Honestly, Atheists Have Meaning in their Lives


I may need to add another atheism book to my library after learning that philosopher AC Grayling is publishing a new book, The God Argument, which has the dual goal of arguing against religion and for a humanistic philosophy of life. I already have his previous book, The Good Book, which tries to be a sort of Bible with chapters and verses, but with modern scientific and philosophical understandings. (PZ Myers also has a book coming out about atheism and being fulfilled/happy, called The Happy Atheist. Oh, and happy birthday, PZ.)

But it looks like the volume is being attacked before it’s even published by Damon Linker (his website here) over at The Week. But with an article title of “Where are the honest atheists”, one already loses patience with his critique. Linker things that the arguments against gods and religion are already worn-out and that atheism already leads to nihilism, and to argue otherwise is dishonest. Yeah, so if you’re an atheist and you’re happy, you’re a hypocrite unless you admit all that gives you meaning and hope is an illusion, I guess.

Then again, it seems that Linker hasn’t really thought this through very well. Hell, he hasn’t even read the book, can’t even get the title right (he calls it “The God Question”), and yet he things any arguments for meaning in life are a moral failure without theism. Unfortunately, his argument consists of a bunch of quotes from various authors, most treated in a very superficial way.

Take his treatment of Nietzsche, who proclaims “God is dead” and that this was an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for us. So panic(!), because a snippet of a 19th century philosopher’s works means it’s true, especially when you don’t read the rest. There was a book by Nietzsche that argued against the sort of pessimism that Larkin talks about and was supported by Schopenhauer in Nietzsche’s day; that book was The Gay Science (gay as in happy), and it was against the nihilistic/pessimistic view. For example, when Nietzsche talks about God being dead or dying in Europe:

Even we born guessers of riddles who are, as it were, waiting on the mountains, posted between today and tomorrow, stretched in the contradiction between today and tomorrow, we firstlings and premature births of the coming century, to whom the shadows that must soon envelop Europe really should have appeared by now—why is it that even we look forward to the approaching gloom without any real sense of involvement and above all without any worry and fear for ourselves? Are we perhaps still too much under the impression of the initial consequences of this event—and these initial consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are quite the opposite of what one might perhaps expect: They are not at all sad and gloomy but rather like a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn.

Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”—

We are to embrace this brave, new world according to this German thinker. And we are to fill it with our creativity and power.

But here is the bottom line from an analytic philosophical picture: meaning in life has always and can only come from a first-person perspective. You cannot be given purpose without you finding that itself valuable to you. That is true even if there is a God and he/she/it created you for some end. That purpose is only meaningful to you if you find it fulfilling. We can imagine a god creating the universe so that humans have the ultimate purpose of producing iPhones. Does this mean you should be ashamed or disillusioned that you have failed to buy or make such a device, that you don’t find it giving meaning to you? Of course not. iPhone production only has meaning to you if you care about it.

This is what some atheists have realized, while others do feel the pains of losing things that made them feel like their life was meaningful. God or religion did give meaning to their lives, and it still does. But it gave meaning because people valued its teachings or the community it created.

In short, meaning comes from meaning-makers, ourselves. This is true no matter what. Considering humans created religion to make us have a sense of purpose, it proves that we make our own meaning. And that is empowering. When you realize that the person you do actually consider at a deep level is yourself, then you realize that it is you that makes you happy. How do you give yourself meaning? Realizing and actualizing what you ultimately value. We humans value things like community and family, arts and leisure, dreams and exploration. And religion is not necessary to value these things (and it’s too easy to point to examples of some theology that suppresses those very things). That those things are not “illusions”. What we value is something that can be objectively verified, and we can see that these are things that the vast majority of humans do value. So it would be rather dishonest to say otherwise without argument.

But Linker thinks it’s quite obviously false that atheism is good. Does he cite any actual evidence of secularism correlating with pessimism or social ills? No, he doesn’t. But when we do an actual study of things, we find that religiosity and social ills are correlated and secularism and social ills are anti-correlated. In other words, more secular countries and even states are better off. On happiness and religiosity, the studies are a bit confounded by other variables, and in countries that have a significant secular population such as Denmark then there isn’t any difference between the religious and not religious in terms of happiness; oh, and Denmark is ranked the happiest country (or second-happiest) in the world and is way more secular than the US which doesn’t make it into the top ten. The take-way point: the only notable mechanism that causes pessimism for atheists is being socially ostracized by being the minority and having a majority think you strange and immoral; when this factor is removed, people find happiness just as well with or without religion. So Linker’s beliefs are “quite obviously” bullshit. Evidence tends to do that, especially when all you have to counter it are specious quotes from novelists.

Oh, and as for Linker’s complaint that atheists keep harping on the problems of religion: have theocrats in various guises stopped oppressing gays, stopped restricting women’s rights, stopped pushing for prayer over medicine, stopped battling against evolution and other sciences, stopped attacking and killing apostates and infidels, etc.? No? Well then, seems like we have good reason to keep complaining. It’s still a significant problem. Does the author think these things are a problem? He’s written books on the subject, so it seems to be so, Then why the hell is he whining?!?

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