Note: What follows below is a transcript of the video.
The next set of questions that apologists like to throw out that religion supposedly answers is:
“What is the meaning of life?” and “What is our purpose?” which is sometimes phrased as “Why are we here?”
What we’re talking about here is Meaning and Purpose, and the issues are tightly connected logically, and because the apologists make the same move with both topics.
I want to be completely upfront and honest here. These questions are more rhetorical than the previous “Big Question” I tackled, so I can’t pretend to offer a specific answer. What I am going to do here is highlight the difference between atheists and Christians in how we attempt to answer these questions. I leave it up to the viewer to decide which approach is better able to answer these questions.
I will argue that the answer to these questions is that we as individuals create our own meaning and purpose for ourselves. This is in stark contrast to Christianity that argues meaning and purpose for humanity can only come from god.
The first issue is that both meaning and purpose are inherently subjective. This is very clearly demonstrable with a few thought experiments, and is immediately recognizable to anyone with small children.
If I buy my daughter a toy pony to ride on, there’s a very strong chance that she’ll end up wanting to jump in the box it came in and play with it. Now that box’s “purpose” was to carry a product, and once the product is bought and opened, the box has fulfilled its “designed purpose”. But to my daughter, the purpose of the box is completely different than what it was intended to do, however I doubt anyone would say that the purpose of the box to my daughter means nothing to her.
Similarly, we can see the same thing with meaning. What something means is always relative to an individual. This is pretty clear with things like heirlooms or mementos. If something was handed down to you from a relative you loved, like a watch or piece of jewelry from a grandparent, then it means quite a bit more to you than the intrinsic value of the watch or jewelry itself, which could be quite inconsequential to anyone else looking at it – especially if the item shows its age or a lot of wear and tear.
So it is with our lives. We define our own purpose, and our lives mean quite a bit to ourselves and our friends and families – they mean quite a bit in fact. We see this in the grief that is poured out when our loved ones pass away.
But none of this is good enough for the apologists, they want to try and get something more out of meaning and purpose – but in doing so they destroy what we understand meaning and purpose to be.
When challenged on meaning and purpose being subjective, apologists like to push towards “ultimate or objective” meaning and purpose, which is almost silly on its face given how both topics are completely subjective. But let’s look at what the apologist does here.
They want to say that unless god exists, then “ultimately” our lives mean nothing, and we’re left without our purposes having done anything “lasting”. This is because we know that in about 5 billion years or so, the Earth will be destroyed as the sun eventually runs out of fuel to continue its fission reaction. Go quite a few more billion years after that, we’re pretty sure that our space-time universe will have expanded so much that all the stars will die and matter will settle out into an evenly distributed steady state, with no heat or life being possible anywhere. This is known as the “heat-death” of our space-time universe.
So the apologists will claim that on atheism, the fact that eventually all life as we know it will end at some point in the very far future, means that we have “no ultimate meaning or purpose”, because there won’t be anything left for our lives to have meaning and purpose to.
So according to the apologists, the fact that I’m alive, love my wife and child, and all the meaning that my existence brings to myself and my family and friends – that means nothing at all “ultimately” because eventually everyone it could ever possibly mean anything to will eventually die.
All this amounts to is a way to smuggle in the fear of death to the debate. It’s a purely psychological move to try and get the audience in a state of despair, making them more receptive to the comforting lie that is “eternal life”.
In case anyone watching thinks I’m making all this up, this is exactly what’s argued by William Lane Craig in Chapter two of his book “On Guard”. In fact, Craig goes further, asserting that if atheism were true, and if we lived forever, and if the heat death wasn’t inevitable, then we’d still have no purpose, because we would have come about by chance, without a design, and if we weren’t designed, then we can have no purpose.
There are two huge problems here. First is the problem that if we were designed then the purpose for us to the designer is still only subjective and relative to that designer. As we can see with other examples things can have other meaningful purposes beyond what they were originally designed for. But there’s a much bigger issue – if only things that are designed can have a purpose, even if they’re sentient beings – then on Christianity clearly god has no purpose since he wasn’t designed. If god can have a purpose for himself, then he would have to give it to himself. Why then is god the only being that can give a purpose to himself? And if god has no purpose, then why is having a purpose important in the first place? The entire assumption Craig makes here relies on special pleading.
