Monday, October 29, 2018

Is human life really “futile” without a god?

I’ve often heard claims to the effect that “life would be futile without God.” It’s not always clear what specifically this statement is intended to mean, and it should not surprise us to find that those who sympathize with the statement on its face value mean different things by it. Are they saying that life would be futile if their god did not exist? If so, that raises questions regarding the nature of the premises upon which they base this assessment. Are they saying that life would be futile if one does not believe in their god? If so, that would seem to boil down to a set of beliefs that have been accepted as fundamental drivers of their view of life overall. And those beliefs themselves would need to be examined for what they entail and for whether or not they are rationally defensible.

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.

I’m tempted at this point to give a spoiler alert, but also compelled to be up-front to my readers in confessing that I’m wholly convinced that gods are imaginary – and, like it or not, this goes for the god which Christians have set up at the top of their belief hierarchy. Given what I know, then, I must say at this point that I have not seen any persuasive arguments for the conclusion that “life would be futile without God.” This should not necessarily be taken to mean that I have the snappiest retorts to every point that may be brought forward in support of such a contention. Indeed, very often the “arguments” given on behalf of the view that “life would be futile without God” are emotional in nature, and emotions are notoriously difficult to argue against (yes, it can sometimes be emotionally damaging when something doesn’t go your way, but that does not necessarily mean that the offending party did something wrong or immoral).

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.
I must confess that I have developed a tendency to be amused when apologists for a religious view position their defense on the basis of what is imaginary. This tendency of mine was no doubt intensified when I examined Douglas Jones’ article Why & What: A Brief Introduction to Christianity, which begins with the following instruction to the reader: “Imagine that you are mistaken about everything you hold dear.” (See also here.) He doesn’t start with something like “Consider the following facts…” or “These evidences make the following conclusion inescapable…” Rather than directing our attention to facts and evidences, things that are real and available objectively, the apologist asks the reader to immerse himself in a subjective realm where imagination calls the shots.

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.

Russell continues:
That would certainly be devastating for any child. Many would call that the worst form of verbal abuse.
Yes, it would be devastating for any child, and even if it’s not the worst form of verbal abuse, I’d still not want to see what is live and in person. However, I’d say a case could be made that abuse that rivals if not exceeds the example Russell gives would not be too dissimilar from telling a child that he was born of sin, that he is inherently depraved simply for being human, that he can do nothing to redeem himself from the guilt he did nothing to inherit, and that the only way to avoid an eternity of everlasting torment is to adopt a never-ending set of “doctrines” which must be believed rather than understood (what child could understand these things to begin with?), let alone be ever verified as truthful. While the example Russell provides is certainly condemnatory in nature, the religious tactic has the advantage of ensuring that the child has no philosophical defenses and preys upon his vulnerability at a most fundamental level. I’d say that’s pretty harmful!

Russell asks:
But why? What is it about this scenario that we find so disturbing?
Clearly not everyone finds the scenarios described above disturbing; specifically, those who perpetrate the described behavior don’t find it disturbing. The woman I saw terrorizing her child in a stroller apparently found nothing wrong with her conduct, and religionists who indoctrinate their children with subjective beliefs apparently don’t either. Also, many who observe such behavior and do nothing to intervene on behalf of the child victims apparently don’t find it disturbing enough to take action as well. Rather, it seems that some segments of our culture not only tolerate the offending behavior, but in one way or another actually encourage it. (Think of all the welfare dollars doled out to single mothers, for example.)

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…
It’s tragic enough to tell a child that no one wants him, where the assumption here is that no other human beings want him. But it is nothing short of sheer psychological terrorism to tell him that the supernatural creator whom he is expected to worship all of his days regards him as Edwards describes here.

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)
Clearly the purpose here is to scare children out of their wits into obedience and compliance. This is not a model for negotiation and persuasion based on mutual values, but an effort to use one’s own values (such as his value of his own life) against him in order to manipulate him and bring about desired behavior, principally by breaking the child’s spirit before he has a chance to build his own independent character.

