XFiles Weekend: The “Practical Impossibility” of Atheism

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 2: “What difference does it make if God exists?”)

We’re in the middle of William Lane Craig’s attempt to prove that life without God has no meaning, value, or purpose. He’s basing this argument on a fundamental misconception: by isolating meaning, value, and purpose from their natural context, he turns them into essentially meaningless concepts. Real life is full of all three, but these are immanent qualities of the material universe: our finite, material nature is what creates the distinction between helpful outcomes and harmful ones, and this fundamental material distinction is what drives our perception of meaning, value, and purpose. Even Dr. Craig himself cannot describe them except by reference to this material spectrum of “bad” to “good.”

Despite this, he persists in denying that life has any intrinsic significant meaning, value, and purpose—and he wants to blame atheism for their alleged absence.

Nietzsche predicted that someday modern man would realize the implications of atheism, and this realization would usher in an age of nihilism—the destruction of all meaning and value in life.

According to Dr. Craig, this leads to “the practical impossibility of atheism.”

About the only solution the atheist can offer is that we face the absurdity of life and live bravely…

The fundamental problem with this solution, however, is that it’s impossible to live consistently and happily within the framework of such a worldview. If you live consistently, you will not be happy; if you live happily, it is only because you are not consistent.

Dr. Craig is a Christian who is not actively seeking martyrdom, so I suppose he’s a good authority on having a worldview you can’t be consistent with. Nevertheless, I think he is seriously off-base when he makes his allegations regarding atheism.

First of all, he seems to be falling into the fallacy of assuming that atheism is a dogmatic religion, with atheistic philosophers like Nietzsche and Russell and Camus as the apostles who dictate what all atheists must believe. When he says that “to live bravely in absurdity” is the only solution “the atheist” can offer, he means that it’s the only solution certain atheist philosophers can offer (and even then, he’s not necessarily giving an accurate report of their beliefs).

Not only is Dr. Craig wrong about the lack of other atheistic solutions, he’s wrong to assume that there’s even a genuine problem here that needs a solution. This idea of life as inherently meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, is entirely a chimera created out of Dr. Craig’s failure to understand the subjective and immanent nature of meaning, value, and purpose. Meanwhile, back in the real world, atheists are no different than anyone else, because we all live according to the meaning, value, and purpose that is inherent in (and limited to) our material existence. That’s why Dr. Craig does not actively seek martyrdom, despite his Christian beliefs: this life is the life that has true meaning, value, and purpose.

We shouldn’t blame Dr. Craig alone, of course. He’s not inventing these misconceptions about meaning, value, and purpose. He’s just following a long and popular tradition of Christian misunderstanding. Here, for example, is Dr. Craig relating a similar philosophy, as taught by Francis Schaeffer.

Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God.

Kind of charming, the way this philosophy echoes the primitive view of heaven as a physical place located up in the clouds over Palestine, isn’t it? But notice how it is constructed, with meaning, value, and purpose as being utterly foreign to the universe around us. The atheist has no right to meaning, value, and purpose, because he is limited to this world, which has none of them. To obtain meaning, value, and purpose, you have to leave this world, and go to a different one, which is in heaven where God is. The atheist doesn’t believe in God, therefore he has no right to visit heaven to borrow the foreign meaning, value, and purpose that are there.

There’s a theological problem with this view (besides the rather obvious problem that we can trivially observe meaning, value, and purpose in this world). The theological problem is that the universe is supposed to be God’s creation, an instance of His handiwork. To say that the universe is absurd is to say that God created an absurdity. If that weren’t blasphemous enough, the assumptions Dr. Craig is making flatly rule out any possibility of “fine tuning” or “intelligent design.” You can’t claim, on the one hand, that the universe is devoid of meaning and purpose, and then on the other hand claim that everything in the universe reflects the meaning and purpose of intelligent design. If meaning and purpose aren’t there, then they can’t reflect design, intelligent or otherwise.

But again, meaning, value, and purpose are intrinsic and immanent: they are not externally imposed by some arbitrary supernatural power, but rather arise directly from the nature of material reality itself. To truly understand meaning, value, and purpose, we need to understand the material qualities that give rise to them. If we superstitiously ascribe them to some unobservable supernatural power, we merely cripple our own ability to understand the truth, as Dr. Craig so clearly has done to himself. He demonstrates this by reviewing meaning, value, and purpose individually, to try and show how atheism is practically impossible for each.

