Facing Life Without God

Facing Life Without God

An atheist philosopher writes that there is nothing positive about atheism - it is bleak and hopeless - and cheerful marketing campaigns by atheists are absurd! Dr. Craig examines the article.


Transcript Facing Life Without God

They know they're going to die, and they know their loved ones are going to die; that's the tragedy. It's knowing that your life and all the wonderful things that you can do in living, the people you love, that that's all going to end.

How could it possibly matter in the scheme of things if we treat one another morally?

We're all going to die.

We're all going to die.

That's all going to end.

So doesn't atheism, by definition, rob life of its meaning?

Kevin Harris: So do you feel better after all that? Probably not. But hang on; there's a good ending to this story. Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. Now, we've done podcasts with Dr. Craig on the meaning of life, the absurdity of life without God, and Dr. Craig has spoken extensively on this and written on it. Today we're going to look at an article that takes a little different direction than what we've done before, so I think you're going to get a lot out of it. Again, check some of our past podcasts and some of the resources at ReasonableFaith.org to get more on God and the meaning of life. Dr. Craig and I were just in the studio. Let's go to it.

Dr. Craig, a philosopher writing in The Guardian says that, “Yes, life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that.” Julian Baggini is the philosopher who wrote this for The Guardian.[1] On this page in The Guardian there's a picture of the bus campaign that many of the UK atheists were taking part in, and the sign across the bus says “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” So the campaign – and it's got balloons all around it and everything – the campaign is to try to put a positive spin on atheism, but he says really you can't. This is what he's saying in the article. He says,

The problem with the "atheist" moniker has been recognised for decades. It's too negative, too associated with amoral nihilism. It's understandable then that many would agree with Richard Dawkins that we need a word like "gay" which "should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright". So why not "bright" [to describe the atheist]?

One reason, which I mentioned right at the start of this series, is that it sounds too smug. But there's an even more important reason why we should not choose a word that is "positive, warm, cheerful": although many atheists are all those things, atheism itself is none of them.

And here's from a man who wrote an introduction to atheism and was published. What are your initial thoughts?

Dr. Craig: Well, it reminds me of Bertrand Russell's claim that the world really is a terrible place, and it's only by coming to terms with that that we can successfully live. So rather than whistling as we walk through the cemetery, we face the darkness boldly and try to make the best of life. Russell, in his famous essay “A Free Man's Worship,” says, “only upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair can life's foundation henceforth be safely built.” So this is a classical Russellian atheistic view rather than a sort of cheery, humanistic, New Atheism view.

Kevin Harris: And that's not out of context, either. I mean, that's what Bertrand said.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: And it concluded a long paragraph about how that's the truth. Well, this is what we hear quite often, the fact that atheism is facing up to this is showing that they are the more intellectually rigorous and honest, and that there's no need to brighten up image because the unique selling point is life can be brutal yet we “atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances.” And that should be the selling point, that we're mature enough or brave enough to face that. Well, my first question is, why be brave? I mean who cares?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think the first question is, why be an atheist?

Kevin Harris: Well, yeah.

Dr. Craig: Really, because he says here in the essay that

Stressing the jolly side of atheism . . . disguises it's unique selling point.[2] The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy.

In other words, the reason you should be an atheist is because atheism is true. And I applaud him for that. He is absolutely spot on. I would say the same thing about being a Christian or being a theist. The reason that you should be a Christian is not because it makes you feel better or gives you a more rewarding life. The reason to be a Christian is simply because Christianity is true, and you will be a Christian even if that might mean that you will lead a life of suffering, persecution, and perhaps even martyrdom. It's not about what makes you happy in life or the social consequences of your view, it's about what is the truth. And Baggini is convinced that atheism is true, and therefore he thinks you should be an atheist regardless of the personal costs involved, even if it makes you miserable. And I would agree with him; I think that's quite right. Where I would disagree is I don't think atheism is true.

Kevin Harris: He says,

Given how the atheist stereotype has been one of the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe, this is understandable. But frankly, I think we've massively overcompensated, and in doing so we've blurred an important distinction. Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that's "can" not "is" or even "should usually be". And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable.

Dr. Craig: Now, what's very clear, Kevin, is that here he is talking about subjective meaning, moral values, and happiness in life. When he says that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy, or it can be meaningless, nihilistic, and miserable, it's clear he is talking about subjective person-relative attitudes, not whether or not life and the universe really are meaningless, amoral, and so forth. Indeed, I think he says later in the article that on atheism the universe really does not have any meaning, it is objectively meaningless, but the atheist can live subjectively a meaningful, moral, and happy life by embracing certain choices, but it isn't necessarily going to be the case. And there's nothing to disagree with that, Kevin, because he's talking purely about person-relative subjective experiences of life and not about whether life is objectively meaningful and valuable.

Kevin Harris: He sees this campaign of trying to show the jolly side of atheism, and he says “that glosses over the harsher truths.” You know, that it really is bad.

Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life?

