I have seen and read this countless times – Christians claim that without god, or belief in some higher power, there can be no meaning in life.
This point of view is clearly outlined in William Lane Craig’s ‘The Absurdity of Life without God’. Craig is troubled by the ‘dark and terrible’ secular answers to the questions of “Why am I here? Where am I going?” He finds hopelessness and absurdity in the chance existence of humankind, and in the dispassionate character of nature. For him, life can only be meaningful if god exists.
To illustrate this point he relates a science-fiction story whereby an astronaut is marooned on a barren planet and has two vials, one with poison and one with an elixir that would provide him with eternal life. He decides on the poison but mistakenly drinks the magical elixir to his horror – he is now consigned to a utterly meaningless, unending life. Craig spends a good deal of the article stressing this point, as well as the usual nonsense about there being no morality without god (I covered this in a previous post).
Let’s imagine Craig is correct and there is a god. Now, once you die and you go to god (different religious philosophies have different requirements but I won’t get into that here), then is that the ultimate purpose? If so, then once the ultimate purpose has been revealed there would be no more purpose for existence – we would be back to his bleak scenario of spending the rest of eternity without meaning. Now if god only reveals the ultimate purpose bit by bit over eternity, then this would be no different from not having an ultimate purpose, because you would never get to the ultimate. The problem here is immortality – I think I prefer an eternity of non-being to an immortal life that can’t provide the sanctuary that Craig wishes for.
It must be truly terrifying to live your life in the quixotic pursuit of ultimate meaning. I think we atheists have it easier. We can find meaning in the birth of a child, in the embrace of a loved one, in the marvels of nature, in the awesome power of science, in the creative spark of great artists, and music, and poetry, and a beautiful sunset. We are embedded in meaning, proximal, real, honest-to-goodness meaning. We can see the trees without waiting for the forest to unveil itself. We, atheists, have meaning in life without god.
In the end, I think Craig is terrified of the inevitability of eternal death. And he is not alone. I think this is what drive folks towards religion, and by a conservative estimate 80% of the world’s population believes in some kind of god. This is not surprising. Humans are animals with complex neural networks that lead to cogitation, rumination, and story-telling. We create narratives every second of every day. The more proximal the subject of our narratives(why you are reading this blog today), the more likely the narrative would be veridical (because I was bored, er, wishing to be intellectually stimulated). However, for more distal subject matter – such as how and why was the universe created? why are we here? what is the meaning of life?– the narratives become much more speculative and we often need to rely on collective storytelling. This, I think, is where religion comes into play. But are these creation myths really anything more that an elaborate analog of the superstitious behaviour exhibited by Skinner’s pigeons- whereby the pigeons are creating narratives to help them deal with a complex, unpredictable environment?