Perhaps the statement “life would be futile without God” is intended to suggest that those who do not believe in a god are leading futile lives. According to whom? And wouldn’t such a view invite further assessments of the value – or nonvalue – of the lives of those who don’t believe in whichever god is supposed to provide “meaning” to people’s lives? How many stages is the concept “dispensable” in the mind of the believer removed from the concept “futile,” if he buys into the view that “life would be futile without God”? Is the believer who believes that life is futile without his god inclined to suppose that eliminating people who do not believe in his god is just and fair? Could the “life would be futile without God” premise be used to dehumanize people whose beliefs are different from one’s own?
These considerations of course in turn point to the fact that the claim that “life would be futile without God” is certainly not self-evidently true, so consequently it must be argued for in order for those not already accepting it to give it any credence.
In a blog entry titled THE ULTIMATE FUTILITY OF LIFE IN ATHEISM (yes, all caps), a Christian apologist named Russell attempts to make the case that life is futile if “atheism” is true. (I put “atheism” here in quotes because it just seems rather silly to treat atheism as such as though it were some kind of worldview, but it is common practice among those who have an axe to grind against people who don’t believe in invisible magic beings.)
In this entry, I post some reactions and counterpoints to what Russell states in his blog entry.
Russell begins setting up his case by asking the reader to imagine something:
Imagine a child whose parents tell him that he is absolutely useless and that no one wants him.
That said, the imagination is a very powerful faculty, and its usefulness to the intellect is certainly undeniable. But it is not a substitute for facts and evidences.
Moving forward with Russell’s suggestion, I certainly can imagine a parent telling her child that he is a useless burden she cares for begrudgingly. I imagine this does in fact happen a lot, especially in today’s climate of growing resentment for what’s been called “toxic masculinity.” After all, if a segment of the population is going around overtly bashing half the population simply because they happen to be males, the tendency that this resentment would spill over into parental interaction. And in fact, I really don’t have to imagine this to consider its damaging effects – I’ve witnessed and even experienced this firsthand! And it doesn’t even have to be an explicit statement of condemnation; actions do speak louder than words. I remember a few years ago passing through town on the street car and just outside on the sidewalk I saw a woman pushing a stroller in which a child of maybe two was sitting. The child was crying and the woman was shaking the stroller furiously and shouting angrily at the child, commanding him to “shut up!!” Sort of like “the beatings shall continue until morale improves” in graphic form.
That would certainly be devastating for any child. Many would call that the worst form of verbal abuse.
But why? What is it about this scenario that we find so disturbing?
Here’s another scenario to consider: Suppose a father finds his two children, whom he has yet to teach important lessons about life, good and bad, right and wrong, etc., engaged in some behavior he (the father) disapproves of, and without any further ado condemns his children and his offspring with curses they can never outrun. Keep in mind, this father in particular has special magical powers, including foreseeing the future, determining history, even dictating what will happen regardless of what current circumstances may hold. In essence, this father figure calls all the shots and governs what his offspring will do. Would the same people who condemn human beings for child abuse also hold this father accountable? Or, would they scramble to find some excuse for the father’s choices and actions?
Of course, I have in mind the way that the Christian god is said, according to the mythology found in the book of Genesis, to have cursed Adam and Eve when they transgressed in the garden. This god was so big that its rules were more important than the unique children it created. Its rules were apparently the deliberate means of setting its children up for a fall and rushing in to condemn them once they fell according to plan. It’s like handing a loaded gun to a chimpanzee and screaming at it for firing a round. What was expected all along?
Now, apparently this scenario is, for whatever reason, not quite so condemnable in the minds of some. But as a father myself, I find such apathy hard to stomach.
Here’s another that may have a familiar ring. Consider a father who turns his back on his only child while vicious evildoers torture him and prepare him for excruciating execution. The child cries out for his father, but his father sits back and watches the horrific action proceed, all the while calling what happens to his son “good” and “righteous,” even an “act of love.” Consider further that this same father had every means and opportunity to intervene on his child’s behalf, rescue him from the evildoers and protect his life from any and all harm. And yet, there are some who point to this very scenario as the superlative object lesson of fatherly kindness and the highest example of love. Praise for such illustrations as morally exemplary call into question the very nature of the ethical views of those who hold such examples in high regard.
