One of the most common objections that I hear to atheism is the idea that without God, life would seem to be utterly devoid of any real meaning. This is espoused ad nauseam by many if not most of the religious apologists of our time (to see this, merely spend a few hours of your time viewing some of the recorded debates on religion).
To respond to this objection, we will need to first draw out an important distinction between meaning and purpose and "ultimate" meaning and purpose. Once we do this, not only does it become clear that atheists have meaning in their lives, but in fact this meaning is unique to atheism alone. The atheist’s life is actually grounded in the here and now, rather than the there and later; for us, this life really is the only chance we get, but far from belittling our lives this instead renders the time that we do have that much more meaningful, and that much more worth living.
Your point being…?
Now first of all, if this is to be taken as a serious objection to atheism, there is something that needs to be addressed right off the bat: strictly speaking, the idea that ‘without God, life is essentially meaningless and purposeless,’ says nothing whatsoever about the actual existence of such a god. Suppose for a moment that the proposition was true: that if there is no god, there would be no ultimate meaning or purpose—does it now somehow follow from this that atheism is wrong and that there is a god? Of course not. One would have to first demonstrate that purpose of the relevant sort truly does exist, from which it would then follow (maybe) that God exists.
But even worse, formulated as an actual argument —
P1. If atheism is true, then the universe has no meaning and no purpose.
P2. Atheism is true.
C. Therefore, the individual lives and actions of human beings (constituents of the universe) have no meaning and purpose.
— this is not only invalid, but also serves rather beautifully as a textbook demonstration of the informal fallacy of division (the opposite of the fallacy of composition). The fallacy of division is when an argument tries to take a rule or principle that works for a thing and then attempts to apply it to a single part or individual aspect of that thing. Other examples of this fallacy would be silly arguments like, “Mixed martial arts is an inherently violent sport, therefore, mixed martial arts fighters are inherently violent people,” or “America is overall the most obese country, therefore, Americans are obese.” In the very same way then, to say that the universe itself has no meaning or purpose is not at all to say that human beings themselves (within the universe) do not or cannot have meaning and purpose of their own.
We as human beings can reasonably distinguish between meaning and purpose on an ultimate or cosmic scale, and meaning and purpose on a local or personal scale. I think this simple point can clear up a great deal of the misunderstanding that seems to arise when atheists and theists discuss this matter. Most atheists/agnostics would no doubt grant that there is indeed no meaning or purpose to the universe in the ultimate sense that theists typically mean when they say this. But in no way is this to say that life, much less our individual lives and actions, is also meaningless and purposeless. This just doesn’t follow. The real issue then is not whether there is meaning or not, but whether or not we need meaning on the sort of cosmic scale that is implied when God is brought into the discussion, and I just don’t think we do.
The sort of meaning I’m talking about
Secondly, we must above all be humble here; in a contest of pure palatability, theism (given a few standard assumptions about God of course) defeats atheism every time in my eyes. I hold no illusions here. Some of my fellow heathens throughout history (Christopher Hitchens being a particularly poignant and recent example of this) have argued that it is actually better and more uplifting to see the world in this way (i.e. the way it is), looking back at our believing friends with a peculiar mixture of credulity and pity. As much as I wish that I could adopt this exceedingly optimistic mentality, I’m afraid that this simply is not an option for me. It’s not that I’m worried about how the universe doesn’t care about me, or something like that (to the contrary, I find such mentalities thoroughly conceited), it’s just that, well, I really enjoy living, and eventually, perhaps without warning and regardless of whether I like it or not, this whole thing that you and I are experiencing right now is going to come to an end.
And even then, the fear of our individual deaths doesn’t really get to the root of the problem, now does it? When we boil down this instinctual trepidation of death, what we find at its core is actually the horrible and inescapable truth that we are going to be separated forever from our loved ones. The problem cannot be exclusively the death of the individual self or ego after all, for we have no more reason to fear this than we do a dreamless sleep; true death, subjectively speaking, is no different from not being born yet. The real problem then, at least as I see it, is that we quite understandably do not want to be separated from those that we hold most dear. And indeed, take this atheist’s confession to heart: I am so incredibly envious of those who are capable of believing that their loved ones are not really gone, but instead are waiting for them “in a better place.” My Zeus, how amazing that would truly be!
Now don’t get me wrong. I do actually find it terrific that people have this sort of comfort in their lives; it’s just that from my particular vantage point it doesn’t seem to me that these people could ever really know what it’s like, and how it feels, to actually lose someone—a luxury, I for one, simply cannot imagine. For if they truly believe what they say they believe—that these people are currently in heaven—then frankly they’re not really gone—they’re just away for a while. More than that, allegedly, these folks are living quite comfortably in a place that by all accounts would make the Waldorf Astoria in New York look like a crack motel in Detroit, and to which we all (well, some of us) eventually go, to live together, happily, for all eternity.
Needless to say, we atheists have no such comforts. Our beloved are completely and irrevocably gone from us and we are pathetically helpless to change this fact. No matter how badly we want to see them again, we never will. I have no desire to sit here and pretend that this is something that is easy or even possible to truly and completely accept, and this applies tenfold to the daily prospect of losing someone I care about. The thing is, I suspect that all of us, be it militant atheists or even the most devout of priests, know this awful truth on an instinctual or subconscious level—that we are eventually going to lose each other. Perhaps this is why even those seemingly convinced about the existence of an “afterlife” nevertheless mourn the loss of their loved ones with the rest of us.
