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Can atheists know meaning and purpose?

By Dominic Statham

Published: 5 January 2016 (GMT+10)
StagiaireMGIMO, wikipedia Susan-Blackmore
According to Professor Susan Blackmore, “If you really think about evolution and why we human beings are here, you have to come to the conclusion that we are here for absolutely no reason at all.”

Leading evolutionists and atheists often concede that their worldview implies that life is meaningless. According to Professor Richard Dawkins, “The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”1 Similarly, Professor Susan Blackmore stated, “In the end nothing matters … If you really think about evolution and why we human beings are here, you have to come to the conclusion that we are here for absolutely no reason at all.”2

Given this, BuzzFeed author Tom Chivers recently asked a number of atheists how they find meaning in life.3 Among the most common responses were ‘enjoying oneself’, ‘doing good to others’ and ‘relationships’. Evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne, for example, replied, “The way I find meaning … is to get pleasure and significance from your [sic] job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music.” Similarly, journalist Robin Vinter answered, “I’m just squeezing as much happiness out of it [i.e. life] as I can, for me and the people around me.” Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, responded, “I hope that the work I do in different areas of my life will make the world a better place for people now and in the future”. Alom Shaha, author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook said, “I regularly have people over for dinner, throw parties for no other reason than I just want to spend time surrounded by the people I love. And if you’re really stuck, eat rice and dal. Physically filling yourself with the food you love really does fill the emptiness you may feel inside.”

Can we find purpose in pleasure?

John Stuart Mill, sometimes described as “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”, commented:

The enjoyments of life … are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient … Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.4

The authors of a recent study by psychologists would agree.5 They concluded, “the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.”

The pursuit of pleasure is often referred to as ‘hedonism’ and wise people down the centuries have always cautioned against it. Its fruits are known to be fleeting and it often leads simply to a drive for ever stronger stimuli. According to philosopher Professor Lou Marinoff, “Hedonism’s appetite is never satisfied, but its cumulative effects on the body, mind and spirit are truly debilitating and destructive.”6 In reality, the pleasure seeking society is full of selfish, frustrated and lonely people. Ironically, ardent atheist and humanist Aldous Huxley argued that hedonism is incompatible with humanism because the pursuit of pleasure stifles intellectual development.7,8

Moreover if, for life to have meaning, we need to be enjoying ourselves, then there is clearly very little meaning for many. More than a billion people exist in extreme poverty, earning less than USD 1.25 per day, and one in nine do not get enough food to lead a healthy, active life. Millions die annually due to a lack of clean drinking water and hundreds of millions never receive even a primary education. Some live in constant pain and others suffer chronic, debilitating illnesses. One might ask what comfort Professor Coyne would have to offer a child dying from leukaemia.

Can atheism promote altruism?

The idea that evolutionary/atheistic thinking will motivate people to make the world a better place would seem absurd. According to the theory of evolution, all that we have today that atheists might value—health, relationships, technology and the arts—arose out of natural selection and the elimination of the less fit. If so, wouldn’t helping the weak be counterproductive? Secular humanistic thinking requires that, in ‘doing good’, one must constantly act in a way that is contrary to that which the belief system implies is best for future generations.

More than that, the whole basis of philanthropy is undermined by the evolutionists’ understanding of people. If we are no more than bags of chemicals and evolved microbes, a human life has no more value than a bacterium or even a bowl of sugar. Why then should we bother about those in need? According to Dawkins, “DNA neither knows no cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”1 If so, then our behaviour is determined by mindless molecules and “selfish genes9 which are ignorant of humanity and care nothing for us.

And does evolutionary thinking provide a basis for good relationships? Those with any experience of life must surely have realised that relationships are only successful when each seeks to serve and honour the other. But why would one want to honour something with no more value than a bag of chemicals?

No fruits without roots

Rather than providing a rationale for a caring society, secular humanism is simply milking the dwindling capital of our Christian heritage. People like Copson value altruism because they have grown up in a society that, long ago, accepted Christ’s teaching that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Previous generations saw people as having been made in the likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore as having intrinsic worth. They understood that there was a law-giver who had mandated their responsibility to help those who were less fortunate (Mark 12:31) and that one day all would have to give account for how they had lived (Romans 14:12). Large numbers believed that the Son of God had given Himself for them and wanted to give themselves to Him and others in return (Galatians 2:20, 1 John 4:19). Christian decency, humility and sacrificial love became accepted as rightful because people came to believe the Bible which taught these principles.

The pagan world that preceded Christianity was not a nice place. In Greco-Roman cultures, infanticide was common and unwanted babies, if not killed, were often abandoned. Poor people who were no longer able to work were left to die. Defeated enemies were enslaved and their young men forced to fight in the arena. Pederasty10 was perfectly legal and practiced by many. It is surely a gigantic stretch to imagine that evolutionary thinking and faith in ‘the power of natural selection’ could have changed such societies. It is surely also extremely naive to imagine that compassion, justice and decency will remain characteristic of nations that reject the Christian foundations upon which they flourished and, instead, embrace a view that asserts that life is meaningless and that people have no more value than slime.

