Can atheists know meaning and purpose?

By Dominic Statham

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.

Published: 5 January 2016

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

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