Theists have often argued that atheism implies a meaningless existence, whereas a theistic worldview provides the possibility of a fulfilling, meaningful life. Although this argument is usually dismissed by nonbelievers, I believe that it actually serves some use in the debate. This argument, what I shall call the Argument from Meaning, can be formulated as such:
1. We should always adopt a worldview in which there is at least a potential for meaning and worth.
2. Atheism provides no possibility for meaning.
3. Theism provides a possibility for meaning.
4. Therefore, one should adopt a theistic worldview.
Non-theists have traditionally argued three separate points; (1) atheism doesn’t imply meaninglessness, (2) theism doesn’t imply meaning, or (3) it is inconsequential whether or not atheism can provide a meaning to life. Thus, they challenge each premise in the argument. In order to defend the conclusion, I will now defend each premise against all objections.
Does Atheism imply a Lack of Meaning?
In order to answer this question, we need to analyze several consequences of an atheistic worldview. The first obvious consequence is death. And not just temporary death, but eternal death. For, according to atheism, each individual will eventually die and be no more whatsoever.
Now, this actually creates quite a problem already. For, if we simply cease to exist sometime in the near future, then how can our actions have any meaning or purpose? Once we die, did it really matter whether or not we lived at all? We won’t have memories of our life, and our brief existence will be of no use to us at all. So how could it have been meaningful? We might as well have never been born.
Imagine a doomed astronaut, stuck alone in an escape pod that is flying into deep space- hurtling towards a boiling star. Can his actions inside that pod possibly have any meaning? Nothing he does can possibly affect his eventual death. His actions, thoughts, and beliefs are meaningless. So too, are our lives, as we hurtle uncontrollably to certain death.
But the nonbeliever may respond by saying that our lives can affect others. The actions we take while we are living can ultimately have a ripple effect in the universe- for good or for bad. We can improve the universe through our brief lives, and this is where we can gather ultimate meaning.
However, this response just brings up another, even more serious problem for the atheist. For, under the atheistic view, all of the universe will soon die out. 1 Once all life is gone and a dead universe is all that remains- what then can we say about our supposed meaning? Well, quite unfortunately, it dies out along with life. If the universe eventually dies out, then no action we make can possibly affect the end result of complete and total death. Not only is our astronaut flying towards death- so is our entire universe.
The Forgotten Dream
Neurologists tell us that we dream quite often during the night, but sometimes don’t realize it because we forget most of our dreams. In a way, a forgotten dream is analogous to the atheistic life.
There was once a time during the night in which we were experiencing the dream, but we can never know what that was like because we completely forgot we had the dream. We might as well of not had the dream, because it is of no significance. But our lives, under the atheistic view, are just like a forgotten dream. Although there was a time (such as right now) in which we are experiencing the dream (life), it is utterly meaningless because it is forgotten (as our lives will be once we are dead). Once we cease to exist, we will have no recollection of our lives. It will be like it never happened, just like the forgotten dream. But if the universe eventually ends as does our own life, then so too is all of life collectively a forgotten dream of no significance.
Usually nonbelievers will respond to this sort of argument by saying that you can make your own meaning, or find meaning inherent in life. But one cannot “make” objective meaning. Life either has actual meaning or it does not. Just because you can find things in your life to make you content does not mean that your life has meaning. “Creating” meaning is actually no more than deceiving yourself.
What is this concept even supposed to mean? A close analysis reveals that this type of argument cannot possibly overturn the problem of eventual (complete) death. Perhaps a person can create goals, strive to acheive them, and gain contentment both in the striving and in acheiving them. However, this does not overturn the problem of death. This person will still die and not remember his life, and the human race will still die and not remember this life nor remember his impact on society. The impending death of the entire human race looms over ANY attempt to construct meaning or worth under an atheistic paradigm.
With premise two of the argument supported, it is time to analyze premise 3.
Can Theism Provide a Meaning of Life?
Theism is in a good position to provide a meaning to life because it does not imply a lifeless universe in the distant future. Thus, our actions, thoughts, and beliefs can have an effect on the universe. Furthermore, many forms of theism (including Christian theism) maintain that our actions in this world directly or indirectly affect our afterlife. Thus, our lives are infused with tremendous meaning- because every choice we make could effect how we spend eternity. Furthermore, our choices could affect, for good or for worse, how other people spend eternity.
