Monday, January 14, 2013

Making Meaning (as Opposed to the “Ultimate” Rhetorical Device)

A Catholic friend asked:
Pat (and whomever else), I wonder if you would indulge me and give me a response to this blog post. I am trying to come to terms and understand more with the mind of an atheist. Can you help me?
He provided to this link. It's an excerpt from a book of Christian apologetics.

Here's my response:

Making Meaning (as Opposed to the “Ultimate” Rhetorical Device)

I don’t want my life’s meaning determined by an invisible, unaccountable, mythical, supernatural authority figure who allegedly “works in mysterious ways.”* Handing off my sense of meaning to such a vague character would deprive me of creating meaning for my own life.

To Christian ears this often sounds like arrogance, but it isn’t. It sounds as though I’m putting myself above the Almighty, but that’s impossible. I can’t put myself above something that I don’t believe exists. If someone asked you your appraisal of the mightiness of Zeus, would your denial of Zeus’ existence be arrogance? No. Your disbelief in Zeus is probably identical to my disbelief in God.

I do understand the emotional appeal of believing one is part of a grand story that will go on forever. There was a time I shared that belief.
When I realized my cherished beliefs were flawed, the loss of my prospective afterlife was the most difficult part to accept. I was really looking forward to an afterlife, provided it didn’t get too boring.

However, within a couple weeks of my loss of faith, while walking on Michigan Ave. near Greenfield, I was struck by a powerful realization. As I neared the K-Mart parking lot I had an epiphany:

This life and my present awareness became vastly more precious. When I was a believer, I had been in the Augustine and Kierkegaard funk of life—this “test for the afterlife,” this “vale of tears,” this “mortal coil.” Suddenly I shed all that dreariness and began to appreciate the fact that I’m here at all. Life became more valuable and my ability to create meaning became a part of what freedom means to me today, decades later.

I also became a much happier person—this too was a surprise.

There is a kind of “optical illusion” quality to differences of belief. When I believed in God, my faith was linked to very basic concepts—particularly my sense of value. I was surprised to discover that changing my answer on the God question resulted in almost no changes in my sense of value.

So where do I find meaning? Are there people I love? Yes. Are there creatures that are capable of pleasure and suffering? Yes. There’s plenty of meaning in all that already.

Let’s get to the blog post.

The link title suggests that the post is about hope. Actually, the post is about meaning. The two concepts do overlap but they are different. I’ll stick to the (familiar) argument in the post regarding whether atheists can have meaning in their lives. (Inhale, exhale.)

Just so you know, Christians can sound extremely condescending when this argument is presented. We give this a pass because of the “optical illusion” problem mentioned above. You’re probably not trying to condescend. It’s forgiven. But please consider this: Christians do not have a monopoly on living a meaningful life.

OK, let’s get into this. The book excerpt by Dr. William Lane Craig has a lot of problems but I’ll stick with the most important ones.

Dr. Craig’s argument uses the “ultimate” rhetorical device:
If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?

Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all?

It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance.
I thought gluttony was supposed to be a sin—how much significance does a guy need? The word “ultimate” appears 14 times in the blog post and his argument depends upon the word. Well, any amount is insignificant when compared to the eternal and infinite. The comparison is a rhetorical device. It dismisses the temporary and the finite—what Craig calls “relative”—as meaningless.

By analogy, the number one-million is greater than eleven. “Ah, but they are both equally insignificant when compared to infinity!” No mathematician would find this infinity gambit interesting. One-million is still more than eleven, relative claim though it is.

The Craig excerpt concludes with some very brief summaries of literature, cherry-picked from existentialists. I’d gone through my own existentialism phase and Craig gets some of this stuff wrong, but that’s beside the point. Existentialists do not speak for most atheists (at least not ones outside of France).

In my experience, most atheists in the English-speaking world are rationalists. Very few are nihilists (which is what Craig’s argument suggests). There are plenty of atheists who are more eloquent on this subject than I—if you want, I can provide plenty of links. For now, I’ll refer you to Julia Sweeney’s excellent story on This American Life:

The full audio is available at the link. Her story is very similar to mine, including her similar epiphany on life. It’s heartfelt, funny, and more representative of the naturalism shared by most of the atheists I know.

*This is leaving aside the horrible personage depicted in a famous collection of ancient Jewish folk literature.