Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Can life have meaning without God? Part 1

What is the meaning of life? This is one of the oldest questions humanity has ever contemplated. Some, including myself, would argue that the question itself is not well formed, and is perhaps meaningless, or at best, misguided. Others (typically those who believe in God) confidently assert that not only is there an official meaning to life, but also that they have found it!

One of the more insidious and even bizarre claims made by many theists, is that life has no meaning without God. It is insidious because it seems many people are taught this either directly or indirectly as part of their religious upbringing, and therefore they simply accept it as a truism, an undeniable fact of life. It seems to be protected more so than other religious beliefs, probably because there is so much at stake if it were true. I think this belief can lead to unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviours.

But this claim is also bizarre, when you consider the large number of people both alive now and also throughout history who have lived happy and fulfilled lives without a belief in God. It would be utterly perverse to believe that not a single atheist who has ever lived has been able to live a life rich in meaning.

In exploring this further, I want to break apart the claim into several distinct aspects. First I want to look at the claims made by theists, and see if I can understand a bit about what they are talking about and why they make such claims. Then I want to take a more personal look at meaning in the lives of individuals like you and me. So let's dive in.

So why do some theists insist that life has no meaning without God?

I recently read an article entitled, "The Absurdity of Life without God", which was written by well-known Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. In order to understand the theist position and the rationale behind the claim, I would strongly encourage you to also read that article in full. Or at least read enough of it that you understand the arguments being presented.

That article is probably the strangest thing I have ever read from a Christian, especially one with his credentials and intellect. I won't quote it in any detail, because I think its most crucial flaw is inherent even in the one-line summary at the top of the article, which reads:
Why on atheism life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose, and why this view is unlivable.
Notice the heavy use of the word "ultimate" throughout the entire article, and even in the summary. I believe this is the crucial issue with the claims being made. I don't believe the word is there by mistake. I think it is deliberate, for the simple reason that obviously people do derive meaning from all sorts of things in their lives, without any need for a god. So it can't be talking about that kind of meaning.

So what is the article actually saying then? What difference does it make when the word "ultimate" is inserted in there? Well, in my opinion, it makes a lot of difference. Rather than talk about the meaning people derive from their daily lives (which is quite obviously non-zero), Dr Craig seems more interested in this so-called "ultimate" meaning, which apparently matters a great deal after they die. But therein lies the problem. To whom does it matter?

Let me take you on a little detour...

What is the meaning of life?

The problem with this question is the use of the definite article ('the'). There is no single meaning of life. There are several, perhaps an infinite number of meanings. Why? Because "meaning" is inherently subjective. It doesn't exist out there as a tangible thing. It only exists with respect to something else, and probably only with respect to sentient beings. Even then, the same object might mean different things to different people (i.e. "subjects").

So when someone asks, "What is the meaning of life?", my response would be, "Whose life? And to whom?".

If we're talking about the meaning of my life, then surely I am the only one who can answer that. But Christians especially seem to disagree. They treat the question as if God is the ultimate arbiter of meaning, and that the meaning of life, or even more specifically, the meaning of our lives, is something pre-defined that has been dictated to (or chosen for) us by God. But where is the basis for this claim? It's just mere assertion with nothing to back it up. We could just as easily assert that meaning comes from fairies. Or even better we could just assert that meaning cannot come from God, and then it's their word against ours, with no way to settle it. That's where blind faith gets us. It's useless.

To whom does it matter?

Putting aside for a moment what the meaning of our life might be, I want to have a look at who our lives might mean something to. Obviously our lives mean something to ourselves. That seems to be the kind of meaning Christians avoid talking about when this topic comes up. But our lives also mean something to other people as well (and perhaps animals too). I think this leads us closer to what Christians are getting at when they talk about "ultimate" meaning, and why that requires God.

If the meaning of our life is measured only in terms of who it means something to, then obviously it is true that ultimately there will be no one to carry on that meaning. Every person that our lives had some meaning to, will ultimately die, and so ultimately our lives won't mean anything to anyone after that.

This is where the Christian can insert God, who can act as the eternal collector of all meaning (because God is magic and can do anything), and thus your life will always mean something to someone. In other words, your life will be ultimately meaningful. Throw in the promise of living forever with that someone, conditional on the choices you make now, and suddenly your life's entire meaning is to meet those conditions. So there you have it. Not only does God give your life meaning, it also cannot have ultimate meaning without God.

So far so good for the Christian view, right? But we're not done yet...

It's not about you

Remember I said that Christians tend to avoid talking about what your life means to you? That's because, to the Christian, it isn't about you. In their view, it is all about what your life means to God. In fact, that is the only meaning of life, according to the popular Christian view. Your sole purpose in life is to please God, and to try to meet the demands he has placed on you.
Fear God and keep his commandments,
because this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 NET
This is important, because understanding this mindset helps to understand why Christians think life is meaningless without God. The reason is simple. When determining the significance of your life, everything (and I do mean everything) is viewed from the perspective of an outsider, namely God. What your life means to God (as projected by a human brain) is the only meaning that is considered important.

Why don't Christians consider what your life means to you? The answer may surprise you.
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?
1 Corinthians 6:19 NET (emphasis mine)
In Christianity, You Don't Matter. Only God matters. Of course, Christians would object and say that you matter a lot to God. Fine, but that's missing the point. I'll bet slaves mattered a lot to their owners too. It's in your best interests to keep your slave healthy and happy so that they'll give you their best work. But does it matter what your slave's interests or goals are? Of course not! In fact the sooner they give up their own interests and start aligning with yours, the better it will be for them. Are you starting to see the parallels yet?

So let me spell it out more explicitly. In Christianity, what your life means to you does not matter. It absolutely doesn't. Even what your life means to your family and friends is deemed irrelevant and unimportant compared to what you mean to God. And what you mean to God depends on your obedience to him. Just like a slave to his/her owner.

That's where Christianity takes you. But let's back up a bit...

What if there is no god?

I will answer this in part 2...

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