Denying the obvious

The secular worldview requires that people constantly deny the plain reality before them. If there is nothing more than matter and energy, then concepts like morality, justice and love are just figments of the imagination. However, people know in their hearts this is not so—which is why they become angry when others mistreat them. They also know that Blackmore’s assertion that “nothing matters” is nonsense. They know that they matter, that their families matter, that healthcare matters and that society matters. As one respondent to Buzzfeed paradoxically admitted, “everything matters”.

Similarly, many secularists deny that faith is relevant to life. To hold to such a view, however, requires one to forget the lessons of history and to shut out common sense. Our beliefs determine how we think, what we value, what laws we pass, how we view and treat one another, and much more. The testimony of mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, makes this very clear:

If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime … when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing … 11

Despite this, many churches deny that creation matters. They say that the way God brought people into being is an irrelevant side-issue and that it’s perfectly acceptable to embrace what atheists teach about origins. They say it’s fine to believe that God used evolution by natural selection—millions of years of violence, predation, disease and survival of the fittest—to produce the human race. But what does this say about God? Could the god of evolution by natural selection really be as loving and compassionate as Christians teach?

The Christian alternative

If we accept what the Bible teaches about God and creation then we can know a deeply-rooted, true and lasting sense of meaning and purpose. According to the book of Genesis, God originally created a perfect world, one that reflected His own perfectly good nature. Due to our sin, it was cursed and became full of violence, suffering and death. However, because of His great love for us, God provided a way of salvation—through the death of His only Son—and a means by which the consequences of sin could be reversed. We can now look forward to a perfectly restored creation and a perfectly restored relationship with our creator (Revelation 21). In contrast to this, what hope does atheism offer? Why would anybody want to teach such a worldview to children?

Those who receive God’s salvation are wiped clean of their guilt and sin, transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), and become children of God (1 John 3:1) and partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). No greater sense of value could be bestowed on anyone. At the same time, the God they find is worthy beyond telling. His love surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19) and His greatness no one can fathom (Psalm 145:3). Such are His nature and works that He is worshiped day and night (Revelation 4:8). No greater life of purpose could be known other than in serving Him.

References and notes

  1. Dawkins, R., River out of Eden, Weidenfeld and Nicolswi, Chapter 4, 1995. Return to text
  2. Blackmore, S., The Independent, 21 January 2004. Return to text
  3. Chivers, T., I asked atheists how they find meaning in a purposeless universe, buzzfeed.com, 11 August 2015. Return to text
  4. Mill, J.S., Autobiography, in Eliot, C.W., ed., The Harvard Classics, vol. 25, Collier & Son, New York, p. 91, 1909; archive.org. Return to text
  5. Maus, I.B. et al., Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness, Emotion, 11(4):807–815, August 2011; psycnet.apa.org. Return to text
  6. Marinoff, L., The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003. Return to text
  7. Huxley, A., Come Yellow, Chatto & Windus, London, 1921. Return to text
  8. Huxley, A., Brave New World, Chatto & Windus, London, 1932. Return to text
  9. See Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976. Return to text
  10. Pederasty is sexual activity between a man and a boy. Return to text
  11. Dahmer, J., Interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, 29 November 1994. Return to text

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Samuel W.
I feel sorry for atheists because they live meaningless lives. They really need to get Christ instead.
John Z.
This was a great article. Evolution without God leads to a largely meaningless existence, even though the purpose may simply be to live out the days randomly given. Finding pleasure is a type of animal purpose, but with no understanding other than mere survival to give a reason why pleasure is better than pain.
Gian Carlo B.
Yes, the pursuit of happiness paradigm concocted by secularists themselves. One thing I learned, and odd as it may sound, the Judeo-Christian worldview does not guarantee happiness, but it does guarantee joy. How could this be? Aren't both the same? Well not necessarily; happiness is very circumstantial, it depends on what happens, but joy goes beyond circumstance. One can even rejoice in the hopeless moments, because there is the view of learning, of sharing, of reverend, a bright future with obstacles.

Happiness is subject to ups and downs, joy does not depend in pleasure, but in charity, love and faith. Only this can Christianity guarantee. The atheists, they cannot even guarantee the slightest of happiness in a world where we are in a constant biological competition for survival. It is all about you and your benefits, get what you can before it is too late: killed or be killed. The atheists are good at denying even what their worldview implies. One must notice how emotional their language gets when they stop just at the ugly worldview they preach: "we are nothing more than walking chemicals and biological organisms meant to spread our genes and subdue the weak, incapable of surviving; there is no morality relevant in life...but-" But what? That's all there is, what's stopping you? "That doesn't mean there's no meaning in life-" But you just described a worldview in which not even your fragile 35 yr old father of Alzheimer cannot even be guarantee a happy living nor a little girl who has gone through three harsh tragedies, what's going on? It's these kinds of somersaults atheists put up, they end up making their own meaning because they cannot provide already existent meaning. That is why atheism cannot even provide a basis to even deal with evil; only complain.
Denny P.
The statements that the atheists make at the beginning of this article about enjoying life, work, friends and art would make no sense if atheism were true, which it is not. Let me illustrate with an obviously fictional story. A man once traveled to an entire city of atheists curious about their culture and how they lived. He was surprised to find that though they were all of one belief they were divided in how they lived. Half the city lived lives of indulgence trying to live to the fullest everyday. The other half of the city chose to live in misery and agony everyday.

