Of Course Atheists Have Meaning and Value—Just No Good Way To Explain It


Atheists often confuse Christians’ position on meaning and value. The typical version, as it comes from atheists’ mouth, is, “Christians say you don’t have meaning or value unless you believe in God. But that’s obviously false! I don’t believe in God, and I have no trouble finding meaning and value in my life.”

This morning’s post is a comment that ran away from me. I was responding to Otto Telick’s comment last night, when I realized my response was suitable for a new blog entry.

Belief vs. Reality
Otto said there that (Christian theist) BillT’s position is approximately that “human life is worthless when humans don’t accept Christ as their savior.” That’s not approximately correct, unfortunately. His representation of (Christian theist) SteveK’s view is better: “true, immutable, universal morality exists, defined independently of each and every specific human society, and only Christ defines what that morality is.”

Here’s the difference between his versions of the two positions: in the first he makes belief in Christ the main thing, in the second he makes the reality of Christ the main thing.

For many things, though certainly not all (see my final paragraph below), it is just the reality of the triune God that matters. Humans have meaning because God made us that way. Nothing can remove that from us, including disbelief in God.

Needing God vs. Needing Belief in God
Thus when an atheist says she has no trouble experiencing a meaningful life, I jump to agree with her. If however she says she doesn’t need God to have meaning, then I disagree. It’s the difference between “needing to believe in God” and “needing God.” Let me explain.

Clearly we all experience and know that we have meaning and value. That’s an empirical fact. No one here is denying it. Christianity explains that fact quite readily.

Suppose there is no God, however. Then that empirical fact becomes very difficult to justify. though it is still true that we experience this sense of meaning and value, it is extremely hard to explain that experience.

Theistic vs. Naturalistic Explanations of Meaning and Value
On theism we are created with value or worth. On non-theism, we came about by naturalistic evolutionary processes. So one must conclude that there is some evolutionary advantage for humans having the belief that we have intrinsic meaning and value (or worth). The difficulty there is that evolutionary advantage is nothing but shorthand for “that which causes individuals to reproduce more successfully.”

Let me re-emphasize that “nothing but” clause. On standard evolutionary theory, there is nothing but differential reproduction that could cause anything in organisms, including both physiology and behavior; and behavior includes our thoughts.

(Technically there is one other cause for biological outcomes: pure chance. Genetic drift is a statistically sophisticated description of chance-plus-luck, or in other words, pure chance. Feel free to insert “pure chance” into the following discussion if you think it might produce a different conclusion. It won’t. Note that I am using the term “cause” in association with chance advisedly, since chance isn’t actually a causal force at all. I won’t go into that issue now, though.)

What Evolution Can—and Cannot—Do
Naturalistic evolution (NE) cannot cause meaning and it cannot cause value. It can only—according to standard versions of the theory—cause the perpetuation of chance events that turn out to produce differential reproductive fitness. And if NE can’t cause anything but the conservation of chance events producing differential reproductive fitness, and if NE is true, then there is nothing that can produce any biological result but that.

And since on evolutionary theory the sensation of meaning or worth is a biological outcome, and since biology is all there is for organisms, then if NE is true, our sensation of meaning and value is nothing but a sensation that helps members of the population make more babies that make more babies.

I have repeated the words “nothing but.” I don’t actually believe in “nothing-buttery,” as I think Lewis called it. But let me go on and explain further; for if atheism is true, then I think we’re doomed to nothing-buttery.

For example, one might think that having the value of perpetuating the family or the species is meaningful in itself. Again, on Christian theism the conclusion that some human value or experience x has meaning is easy to explain. It’s because meaning and value are real. But think about what NE says about Smith’s thought that perpetuating his family or the human face is meaningful. Call that thought P. Let’s analyze it briefly:

1. Smith’s thought P has a cause, and that cause is that it’s associated with differential reproductive success. But
2. Smith’s thought P is that reproductive success is valuable.

To Explain A Behavior Is Not to Justify a Belief
What we have here is a circle of causation: P is both the product and the cause of reproductive success. What we don’t have here is any explanation of why P?; and causation is not explanation. To explain why Smith thinks P is to explain Smith’s behavior of thinking P, not to explain why P is actually or even potentially true. If P is fully explained in terms of P’s being a behavior and a sensation, then P just is a behavior and a sensation. And if so, then there is no point in thinking P is true or even potentially true; for behaviors and sensations don’t have true/false values.

Therefore although NE could explain the cause of Smith’s behavior and sensation of thinking he has meaning and value, it eliminates the rational possibility of his actually thinking his belief P is true; for it places P into the realm of that which can neither be true nor false.

I think now we can see where BillT’s Why should I care? questions come in. If atheism is true, then although we do care, we cannot explain why we should care. Evolutionary causation could explain why we actually care, but it cannot explain why we should care, or what it could mean to say “My caring about X is meaningful.”

In This Case It’s the Reality, Not the Belief, That Matters
On Christian theism, all humans have meaning and value whether they believe in God or not. On NE, all humans have a reproductively-associated sensation of meaning and value whether they believe in God or not. It’s not the belief in God that determines what meaning or value we have, it’s the ontological reality of God (or not) that determines it.

So why do Christians make such a big deal about believing in God? It’s not that believers have meaning and value while unbelievers do not. That’s a mistaken view of Christian teaching. Some atheists seem to think that we think it, but we do not. No Christian that I know of in any tradition anywhere thinks it.

Yet the Belief Still Matters!
What we do think is that all humans have meaning and value, we all have moral significance, we have all made significant moral errors that have significant consequences, and that the way to escape death as the ultimate consequence is to affirm our trusting assent upon the reality that Christ died in our place as a substitute for us in paying that penalty of death.