First, the area of meaning… Sartre argued that one may create meaning for his life by freely choosing to follow a certain course of action…

Now this it totally inconsistent. It is inconsistent to say that life is objectively absurd and then to say you may create meaning for your life… This is easy to see: Suppose I give the universe one meaning, and you give it another. Who’s right? The answer, of course, is neither one. For the universe without God remains objectively meaningless, no matter how we happen to regard it.

Once again, Dr. Craig fails to understand that meaning is a subjective quality. “Objective meaning” is a vacuous concept: “objective meaning” for whom? If there existed some “objective meaning” for the universe that was different from the meaning I see, then that’s largely irrelevant to me, and indeed to everyone, because unless it’s also a subjective meaning for at least one person, then it really has nothing to do with any of us. And again, with or without God makes no difference. The only way God could make a difference is if we decided that God’s meaning were the “right” one—but even then we’d be talking about a subjective meaning, the meaning which God Himself subjectively holds. The so-called “objective” meaning would still be a vacuous and irrelevant concept.

We should digress for a moment to disambiguate the term “meaning,” because it can be used in at least two different senses. In the mundane, non-philosophical sense, “meaning” denotes consistency with the truth. If the doctor sends you in for a blood test, and one of the values comes back too high, we say that “means” that you are sick. What we’re saying is that this particular lab value is consistent with real-world illness, and that because we see this value, we can know that you need treatment. Meaning, in this mundane sense, can be objective, and you can assess meaning to see if it is objectively true or false. That’s not the kind of meaning Dr. Craig is talking about, though, because that sort of meaning is inherent in reality itself—you could not have a real world in which such meaning was absent (or banished into some extrinsic, supernatural domain).

No, the “meaning” Dr. Craig is talking about is something subtler and more philosophical: what is the “meaning” of life? And that’s a subjective thing. Life can mean one thing to you, and something completely different to me, and neither of us is right and neither is wrong. Dr. Craig can claim that his meaning is “objective,” but that’s just egotistical triumphalism. He thinks his meaning is better than yours because it happens to be his, so he calls his meaning “real” even though it’s just as subjective as yours. And he knows he has no objective basis for declaring his to be more real than yours, so he passes the buck to an unobservable supernatural deity and then declares that his argument is beyond your power to critique, because it’s up in heaven, and you’re not allowed to go there. Problem solved.

Ok, he’s just fooling himself. If you want an “objective” meaning for life, the real solution is not to project it onto some imaginary, external, supernatural realm. The most objective meaning for life is the meaning that most closely matches the objective reality we all share, outside of our subjective perceptions (and possibly wishful thinking). In that realm, I daresay the atheist fares rather better than Dr. Craig, and more consistently as well.

Turn now to the problem of value. Here is where the most blatant inconsistencies occur. First of all, atheistic humanists are totally inconsistent in affirming the traditional values of love and brotherhood… The view that there are no values is logically incompatible with affirming the values of love and brotherhood…

The point is that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong do not exist. As Dostoyevsky said, “All things are permitted.” But man cannot live this way. So he makes a leap of faith and affirms values anyway. And when he does so, he reveals the inadequacy of a world without God.

Now this does have at least the superficial appearance of being a valid objection. You can’t say, “there are no values” and then say “I affirm the values of love and brotherhood.” On the other hand, I’m not sure Dr. Craig fully grasped the point being made by Sartre, Camus, Russell, and the other philosophers he cites. (Or maybe he did, and they were just wrong.) The thing is, there’s a difference between saying “there are no values” and saying “there are no (externally imposed) values.” While it would be inconsistent to uphold values while denying that values exist, it’s entirely consistent to say, “There is no omnipotent power imposing arbitrary values upon us, and therefore we are free to pursue the values that do us the most good, such as love and brotherhood.”

As I said before, values are inherent in the material nature of the universe and of the people who dwell within it. Our physical needs and limitations create the possibility that some outcomes will be more or less harmful while others are more or less beneficial, and this, plus the fact that we happen to subjectively care whether we are harmed or helped, gives rise to our system of values. Consequently, values have both an objective component and a subjective component, and the objective component is inherent in the material nature of our universe and ourselves. It is entirely consistent to abandon arbitrary and fictitious values in favor of reality-based values. And that’s true with or without any God.

