Where Do Atheists Find Meaning?

Where Do Atheists Find Meaning?

An article in the Washington Post discusses atheism and meaning. Dr. Craig dissects the arguments and gets to the real issue..


Transcript Where do Atheists Find Meaning?

Kevin Harris: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. Dr. Craig, we're looking at an article in the Washington Post by Paula Kirby, “How do Atheists Find Meaning in Life?”[1] The first thing I noticed about this is that there are a lot of articles all over the place on atheists finding meaning in life. There is a legitimate and growing new atheism movement – there's just no denying it – with their own rally in Washington, and that usually heralds that there is a firmly ensconced movement of some kind. And part of that is going to be, okay, without God what kind of meaning is there in life? Let me give you a syllogism, Bill.

1. Things that are rare or fleeting are often considered more valuable than things that are common; a diamond, an antique, gold, a guitar signed by Les Paul.

2. Life is rare and fleeting.

3. Therefore life of short duration is more valuable than life of eternal duration.

What are the problems with it? I'm giving this to you because I hear this all the time.

Dr. Craig: Well, it's not valid. The first premise was things that are rare are considered to be more valuable. But they're not really more valuable just in virtue of being rare, they're considered more valuable. So that is to record a subjective impression about what human beings do. But when you think about their intrinsic worth, a diamond has no more intrinsic value than copper or nickle or water or anything; it's just a mineral – right? It is only because of human social constructions that we represent diamonds as more valuable than other sorts of rocks.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, I mean, you would say that's imposed on it but it's not intrinsically.

Dr. Craig: No, it's clearly a social construct that values certain things because they're harder to get, you don't find them as often, and so human beings consider them more valuable.

Kevin Harris: And the argument goes, since we atheists believe that this life is all there is, it's all that more precious and rare in the universe.

Dr. Craig: Well, but, again, see, that doesn't follow because the first premise wasn't that things that are rare are more valuable. They're just considered more valuable, and so what you would say is that life that is short and fleeting is considered more valuable than life that is everlasting. I think that's plausibly false – I think even most atheists would long for immortality if they could have it – but even so that doesn't affect the fact that it doesn't prove that a fleeting life is more valuable that an everlasting life. At most it would prove that it's considered as such by certain people. It still has only to do with subjective evaluations, Kevin. What we're asking here is not how atheists find meaning in life, which would be consistent with saying that life is objectively meaningless but somehow you've got to get through so how are you going to find some sort of meaning to your existence? Well, you'll invent projects that will bring you satisfaction and make you feel good and so forth, but that has nothing to do with whether or not life has an objective meaning or value of purpose.

Kevin Harris: This article begins,

The correspondent was blunt: “Why don’t you atheists just go out and kill yourselves right now?”

True, most Christians phrase it rather more delicately, but atheists are regularly informed by a certain kind of believer that our lives can have no value if we do not believe in their God. What is the point, they ask, of being kind or loving, caring about suffering or doing anything at all, if one day we just die?

Dr. Craig: She's misstated the problem, I think, to a degree. I agree with her that a certain kind of believer will argue that if God does not exist than ultimately there is no objective value to life or the universe. But they typically don't say, “What's the point of being kind or loving if one day you just die?” I think what they might say is “If you just die and there is no life beyond the grave then why not act for self-interest rather than act morally? Prudential reasons and moral reasons come into conflict on an atheistic view, and so why shouldn't you just act in your own self-interest?”

Kevin Harris: She continues,

It is true that in the absence of a divine plan our lives have no externally determined purpose: an individual is not born for the purpose of becoming a physician or creating a spectacular work of art or digging a well in an arid corner of Africa

Dr. Craig: Alright, now that's important to pause at this moment and see what she admits here.[2] She grants that if atheism is true then there is no objective purpose for our lives – and she lists some there – certainly it wouldn’t be to know God and have an eternal love relationship with him because he doesn't exist. So she concedes that on atheism there is no objective purpose to life.

Kevin Harris: Okay, and she says, “But are the sick less cured, the pleasure to the art-lover less intense, or the thirst of parched villagers less slaked, simply because a man sought his own purpose rather than following a diktat from on high?”

Dr. Craig: Well, now, see, what she's done here is switch, now, to subjective concerns – the pleasure to the art of lover, or to saying, “are the sick less cured?” Well, of course the sick are just as cured, but the point is that in the absence of God there isn't any ground for saying that curing of the sick is better than taking advantage of the sick. Where do objective moral values derive from, and why think that we have any obligations toward other members of the humans species?