But many do find such actions repulsive, and a motivating factor behind that is not only the premises they have come to accept, but also a degree of empathy they have for fellow human beings. Not all human beings have an equal share of empathy; some are extremely empathetic and some are downright sociopathic in their lack of empathy.
Now many religious people are naturally very empathetic, and many may in fact be prone to religious sentimentality because of their empathetic proclivities. Then again, albeit this is anecdotal, I have myself at times observed a conspicuous lack of empathy among some believers when they appeared to delight in fantasies of non-believers anguishing in hell while believers frolic in a carefree afterlife of comfort and bliss. The tendency of Christian apologists to denigrate and dehumanize atheists does not seem to be motivated by a healthy measure of empathy (think of terms of enscornment like “village atheist”).
Jonathan Edwards, in his infamous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, provides the following description of the Christian god for the believer’s consumption:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: 'Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep…
A similar passage is directed specifically at children:
You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgement, that it was condemned to hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell-- despair, desperate and horrible! The same law which is for others is also for children. If children, knowingly and willingly, break God's commandments, they must also be punished like others. This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood. (John Furniss, The Sight of Hell)
So at the very least we must concede that religion does not hold a monopoly on empathy. Surely belief in invisible magic beings is no necessary precondition for possessing empathy.
Russell provides his own diagnosis of something that is not quite as universal as he apparently imagines:
The reason is because we all crave meaning in our lives.
Perhaps my error here is in assuming that Russell’s use of “we” here is supposed to denote all human beings generally. Indeed, I observe a great multitude of people every day on my trips back and forth to work through this bustling city, and significant proportions of them seem, in my estimation at least, to be rather wanting when it comes to craving meaning (picture young twenty-something men camping in tents in public spaces, wearing tattered clothes and long, dirty beards and holding signs demanding money and weed; I’m sure they’ve all got great retirement plans). Then again, that could be due to what I may be reading into the term “meaning,” which is nothing approaching philosophically precise. (I’ve critiqued the meaning of “meaning” before – see for example here.)
Essentially, this is to say that I don’t buy the view that all human beings are hungry for something noble and virtuous in their lives. These are things that can only be earned, and that’s no special secret. Rather, it seems that many allow the inertia of lethargy and apathy overtake and consume them. I chalk this up more to upbringing than to sheer nature. What models did an individual have as he’s going through the formative stages of his life? What is he taught? What guardrails have been impressed on him to keep his life going in the right direction? Does he come from a two-parent home? What kind of choices has he made over his lifetime? Questions of this sort are relevant to assessing an adult’s values and priorities.
Every person (child or adult) wants to know that he has a purpose in life, that he has value as a human being.
No one can deny the need for a sense of meaning and purpose in each person’s life, because without it, tragically, some are even willing to take their own lives.
And our awareness of that meaning and purpose is inherent.
It’s just built into our nature.
It is just as real and just as ingrained in us as the instinct to survive and the need to reproduce.
Russell then coughs up:
And if it’s built into our nature, then we have to wonder how it got there.
So, where did we get this sense of purpose, value and meaning in life?
Christians (and even many non-Christians) believe that this comes from God.
Naturally, atheists would disagree. As far as we are aware, atheists and materialists don’t deny the existence of these concepts, but they will say that these traits came to us through evolution. Supposedly, our sense of purpose has evolved in us over millions of years through an accident of chance, through random natural processes and mindless, chaotic matter somehow coming together and forming the incredibly complex creatures that we are. No order, no design. So, are we to assume that that which is purposeless has caused a sense of purpose in us? Interesting.
