May 19, 2013
The Argument from Death and Meaninglessness—Again
Ronald A. Lindsay
Without God, our lives have no meaning. The faithful can take comfort in eternal life, in knowing that they and their loved ones will survive death. The atheist can have no hope, no solace, because for the atheist only the grave awaits.
How often have we heard these claims? Too often, but recently we’ve been exposed to another barrage of these bromides, as tiresome as they are false.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, a number of religious writers and clergy have emphasized the importance of religious faith as a source of consolation. Moreover, some have gone further and suggested that because religious belief provides hope of eternal life, this somehow counts as evidence in favor of the existence of God. An example of this last claim can be found in the essay written by Dennis Prager for the National Review titled, “The Atheist Response to Sandy Hook.” Prager asserts that in the face of death, atheism cannot provide a source of consolation and that the inability of atheism to offer solace to those who have lost loved ones demonstrates why “wisdom begins with reverence for God.” Huh?
Of course, even if it were true that atheism cannot provide consolation, this would not prove there is a God. It would only show there is no consolation.
But let us not spend any more time on the illogical inference from “only belief in God can provide us with consolation” to the conclusion that there is a God. Instead, let us assess the truth of the premises on which this fallacy rests. First, let’s address the claim that religion provides consolation.
One can actually believe in God without believing in personal immortality, of course. That said, most theists, at least in the Christian and Muslim traditions, have regarded God as the guarantor of personal immortality. Because death ends our lives and, at least at an instinctive level, most of us want to continue living (provided we are not suffering), it is a natural human reaction both to fear death and to hope that somehow we can survive death. Similarly, it is a natural human reaction to mourn the death of a loved one and to long for an opportunity to spend time with the loved one again. This fear of death and the grief we experience provide powerful incentives for some people to believe in God.
However, the promise of immortality, when carefully considered, provides only false hopes. Immortality seems like a good thing only if we do not examine it too closely.
When the believer thinks about life after death, delightful scenes are usually conjured up, with the heavenly life often pictured as similar to his one, only with all the pleasant stuff included and all the disagreeable stuff excluded. We don’t have too many descriptions of farting or flossing in heaven. Moreover, one has the assurance that this pleasant life will go on . . . and on . . . and on.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? The problem with eternity is precisely that it never ends. Were there a heaven, the tedium would be maddening. It’s no answer to say that heaven will give you an opportunity to follow all those dreams you couldn’t pursue on Earth and therefore you would not become bored. Eternity, conceived as a never-ending stretch of time, would allow us to repeat an infinite number of activities an infinite number of times—and there still would be no end in sight, because there is no end.
And those loved ones one misses? If they are to maintain their identity and not be some simulacrum, they’ll come with all the baggage they had here on Earth, including all those relatives you couldn’t stand. You’ll be reunited with your love and her Uncle Joe’s puns too. Forever.
Of course, the theologian and the sophisticated believer will protest that this is a naïve view of immortality. It will not be an insufferable, interminable expanse of time but rather “timelessness.” One will not notice the passage of time because there is no succession of time in eternity; there is only an endless “now.”
But this is a dodge. If one gives this notion any thought, it is apparent that it provides only a semantic solution to the problem of eternal boredom. Among other things, this argument presupposes such a radical transformation of our nature after death that it would make preservation of our personal identity problematic. We are time-bound animals. Further, our self-consciousness depends on the passage of time. If heavenly life is so utterly absorbing that it would obliterate any awareness of time, it would obliterate “me” as well. Self-awareness requires time, even if it is only a few nanoseconds. If immortality means nothing more than a timeless, mystical union with God or the universe—a union that entails the obliteration of the self—it doesn’t seem especially desirable or consoling. You can be one with the universe by commingling your body or ashes with the good earth, and this form of union at least has the virtue of being intelligible.
So here’s the dilemma for the believer in personal immortality: either immortality is something that condemns a person to endure an endless stretch of time or it is a timeless existence that entails the annihilation of the self—and, of course, annihilation of the self is what we hoped to avoid through immortality. (If you want to call this “Lindsay’s Dilemma,” I will not object.)
Upon analysis, then, religious belief provides consolation only to those who don’t think too hard about its promises. If they did, they would realize one cannot provide a coherent description of immortality that makes it desirable.
But isn’t it also true that atheism provides no consolation, because atheists accept the finality of death? Moreover, or so some religious maintain, with atheism there is no meaning to our lives. At least if there’s a God, we have the satisfaction of being part of some cosmic plan; our lives have a purpose, even if death ends our existence.
Here we must challenge two claims often made but seldom defended by the religious. One is that something must last forever to have real value; the other is that only God can invest our lives with meaning.
In answering the former claim, one cannot do better than to quote Bertrand Russell, who observed, “Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.” Life is good. It’s good even though it is transitory. Indeed, one can argue it is precisely because our lives are finite that we properly regard them as valuable. That smile, that kiss, our child’s first words—all the moments we treasure have value because they are irreplaceable, not part of some endless chain of fungible events.
As far as meaning goes, I’m not persuaded that only God can give our lives meaning. (And it troubles me that some atheists accept this perspective, conceding the high ground to theists. Why?) How exactly does being a small cog in some vast cosmic plan give one’s life meaning? To me that doesn’t seem like the way to have one’s life acquire meaning; it seems more like exploitation by some more powerful being—a being that doesn’t even deign to share the details of his plan with us. (“You’re human; you wouldn’t understand.”) The Baltimore Catechism states that the purpose God imposed on all of us is “to know him, to love him, to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.” If one omits the reference to an afterlife, this assertion could easily be made about any totalitarian dictator.
Meaning and purpose aren’t things that can be forced on you. If a person is to find
meaning, it must be forged by that person. One can give one’s life meaning by asserting one’s autonomy, making use of one’s time, and giving shape and direction to one’s life. Each decision we make does matter, does have significance, because we will not have a second chance and because it is our decision, not the implementation of a plan imposed by an overlord. Sheep may need a master; humans do not.
It’s time we finally rid ourselves of the canard that life has no meaning without God. If anything, the existence of a deity would actually be an impediment to our efforts to give our lives meaning.
But we need now to return to the initial question that inspired this essay, namely, how can atheism offer consolation, especially in the context of the death of a child? To begin, recognize it for the tragedy it is. Losing a child is tragic, and that tragic loss should be acknowledged and not obscured. Pretending it hasn’t happened only demeans that child’s life. In recognizing the depth of this loss we also recognize the inestimable worth and value of the child, his or her uniqueness as an individual—not as a small part of some vast, cosmic, incomprehensible plan. Our consolation for the loss of a child, or for anyone close to us, is that we have shared our life and our love with them. There is no need to look for something beyond that because, if we truly loved them, there is nothing greater than that.
Ronald A. Lindsay is the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. He is the author of Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas (Prometheus Books, 2008).