Atheism and Meaning

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 07/18/2012

Yet another atheist, Greta Christina, misunderstands the grounding problem:

Anglican minister Rev. Gavin Dunbar made an interesting and even compelling argument that grief is necessary for love and humanity… and then went on to argue that, unless you believe in God, you have no reason to care whether the people you love live or die, or even to love them in the first place.

No. The argument is not, “Unless you believe in God, you have no reason.” The argument is, “Unless there is a God, there is no reason.”

But rarely have I encountered a critic of atheism who was so ready to deny even my basic humanity, who was so ready to tell me — and tell the world — that because I am an atheist, I see not only morality and virtue, but love and friendship and grief, as an illusion.

Well, that’s exactly the point. These are basic aspects of humanity, and we all experience them, whether or not we believe in God. We experience them because they’re real, and they’re real for everyone because God is real. The problem for atheists is not that they see these things as an illusion, but that they don’t see them as an illusion. They act as if they’re real, and this is inconsistent with their worldview.

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse has said:

Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers. But it is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down…. So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective.

As Ruse explains, the atheist has to live as if his worldview were not true, as if morality and meaning were more than just “an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator,” as if it were not the case that “God is dead. Morality has no foundation.”

Christina says we create meaning for ourselves—that “social experiences, such as morality, virtue, love, grief, are emotions and mental constructs, which evolved in us to help us survive and flourish as a social species.” She says:

The most crucial point: Saying that life and morality and reason and virtue and emotions such as grief are physical processes – this is not the same as saying they are illusions.

We’re not saying that in the atheist worldview these things are illusions in the sense that people aren’t really feeling them. The question is not about whether or not atheists experience what they interpret as grief and meaning. The question is whether or not what they’re experiencing is a reflection of reality. Ruse says no, and he’s right…if atheism is true.

There’s a difference between objective reality and a subjective feeling created by “physical processes.” Think of a person undergoing a brain operation. The surgeon initiates a physical process that makes the patient experience the smell of cheese. The experience is truly subjectively experienced by the patient, but that doesn’t mean he’s apprehending an objective truth about reality. There is no cheese there. It’s an illusion. Regardless of how he feels about it. The patient could attach any sort of invented meaning he likes to his experience of the smell of cheese, but is that true meaning?

In the same way, if we invent meaning and morality as a result of physical processes, that doesn’t mean there’s truly an objective scale of good and evil, or that an action is objectively morally desirable or undesirable. It merely means that our brain is manipulating us into feeling something for the purpose of our survival. We “smell” morality, but there is no morality there.

Or think of the schizophrenic woman involuntarily creating illusory scenarios in her own mind. Is the world she experiences through her invented perceptions as meaningful as that of a person who is interacting with objective reality? Don’t we have compassion and sorrow over her situation? Don’t we see the difference between objective and subjective meaning and rightly see hers as an illusion? And yet, if the atheists are correct, and meaning and morality do not reflect some objective standard, but are only subjectively experienced physical processes in our own minds (that could have been different, had we happened to evolve differently), then our invented “reality” of meaning and morality has no more true meaning than the world of the schizophrenic woman. Regardless of how we feel about it.

Ruse says that even when we finally face up to this, we will still continue to act in a moral way because “It doesn’t matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behaviour have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.” Isn’t that odd? No matter what, people continue to act as if morality and meaning were more than illusions…almost as if they really were more.

Christina continues:

It’s easier to ignore [the] voices [of atheists] if people can pretend that we don’t care about right and wrong, that we think everything is physical and therefore nothing matters, that we see love and compassion as illusions, that we have no reason for grief. It’s easier to ignore those voices if people can pretend that we’re not quite human.

This is just a misunderstanding of the theist argument. No Christian thinks an atheist is “not quite human.” On the contrary, what we call atheists to is a true recognition of their own humanity, because that humanity is greater than what we would find in a blind, uncaring, meaningless, Personless universe made up only of matter—where in the grand scheme of things, a giant tree falling to the left and crushing a busload of children is no different from it falling to the right and crushing some seedlings.

That kind of world doesn’t match our experience. We know that both atheists and theists care about right and wrong, love and compassion. So now we must decide: Are we merely being fooled by survival instincts, or are we apprehending objective reality?