My view is that purposefulness – that is, the proclivity to goal-oriented action – is concurrent with biology as such. Single-celled organisms act to achieve goals just as human beings do. Biological organisms are beings which generate and sustain their own activity, and that activity is not at root goal-less. A rock rolling down a hillside does not seek any goals, but a bee in flight does. It’s this constant pursuit of a goal that is one of the distinguishing characteristics, not just of human life, but of all living organisms as a whole. Observe a spider, a fly, a mouse, a cat, a chimpanzee, a toddler, and all of them will exhibit this special characteristic of acting to achieve some goal. Flies fly around to find food while spiders build webs to catch food; a mouse rummages around in order to find food and a cat lies in wait with full focus to catch food; a chimpanzee takes a twig and dips it into a termite mound to find food and a toddler goes through her mother’s purse to find food. Every organism acts in order to achieve those resources it needs in order to sustain its existence and continue living. That is not unique to humans, but it is unique to biological organisms. And this very fundamental distinguishing biological organisms is what drives the purposeful behavior they perform.
Notice that the purposeful behavior of biological organisms is predicated on a precondition which is also unique to biological organisms, namely the fact that they can cease to exist. A rock cannot cease to exist, nor can it act to sustain its existence. It wouldn’t need to – nothing can really threaten it. It can sit for thousands, millions or even billions of years where it is, and still remain what it is if undisturbed. It does not need to do anything in order to be what it is or continue to be what it is. Something can come along and pulverize it or gradually erode it into dust, but it will not act to protect itself from such external forces. Its continued existence is essentially unconditional; no set of conditions needs to be met in order for a rock to continue being what it is.
But a biological organism’s existence is entirely conditional, and delicately so as well. It has no choice about the fact that it must act in order to continue existing just as it has no choice about the fact that it constantly faces a fundamental alternative: to live or die. This need to act in order to continue living is what makes purpose concurrent with biology.
Notice also, by contrast, that a being that is said to be immortal, indestructible, in need of nothing and impervious to any source of threat or harm, would not be burdened by any of the constraints that saddle biological organisms. An indestructible robot, for example, would have no metaphysical basis for preferring one set of actions over another; it would have no need to seek out one set of conditions and act to avoid other conditions. Thus it could have no objective basis for any purpose whatsoever. But what does this describe if not every god of religion?
There is of course a fundamental flaw with Russell’s basic approach here that seems to have escaped his notice. If purposefulness was caused somehow, it won’t do to explain its cause by pointing to something that is already (allegedly) purposeful. That simply moves the question back a step without shedding any new light on what ultimately caused purposefulness to begin with. Thus, if the Christian god, for example, is supposed to be purposeful in nature (I’d say there are some very strong reasons to suppose that a being possessing the qualities that the Christian god is supposed to have could not be purposeful at all), then pointing to the Christian god as the explanation of purposefulness explains nothing. Such a maneuver would move us no closer towards understanding how purposefulness as such originally came about. We’re left without an answer to the original problem which supposedly necessitated the conclusion that said god is real.
According to scientists, the universe is ever expanding, and the final result is that it grows colder and colder until its energy is used up. Eventually, all living things will die and even the universe itself will come to naught. There will be no heat, no light, and no life of any kind. If that’s all there is, then there will be nothing left to hope for, nothing to look forward to. If atheism is true, all our lives will have been in vain, with no one left to remember any of it. Nothing has made a difference, since we all end up the same way. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we ever existed or not. Think about that. Ultimately, all life will have been rendered insignificant.
And why does the value of our lives depend on the surety that someone remembers us after we die? How many people get remembered long after they’re dead and buried? Only a statistically insignificant number of people do. If a fantasy-based standard is thought to be required for life to have significance, doesn’t this in itself suggest a most cynical evaluation of life as such? And what good will it do me five hundred years after I die if someone has me in mind? That person isn’t alive now, so it does me no good now, and five hundred years after I have died I’ll still be dead, so it won’t help me then, either. We certainly remember Mozart, but not for how he lived his life, but for what he created. And his dazzling achievements will ensure that he is remembered for generations to come. But that doesn’t really help Mozart now, does it? He’s still dead.
But if life is an end itself and the purpose of life is to live and enjoy it, then it really doesn’t matter if or who remembers us decades or centuries after we have expired. The value of a person’s life while he’s living it is certainly not contingent on what others think of it after he has lived it. But in placing such value on what is imagined to be others’ estimations of our lives, only tells us just how pervasively the primacy of consciousness has infiltrated one’s understanding of what constitutes the value of human life.