Kevin Harris: Whether I go to a Christian dentist or an atheist dentist I'm not going to like it, but they'll probably be able to do the same good root canal, perhaps, if they're trained. She says, “Do we really need a deity to tell us that a life spent curing cancer is more worthwhile than one spent drinking in the gutter?”

Dr. Craig: Yeah, now think about that question. Who's to say, in the absence of God, that a life spent curing cancer is better than a life spent drinking in the gutter. Who are you to say to the homeless alcoholic lying in the gutter that his life is less worthwhile than a doctor curing cancer? On atheism it seems to me that those are equally valid options for a person to choose how he wants to spend his life. She said there's no objective purpose to life, so each person is free to choose his own purpose and meaning in life, and on atheism who's to criticize one of those persons rather than the other?

Kevin Harris: She brings out something that you brought out, Bill, and that is, belief in God is not required to recognize an act morally, or moral values and duties. And she said we don't need a deity to tell us what to do. She continues, “Why should we not find satisfaction in alleviating suffering or injustice, just because we’re all going to die one day?”

Dr. Craig: See, that's the wrong question. Nobody contends that because we're going to die we shouldn't find satisfaction in alleviating suffering and sort forth. That is about subjective pleasures. And nobody's contending that your mortality means that you're not free to find satisfaction in what you do. That's just not the argument.

Kevin Harris: She says, “The very fact that this life is all we have makes it even more important to do everything possible to reduce the suffering caused by poverty, disease, injustice and ignorance.”

Dr. Craig: And I would say why? Why? Explain that to me, Miss Atheist. The fact that this life is all we have makes it important to do these things? Why?

Kevin Harris: Because it gets back to this fleeting life, rare gem, things that are rare.

Dr. Craig: Alright, and what I said was that that is just a human construction; that's a social construct put on reality. I can't see any reason on atheism to think that anything is more important to do than anything else. Were does the atheist get this value system that ranks things in importance?

Kevin Harris: Yeah, well, she says, “To describe such attempts as meaningless is to say that avoidable suffering does not matter, hardly a moral stance.”

Dr. Craig: No, it's not a moral stance, that's right. And the point is that on atheism there isn't any objective moral stance to be taken. Moral values are simply the spin-offs of evolutionary biology and social conditioning. You've been raised in a culture that's conditioned you to have certain beliefs. These are programmed into you by being a social animal, Homo sapiens. But, right, there's no moral stance here to be taken. So where does the moral outrage come from, where does the moral stance come from, on atheism? I don't understand the ground for it.

Kevin Harris: She continues, “Many Christians claim we have no reason to care about others if there is no God. But this is itself a religious claim, arising from the theological concept of Original Sin, which declares humankind fallen and corrupt.”

Dr. Craig: Nonsense.[3] Where in the world did she get the idea that this is a claim that arises from the theological concept of original sin? Kevin, it is atheists who have said again and again that if there is no God then there is no objective value or meaning or purpose in life—Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre, in our own day Richard Dawkins and others have said this. So it has nothing to do with original sin. It has to do with if we're just animals, if naturalism is true, then where do you get these moral obligations and values, objectively, that we all sense that we have, and I can't see any explanatory foundation in naturalism for these things.

Kevin Harris: She says things like these theological concepts, continuing here,

We can safely ignore it, for in reality we do not need childish stories of eternal reward or damnation to coerce us into being good: research shows that the least religious societies have the lowest incidence of social ills, including crime and violence. Healthy humans have empathy built in, and the explanations for this lie in psychology and evolutionary biology: no gods required.

Dr. Craig: Exactly my point, Kevin. What does she says here? These values are the result of evolutionary biology and psychology which build into Homo sapiens a kind of empathy for other members of their same species. That's exactly what I was saying on naturalism. In other words there is no objective basis for thinking you have moral obligations or for ranking purposes in life in terms of their importance. These are just evolutionary spin-offs that are built into us. And the lack of moral objectivity here is evident in two facts. First, no one's under any obligation to go along with these built in instinctual impulses that have been put into us by evolution. If somebody chooses to flout them he's not doing anything objectively wrong, he's just going against his impulses.

Kevin Harris: Why should I obey my impulses? Why should I obey my genetics, my evolutionary . . .? Why should I?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, there isn't any reason. The second thing that shows that is if you rolled the film of evolution back to the beginning and shot it again a very different sort of creature might well have evolved from the blind cosmic process who would have built into him a very different set of empathetic feelings and values, a different psychology and evolutionary history, and it would have no more objectivity than the one that is built into us. So she's speaking, you see, out of both sides of her mouth here without realizing the contradiction. She desperately wants to affirm the objectivity of moral values, the importance of living lives of humanistic worth as opposed to lives of dereliction or cruelty, and yet she doesn't have any objective basis for that. Her own analysis of moral values are that these are simply instinctual byproducts of evolution and social conditioning.