And yet, there is a silver lining if we but know where and how to recognize it. The above realization, as horrible as it is, also has the capacity to simultaneously engender a powerful, and I think unique, type of significance and meaning to this one, perpetually fleeting life. Again, for those who believe in god, this life is just a precursor, a sort of preliminary round; it is a mere half a century or so of corporeal life preceding an eternity of existence in an incorporeal, better, afterlife. But for atheists, this life is all there is. This life, this world, here and now, and c’est fini—the show’s officially and irrevocably over. Rather than the comprehension of this inescapable fate making our lives less meaningful, these things can instead make our lives and the time that we do have on this planet more meaningful.
To help illustrate the gravity of this, allow me to tell you about a personal experience of mine. When I was in high school, a good friend of mine died in a tragic car accident. This person was one of the kindest and most magnanimous souls I’ve ever known. At school, she was one of those rare individuals that managed to transcend the silly and arbitrary divisions that we all placed on each other (“prep,” “nerd,” “jock,” etc.) i.e. everyone liked her. One night I was angry with her because she hadn’t returned our (my particular “clique” at the time) call the night before to hang out. We then saw her at a local Steak’ n Shake later that night, and she said in passing that she was going to call us later the next day. I scoffed, and then the very last thing I said to this person, my friend, was a sarcastic remark about the likelihood of her actually calling us back. I remember to this day the pained expression on her face as she walked away; it was clear that I had hurt her. Later that night, she fell asleep at the wheel and crossed two lanes before crashing head on into a telephone pole, dying instantly.
I remember waking up the next day to one of my friends telling me this, and at first I didn’t believe it—it wasn’t real for me. I mean, we had just seen her. It wasn’t until later that morning at my friend’s house that it really dawned on me. We were all sitting outside in his garage (it was a fittingly rainy and gloomy day) when one of our other friend’s mothers came walking by on the street. She worked at the school and had known our friend personally; necessarily then, she loved her as we did. As she was walking by she reached my friend’s driveway and noticed us in the garage, and instantly began to weep. It was at this moment that I suddenly realized this was all real; that she really was gone; that I would never see her again; and that I would never get to tell her how sorry I was. To this day, a decade or so later, this experience lies heavy on my heart.
Life is so incredibly precious, but we seem to forget this in our day to day lives. We get upset with each other over things that are simply unimportant: “you were late,” “you said this,” “you didn’t do that,” et cetera, but then we fail to notice how the vast majority of these arguments and squabbles soon become lost in the ether of the forgotten past. They are not worth it. We never know when someone is going to be taken from us, and should therefore never leave someone that is dear to us on a bad note. Whenever you leave the people you care about, no matter how mad you are at them, embrace them and tell them how much they mean to you before you depart; anger, jealousy, and disappointment of all flavors become embarrassingly petty when you lose them forever.
Think also of the countless people in the world that behave selflessly for the sake of others, whether risking their life to reduce suffering in poverty-stricken nations, or spending their time and money to adopt a baby squirrel with a broken leg in order to nurse and rehabilitate it to recovery—simply because they care. There is a magnificent account of human love and empathy in a Jeremy Rifkin book titled, “The Empathic Civilization” about a Christmas Eve (yes, I recognize the irony) during the First World War, when opposing sides disarmed themselves and crossed the (until then) formidable space between their trenches (this is apparently where we get the phrase, “no man’s land”). During this unprecedented and entirely spontaneous event, enemies who had only minutes ago been engaged in mortal combat, embraced one another and exchanged gifts, in the process both recognizing their fellow man and gloriously making a total mockery of the politics and theatre of war. It is even said that some of them struck up a football (or in America, soccer) match or two. I know I’m not the only one that smiles at the thought of this.
Another account that I can recall offhand (though, for the life of me, I’m currently unable to find the book I read it in) concerns the actions of a man during the holocaust. The story goes that one of the more sadistic guards at a concentration camp commanded a prisoner at gun-point to kill another prisoner by hanging him. As if this wasn’t horrific enough, the other prisoner also happened to be a dear friend of the man that was given the order. The soldier, rifle in hand mind you, insisted for him to take the rope and wrap it around his friend’s neck; but the man held the rope betwixt his fingers and just stood there, trembling, crying, and unable to move, terrified of his certain death if he were to refuse to follow the order, but simultaneously unwilling to kill his companion. The soldier became more and more frustrated and impatient until suddenly, in an awe-inspiring act of selfless courage and compassion, the prisoner that had been designated for execution reached out, grasped his friend’s trembling hands, and placed the rope around his own head and neck. I’m sorry to say that this story ends as you might imagine it would. Indeed, the first account I gave also stopped right before the powers that be brought an end to the Christmas reprieve in battle, and soon thereafter the fighting between the two sides recommenced. My reason for bringing these stories up is that I think they serve as a powerful analogy for the dualistic nature of our particular existential situation: our fate is tragic, but out of this tragedy comes powerful significance. For the godless, the sheer finitude of this life, combined with its fragility, makes every second of it incomparably more astounding and more valuable than it would be if it were merely a chapter taken from an infinite book of life.
- Rifkin, Jeremy. The Empathic Civilization.