And here he's putting down that bus campaign: there is no God; stop worrying and enjoy life.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think you're right, and I want to highlight what he says here about atheism: there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. This point was made very poignantly by Louise Antony in my debate with her at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.[3] In her last closing statement she described how she had moved from being a Catholic to being an atheist, and in a very candid moment she said, “I have to admit that being an atheist does have it's drawbacks, and one of them is that there's no redemption.” And I thought about that; that struck me strongly. On a Christian view, if you have made a terrible moral misstep there's forgiveness, there's moral cleansing. And God might even bring something in the end good out of that. But on atheism there's no redemption for the wrongs that you have done. There's nothing to redeem the moral sins that you've committed, the injuries against others that you've perpetrated, the wrongs that you have done. They are with you forever because they are unredeemed.[4] And that really is a horrible thing to think about: a life in which there is no redemption, no salvation, and no second chances.

Kevin Harris: In the same way that you said earlier that we embrace and we believe in Christ and put our faith in him because he is who he claimed to be and not because how it makes us feel. The fact that there is hope, and that there is the possibility of redemption, and all of the above, Bill, you've pointed out that should at least want to make a person say, “I really need to look into this. This is really good news!”

Dr. Craig: Exactly. The attitude “whatever” toward the question of God's existence just fails to understand the existential significance of this question. Baggini understands that, and that's why this article is to be applauded. This is an incredibly important question with profound consequences for our lives.

Kevin Harris: You said as well that even if the evidence were 50/50 for theism or non-theism, why in the world would you go for despair?

Dr. Craig: Exactly. If the evidence is evenly balanced so that you're perfectly rational to go either way, why would you prefer futility, despair, meaninglessness, and no redemption to a life that offers hope, meaning, redemption, forgiveness, and salvation? It would seem to me that the rational person would choose the alternative of theism.

Kevin Harris: And that's even if it were 50/50. And I certainly don't think it's 50/50. I think it tips in favor of theism.

Dr. Craig: As do I.

Kevin Harris: As do you. Well, he's not for naming the movement. He's saying the selling point is the fact that it tries to deal head on with this annihilation and this oblivion staring us in the face. What does he say about the threat of moral nihilism? He doesn't want to go there either.

Dr. Craig: Well, this is very interesting. We've seen already he thinks that atheists can live moral lives in the subjective sense. You can adopt a set of values to guide your life by that will make you a decent person. But he does recognize that it isn't easy to find any sort of basis on an atheistic worldview for the affirmation of objective moral values and duties. He says, “anyone who thinks it's easy to ground ethics either hasn't done much moral philosophy or wasn't concentrating when they did.” He goes on to say that on a religious view “at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail.” But he says on atheism there is no “clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality.” And that's the central issue, Kevin. It's not whether you can live a decent life without believing in God – of course you can. The question is the reality, the objectivity, of moral values and duties. And as he quite honestly admits, it is very difficult to ground these on an atheistic view. And while the case on a religious view of the world may not be easy – there's certainly difficult questions to ask about the relationship between values and duties and God – at least on a religious view you've got a reason to think that morality is real and objective.

Kevin Harris: Bill, what I was trying to chase a little bit earlier was . . . I'll tell you a story as an illustration. Back in the early 80's there was a rash, almost an epidemic, of suicides among junior high and high school students, Plano, Texas. And there were satellite trucks in town when this was going on. And it was horrible. Kids started to commit suicide, and once a certain amount of kids did it then other kids starting picking it up and doing it. One kid who survived indicated that the reason that he wanted to commit suicide was because the cheerleaders would cry for him and that the flag would be at half-staff for him. What he didn't realize is that he wouldn't be there to see it. And so his final act of desperation would go unanswered and unfulfilled in him, only forced misery, because he wouldn’t be there to see that. And you have the existentialist hero who dies in the face of despair, seen over and over and over in literature and in movies . . .[5]

[Start audio clip from the movie Escape from L.A.]

You push that button, everything we've accomplished for the past five hundred years will be finished, our technology, our way of life, our entire history. . . . Welcome to the human race.

[End audio clip]

Kevin Harris: . . . who's last desperate act is just to sneer, light a cigarette, and then die. Well, the ancients thought you would live on in the songs and in the legends, and the girls and women would cry over you and there would be songs written about you. You wouldn't be there to see it. And so what I'm saying is this: what point is there to being brave in the face of this annihilation that is about to befall all of us? Why be mature, why be brave, and who you being brave for?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's a good point. He cannot say that we ought to be brave in any sort of objective sense. The coward who in the face of moral nihilism and atheism decides to live purely for self-interest and to use others for his own means doesn't do anything objectively wrong on this view. So the selling point of atheism here, as he calls it, has to be, again, simply it's subjective appeal. So really I guess it's back to adopting it because you like it – isn't it? – which is what he said he wouldn't do. You're being brave because that's the kind of person that you would like to be rather than the cowardly selfish person. But that's just a matter of personal preference. You're not really any better than the sniveling coward who seeks his own self-interest rather than that of others.

Kevin Harris: Bill, all I can say is, thank God for Jesus. Thank God for the resurrection of Christ.

Dr. Craig: Yes.[6]



[1] Julian Baggini, “Yes, life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that,” The Guardian, March 9, 2012. See http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/09/life-without-god-bleak-atheism (accessed March 5, 2014).

[2] 5:02

[3] For a video of this debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-antony-university-of-massachusetts (accessed March 5, 2014).

[4] 10:04

[5] 15:00

[6] Total Running Time: 17:07 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)