Confused by this he asked one of the women, 'being that you are all atheists why do you live such different lives?' she answered him 'they indulge themselves now but at the end of their lives they will go to our hell where they will be eternally separated from every pleasure and every good thing and every good memory from their lives but we will go to our heaven where we will be eternally separated from every sorrow and every bad thing and every bad memory from our lives'.

The point of the story is that not only is atheism unable to give life meaning or provide a basis for right and wrong but that even pleasure seeking and pain avoidance would be pointless, if you believe death is going to take away all your memories would it not be better to lose bad memories rather than good ones?
Michael S.
I was debating this recently. It is a contradiction to teach a view that leads to an undeniable conclusion that morality and purpose don't ultimately exist and yet live for both.

It can be proven that morality and purpose are theistic elements, deductively by this argument;

-If the universe is atheist, then it follows there is no life after death meaning there is no ultimate morality.
-But there clearly is morality in the universe (the basic, objective parts of morality that all share), ergo the universe is theist.

(Or in other words; morality IS theistic by definition because in an atheist world there is no such thing, and yet we all have a sense of morality and we know it exists.)

If an atheist is moral, then they are behaving as though the universe is theist. It is a tacit admission that they have to saw off the branch they are sitting on (morality) and that branch is connected to the trunk of theism, beyond dispute.
Jobra H.
I agree with what Tomislav O. states, that in order to have meaning in life, there needs to be two conditions: immortality & a source of absolute infinite goodness.

However there is still a third crucial factor:

A (final) judgement. Wrongdoing needs to be sanctioned and punished.

No society can exist or survive without it. If no wrong or right can be defined, how then can a society judge what can be done and what cannot be done?

If judgement is omitted, then whatever the society, it will be dysfunctional and hence sooner or later will cease to exist.
William L.
Excellent article. If atheists are honest with themselves, they must admit that their own sense of morality, the ability to create, the ability to communicate, and their want for purpose (as indicated in the article) are contrary to their idea of biological evolution. Truth is indeed inescapable.

I greatly appreciate the work CMI is doing.
John P.
Atheists will never find true purpose and meaning and happiness in life unless they abandon atheism , repent and come to know the Lord. Once that happens they are often passionately proclaiming the Gospel. Like the Prodigal they are renewed and freed from their former beliefs.

Those who milk the remnants of our Christian heritage are what the Bible calls having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
Atheists and humanists and the like fulfill Bible prophesy- being scoffers attempting to lead even the elect astray. As His Word also says God will and even now is , sending a delusion on those who have no love of the truth and prefer a lie.

As with many concepts, evolution and atheism can be found referred to in the Bible - evolution was the lie of the devil when he tempted and deceived Adam and Eve.This lie has been dressed up as "science" but what it all boils down to is a philosophical fantasy and atheism is a denial of being accountable to God. Christians need to be on the front foot against these people - we fight a spiritual warfare which although already won by Jesus on the cross, still goes on in rearguard spotfires throughout the world, and as Paul tells us we need the whole armour of God
Joseph M.
‘Enjoying oneself’, ‘doing good to others’ and ‘relationships’ are secondary sources of atheists expression. Their primary source is an unstated desire. The unstated desire is the denial of God. It's the elephant in the atheists room that makes them atheists to pursue their secondary sources. It's the contradiction that pricks their heart, for the atheist needs to be anti-God in order for their defiance to manifest into whatever pleasures they want to pursue. Effectively their worldview needs God!

Matthew 5:44 "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Neither natural selection nor atheists can account for such a higher moral virtue Matthew conveys. Yet, it gives the faithful believers meaning and purpose because Matthew 5:45 says "that you may be children of your Father in heaven..." Faith and belief in the resurrection saves, but works such as these proves faith and belief.

James 1:27 (NIV) "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

Natural selection works towards the complete opposite of James verse, yet this one little verse of James has more meaning, power and awe than a thousand or more atheists' reasonings. Nothing can be proven by atheistic reasonings because it's all relative thus self-refuting.
Tomislav O.
In order to have meaning in life, there need to be two conditions:

(1) Immortality
(2) A source of absolute infinite goodness

The absence of either one results in a meaningless life. It's very difficult, and extremely unnatural, for atheists to believe in either (1) or (2), let alone both.
Laurie S.
But Alom does say that there are people he loves to be in the company of. And he enjoys food. Well that's two things to be thankful for even if there is no purpose in life at all. Very strange logic. Hey, Alom, try looking around you and seeing the beauty of trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables, birds, insects, dogs, cats, children - they are all there for you to enjoy and to interact with. Now there surely IS purpose after all.

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