Kevin Harris: And, Bill, this is what I was speaking of in a podcast not too long ago, that people point to countries that are very secular, non-religious countries, and find good things about them in their research, they can see there. And she's doing the same things here: “Research shows that the least religious societies have the lowest incidents of social ills, including crime and violence.”

Dr. Craig: Now, we could argue about that, Kevin, but I don't think there's any need to because that's not the issue on the table here. The issue isn't “Do we need to believe in God in order to have a moral society or in order to live a decent life?” And the answer is no, and no one's ever contended that you need belief in God in order to live in a certain way. Rather the question is, the objectivity of those values, of that ranking of importance that she gives to different people's lives. And the fact is that she herself affirms the view that robs us of any objectivity for those values and that importance that she wants so desperately.

Kevin Harris: I feel like killing myself after reading this article. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Well, go on, it gets better.

Kevin Harris: Okay. “Life cannot be meaningless so long as we have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others.”[4]

Dr. Craig: Really? Is that true? Life cannot be meaningless if you have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others? Well, of course it could be meaningless. No one who think that life is objectively meaningless thinks that you are impotent to affect the well-being of other people and yourself. Of course you can either kill people or you can nurture people, but the point is that the choice between them is arbitrary on atheism. You're under no obligation to do one rather than the other, and whichever one you choose to do is ultimately of no significance, it's ultimately meaningless which choice you make.

Kevin Harris: Now she drops a bomb.

Dr. Craig: Yeah.

Kevin Harris:

For true meaninglessness, we would need heaven.

In the state of permanent, perfect bliss that is the very definition of heaven, ‘making a difference’ is ruled out. If the difference made an improvement, the previous state could not have been perfect. If it made things worse, the result would not be perfect. In heaven, neither is possible. Even being reunited with loved ones could not add one jot to their bliss or yours, for heaven would be, by definition, a state that could not be improved on.

Dr. Craig: Now this is a really bad argument, Kevin. It's an argument that if something is perfect then it cannot change because if it changes it will either change for the worse or it will change for the better. If it's perfect it can't change for the worse, but it can't change for the better, either, because it's already as perfect as can be. Therefore the perfect cannot change. And the argument is simply a bad argument because changes can be morally neutral. You can change, so to speak, horizontally without changing vertically. If we imagine the vertical scale as better or worse, you don't need to change vertically, you can change horizontally. So people in heaven can do all kinds of different things, engage in different activities, experience God's love and the love of other persons with them without saying that is gets better or worse. So that the idea that perfection is something where you can't make a difference or have a change is simply a bad argument. Her argument is that if there's going to be a change it will either be better or worse and neither is possible—that's what she says. But she just fails to understand that changes don't have to be vertical; they can be, as I say, horizontal.

Kevin Harris: Well, I get that from her saying this,

Just consider for a moment the hellish pointlessness of heaven. At least in our real existence our actions have an effect, for better or worse, and it is therefore worth trying to get them right. In an eternal life where we can have no effect whatsoever, we might as well be dead.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, see, what she doesn’t understand here is what heaven is. Heaven is knowledge of infinite goodness of God himself. Augustine, I think, rightly said that any finite good experienced for infinite time would be hellish because it would lead to boredom and ennui. But only an infinite good could satisfy man's infinite longing for fulfillment, and God's goodness is infinite and inexhaustible, and we will live forever in relationship with him, experiencing his inexhaustible love. So that heaven will be bliss. It would be silly to think of heaven as being pointlessness or hellish, that fails to understand what heaven is, which is being related to an infinite good. Certainly in heaven we would have moral obligations and duties to others, that's certainly true. So that's not a problem.

Kevin Harris:

If you have ever claimed that your life would have no meaning if it weren’t for your faith in God, do you really believe your family and friends have no worth in their own right? Can you really not see the point in striving to protect and nurture your children, even if there is no eternal life? Really?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think that she herself says this in saying that moral values are simply the product of evolutionary biology and psychology. In the absence of God none of us has any objective worth. This is the hellishness of atheism. This is to stare atheism and its consequences fully in the face and not blink. And I think the problem with a person like her is that she cannot really stare atheism in the face without blinking. She wants to say these atheistic things but then at the same time affirm the moral worth of her friends and family, and that's just backing down. That's bad faith.

Kevin Harris: If you can't see this she says, “If you do, then it is you, not atheists, who debase humanity, and it is Christianity, not atheism, that diminishes the real value and meaning of life.”