Finally, let’s look at the problem of purpose in life. The only way most people who deny purpose in life live happily is either by making up some purpose—which amounts to self-delusion, as we saw with Sartre—or by not carrying their view to its logical conclusion. The temptation to invest one’s own petty plans and projects with objective significance and thereby to find some purpose to one’s life is almost irresistible.

This goes back to Dr. Craig’s arguments about “objective meaning,” and indeed it’s rather hard to distinguish what he means by “meaning” from what he means by “purpose.” I suspect that when he talks about the “meaning” of life, what he really means is he wants to find out there is some kind of purpose for his existence. But “objective purpose” has the same problems as “objective meaning,” especially in the way Dr. Craig is using it. Think about it. Objective means it’s not subjective. An “objective purpose,” therefore, would be a purpose that existed without any person subjectively intending to do anything. It’s a purpose, in other words, that has no one to carry it out, and that does not imply the existence of some deity to subjectively hold it. If the purpose of life were God’s purpose, it would not be an “objective” purpose, it would be the purpose that He subjectively intends. Dr. Craig is refuting his own argument!

Again, purpose is subjective, and exists relative to the person whose intentions and goals constitute his purpose. The fact that Dr. Craig dismisses real purpose as being “petty” and “insignificant” does not change the fact that it is real, and is the only meaningful purpose that could possibly exist. Adding a God into the picture does not alter the situation, except by proposing two alternatives: either God’s purpose is different from ours, in which case His purpose may be hostile to us, or His purposes are consistent with ours, in which case the situation has not been significantly altered by adding God.

In practice, most Christians implicitly believe the latter case: God’s purpose is going to be to bring them the maximum possible amount of blessing and happiness, ultimately at least, just like they want. The Bible tells us, however, that most people are destined to suffer forever in Hell, so in at least most of the cases, God’s purpose for our lives is supremely hostile to our purposes, and we’re better off without Him! And even believers frequently find that “God’s purpose” for their lives involves inexplicable suffering and frustration, so that they themselves are forced to admit that His purpose is incomprehensible, and thus largely irrelevant to life in the real world.

Dr. Craig wants to assert that his belief in God provides him with meaning, value, and purpose that atheists lack, yet all he can affirm is his own inability to look at the world around us and find any intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose. And when he tries to share with us the meaning, value, and purpose allegedly provided by God, the most he can offer is a reflection of secular meaning and value, and an incomprehensible “purpose” that is useless as a predictor of how God ought to be treating us in the real world.

Frankly, I don’t think he has anything worth pursuing. He has his superstitions, he has the dogmas he accepts without question (cf. gullibility), and he has his own personal preferred beliefs about immortality, which turns out to be based on continuing the same sort of experiences he enjoys in the material world. The God he talks about makes no practical contribution to real life, and in many cases seems to take away from it (as for example He has blinded Dr. Craig to the true meaning, value, and purpose of life). We’re all better of without Him.

11 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: The “Practical Impossibility” of Atheism”

  1. Nemo Says:

    On a comment thread on ScienceBlogs once, a fundie asked “If there’s no God, then what’s the purpose of life?”, and I in frustration replied, “If there is a God, then what’s the purpose of life? To be his amusement? How is his ‘purpose’ any better than your own?” From her response, I could tell that I’d shaken her a bit. Which surprised me. I’m guessing she hadn’t really given it much thought before.

  2. J. Ash Bowie Says:

    Something I wonder, which Dr. Craig might have answered in his book, is if believing in the correct god is required for obtaining “objective” meaning, value, and purpose, or if any god will do. If only one god will do (I assume the Christian god), then the problem isn’t with atheism per se, but with any competing belief whatsoever…Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus would also be living a life empty of “real” meaning, value, and purpose. But if any god will do, then he is basically admitting that meaning, value, and purpose derive solely from the act of theistic faith and that consistency with reality is of secondary importance.

    Of course, I’m sure he doesn’t care about this question. The fact that he is singling out atheists indicates that: (a) atheist-bashing is good for book sales, and/or (b) atheist activism is starting to become an actual threat to mainstream Christianity and he feels compelled to try to slow the bleeding.

  3. Hunt Says:

    I can’t help thinking there’s an odd twist on Utilitarianism that runs throughout this Christian argument, that “the ends justify the means,” here not in the usual moral sense, but in terms of meaning or purpose. Eternal life through God literally “gives justice” or meaning to life, which it cannot have by itself. The journey is not the reward, in fact, the journey is just an arduous, vacuous slog to get to your eventual reward.

