Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Atheists And The Meaning Of Life

Apparently the most popular post I have ever done was a reply to an article by Paula Kirby. Not sure why but I ran into another one of her articles.  See what happens:
The correspondent was blunt: “Why don’t you atheists just go out and kill yourselves right now?”
True, most Christians phrase it rather more delicately, but atheists are regularly informed by a certain kind of believer that our lives can have no value if we do not believe in their God. What is the point, they ask, of being kind or loving, caring about suffering or doing anything at all, if one day we just die?
The problem is not just that we die. Sartre said, "Nothing finite has any meaning without an infinite reference point." It is not that we die. It is that everything dies. The human species will one day be extinct. On that day will it matter if you have been nice or cruel? Will it matter if you have helped advanced human society or been a self-centered jerk? As long as that society continues it will matter at least a little. But however long that is will be small in comparison with eternity. So why should I give up some short term pleasure for something that will vanish in significance?

It is true that in the absence of a divine plan our lives have no externally determined purpose: an individual is not born for the purpose of becoming a physician or creating a spectacular work of art or digging a well in an arid corner of Africa. But are the sick less cured, the pleasure to the art-lover less intense, or the thirst of parched villagers less slaked, simply because a man sought his own purpose rather than following a diktat from on high? Do we really need a deity to tell us that a life spent curing cancer is more worthwhile than one spent drinking in the gutter?
Augustine weighed this very question before his conversion. Could he be happy as a drunk? We think the question is rhetorical because we make assumptions that flow from centuries of Christian influence. How should a man seek his own purpose? Why should he suppose he has one? Why should he suppose following that purpose would lead to joy?
Why should we not find satisfaction in alleviating suffering or injustice, just because we’re all going to die one day? The very fact that this life is all we have makes it even more important to do everything possible to reduce the suffering caused by poverty, disease, injustice and ignorance. To describe such attempts as meaningless is to say that avoidable suffering does not matter, hardly a moral stance.
It is not to say it does not matter. It is to ask why it matters. To look at that moral imperative you feel in your spirit and ask where it comes from. It could be just a feeling. The way the human brain has evolved. It could also be a sign pointing to a bigger reality. But if it is just in my head then it's meaning cannot be bigger then my head. The meaning is either an illusion or it is real. It cannot be both.
Many Christians claim we have no reason to care about others if there is no God. But this is itself a religious claim, arising from the theological concept of Original Sin, which declares humankind fallen and corrupt. We can safely ignore it, for in reality we do not need childish stories of eternal reward or damnation to coerce us into being good: research shows that the least religious societies have the lowest incidence of social ills, including crime and violence. Healthy humans have empathy built in, and the explanations for this lie in psychology and evolutionary biology: no gods required. 
Christians don't say that the moment people stop going to church they become serial killers. People have natural empathy for family and other people similar to themselves. They continue to follow many Christian morals on autopilot for a while. In some cases a long while. But there will always be undesirables. People groups that the leadership does not like.We were shocked at how harshly the Nazi's and the communists dealt with these groups. We thought human empathy would have prevented such crimes against humanity. It didn't. You can say you don't believe in original sin but there is ample evidence that people are capable of great evil. Modern man has not made himself immune to this.

