The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Atheism and Meaning

All atheists will eventually come across questions from theists along the lines of "You say there's no God. Well, what's the meaning of life then? What are we all here for?" For many theists this question is a loaded, quasi-rhetorical one - in the sense that no answer is expected from the atheist. It is "obvious" to such theists that an atheist could not have an answer for it. However removed of rhetorical loading, the question can be answered.

Unpacking the Question

What is the meaning of life? Well the most straightforward answer is that of Webster's New World College Dictionary (1996):

life: that property or quality of plants and animals that distinguishes them from inorganic matter or dead organisms.

Of course most people would protest that this is not what the question is about. Obviously then we have to first find out the function of the word "meaning" in that question.

Usually when confronted with an action that was perhaps unexpected by someone else, we would immediately ask that person, "What is the meaning of this?". In this context, we are not asking for a lexicographical definition of the action but for its purpose or intention. In this sense, "meaning" is synonymous with "purpose" or "intent". Apart from explaining actions, "purpose" can be used to explain designed objects as well such as cars, power tools etc. It is quite clear then when we ask "What is the meaning of life?", we are, at least partially, asking "What is the purpose of life?" [1]

Another way we would use the word would be in cases where we justify our actions by saying "I think it means something." or when we thank a friend for doing something by saying, "Thanks, that means a lot to me." Clearly "meaning" here does not stand for the lexicographical definition or purpose. We are using the word in these examples as being synonymous with "value". To say an action means something to you is another way of stating that it has value for you. So here then is the second part of the question, when we ask "What is the meaning of life?" we may be asking "What is the value of life?".

It should be noted here though while it is possible for an action or an object to have both purpose-meaning and value-meaning at the same time, it is not necessarily so. Thus a life consisting of, say, stringing beads together and nothing else would have a purpose but very few people would say that is has value. Similarly a life spent wholly on the enjoyment music may have value to that person but he or she would be hard put to explain the purpose of such a life. [2]

Let us analyze the question a little deeper in order to provide us with enough solid groundwork on which to provide a sound answer.

First let us look at purpose-meaning. Obviously if we ask ourselves "What is the purpose-meaning of life?", we may be jumping the gun a little. For there are two implicit assumptions in the way the question is formulated: that there is only one meaning of life and that everyone's life should have this same meaning. Both these assumptions are unwarranted and need to be proven by those who want to insist on them. For now we can take the position that it is possible for different lives to have different purpose-meanings and for a single life to have more than one purpose.

Another point about purpose-meaning is whether the purpose should be specified externally or internally. That means should the purpose-meaning (or purpose-meanings) of one's life be necessarily specified by an external (cosmic?) power or could it also be equally valid coming from within the person himself or herself? Again the theist, to avoid circularity, cannot insist on the former without providing strong arguments why it must be so. For atheists, it is not necessarily that life must have a cosmically bestowed purpose.

Purposes can also be discovered or created. Thus the science of evolution has discovered that the "purpose" of life is primarily the propagation of our genes (or more accurately, copies of our genes) to the next generation. Christian theologians claim to have discovered the "purpose" of life by studying what the Bible says (more of this later). Of course an individual can create his or her own purpose(s) in life.

Furthermore these purposes can be descriptive or normative. Take the one about evolution and the propagation of our genes. Knowing that this explains a lot of what I am today does not compel me to have as many children as possible. Thus the purpose discovered by evolutionary science is descriptive in that it does not force me to do as it says. However if a Muslim were to be told by an imam -whose authority he respects- that the meaning of life as decreed by Allah is to "bomb the kafir [infidels] to hell" he could not simply decide not to follow it. For the explanation is normative- it says the believer ought to perform these actions in order to have a meaningful life. In other words the meaning of life in this case is normative. [3]

We have now unpacked the question in a way which it can be meaningfully answered by an atheist. What should a good meaning of life consist of?