Russell quotes William Lane Craig, who states:
“The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.”
The same conscious cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.
Russell continues to quote William Lane Craig:
“If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life.”
Consider the doctor who helps to heal and save the lives of thousands… the scientist who studies the laws of nature, the soldiers and law enforcement heroes who protect our land… the heroic firemen who daily save lives and property… if atheism is true, then ultimately none of these people matter.
And since we are merely a by-product of random matter and blind chance, then, in the end, all of us are nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of time.
The life of a gnat would have been just as important as that of a human, since we are all random accidents anyway, and we all end in death.
If there is no final punishment for evil, nor any final reward for good, then man has no ultimate meaning.
Yes, atheism paints an awfully bleak picture.
Moreover, if after examining arguments for theism and considering the nature of theism from an objective perspective, I still find that I honestly do not believe that a god exists and am therefore an atheist, would Russell prefer that I abandon my honesty and pretend to believe anyway? If I honestly grasp the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so and believing a claim doesn’t make it true, with all the underlying implications these fundamentals entail, would Russell find my choice to be honest nevertheless blameworthy and liable to theistic insult?
But the atheist might object and say, “But we DO have purpose and meaning in our lives! We have family, friends, work, etc. It’s just that our purpose is in this life, not in some illusion of an afterlife.” But if there is no afterlife, and if all meaning and purpose is confined to this life alone, then where is life’s meaning for the aborted baby, the stillborn, or the severely handicapped? Where is their purpose? If life does not have lasting or continual meaning after death, then whatever “meaning” it was thought to have is insignificant and will be swallowed up in the darkness of an empty eternity.
The point here is that we are all innately aware that our lives are designed to have meaning, but atheism does not give us ultimate meaning. So, it therefore goes against our very nature. On the other hand, Christianity confirms that the meaning and purpose that each person senses is indeed correct. And the God of the Bible, the God of Christianity, offers everyone (including the atheist) the gift of eternal life. In Him we have ultimate meaning and significance. We just need to trust and accept Him.
Also, the point of atheism is not to “give us ultimate meaning,” just as it is not the point of music theory to give us knowledge of how Microsoft Excel works. Russell’s accusation here is fallacious in that he blames atheism for something that should not be expected from it to begin with. Atheism is not a worldview, a philosophy, a system of ideas. There are worldviews, philosophies and systems of ideas which are atheistic, but they are distinct from one another and have names, such as dialectical materialism, logical positivism, Objectivism, etc. They are not all of a feather, their rejection of theism notwithstanding.
Another point that should be borne in mind is that not all life purposes are created equal. Ask what purpose for life one can glean from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, quoted above. Now, Edwards is certainly remembered, but is he remembered for something good? Comparing Mozart to Edwards, whose lifework produces in us a rich and rewarding emotional experience, and whose lifework produces in us a dreadful, bleak view of human existence? Really, if there were any example of no contest, this would be it! Any “purpose” for life that one might reasonably glean from Edwards’ sermon is that one’s life is utterly cursed and that all efforts to undo that curse are futile, for an angry god which does not change will always and forever be angry. What could cast a darker cloud over one’s life than the underlying belief that he is forever in the crosshairs of such a beast?
Now Russell might object to this by retorting that he does not share Edwards’ view of a god which is forever hostile to human life. Well and good for him. But this would simply underscore the fact that each believer imagines his god after his own image, selectively ascribing to what he enshrines in his imagination as those qualities which he feels his god should have, based on whatever inputs he has consulted on the matter (whether it’s from his interpretation of “Scripture,” someone else’s interpretation, something he heard other believers say, his own freewheeling inventiveness, etc.). Of course! If gods are imaginary, then the one imagining a god is in control of what characteristics that god has. But in the final analysis, it is all still completely imaginary.
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes strongly expresses the vanity, the futility, of a purely secular or materialistic life: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) Without God, life is ultimately meaningless.
As far as the atheist, if he is honest with himself, he has to admit that life just doesn’t make sense in his worldview.