Dr. Craig: Not at all.[5] Our claim here is conditional. If God does not exist then life has no objective value, meaning or purpose. That is a claim that is affirmed by many atheists. But of course the Christian denies the antecedent of that conditional. We believe God does exist, and so we think life does have value, meaning, and purpose, and that every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore endowed with intrinsic value and God-given rights. So it's not Christianity that diminishes the real value and meaning in life; it is atheism.

Kevin Harris: She says, “We atheists find purpose in the world as it is, and in our real lives; we see living beings as valuable in their own right, deserving of our concern and compassion simply because they share our capacity for pain and pleasure.” Sounds like Christianity.

Dr. Craig: Sure. I have no doubt that she finds purpose in the world as it is and that that's how she sees living beings, and the point is that on atheism that is an illusion. That's a delusion because they really don't have that sort of value on atheism that she sees them to have.

Kevin Harris: She says, “This is a perverse view of reality. After all, if the only valuable thing about existence is that God gave it to us, then that must mean the gift is not worth having in its own right.”

Dr. Craig: Now, how does that follow, Kevin? Suppose that life is worth having because God gave it to us and it is a means by which we can be related to the supreme good. How does it follow, then, that the gift isn't worth having in its own right? That just doesn't make sense. Human beings have intrinsic worth because we are persons as God is a person, and so it's the theist who is able to affirm the intrinsic value of human beings. What is hard to understand is why on atheism and naturalism human beings would have intrinsic moral worth.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, she's saying in essence if life is worth living, if it's a gift worth having in it's own right, then you can bypass God and you don't need God to give it, because if it wasn't worth living than it wouldn’t be worth God giving it to us.

Dr. Craig: I think maybe the confusion here is between intrinsic value and saying that the value is relational in the sense that it's based in God. Human beings have intrinsic value in that they are ends in themselves, and they are to be treated as such. By contrast a hammer, say, or a screwdriver, or a diamond for that matter, has no intrinsic value. It has extrinsic value insofar as it serves the purposes of human beings—we can use hammers and screwdrivers to build things, we can use diamonds for currency or for jewelry. So they have extrinsic value, not intrinsic value. But human beings, by contrast, are intrinsically valuable; they are ends in themselves. But the question is why do they have intrinsic value? What is the explanation of this? And the theist offers an explanation by saying they are created in the image of God who is goodness himself. But the atheist has no answer to that question as to why human primates have intrinsic moral value. Indeed it's really strange on atheism to think that this species of primate should be endowed with some sort of intrinsic moral worth and that they would have moral obligations toward one another and moral prohibitions about how they behave. Who in the world put these prohibitions and obligations on them in the absence of God?

Kevin Harris: Her other objection to Christianity is, she says, “were it not for your belief that there’ll be an eternity in heaven to compensate you for having had to endure [life on this earth], you can see no reason why you’d ever want it.”

Dr. Craig: The idea that one wouldn’t enjoy life now is just patently false because lived in light of eternity everything we do every day is infused with eternal significance. As we carry out God's will for our lives we are dong things that have eternal value. So every day you wake up you have things to do that are of eternal significance. I can't image what would give life more meaning and value than that. When I became a Christian the greatest difference that I noticed in my life, Kevin,[6] was not the joy or the peace or the love that knowing Christ brought, it was the meaning with which my life was infused, that every day I woke up the things that I did really mattered. They had eternal significance. And life lived in that perspective is so different than a life lived when you know everything ultimately makes no difference and will all end in the grave.

Kevin Harris: She says, “Theistic religion reduces life to something that has no value other than as the creation of an imagined deity.”

Dr. Craig: Well, now, how does she know the deity is imagined? Suppose God really does exist and suppose we really were made to know him and his love forever. Then life would be something that was tremendously infused with value, if God exists.

Kevin Harris: “It decrees that purpose and meaning can only be found in being that deity’s puppet, having no purpose but its purpose and no value other than as its handiwork.”

Dr. Craig: Suppose his purpose for us is to become, as you said, mature, responsibility, virtuous moral persons who are related to him and to each other in love and in righteousness. That would be a glorious purpose for us to actualize in our lives.

Kevin Harris: Because we would be a participant, not a puppet.

Dr. Craig: There you go. She's still stuck with this idea that theists are claiming that belief in God is necessary in order to live a decent and good life, and that's just not the argument.[7]



[1] Paula Kirby, “How Do Atheists Find Meaning In Life?” Washington Post, January 18, 2012.

[2] 5:17

[3] 10:05

[4] 15:02

[5] 20:09

[6] 25:00

[7] Total Running Time: 26:41 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)