our lives in whatever areas we desire. Does that, in your view, extend to all areas of life...both what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future? Your original post suggested as much in the following, "We make our own meaning in this life - we can choose what we are here for, and I find this far more worthy of celebrating than the forced imposal of another's will on our life. I certainly do not find it depressing. Look on it as a choice between admiring the works of another painter, or being given an easel, a canvas and a palette and told to paint what you want - I know which I would find the more liberating." Anyway, just making sure I'm reading you right.

In sum, I'm curious as to how much control you believe we have in deciding what our lives will look like and the direction they will take. Is it limited in any sense, or is our control completely uninhibited? Is meaning in life tied up in having sole authority over our life's path, our choices, etc.? I look forward to reading your response.

Ben D said...

oryx orange - I'm glad you liked the quote, Huxley is one of my favourite 19th century figures. You say that for you the important question is not "Does God exist?", but "Will my life be better with a God in it?". I would point out that whether a belief will make your life better has nothing to do with whether that belief is true or not - I might believe my life would be better with a million pounds in my bank account, but sadly that has no bearing on whether there is or not!

Louise - thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you like the post.

Matt - I'm not sure I understand what you're saying perfectly, so please correct me if I don't seem to be answering your question. I think that we obviously have complete control over our own actions, and by our own actions we can affect our course through life, although this will of course also be affected by other people's actions as they impact on us, and by random happenstance. Our choices are not limited in any sense except by the obvious physical constraints of the universe (we're not going to start randomly flying anytime soon, for instance), and by whatever limits we may ourselves put upon them. As to whether meaning is tied up in being the sole authority over our choices in life, I'm not really sure how to answer that. If we weren't the sole authority, then someone else would be living our life for us, and so I can't see how meaning would be relevant to that life, as it's not our own. I must admit I don't really understand how we could not be the sole authority over our choices. What other options are there? Hopefully that has at least in part answered your questions!

Matt said...

Ben - I think you got the drift of what I was asking. Certainly your answers indicate where we will agree on some things and disagree on others. As a Christian who believes that God is in control of everything, I don't necessarily think that God takes away our freedom to make our own choices. The Bible teaches there are elements of both. At times you see God exercising complete control over an individuals actions. At other times he is asking us to choose to serve him (I'd say this is the grand majority of the time). There would be no reason to command us to follow Christ and obey him if the decision wasn't completely up to us. All that to say, I agree that life would be meaningless if someone else were living our life for us. I do, however, also think that life is worth living when we choose to have Christ living through us. Obviously you are going to disagree with me there. :)

I think you have admitted that there is a certain sense in which we are not in control of our life and it's meaning. At what measurable, definable point do you get to assume control? I think you would have to agree that when you are first born you have zero control over the outcome of your life. You are at the complete mercy of your mother as to whether or not you make it to the next day. You don't get to decide when or what you eat, where you sleep, where you live or...the list could go on. As you get older you get more choices, but are you ever really in control of all meaning/direction in life? To hold a belief like yours, I would think you need to answer such questions. Just a thought.

I'm enjoying our conversation. You challenge me to think...

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