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.
Now there’s a generalization that could use a good argument to secure it. From what samples is this broad conclusion drawn, if not those which have been deliberately selected to support it? Of course, if I come to a barrel of apples and pick out the 16 ripe ones and ignore the remaining rotten ones, I could hold up the good ones as evidence that all the apples in the barrel are ripe. But that would be at best a hasty generalization; it could very well also be an indication of manipulating the evidence to endorse a desired conclusion.

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.

Russell exclaims:
Every person (child or adult) wants to know that he has a purpose in life, that he has value as a human being.
Again, this is a universal generalization that needs actual evidence to support, not just feelings or beliefs or wishing. Though it may very well be true for many people, I don’t think Russell has the data to support such a wide, all-encompassing assertion. In fact, there have been many people I’ve observed over my lifetime who seemed almost averse to functioning with purpose, as though a purposeful existence were a drag, that they’d rather sleep all day and just “occupy” rather than spend time chasing goals. After all, chasing after a goal can end in failure, and a few failures and no successes can after a while incline a person to give up. Then again, perhaps Russell would include a junkie’s jonesing for his next fix as confirming evidence for what he means by having a purpose in life. But in fact, a thoughtful perspective would take into account the profound differences and their respective implications between myopic, short-range pursuits and long-range, organized planning.

Russell continues:
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 yet, there are some who do take their own lives. This very fact seems to neutralize, in the most effectual manner, Russell’s claim. Even more, consider what religion holds up as the ideal relative to this life that is but a veil of tears and pit of suffering: an existence in a “paradise” where one has no needs whatsoever, no goals whatsoever, no challenges, no aim for success, no chance of failure. What kind of “purpose” awaits those who pass through the pearly gates? What could be more ironic?

Russell writes:
And our awareness of that meaning and purpose is inherent.
Such an awareness would at the very least need to be inductive in nature. But Christian apologists have routinely told us that there is no objective basis for induction (a claim that rests on a stolen concept – is there no objective basis for every instance of induction?), and Russell himself does not step us through the process from drawing the universal conclusions he affirms from any samples that would be relevantly applicable in such a case.

Russell insists:
It’s just built into our nature.
In other words, according to Russell’s perspective, this “awareness” of one’s own “meaning and purpose” is irresistible and not subject to an individual’s own agency. By removing choice from the matter, Russell puts the issue beyond the reach of morality. We have a certain purpose, we all “just know” this, and we have no say on the matter, and, like automatons acting in accordance to programming, we have no choice but to respond accordingly. If that’s the case, then morality has no bearing on the matter, just as morality has no bearing on whether you’ve been born autistic or with only one arm or with a prenatal addiction to morphine.

Russell adds:
It is just as real and just as ingrained in us as the instinct to survive and the need to reproduce.
For one, I strongly question the notion that each human being has an “instinct to survive.” Survival is not always an easy task; in fact, it’s a very difficult task, and no individual has automatic knowledge on how to do it successfully. Everyone has to learn something, including general facts about reality (even if they explicitly deny them), specifics about their immediate predicament (even if they blame others for their reality), skills to attend at least to bodily needs (something most of us take wildly for granted), etc. None of this comes to anyone by “instinct.” That’s not to deny that we all have certain talents, some possessing talents in greater measure than others, but a talent is not a skill unless it is nurtured and cultivated and put to practical use. And many things can stand in the way of these virtues, especially an attitude of entitlement.

Russell then coughs up:
And if it’s built into our nature, then we have to wonder how it got there.
Ah, so that’s where this was going all along! Russell’s entire narrative follows a very familiar pattern: characterize the situation as though it needed some supernatural personage responsible for its conditions, then infer from that characterization that a supernatural personage must really exist and must really be responsible for said conditions. Yes, we’ve seen this many times. Virtually all of the classic arguments for theism follow this basic pattern to one degree or another. It’s just variation on a theme at this point. Just ask: is Russell’s presentation going to be persuasive to someone who hasn’t already invested himself emotionally in the imagination that supernatural beings exist? Even more deeply, would someone who has explicitly and firmly grasped the truth of the primacy of existence – e.g., the recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so – find Russell’s train of thought here at all convincing? I trow not.

