I recently listened to a recording of a debate between theologian William Lane Craig and scholar Keith Parsons* titled “Why I Am / Am Not a Christian.” It was held in 1998 and can be downloaded here:
â™¦ Craig/Parsons Debate on Why I Am / Am Not a Christian
Much of it involves the supposed proof of “the empty tomb” (see yesterday’s post on refutation of Craig’s usual arguments: Refutation of the â€œfactsâ€ of the Resurrection..) The topic of nihilism and purposeless/purposeful life with/without God also was discussed. And about 23 minutes into the second part Parsons expresses how vital it is to live life to the fullest, to eke meaning out of every day you have to live. But then Craig tries to refute this stance by questioning “who are you living for”? To what are you responsible to? He believes that without God to be answerable to, life is meaningless and absurd and you might as well live in hedonism and nilistic wantoness and any attempt to live for little meanings is pointless because there’s no objective meaning.
But then the real punchline comes when he says, prompted by a comment from the audience, that without God, “…it doesn’t really matter how you live because your destiny is unrelated to your behavior. The good man ends up no different than the evil man. … In the absence of God, morality becomes in a sense fictitious–it becomes pointless. There isn’t any value in life because it doesn’t change anything, how you live. We all end up the same.”
Parsons replies that indeed because we do all die and that’s the end, then each life becomes utterly significant. Just because Albert Schweitzer and Hitler are both dead doesn’t mean that their lives didn’t have incredible significance. Our finite existence means you must get your joy as you can from each moment. (Unfortunately his response ends with a sentiment that sounds like a promotion of selfish hedonism, but that wasn’t his point nor intent.)
What gets me about Craig and others who share his belief in life being meaningless without God to answer to, is it’s a very childish, immature outlook on life. Note his comment: “[from an atheistic view] it doesn’t really matter how you live because your destiny is unrelated to your behavior…. There isn’t any value in life because it doesn’t change anything, how you live.” His entire focus is on some unknowable afterlife. Some cosmic judging of his life providing reward or punishment. Carrot and stick. You do good because Daddy tells you to else you get a whoopin’. That’s the Christian (or any dogmatic religious) understanding of morality, life’s value. Sure, you’re told to be good to your neighbor, love, forgive, etc. But ultimately, why? So you get rewarded by Sky Daddy and not punished for eternity, that’s why! That’s it. That’s life’s meaning to these people. Earn reward, avoid punishment. (And they say atheists are selfish.)
Granted, an atheist CAN be nihilistic and believe in nothing and thus behave without concern about harming others. But, if history has shown us anything, it’s that a belief in a religion by no means guarantees moral behavior! If a person truly lived according to God’s Holy Word as contained in the Bible, they would commit all kinds of horrible acts we consider terribly immoral today: slavery, lying, murder, child selling, hate, racism, prejudice, all in the name of God, and advocated and condoned by God. Even when people cherry-pick what they want to follow and believe in, in the Bible, there are some who live immorally (by contemporary Western standards) due to the belief that the ends justify the means–when the ends is their interpretation of “God’s Will.” From the person who kills doctors who perform abortions, to those who lie and deceive in order to Spread the Word of Salvation, religion and belief in God doesn’t make the faithful any more moral than a lack of belief in a God makes a person a hedonistic nihilist.
Craig’s profession that value comes from believing in God falls apart when you examine the question it raises: Which god? You could probably grab a few moderate Christians, moderate Muslims, moderate Buddhists, moderate Janeists, moderate Wiccans, and moderate atheists, and find very little to no difference in the way they live their lives. You’ll probably find each one holds the same values: loyalty, honesty, promotion of happiness and avoidance of harm to self and others, supporting family and friends…. Why? Why do most people all over the world regardless of religion and culture share many of the same core beliefs and find the same value in life regardless of what God (or non-god) they believe in? Doesn’t that throw a wrench in the argument that a person must have “Jesus in their heart” to have meaning and value in their life?!
From the atheist point of view, there’s a couple of reasons why most humans share much of the same concepts of morality and value. The first is evolutionary. We have evolved to be altruistic and cooperative because it benefits the species in general, and our selves and our kin and offspring directly. A lot of research has been done on this topic, including observation of what we would call higher order moral, altruistic behavior in other primates. As a species we learned long ago that cooperation is more advantageous to our own survival (the self, our offspring, or species) than solitary competition and perdition. This outlook is extrapolated to our contemporary situation: How long do you think you’ll have freedom to act if you lived completely selfishly and hedonisticaly? Prison, banishment from society, early death is the usual result of nihilistic behavior. Taking a completely selfish look at the issue, you’re better off if you follow the morÃ©s of society and value life and avoid harming others.
That’s the basic biological explanation. But while we are animals ruled by general evolutionary biology, that’s not all we are! We do have sentience and individual consciousness and so we are each capable of creating value and meaning in our lives beyond our drives and subconscious programming…and thank goodness! because that same evolutionary biology also has programmed us to be xenophobic and tribal–qualities that are also extolled, promoted, and rewarded by religious dogma. Fear the unknown, value your tribe and destroy those different from you or not part of your tribe, follow tradition and authority. Fortunately the modern moderate religious person tends to eschew, in some ways, these beliefs because they live in a world where tribalism is difficult and empathy with people outside your tribe is encouraged. Mass communication, the threat of destruction by war the likes of which unimaginable by evolutionary biology, have allowed people to start seeing the world as one tribe. Some people, however moderate in their dogma, still see others unlike them with suspicion and/or condescension; but fortunately many people understand the value of all humans in a way that was not seen even 50 years ago, much less 500 years ago, and almost not at all 2000 years ago.
It’s certainly not because of any religious belief, at least none based on any ancient documents! It’s because humans understand humanity. People are by and large empathic to the pain and suffering of other humans, and share the joy of others. We understand that the more we reduce harm to others and expand happiness, the better of a world we have for ourselves and our descendants. There is inherent value in reducing harm and increasing happiness that transcends any religious belief (which tend to limit happiness to only yourself or your tribe and promotes harm to all others). yeah, I may die tomorrow or in 50 years and whatever I do doesn’t change the fact that when my mind ends I “experience” the same non-existence. But while I’m alive, I find contentment and happiness in knowing that maybe I can make the world a better place for my daughter and her children and for humanity in general.
No, I doubt I’ll do anything great or grand. Won’t cure a disease, or solve hunger. But that does raise another question: Most Nobel Prize winners are atheists and agnostics. Why do they feel compelled to aid humanity and the conditions of the world if they’re godless and not guided by any Jesus In Their Heart (or Mohammed or Krishna or Fairy Spirits or whatever)? Because that’s how people define value in their life. I might not win any awards for humanitarianism, but I find value in what little improvement I can make in my own way. I find value in learning as much about reality as I can, and helping others to see the wonder and awe in the natural world. If I cause harm to another, it pains me. When I see joy in another, it elevates my own heart. I don’t need a supernatural Sky Daddy to threaten me with eternal damnation or tease me with everlasting life to know I can make a difference to people around me, and that difference can be positive or negative. Besides, Sky Daddy’s idea of value involves the suppression of reason, free will, intellect, and promotes mindless slavery to childish concepts of fear and black-and-white morality.
I prefer a more thoughtful, honest, free-will, honestly given/acquired sense of value and purpose in life.
* Oddly, I couldn’t find an online bio of Parsons. So, I’ve linked to some of his books