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Image of birds flying. Image of birds flying.

#718 Living with Naturalism

February 07, 2021

Hi Dr. Craig,

I hope you and your family are well. As an atheist, I am not particularly familiar with Christianity but have watched many of your speeches and debates out of interest and curiosity. So far, I think you have made an intellectually compelling case for Christian theism and will continue to explore these ideas further.

One of your ideas I had a bit of trouble with is that life without God is objectively absurd. As I understand it, your view is that under naturalism/atheism, we will die, the earth will perish, and the universe will dissolve into nothingness. Hence, this ought to be a cause for despair, and naturalists who think their lives have meaning live under an illusion. I unequivocally agree with all the implications of naturalism you listed out and have accepted these implications of my worldview but have not and do not believe I ought to succumb to despair, grief, or existential dread. I also do not think that naturalists are under an illusion for thinking that our lives have meaning.

I believe that my view is one shared by many atheists which they have not articulated well. While I am not here to argue that naturalism is true, let’s assume that it is true, to discuss its implications. I believe that purpose to life is not, nor should be cosmologically significant nor intrinsic but something we create and choose for ourselves. Hence, meaning comes from endeavors which could involve pursuing passions, raising a family, or helping others – pursuits which give your life purpose and make it feel as if it is worth living but have a finite and limited impact in any ultimate sense.

You may argue that if we are going to perish, why does it matter, it will not make any difference if I choose a or b. To illustrate why I disagree with this attitude, let’s consider two scenarios:

1. I have just finished my meal at a buffet restaurant and see a chocolate cake on a stand. Me choosing to eat the cake would be inconsequential in any ultimate sense. But the cake is sweet and delicious, eating it makes the moment temporarily more enjoyable, which is good enough. Eating the cake is a worthwhile experience despite the fact that it will run out and will not have any further impact on my life.

2. I am attending a classical concert and know that the music will end, and the event will become a vague memory. But while I am seated in the audience, I enjoy the music which is so powerful, elegant, and enlightening. In this sense, attending the concert was worth it – it was good while it lasted.

So, on naturalism, we will die and perish, the sun will swallow the earth, the universe will cease to exist. But I think it does matter that we were alive. During the flicker of time while we were here, life was gratifying, engaging, and beautiful. So, under my conception of meaning, life is meaningful under naturalism, the fact that things to come to an end is not and should not be a cause for fear and despair, but rather something I have blissfully accepted. Instead, we should have gratitude that it happened.

So, my questions are: Is my conception of meaning inconsistent with a naturalistic world view? If naturalism were true, why would you, and why would believe others should (subjectively) believe that my conception of purpose in life is undesirable?

Kind regards,


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Dr. craig’s response


I’m so happy that you’re exploring Christianity, Luke! In addition to the speeches and debates you mention, I hope that you’ll consult my published work, for example, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. rev. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008) on what I call “The Absurdity of Life without God,” where I can explicate my thinking on this vital question more fully. (You needn’t buy the book; just get it from the library.)

Rather than go through your letter point by point, let me cut to the chase and go immediately to your two questions. My answers should make it clear how I would respond to your other points.

1. “Is my conception of meaning inconsistent with a naturalistic world view?” Not at all, if I understand you correctly! It’s my conception of meaning that is inconsistent with naturalism! I maintain that on naturalism, there is no ultimate, or objective, meaning, value, and purpose to life. It seems to me that you agree with me on this, as do many other atheists. If the universe is objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, then it follows that any meaning, value, and purpose to be had in life is wholly subjective. As you say, “we create and choose for ourselves” the meaning, value, and purpose we want to live by. Your passions and pursuits are not really meaningful or purposeful, nor are your family members really morally valuable or important. These values are just the subjective preferences you have chosen for yourself, and you could have chosen quite differently, as others like Kim Jong-un or Jeffrey Epstein have done, without making any mistake. 

Now, like many atheists, I think that this is cause for despair. To think that my life is objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless is unbearable. Indeed, I maintain, no atheist can live consistently and happily within the framework of a naturalistic worldview. So in order to be happy, people invent or create meaning, value, and purpose for their lives and inconsistently live as though their lives were objectively meaningful. My claim is not that naturalists cannot live pleasurable, hedonistic lives such as you describe, enjoying fine dining and classical music. Of course, they can! But when they regard these things as truly meaningful, valuable, or purposeful, they belie their worldview. They’re living in an illusion of their own creation. 

It seems to me that we both agree that on naturalism all that’s left to us is the subjective experience of meaning, value, and purpose. You think that living that way isn’t so bad. Maybe not, but it’s purchased at the expense of living an inconsistent, existentially inauthentic life. So unless naturalism is forced upon us by some compelling argument, it’s best to avoid it.

2. “If naturalism were true, why would you, and why would believe others should (subjectively) believe that my conception of purpose in life is undesirable?” Because it’s existentially inauthentic. But if naturalism is true, we’d have little choice. No one can live consistently as though his life were objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless. So like it or not, unless you choose suicide, you have to live in self-deception.

Let me close with a question for you to think about, Luke: you say that we should be grateful that the universe happened. Grateful to whom?

- William Lane Craig