Russell asks:
So, where did we get this sense of purpose, value and meaning in life?
Having accepted the primacy of consciousness (cf. wishing makes it so) that lies at the root of theism, Russell now attempts to put a face to the imagined magical consciousness allegedly responsible for the attributes he has presumptuously and gratuitously ……… to all human beings. The inner dialogue behind all this goes somewhat as follows: “Some supernatural being made all this amazing stuff happened, and that supernatural being happens to be the god I’ve enshrined in my imagination all these years. And this god’s name is…. [fill in the blank].” After all, does one name do an effective job of distinguishing one imaginary being from any other imaginary being?

Russell explains:
Christians (and even many non-Christians) believe that this comes from God.
Of course. Those devoted to religious assumptions are always going to attribute the cause for anything they deem good, fortunate, right or virtuous to the god they have erected in their imagination. That’s religious belief. And Russell is right to use the verb “believe” here just for this reason, for it is just that, a belief. Essentially they believe it because it is part of a larger narrative about the world, life and human nature that they, for whatever reason, have adopted and invested their emotions into being true.

Russell writes:
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.
If biological organisms evolve – and the empirical evidence is uniformly consistent in showing that they in fact do evolve – then a rational approach would not be so cavalier or dismissive about the role that evolution may play in understanding the origin and development of the traits in question, especially if one claims that all human beings have these traits to one degree or another. Science is the systematic application of reason to some specific area of study, and if we’re going to be on the side of reason, then we must take into account what has been discovered and validated through sound scientific research.

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.

Russell states:
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.
It’s statements like this which expose the nihilistic roots of religious motivations. Since any alternative to religion’s mystical narrative has been characterized as simply too depressing to contemplate (and deliberately so), the solution is to flee to the imagination where a fantasy-world can serve as an alternative standard, a standard that is free of the constraints of reality and immune to the requirements of human life.

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.”
How about the religious alternative:
The same conscious cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.
Does that really make the situation any better? Does deleting the primacy of existence and replacing it with the primacy of consciousness really make anything metaphysically superior? Does Russell or any other theist really think that the reality of man’s existence, his challenges, his suffering, his defeats, his demise, is somehow better if we just imagine some supernatural consciousness behind it all instead of recognizing the fundamental fact that wishing doesn’t make it so?

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.”
In essence, Craig is claiming that, if the primacy of consciousness is true, then there’s no objective basis for value in life. But such a view defeats itself at its very roots, for if the primacy of consciousness were true, there’d be no such thing as objectivity to begin with. Craig and others who think this way are simply unaware of how deeply they’ve accepted as a fundamental premise to their worldview the belief that wishing makes it so.

Russell asserts:
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.
Frankly, how would believing in something that is merely imaginary give any of these some value that they wouldn’t have given the conditionality of human life?

Russell writes:
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.
Again, the full weight of any argument here is in the characterization Russell chooses to frame the matter. On the contrary, regardless of how human beings “got here,” the fact is that we are still biological organisms facing the fundamental alternative of life vs. death. Whether I was born here or arrived here on a jumbo jet, I still have a mind which needs philosophy and a stomach which digests food, and I still need to act in order to continue living. That’s the very foundation of purpose. Characterizing the causal mechanisms which worked to generate our nature as biological organisms in terms which take the primacy of consciousness for granted, does not change any facts about our nature or the potential we are capable of.

Russell continues:
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.
When we speak of importance, we must always bear in mind the implied answer to the question, “important to whom?” Having assumed the primacy of consciousness as a constant backdrop to all of his assumptions, Russell is unaware of the significance of this point as well as the irony it invites. Why would a man’s existence be any more important to a gnat’s to an immortal, indestructible and supernatural being which did not need to create this disposable universe in the first place? Since it has no needs to begin with, and faces no fundamental alternative between life and death, it has no objective basis to assign a hierarchical code of value or importance to anything, including its own actions.

Russell asserts:
If there is no final punishment for evil, nor any final reward for good, then man has no ultimate meaning.
What is the argument for this? Russell may think he’s provided one, but he hasn’t. If life right here on earth is the one opportunity an individual has to live, then it is right here and only right here where any reward or punishment is possible. The Socratic adage that the unexamined life is not worth living has some guiding value here. A rewarding life is not possible without a clean conscience, and a miserable life is the punishment for suppressing one’s conscience. People who have a chance to live a life do reap the rewards and benefits of their choices and actions right here and now. Imagining that there are rewards and punishments awaiting an individual after he dies puts the matter beyond reality, beyond existence, beyond any actual bearing on an individual’s life.