A good meaningful life should be something we consider worthwhile not just something to serve as a goal. Thus we can say that a human life should have positive purpose meaning. The philosopher Michael Martin outlines what a positive-purpose-meaning of life should consist of : [4]

  • It has a purpose or purposes

  • These purpose or purposes:

    • have positive significance:
      A purposeful life could have negative significance. Thus someone like Hitler could decide that his purpose in life is to exterminate the Jews. However such a purpose would not have positive significance.

    • can provide psychological satisfaction:
      It possible to have purposes that do not provide psychological satisfaction. The command to bomb the infidels to hell or to have as many children as possible would not be considered psychologically satisfying to most people.

    • can be fulfilled (i.e. the goals are achievable):
      There is no point having a purpose which cannot be fulfilled. For instance if the purpose of life is "to know Jesus", this leaves out many millions of people who lived before Jesus and those many who lived after he died in places such as China, India, large parts of Africa, Europe and the Americas where his message did not reach them until a few centuries ago. For these people, based on such a definition, life would have no meaning.

    • are not arbitrary or have a plausible explanation:
      If someone says the purpose of life is to "look beautiful by killing all flying insects" we would consider such a rationale arbitrary and would thus say that such a life is not meaningful. Similarly if someone says that the purpose in life is to simply read a collection of ancient documents and believe everything in it, we would be sensible to demand the explanation as to why this makes life meaningful.

Most people would agree that a life that meets such criteria would be meaningful in both the purpose-sense and the value-sense. We will use these criteria to evaluate whether Christians and atheists can lead meaningful lives.

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The "Wishful Thinking" Argument

A Christian may (and often does) argue that the formulation of the meaning of life above is unsatisfactory for it contains no cosmic significance and that it does not answer the question about how a life that is finite could have meaning. It is of course important to point out (as we have above) that cosmic purpose is not embedded within the question "What is the meaning of life?" but is an assumption or slant added into it to "load" the question in favor of the theist. We have seen that meaning as purpose and meaning as value does not require a cosmic dimension.

A Christian may still object by saying that since the atheistic formulation of the question is less attractive than his version it follows then that atheism is wrong. This is what has been called the "wishful thinking argument" and it goes like this: [5]

  1. If god does not exist, condition A follows.
  2. Condition A is undesirable.
  3. One should not believe in undesirable conditions.
  • Therefore, one should not believe that god does not exist.
"Condition A" can be anything ranging from "the non-existence of ultimate cosmic meaning to life" to the "finiteness of life". Yet it is quite obvious to anyone that just because something is inconvenient or undesirable does not make it untrue. Indeed the argument is really quite silly. For instance while we all like fairy tales - with fairy godmothers, price charmings and happily ever afters - it does not disprove the fact that sometimes in life there is no one who can help us but ourselves, there are spouses who cheat and there are marriages that end in failures. It would be nice if life is like a fairy tale-unfortunately it is not.

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The Christian Meaning of Life

Having formulated the question and rid it of any rhetorical loading we can now turn the question to the Christian. Based on the criteria we have formulated above, do Christians -as Christians- lead meaningful lives? [a]

Let us take a look at those Christians who accept the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination. The doctrine, introduced by John Calvin (1509-1564), states that since God is all powerful and all knowing, he has already decided before the beginning who will be a member of his Elect. No one can know or can change this decision of the omnipotent and omniscient God. Thus those who are saved are predestined to be saved and those who are condemned are already predestined to be condemned. There is nothing anyone can do about his or her fate.

Now does human life have meaning in such a universe? The answer is, obviously, "No". In the first place note that the individual has no purpose: he is just living his life, robot-like, until the time comes when God at his own whim and fancy selects him for eternal bliss or eternal damnation. It is not psychologically satisfying, indeed most Calvinists lead very dour and dreary lives-forever in a state of uncertainty of whether they are included among the elect. Furthermore the Calvinist cannot, by any action on his or her part, do anything to change the final outcome. Finally, the reason for God's election is complete arbitrary. [6]

All variations of this doctrine-such as salvation by grace through faith- which relies on God's arbitrary bestowal of grace or election suffers from the same problem of meaning.

