Claims that life without God is absurd, without purpose or meaningless are some of the most commonly voiced criticisms of atheism by Christians.
Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig puts it bluntly: “If God does not exist, then life is futile”. Pastor Rick Warren states in his immensely popular book The Purpose Driven Life that “without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.” According to most Christians, life is bleak without God.
Of course, they do not mean to imply that this demonstrates alternatives such as Christianity are true. Craig acknowledges this explicitly. Instead, he suggests that if the evidence for Christianity and atheism is weighed and found to be equal, then it would be “positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness”.
Some atheists agree. For example, philosopher Julian Baggini admits, “I think it’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim”.
Curiously, though, many atheists do seem to lead happy and meaningful lives. At least, they seem to think so. Are they somehow deluded, or perhaps just not telling us the truth? It could be, of course, that Craig, Warren and other Christians who make these sorts of claims are themselves deluded or lying. However these seem to be very uncharitable explanations, so we need to dig deeper to explore this apparent contradiction.
It is important to do so, especially for Christians. We are prone to making negative claims about atheism such as its lack of meaning, and so Christian charity requires making an effort to understand why atheists might disagree.
So why do we have such opposing views about such an important topic? As is often the case in philosophy, the answer comes down to equivocation on terms. Words such as “meaning” and “purpose” are used by both groups, but are being understood in very different ways.
What do atheists understand a meaningful life to be? A good place to start is Erik J. Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, where he explains different understandings of meaning.
Supernatural meaning is where purpose is provided by a supernatural being. For example, Christians may believe God has given them a reason for living. They are on a mission from God. Obviously, this understanding of meaning will never be shared with atheists.
Having external meaning is to make a difference in the world, making it a better place than it would have been had you never existed. And finally internal meaning is to live a life that leaves the individual better off for having lived it. It includes worthwhile activity that is good for the person living it.
To claim that atheism results in a meaningless life must therefore entail that even internal meaning is unachievable without God. But is this true?
Wielenberg discusses various arguments for this position. The first is the final outcome argument. Because eventually the universe is doomed to extinction, no events leading up to this outcome have value, including our lives. The pointless existence argument says that without a God to assign purpose, there can be no meaning. The nobody of significance cares argument claims that our lives can only have meaning if there is a God who cares about our lives.
There are various responses to these arguments such as those detailed in Thomas Nagel’s essay The Absurd. Nagel points out that we can easily ask the question, why is our ultimate end of glorifying and enjoying God meaningful? Craig responds that “with God we have reached an end that is truly worthy and capable of being an intrinsically good and meaningful stopping point”.
This leads to Wielenberg’s approach, who bases his counter-argument on Aristotle’s insight that some activities are intrinsically good. If intrinsically good activities exist, then engaging in them can give our lives internal meaning, no matter what the final outcome or who cares about it.
So to claim that life is meaningless without God requires that intrinsic goodness cannot exist without God. Is this the case?
Wielenberg says no. His view is that some ethical truths are necessary truths. For example, suffering is intrinsically evil, and there is no possible world where this is not the case. Some ethical truths lie at the “very bedrock of reality, created by no one, under no one’s control, passing judgement on the actions and character of God and man alike”. They are brute facts, and to ask where they come from is misguided in the way it is misguided to ask where God comes from. According to Wielenberg , “they come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths”.
Thus the argument about meaning reduces down to which of basic ethical truths or the existence of God are accepted as brute facts. Wielenberg has cleverly attempted to level the playing field with what he calls non-natural non-theistic moral realism.
Bearing this in mind, Christians should be cautious about making sweeping claims about atheism’s lack of meaning. Not only are there various interpretations of meaning, Wielenberg provides a plausible argument for the possibility of internal meaning without God. To counter it requires demonstrating his version of moral realism is untenable.