Theism also means that there exists a God who created us and to whom we owe our gratitude. And, according to Christian theism, God has given us a moral code to follow. Thus, we can meaningfully choose to behave morally and do what is good.
There have been some attempts to demonstrate that Christian theism eliminates the chance for a meaningful life, but all of these attempts are, quite frankly, extremely weak. For example, see my critique of Douglas Krueger HERE.
Should we Accept Theism Just because it Allows a Meaning to Life?
If premise 2 and 3 are supported, then we must simply support premise 1 in order to reach our conclusion. Should we adopt theism because it allows for meaning?
An atheist will probably claim that the answer to this is “no”, because it is foolish to believe something because it makes us happy. We should not believe in unicorns because we wish they existed, and we should not believe in God because we want Him to exist. Now, for quite a while I actually agreed with this argumentation. I am very concerned with truth, and the real issue is which worldview has more evidence. But there is actually a slight difference between the unicorn analogy and the meaning to life.
In the unicorn scenario, a person believes in unicorns because it makes him happy. This is clearly wrong-headed. But in the case where one chooses to adopt theism, the person is not seeking happiness, but a foundation for happiness. They are searching for an actual meaning to life, a reason to exist, a reason to keep on living a moral life. Why would one choose atheism when there is a chance that theism is correct? 2
Look at it another way- everybody behaves as though they have meaning. Everyone behaves as though persons should act morally. As J.P. Moreland points out: “A person’s real views are often seen in his spontaneous reactions to life rather than in his stated views. If someone were to steal a nihilist’s car, would he really react on the spot by saying nothing was wrong with the act?” 3 Everyone pretends that there lives have meaning, whether or not such is really the case. But if we are going to pretend that our lives have meaning, we may as well adopt a worldview in which it is possible that such meaning is not merely illusory.
Craig relates the idea of the “Noble Lie”:
“In a remarkable address to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 1991, Dr. L. D. Rue, confronted with the predicament of modern man, boldly advocated that we deceive ourselves by means of some ‘Noble Lie’ into thinking that we and the universe still have value. Claiming that ‘The lesson of the past two centuries is that intellectual and moral relativism is profoundly the case,’ Dr. Rue muses that the consequence of such a realization is that one’s quest for personal wholeness (or self-fulfillment) and the quest for social coherence become independent from one another. This is because of the view of relativism the search for self-fulfillment becomes radically privatized: each person chooses his own set of values and meaning. ‘There is no final, objective reading on the world or the self. There is no universal vocabulary for integrating cosmology and orality.’ If we are to avoid ‘the madhouse option,’ where self-fulfillment is pursued regardless of social coherence, and ‘the totalitarian option,’ where social coherence is imposed at the expense of personal wholeness, then we have no choice but to embrace some Noble Lie that will inspire us to live beyond selfish interests and so achieve social coherence. A Noble Lie ‘is one that deceives us, tricks us, compels us beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, [and] race.’ It is a lie, because it tells us that the universe is infused with value (which is a great fiction ), because it makes a claim to universal truth (when there is none), and because it tells me not to live for self-interest (which is evidently false). ‘But without such lies, we cannot live.’” 4
Now, it seems to me like Rue is absolutely right- we must create a “Noble Lie”, and thereby fool ourselves into thinking we have meaning and worth, in order to live. But why believe a Noble Lie when one could adopt theism, which at least has a potential of being true? We need a meaning to life not in order to be “happy”, but in order to function. And instead of creating a farcical meaning to life in order to trick ourselves, we would be much more rational to adopt theism.
In this article, I have argued that theism provides a possibility for meaning, and atheism does not. I have also argued that this is rational grounds for accepting a theistic paradigm. It is entirely foolish to follow- by choice- a worldview in which there is no potential for meaning. Humans require meaning, and they act as though they possess it, so it seems that the only rational option is to adopt a viewpoint in which such meaning is not illusory.
2. If unicorn-belief was absolutely necessary for your life to have any purpose whatsoever, wouldn’t you accept it, or at least try your hardest to accept it?