Some Christians may argue that they get meaning from obeying God's will. There are a few problems with this. Firstly it is quite hard to determine what God's will actually is. That there are so many religions and so many denominations within Christianity means that many people interpret God's will differently. So it is by no means clear that merely reading the Bible and or augmenting it by following the traditions of a particular Church guarantees one that God's actual will is being followed.

Secondly, note that it is mindless obedience that is being praised in the Bible: we see this when Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) or when Job was praised for not questioning his suffering. We may find such obedience praiseworthy in dogs and horses but why should such mindless obedience be a virtue in humans? Thus such a state cannot be said to be psychologically satisfying for any sane human being.

The believer may argue that since God is the creator he is owed obedience whether we like it or not. Of course apart from the obvious difficulty determining the will of God (as we have seen above), it is a moot point if such a God even exists. As we have seen elsewhere, no argument philosophical, pseudo-scientific or folksy have ever succeeded in proving the existence of God. Furthermore even if we, for the sake of argument, accept the far fetched idea of a cosmic creator, it remains to be shown why we must obey him/her/it/them? Because he is all powerful? That does not make sense, if a powerful tyrant forces obedience, it is incumbent upon us to resist such a state. Obeying someone just because he is all powerful is not a morally defensible stance. Indeed it cannot be considered to be psychologically satisfying and one is then merely succumbing to the arbitrary fiat of the tyrant. [7]

It has also been argued that we must obey God and repent our sins for the sake of our redemption. Redemption, presumably, consists of an afterlife where we spend eternity looking at God, praising God and perhaps playing the harp every once and a while when time permits. Yet this meaning seems arbitrary. If the purpose-meaning of life is to spend eternity in heaven why have earthly life as an intermediate? If the answer is that he only wants those who are worthy of spending an eternity in his presence, it begs the question of why he created the rest of humanity in the first place-since all these people who do not obey or believe in him will not be saved. The whole conception of redemption via the atoning death of Jesus makes no sense, as we have shown elsewhere. [8]

There are many variants of the redemption theology, all of which in the end are either arbitrary or contain contradictory elements. [9]

We can conclude from our overview that Christians-as Christians-do not lead lives that can be defined as meaningful either in the purpose-sense or the value-sense.

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The Meaning of Life in an Atheistic World

If we look at the main criteria of positive-purpose-meaning we see how atheists can and do lead meaningful lives both in the purpose-sense and in the value sense. Indeed one of the most exuberant discoveries one can make as an atheist is that the meaning of one's own life is something which one is empowered to create and discover for oneself. In the words of the atheist philosopher Paul Kurtz, "We are responsible...not simply for what we are, but for what we will become, and this is a source of either high excitement or distress." [10]

Of course to the atheist, unlike the theist's cozy fairy-tale-like world where meaning is supposedly found in blind obedience or by Godís arbitrary fiat, a meaningful life takes effort. The atheist does not say that all human lives are meaningful. Many (perhaps most) are not, by any standards. But a meaningful life is possible and in the end it is worth the effort to strive for it.

Let us look at the lives of some atheists [b] in the past and present that have lives that are meaningful.

David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher and historian is a good example to start with. His life had positive significance. His works on epistemology A Treatise of Human Nature (1737-1740) and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) are still considered one of the best works on the working of human reason. His History of England (1754-1762) was for a long time considered to be the standard reference on the subject. His explanation of the concept of cause was without parallel and has been influential in the proper understanding of causation. His works on religion Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions (1779) still provide inspirational and entertaining reading for atheists (like myself) even today. That his live provided psychological satisfaction to himself cannot be doubted. Hume led a full life and on his death bed was reported (by a Christian!-James Boswell) to have faced his impending demise with peace and tranquility. Of course he achieved most of his goals and his pursuing knowledge to bequeath onto the world is reason in itself for those goals.