Socialist societies do tend to be less religious and also have less crime. But where does their concern for the poor come from? It flowed from the enlightenment but also from the Christian idea of the dignity of human life. Except for abortion and euthanasia the left has mostly kept this idea intact. How long will that last? I don't know. In principle there is nothing to prevent it from changing. Remember that social ills are what the government tells you they are.
Life cannot be meaningless so long as we have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others. For true meaninglessness, we would need heaven.
In the state of permanent, perfect bliss that is the very definition of heaven, ‘making a difference’ is ruled out. If the difference made an improvement, the previous state could not have been perfect. If it made things worse, the result would not be perfect. In heaven, neither is possible. Even being reunited with loved ones could not add one jot to their bliss or yours, for heaven would be, by definition, a state that could not be improved on.
Just consider for a moment the hellish pointlessness of heaven. At least in our real existence our actions have an effect, for better or worse, and it is therefore worth trying to get them right. In an eternal life where we can have no effect whatsoever, we might as well be dead.
This is interesting. It is also wrong. God is a trinity. A love relationship. More of a dance than a static thing. Heaven will be us joining that love relationship. To be in communion with each other and with God. A marriage between Christ and His Church. God is compelling enough to keep us fulfilled for all eternity. I know those who have always been bored by holy things can't understand that. Don't worry. God won't force heaven on anyone who has not shown the desire to be with Him on earth. If you want to trust yourself to the idea that sin is just a theological concept that can be safely ignored then God will let you do that. That is why He allows hell to exist.
If you have ever claimed that your life would have no meaning if it weren’t for your faith in God, do you really believe your family and friends have no worth in their own right? Can you really not see the point in striving to protect and nurture your children, even if there is no eternal life? Really?
If you do, then it is you, not atheists, who debase humanity, and it is Christianity, not atheism, that diminishes the real value and meaning of life. We atheists find purpose in the world as it is, and in our real lives; we see living beings as valuable in their own right, deserving of our concern and compassion simply because they share our capacity for pain and pleasure. It is hard to imagine a position less moral, less conducive to empathy, than this inherently warped and uncharitable view of humanity proposed by Christianity.
This is just a false choice. That you care for someone because they are children of God or because you feel empathy for them. It can't be both. That is just silly. The issue is that some days we won't feel empathy for some people. Then what? Can we use them and abuse them? We will be tempted. We will be able to rationalize it. We are not above that. Is that is an "inherently warped and uncharitable view of humanity?" I would accept warped. I would not accept uncharitable. I think the honest truth is we are warped. We are sinners in need of God's grace. To deny it would be uncharitable.
This is a perverse view of reality. After all, if the only valuable thing about existence is that God gave it to us, then that must mean the gift is not worth having in its own right. God’s creation would be the equivalent of a shapeless, baggy sweater of dubious color that you would never willingly wear but which you nevertheless can’t bring yourself to throw away because it was a gift from Granny. This approach in effect says you’re grateful for God’s gift, but you don’t actually like it very much; that, were it not for your belief that there’ll be an eternity in heaven to compensate you for having had to endure it, you can see no reason why you’d ever want it.
The trouble with this notion is that the Christian life is a life of joy. It might not seem so when analyzed from a pain and pleasure point of view but there is a much deeper peace and satisfaction that only those living the life understand. So you do wear the sweater. It turns out to be perfect. It suits you like nothing you have ever picked out for yourself. God knows you that well. Heaven is just a bonus. We pursue God on earth because He is worth more than anything this world has to offer. Heaven is going to be the same God and His sweater.
Theistic religion reduces life to something that has no value other than as the creation of an imagined deity. It decrees that purpose and meaning can only be found in being that deity’s puppet, having no purpose but its purpose and no value other than as its handiwork. Theistic religion looks on all that is best and most noble in human impulse and endeavour and dismisses it as meaningless and worthless --or worse: corrupt --unless done in the name of God. It is time to abandon this baseless worldview. It is time to reject theistic religion and start viewing ourselves and others with real dignity, as beings with value in our own right and not just as the distorted shadows of a fictional creator. 
It is still not clear why human beings have value in their own right. If they are products of evolution and evolution has no particular goal then why does human life matter? It seems that she is doing precisely what she accused theists of doing. That is just asserting something for the purpose of manufacturing meaning. Instead of asserting God exists she is asserting humans have value. But she gives no reason why that assertion is likely to be true. If it is true, and I think it is, then the reason it is true would be very important. She just says, "There must be a reason. I don't know what it is but I am sure it isn't God."

If you know the meaning of life then you have to reorder your life around that truth. So the trick is to say there is meaning but to not be precise about what that meaning is. Then you don't have to live up to the morals that fall out of that. I am reminded of John Paul II saying, "Don't be afraid of the truth about yourself." Face that truth with all its implications and live life to the full.

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