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;Thanks Alf.
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
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