Margaret Sanger (1883-1966) struggled her whole life to give women the right to have access to information relative to birth control. She fought for many years, getting in trouble with the law in the process, until she finally succeeded in 1938. Such a life certainly has positive purpose and would not doubt the psychological satisfaction she would have received from winning such a struggle.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was another prominent atheist (he called himself an agnostic [b]) who led a purposeful life. Early in his life he made major contribution to the field of mathematic logic with his work such as Principia Mathematica (1910-1913). Later in life Russell was an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons and many other social issues. [11]

There are of course many other atheists who had led and are still leading meaningful lives. Just to name a few we have: [c] [12]

  • Scientists & Science Writers:
    Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), C.L.A. Laveran (1845-1922), Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Max Planck (1858-1947), Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), Marie Curie (1867-1934), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988), Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), Carl Sagan (1934-1996), Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), Francis Crick (1916-2004), Arthur C. Clarke, Steve Weinberg, Victor Stenger, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins.

  • Philosophers:
    Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), John Dewey (1859-1952), George Santayana (1863-1952), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Albert Camus (1913-1960), J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), A.J. Ayer (1910-1989), Karl Popper (1902-1994), Paul Kurtz, Michael Martin, Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Michael Ruse.

  • Historians and Literary Artists:
    Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), George Eliot (1819-1880), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), Mark Twain (1835-1910), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Will Durant (1885-1981), Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

  • Entertainers, Lawyers, Social Commentators & Social Reformers:
    Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), Klas Arnoldson (1844-1916), Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), Steve Allen (1921-2000), Marlom Brando (1924-2004), Peter Ustinov (1921-2004), Randy Newmann, Penn and Teller, The Amazing Randi, Noam Chomsky, Michael Shermer.

Many of the above have received the ultimate accolade - the Nobel Prize. These include Jane Addams, Klas Arnoldson, Svante Arrhenius, Albert Camus, Francis Crick, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, C.L.A. Laveran, Sinclair Lewis, Ivan Pavlov, Max Planck, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rabindranath Tagore and Steve Weinberg.

Of course not all atheists who lead meaningful lives are famous. Ordinary atheists lead meaningful lives both in the purpose sense and in the value sense.

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Notes

a.Note the disclaimer. I am not claiming that NO Christian had ever led meaningful lives-that would be absurd. Two examples of Christians who are leading meaningful lives would be the former US President Jimmy Carter and the South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Carter, especially in his post-presidency incarnation, has done the world a load of good through his Habitat for Humanity. His Noble Peace Prize is richly deserved. We all remember Desmond Tutu as the person who fought against apartheid. The point is that these lives are meaningful in the sense I had outlined above-they have positive-purpose-meaning and in no way require theological or cosmological justifications. Thus it is possible for atheists to lead such lives and as we will show later many atheists did and do lead such lives. Incidentally these two men are not evangelicals or fundamentalists.
b.Some of the figures below may not have labeled themselves atheists. They had called themselves variously skeptics, agnostics, nontheists etc. Our use of the term atheist is based on the most accurate definition of the term. By that definition, anyone who does not profess theism is an atheist.
c.Those without dates after their names are still with us!

References

1.Martin, Atheism, Morality and Meaning: p185-186
2.ibid.: p188
3.ibid.: p188-191
4.ibid.: p192-194
5.Krueger, What Is Atheism?: p88
6.ibid.: p68-69
7.ibid.: p71-73
8.Martin, op. cit.: p242-244
9.Krueger, op. cit.: p68-76
Martin, op. cit.: p239-314
10.quoted in Krueger, op. cit.: p82
11.Krueger, op. cit.: p85
12.List based mainly on Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief & Krueger, op. cit.: p86

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