  4. Hunt Says:

    I guess I should broaden that to “Consequentialism,” rather than Utilitarianism.

  5. Janney Says:

    I’m telling you, when Craig is talking, the word “objective” means “comes from God.” Or perhaps, more nuancedly, “doesn’t come from people.”

    He spent that whole debate with Sam Harris saying “objective moral values and duties” without once addressing his own use of the word “objective.” Why? Because if he spelled out his intended use, he would be revealed as arguing that only God can issue moral values and duties that come from Him, and that moral values and duties that don’t come from Him aren’t from Him.

    (Or the more nuanced version: moral values and duties aren’t “objective” unless they’re given to us by a non-peopley source, and I’m the only one offering a non-peopley source of moral values and duties.)

  6. coconnor1017 Says:

    Your insight into the tendency of Christian apologists to make universal the arguments of certain atheists indicates a common error Christian apologists make and one that seems to expose a lack of intellectual flexibility or imagination. The Christian can only conceive of a world where all people address moral problems by adhering to an authority outside of themselves. He or she seems to want to project who they are as moral thinkers onto all other people and can’t consider an epistemology outside of one that demands doctrinal authority. When I was doubting my faith due to what I perceived as a lack of intellectual rigor within my fellow believers, I was instructed to read Dr. Craig. His style of argumentation reminded me of an advertising pro rather than a sincere scholar. He seemed to be hawking for a particular brand of Christianity and selling his audience through cherry-picking, quote mining and question begging. I was so infuriated by him and the person who recommended him I put my faith on pause to examine atheist arguments against theism. I discovered that the Christian faith is as empty as I assumed.

  7. advenioadveritas Says:

    I readily admit that I do not have great experience with Dr. Craig, but I do have experience with other Christian Apologist and the use of objective/absolute meaning/morality etc., is topic I have come across on numerous occasions. However, I think you’re missing a key feature in Craig’s thinking that another commenter pointed out, for Craig objective meaning comes from something outside of someone. It is meaning that is independent of their own personal preference or choice, as seen from God’s perspective. Christianity does not pretend that everyone will inherently know this meaning. On the contrary, it assumes the other to be true, which was the point of the Schaffer quote which you somehow missed.

    It also appears that in your zeal to dismantle Craig’s argument you fail to provide any meaning to life in place of the Christian one he is arguing for. The Dostoevsky quote is especially apt for Craig’s argument because it recognizes the ultimate end point of life without some reason for it. Contrary to your strong belief you cannot arrive at any other logic conclusion to the meaning or life morality other than meaningless nihilism without some truth that is never changing. Which I’m guessing doesn’t fit in your worldview, I could wrong about this though.

    Also I’d like to know what atheist Craig is supposed to quote as authority on the topic if not atheists that are used as capable philosophers to bolster the atheistic worldview. He can’t possible read every thing written, or every little critique of his work; this like a nit-picky type of response serves to deflect from the deficiency of the position you have espoused.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      for Craig objective meaning comes from something outside of someone. It is meaning that is independent of their own personal preference or choice, as seen from God’s perspective.

      Interesting. It sounds, then, as though Craig might be using the word “objective” but actually meaning “authoritative”—that which is imposed upon one person by decree of another. In other words, he’s effectively assuming his conclusion by the definition of the terminology he uses in describing his argument.

    • mikespeir Says:

      “Contrary to your strong belief you cannot arrive at any other logic conclusion to the meaning or life morality other than meaningless nihilism without some truth that is never changing.”

      And yet, somehow my life doesn’t seem meaningless to me, even without “some truth that is never changing.” What else matters, really?

  8. Janney Says:

    advenioadveritas,

    Contrary to your strong belief you cannot arrive at any other logic conclusion to the meaning or life morality other than meaningless nihilism…

    To paraphrase Shelly Kagan, how do you get from “it doesn’t matter to the universe” to “it shouldn’t matter to anybody”? It’s not a rhetorical question: can you explain the reasoning that gets you from the one to the other? Craig didn’t explain it. At least, not in conversation with Shelly Kagan.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I do not understand all this arguing over the question of the existence of “God”. After all, everyone knows the true supernatural being of the universe is The Great Pumpkin which actually does appear every Halloween, as we all know from watching Charlie Brown on television. And of course everything we see on television is certainly true.


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