But if we push a little further along on what the apologists offer, we can see just how shallow what they are offering really is, and how it belittles what meaning and purpose we do have.
Ask a Christian what the meaning and purpose of life is, and the answer you’ll get is: “To worship and glorify god”. Note it’s not to be happy, worshipping god is supposed to make you happy.
But how is this any different than deriving meaning and purpose ourselves? This is still subjective; it’s relative to god, since it’s given to us by god.
The only difference is the timescale involved.
Notice exactly what the apologist is saying here. On the Christian view, our lives can have “ultimate meaning and purpose” because the meaning they offer will supposedly “last forever”.
This is the only move the apologist can make because otherwise the “meaning and purpose” they’d be left with is subjective, being relative to god instead of to ourselves or our family and friends.
So remember, this “ultimate meaning and purpose” is about “lasting forever”, not about what the meaning and purpose actually is.
Just thinking about this, we can immediately see how trivial it makes meaning and purpose as we currently understand it.
My love for my wife and child don’t have any real ultimate meaning on Christianity, especially not if one or both of them aren’t believers and end up in hell.
On the ultimate view of things in Christianity, if the bible is to be believed, heaven isn’t like what we consider the “good stuff” here on earth. It’s continual worship of god, with the “saved” become praise bots.
So all the “meaning and purpose” we think about as the most important things in our lives now, our loves, our family, our friends, our continual growth in knowledge and understanding, they mean NOTHING on the Christian view; all that matters is praising god forever.
The most depressing thing to me is that some Christians will hear that last sentence and nod their heads in agreement, that this is somehow a GOOD THING!
But even on this view, eternal life has its own problems. Even if we were “free to do what we wanted” in heaven, rather than be praise bots, eventually on the eternal time scale, you run out of things to do. There’s nothing new to learn, god can tell us anything we’d ever question. There’s nothing new to experience after a while, you could exhaust every possibility and still have time left to go!
What’s supposed to make heaven great is perpetually doing the same thing forever – praising god. I’m sorry, even if you love church; too much of any one thing is going to get pretty crappy after a while. I mean you couldn’t eat your favorite meal for every meal of every day for too long before you were sick of it.
Now the Christian response is to say that this experience of god will be so great that it won’t matter, we’ll just be super-amazing-crazy happy forever, because god will make it so or because god is that awesome.
If that’s the case, then what the hell is the point of talking about meaning and purpose? It’s no longer about what makes me happy and why, it’s about the state of being happy.
It’s like humanity finding a way to give people a lobotomy in such a way that they can’t do anything but sit in a gibbering heap on the floor until they die, but they’ll be extremely happy the entire time.
Happiness in this way is devoid of meaning and purpose. This obliterates any notion of free will or autonomy, which the theists need to believe in for their theology to work.
Now sure, some Christians might say, why think the meaning of life should make us happy? But to quote Sam Harris, that’s hitting philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question. I don’t think any Christian would accept a view of the afterlife where Heaven was just praising god forever for all eternity, and hell was a place where all heathens existed in a perpetual garden of Eden free from pain and suffering and left to do whatever their hearts desired.
So on the Christian view, happiness has nothing to do with meaning and purpose. “Ultimate meaning and purpose” is knowing and worshipping god for ever. On this view meaning and purpose can only come from god, so what’s important in this life is being a saved Christian so you can achieve this purpose. This is considered the “ultimate good” since in Christian theology “goodness” is literally defined as “the nature of god”. The two phrases are actually synonyms on this view. This is supposed to make us happy, if we “love what is good”, or rather “love god”.
Compare this with the atheist view, and the fact that our lives are short, that the existence of our species looks to be finite on the grandest scales – makes the only life that we know we’ll have that much more precious. It drives us to live the most meaningful and purposeful life for ourselves and for each other that we can possibly achieve.
Now you compare these two views, and you ask yourself, who better answers the question of what the meaning of life is?