Sunday, January 19, 2014

Q: Is an atheist's life empty without god?

Isn't life empty, meaningless, and, ultimately, nothing without god?

As readers of this blog can guess, I'm a big fan of Whitefish Dunes State Park. I head up whenever I get the chance, which, alas, is not often. What does this have to do with the question above, you ask? Well, it's a pretty long drive, and there are roughly ten billion, five hundred and forty-three billboards along the way. One of them, that showed up with remarkable frequency, was a version of the following, from the Kaiser Christian Fund (they had quite a few other signs up as well, but this message in particular stood out to me), whose sole goal seems evangelism-by-billboard.

"LIFE IS NOTHING without God!"

And when I say it stood out, I don't mean it in a complementary fashion. It wasn't soul searching for the reasons intended. It came across as an incredibly arrogant, amazingly presumptive, and downright dangerous philosophy. Yes, dangerous: there are lots of examples through history of what happens when people convince themselves that the lives of those who are not exactly like them are worthless, "nothing" -- and none of them are good.

It is, though,one of the frequently recurring themes emphasized by religious people who preach against atheism. (I should note, as an aside, that the sentiment conveyed on the above billboard, while many religious people could drive by it and nod in agreement, actually targets a much larger list of people than atheists; the KCF's mission is not to convert people to theism, but to Christianity. In their minds, life with Allah or Yahweh is as much a "nothing" as life without any of them. It's only life with their particular deity, God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit, that makes your existence meaningful.) If you do not believe in a higher power (and, as with the billboard, it always gets down to my higher power), there is no point to your existence. Your life is empty, hopeless, and ultimately purposeless.

This isn't a question new to our species. Pagan men wondered, in their day, the role of religion and gods as readily as practitioners of today's religions decry the meaninglessness of life without their gods. Marcus Aurelius' sentiments on the matter are worth quoting:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

It should be noted that ultimate purpose is itself a loaded concept. It generally implies a deity or some supernatural force to evaluate or judge our use at the end -- in which case, it is true to say that there is no "ultimate" purpose. It's sort of like saying that there is no communion if you don't believe in Jesus. Yeah, and? Is purpose diminished simply because there is not some final record keeper to evaluate it and pat you on the head for a job well done -- or cast you into the great grill of eternity if you've not? I don't think so. A life well lived is still a life well lived. When it comes right down to it, it seems less a matter of purpose and more a matter of reward -- if there is no god, there is no afterlife, and so no eternal incentives to be a better person (or punishments for failure). While some will argue that without the divine reward/punishment model, we have no moral basis, Richard Dawkins perhaps answered this best in his book The God Delusion:

Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base though.
Morality is something beyond "you will burn for all eternity if you don't do this" or "you will walk streets of gold in the company of almighty god for all eternity if you do". Morality is determined by other factors, beyond our ultimate judgment. And while the idea of being rewarded for being moral might be appealing, like the idea of finding pots of gold at the end of rainbows (who wouldn't love that?!), there is no logical basis for the assumption that there will be an "ultimate" reckoning, a benevolent deity to keep an account of every wrong we've suffered and every nice thing we've done. In the end, our purpose is no more or less than what we make it. If we make it our goal to make the life of our fellow creatures better, do we need a pat on the head at the end of time as affirmation? Are our motives not purer if we do it without the promise of reward, without the bribe of eventual personal reward (and ever present blackmail of hell)? That seems a worthier, if less personally beneficial, concept than "ultimate" purpose. Furthermore, "ultimate purpose" requires belief in something that is completely unproven and in many cases offers no proof, operating on exactly the sort of basis that a child's belief that Santa will bring them a new x-box if they're good, but coal if they're not, operates on. Few would argue that lifelong belief in Santa Claus would be beneficial, despite its reward/punishment incentives, and despite the fact that there would be someone, ultimately, judging our actions and keeping a record on whether we've been naughty or nice. The desirability of an eternal score keeper has no bearing on the reality of whether such a score keeper exists. Wishful thinking is just that.

Life is not empty simply because we do not take wishful thinking at face value. Art, music, literature, science, and nature are not diminished without a god behind it all. Our world, our relationships, the amazing odds against our being here and the fact that we are here all the same, are reason enough for wonder and joy. Do we need an eternal score keeper to enjoy all that, to live a full and meaningful life? No. Furthermore, the world makes more sense when you do not suppose that an ostensibly merciful god is going to condemn to hell people who have never even heard of him; who is busy wining superbowls but lets kids in Africa (many of whom will then end up in hell for disbelieving) starve to death; who allows multiple, equally confusing, contradictory and unbelievable religions to flourish while, according to so many, whisking believers from only one to paradise, and everyone else to eternal torment. Our actions have direct consequences in the here and now. There are no invisible puppet masters who have given us free will but occasionally pull certain strings anyway.

That's not meaningless. That's the opposite of meaningless. We have a world full of beauty and intellect to enjoy; and, yes, there's a world full of suffering to right as well. But we can't shrug it off and pretend it's someone else's problem, like thousands of years of religion has done. There is no someone else, and as more people realize that, the more urgent solutions will become. Eventually, as we stop leaving things to gods that don't exist, we can evolve into a more caring, more loving society. And that's not meaningless either.

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