Moreover, I’m certainly honest enough to grasp, in a most fundamental way, that a life worth living is something that can only be earned; it is not something one can expect as a matter of course, as though they were entitled to it. Such a view would only put oneself in the role of a victim, and nothing could be more debilitating and self-sabotaging. It is this sense of entitlement which religion breeds (“we’re designed to have meaningful lives”) and which in turn breeds resentment and a hunger to cast blame. The loathsome atheist is the obvious scapegoat here. But what’s ironic here is that probably no atheist played any part in inculcating such a pessimistic and nihilistic view of humanity that we have seen on display in Russell’s post.
Russell tries to clarify his view:
We’re not saying that atheists are always bad people or that they can’t have morals; we’re saying that they’re living a lie. Because every person knows, deep down inside, that God exists.
How would Russell know what other people know? Or, is it really just that he believes that everyone knows something? Believing something to be the case is not the same as knowing that something is the case. Suppose someone says “I believe that two plus two equals four.” What would this signal? It would at minimum signal some indefinite degree of uncertainty. But when Russell states “every person knows, deep down inside, that God exists,” he’s expressing a certainty that he hasn’t earned epistemologically. Again, how can any individual know what all individuals know, especially when what is allegedly known is not perceptually self-evident?
In response to Russell’s unargued claim here, I would say that at least most people, namely those with some conceptual ability (I allow that there are some human beings who are incapable of the conceptual level of consciousness), can imagine a god. After all, imagination is a faculty which one begins to exercise in childhood, and this is the birthplace of god-belief just as it is the birthplace of many wonderful inventions.
Predictably, Russell quotes the New Testament here:
No one has an excuse: For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20 - NASV)
Further, if I find that a claim is not sufficiently supported by relevant facts and evidence, I am perfectly in the right to categorize the claim as such.
Moreover, if I sense that what is driving a claim is emotion, wishing and/or imagination, I am perfectly in the right to treat the claim as such. If there’s truth to a claim, let those who assert it as truth present their case for it. If upon reviewing their case I still find it rationally unsupported, I reserve the right to reject it. Essentially, if someone makes a claim and after I examine it I find that it smells like BS, I need no excuse whatsoever to reject it. Mind you, I have never found any passage in either the Old or New Testaments which affirms such principles, which are clearly very reasonable. On the contrary, the bible demands uncritical acceptance of its claims, which is a telltale sign that acceptance of its claims requires a most irresponsible use of one’s mental faculties. If it were all so true, such an approach would not be needed.
Also, how did the author of the passage which Russell quotes here know what he claims to know? The author gives no indication of the sample he surveyed or the steps he took in drawing the generalization he affirms as a plausible inference. He simply asserts it; he may as well be telling us what he wants to be true (just as when Christian apologist Mike Licona says of the story of Jesus’ resurrection, “I want it to be true” – see here). But the primacy of existence teaches us that wishing doesn’t make it so. Nor is wishing a substitute for rational induction, something many Christians have told me is not epistemologically reliable to begin with.
Lastly – and I’ve pointed this out before – the passage is internally incoherent, for it asserts that something invisible (“His invisible attributes”) has “been clearly seen.” How does any human being “see” something that is invisible? What mode of awareness is being implied here? If this is figurative speech, could the “seeing” part be euphemistic for imagining? Perhaps so! Consider what it is that’s supposed to be “invisible” and yet at the same time “clearly seen”: “His eternal power and divine nature.” Are either of these things someone literally sees with his eyes? If so, what specifically are they looking at and seeing? If this is not literal language, then we must default to figurative or metaphorical language, and the action attributed to human knowers here cannot be literal seeing, but some internal mental activity which the speaker hesitates to name outright. My suspicions are that reliance on imagination is what the speaker really has in mind here, but dares not admit.
In sum, I’m not persuaded by Russell’s points, and I have some solid reasons not to be. Can apologists salvage Russell’s case and re-assemble it in a manner that has more plausibility? I don’t think so, but readers are welcome to offer their reaction in the comments section below.
The problem with the position that human life is futile without either the existence of a god or belief in said god, is that it suffers from multiple devastating fault lines, not the least of which is that it depends on the premise that something imaginary is actually real. Since there’s no objective way of overcoming such defects, this case is closed.
by Dawson Bethrick