Earlier this month I challenged believers in atheism to tell me how or if they find there to be meaning in life. Also, without a transcendent reality outside our own physical world that gives an objective definition to moral ideas, how can an atheist affirm the existence of any moral absolutes? Is anything truly “right” or “wrong” independent of any subjective feelings we may have about it?
My challenge provoked a considerable number of responses — 145, at last count. Only a few commenters misunderstood what I was saying. I did not
mean that people without a God live lives without morality. On the whole, I was moved by the time and thought so many readers (many of whom came here from the atheist forum on Reddit.com
) gave to formulating a reply. I recommend that you at least skim through the comments yourself
The thing that struck me most about the responses was their variousness.
The top response? Probably it was people saying their moral ideas come from evolution by way of physiology: “It begins in the brain.” “It occurs from within the mind.” It “may well be hard wired.” “It’s simple, it’s a trait of evolution.” “Morals are evolved.” Meaning, too, “Evolved throughout the ages, duh.” But why I should obey evolutionary morals, what authority they could have to command me if I can get away with disregarding them, isn’t clear to this blogger. Nor do I see how a purely material reality, as Darwinian evolution assumes, could be other than meaningless.
Among these evolutionary thinkers, Moral Atheist offered the startling view that “Morality is inherent in the species….Humankind is inherently moral.” On what planet?
Many others based their moral ideas on empathy, or “an urge” to make other people happy. That’s lovely if you are such a naturally empathetic person. What if you’re not? What if you have to make hard a decision where your feelings for others are in conflict with your own self-love or self-regard? What if today I just don’t feel like being nice?
Some seemed to agree with me that there can be no ultimate meaning in their universe. “Meaning” comes from having a good time. Of course, that’s no “meaning” at all.
Some candidly admitted, “There is no Meaning.” “For me there’s no meaning in life. Life means nothing.” “I am quite happy with the idea that I have no meaning or reason for being.” I would be curious to know how such a horrendous notion actually plays out in the lives of the people who answered this way. What impact does it have on their behavior or emotions? If none, I doubt they really believe it, or that they have plumbed the significance of what they’ve said.
Some said meaning and morals come “from my parents,” “from our culture and parents,” “learned from my family.” But this is simply ancestor-worship. Who says your parents are right?
Some gave idiosyncratic answers. Scott admitted to being “a little drunk” as he was surfing the Internet late at night, but allowed that he derives meaning from “hate.” He hates injustice, hates superstition, hates cancer (he works in the health-care field).
Some were content with nakedly arbitrary responses like, “I assign [meaning] for myself.” Some derived answers to such ultimate questions about the cosmos from “personal experience.” “Meaning [in] life comes from whatever we make it to be.”
Some ridiculed my question as “ignorant” and “profoundly unimaginative” and gave me tips for recommended reading (Saussure, Plato).
The variousness of the responses, and their uniform inadequacy, is the answer to my question. These well-meaning and I’m sure good-hearted folks are grasping, groping quite blindly for answers that every human needs and knows he needs. Arbitrarily assigned meaning (“I find the meaning of life to lie in collecting souvenir spoons”) is no real meaning at all. Arbitrarily assigned moral values, or values inherited by chance from your mom and dad, are not morals in any serious, adult sense.
I would assume that all the people who replied to me live not by the light of the answers they offered, but by that of the moral culture that still persists even in the secular West, a moral culture derived ultimately from an awareness of God, however diffused and hard to recognize.
Meanwhile, at First Things
, David Goldman (a/k/a Spengler) notes British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s typically incisive formulation of exactly the point I wanted to bring to the attention of atheist readers:
The universe cannot provide its own meaning, just as a logical system cannot prove its own premises (according to the Gödel incompleteness theorem). This meaning of the universe that lies outside the universe we call God…. Morality is not written in nature: you can’t read ethics off the world.
I couldn’t, and didn’t, say it any better than that.