Russell opines:
Yes, atheism paints an awfully bleak picture.
Actually, it’s typically theists who paint an awfully bleak picture of atheism, through their deliberately selective characterizations, and more often than not those atheists who help in this regard (and there have been many!) are borrowing premises, albeit furtively, from theistic assumptions. At root is the assumption of the primacy of consciousness, and as we have seen in Russell’s own statements, this assumption can be so pervasively taken for granted that it is utterly normalized throughout all of one’s thinking. And yet any rational adult will betray an underlying, implicit recognition of the fact that existence exists independent of conscious activity, such as when they state a truth or go to pick up a cup of coffee.

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?

Russell adds:
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.
Clearly if purpose is concurrent with biology, a biological organism which has expired no longer has a potential for purposefulness. That follows quite logically. A stillborn baby or baby deprived of life by means of abortion has been denied any potential for purposefulness. This should only bring home the point that life and its purposefulness are in fact special, precious and in need of deliberate protection, not the inescapable inevitability that theism ascribes to them. As for those who are handicapped, this of course varies depending on the nature or the severity of the handicap. We are all handicapped to some extent, i.e., we are all constrained to a set of limitations beyond which we’ll never be able to expand ourselves. I do not have wings so that I can fly like a bird; some would say this is not a handicap, but if I’m out on the Serengeti being chased by a pride of lions, that’s a handicap!

Russell summarizes:
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.
Russell has provided no support for the claim that “we are all innately aware that our lives are designed to have meaning.” This is simply an item of faith which he repeats as though it were true. But repeating a claim does not make it true, no matter how persuaded Russell may be by positively reinforced belief statements. Additionally, what Russell misses is the concurrence of purposefulness with biology, and this is not evident only in the human condition, but in the conditions of all biological organisms.

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.

Russell continues:
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.
Again, note the nihilism inherent in such a dismissive view of life. Whoever the preacher here may have been, he must have had some very deep-seated resentment and misgivings, and he was determined to infect others with his corrosive negativity. He most certainly would have frowned on anyone relishing in the enjoyment one experiences when listening to a Mozart sonata. And yet here Russell has apparently swallowed in one gulp a most eloquent expression of hatred for life as such; he is repeating it to seal his case, after all. Unleashing his ire against people who don’t believe in his god is not going to calm his angst. Rather, I predict that by focusing his hostility on scapegoats is only going to enable him to never look in the mirror. And Russell wants to preach to the world about purpose and meaning?

Russell opines:
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.
As a close friend once told me, I am brutally honest, not just with others, but primarily with myself. I’m certainly honest enough to recognize and admit that when I am imagining something, I am imagining, and I’m honest enough to keep at the forefront of my conscience the fact that reality and imagination are fundamentally distinct. Imagination is a very powerful faculty, but it does not have the power to rewrite reality. I am also honest enough to acknowledge and understand that when I follow a theistic argument to its end, I still find myself needing to imagine the god whose existence that argument is intended to prove. So even when theistic apologists present their elaborate, silver-bullet arguments for their gods’ existence, we’re no closer to a reality than when we began.

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.
Again, notice the unexplained use of the first person plural here. Who’s the “we” that Russell is speaking for? Have these anonymous somebodies given Russell their consent to speak on their behalf? Sometimes a speaker will switch to speaking in the plural to impress upon the reader that the speaker has the numbers on his side. But the size of a crowd does not give veracity to the crowd’s slogans and chants.

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)
For one, I do not need any “excuse” to govern my mind honestly. I’m simply too honest to recognize and admit to myself that, when I contemplate claims and stories of gods, religious figures, supernatural activity, etc., I have no choice but to enlist my imagination to connect everything together, and I’m too honest to ignore this and treat what I imagine as though it were real.

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


Joe said...

Excellent points Dawson as usual. Thanks for blogging and please keep posts coming as you are able. I enjoy reading them. Pax

Ydemoc said...


Thanks in advance for another new entry! I just stopped by and saw that it was up. Can't wait to dig into it!


Jason mc said...

Always great to see another IP essay, and a lengthy one at that. Thanks!