One of my favorite Far Side cartoons depicts a hapless-looking man leaning over a couch and holding a bizarre contraption he has just pulled out from under one of the cushions. The caption reads: “Edgar finds his purpose.”
Humans naturally seek purpose and meaning in life. From a Christian perspective, the oddity lies not in Edgar searching for his purpose, but rather in discovering it inside a couch. From an atheistic perspective, however, should Edgar have been searching for his purpose in the first place? Can our lives have any meaning if there is no God?
The Meaning of ‘Meaning’
Before we explore that question, we should specify what we’re talking about when we refer to “the meaning of life.” What kind of meaning do we mean? I suggest that when we consider “the meaning of life,” we have in view at least three concepts: purpose, significance, and value.
First, we want to know whether our lives have purpose: whether they’re directed toward some goal or end. A refrigerator has a fundamental purpose: it’s for keeping things cold. Do I have a fundamental purpose too? Am I for something?
Second, we want to know whether our lives have significance: whether they count for anything as part of greater whole. In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, the disciple Thomas is portrayed with a single raised finger. We’re interested in the significance of that element of the painting. We’d like to know, among other things, what it contributes to the painting as a whole. A similar question arises about our lives. What does my life contribute to the universe as a whole? What does it count for in the grand scheme of things?
Third, we want to know whether our lives have value. Is my life worth anything overall? Is it better lived than not? Is the world a better place for having my life as part of it?
No doubt there’s more to the idea of “the meaning of life,” but this analysis will serve us well enough. So let’s return to our main question. Can our lives have meaning—can they have purpose, significance, and value—if there is no God?
Meaning from Outside
There are basically two ways a human life could possess meaning. It could have a meaning bestowed from outside—what we might call objective as opposed to subjective meaning. Alternatively, it could have a meaning that comes from within, a meaning that is self-ascribed and self-determined. Let’s consider each option in turn.
On the Christian view, it’s easy to see how human life in general, and individual human lives, would have objective meaning in all three senses defined above. Our lives would have a purpose, one defined and revealed by our Creator. One of the best summary statements ever formulated comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end [i.e., our highest purpose] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Moreover, our lives would have significance as part of God’s wise and sovereign plan for his creation. And as creatures made in the image of God, designed to commune with God and with one another, our lives would have tremendous value.
Needless to say, none of this makes any sense on an atheistic view. There would be no transcendent personal Creator to give meaning to our existence. So what else could bestow objective meaning on our lives?
It’s hard to see what viable options are available to the atheist. We don’t have space here to canvas all the possibilities, but it seems that any meaning from outside would have to come from whatever we credit for our existence. The modern atheistic story is that humans are the products of naturalistic evolutionary processes: cosmic evolution (the formation of solar systems over billions of years after some foundational event such as the Big Bang) followed by biological evolution (the gradual development of complex life forms from elementary life forms via natural variation and selection).
Leaving aside the question of whether this story is scientifically credible, let’s consider whether naturalistic evolutionary processes could in principle give our lives meaning in any of the senses we’ve noted. The immediate problem is that evolution (as atheists conceive it) is entirely mindless and undirected. It has no purpose, no end, no goal. It isn’t directed anywhere. Evolution has no plan at all, never mind a plan of which we could contribute a significant part. Evolution doesn’t make value judgments; it doesn’t select one course over another because it is more valuable or worthy. Evolution thus offers no basis for the meaningfulness of human lives. From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of Homo sapiens is no more or less meaningful than the existence of woodlice, crabgrass, or rubble in a crater on Mars.
Don’t take my word for it. This is a conclusion that many modern atheists have drawn. Bertrand Russell wrote that the universe as he understood it is “purposeless” and “void of meaning”; the entire sum of human endeavors is “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” (“A Free Man’s Worship,” 1903).
Richard Dawkins has expressed much the same view: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (River Out of Eden, Basic Books, 1995, p. 133).
William Provine puts the matter plainly: “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear—and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either” (“Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” Origins Research 16:1 (Fall/Winter 1994)).
Alex Rosenberg is even more to the point: “What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 2-3). Rosenberg argues that a scientifically informed atheist should be a nihilist when it comes to purpose, significance, and value.
Examples of such statements can be multiplied. It’s fair to say that theists and atheists tend to agree on this: if there’s no God then human life has no objective meaning. But does the atheist have another option?
Meaning from Within
Many atheists will concede that if there is no God then the universe and human life have no objective meaning. But they’ll quickly add that we shouldn’t conclude that our lives lack any kind of meaning. They’ll suggest that we are able to give our lives meaning, to bestow meaning on ourselves. Since there’s nothing outside us that could ascribe meaning to our lives, any meaning must come from within us, either as individuals or as a society. As Stanley Kubrick once put it, “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.”
We might find such an atheist saying something like this: “I’ve chosen to commit my life to discovering a cure for cancer. It’s my personal decision, rather than the decree of some deity, that gives my life meaning and purpose. My life does indeed have a goal: a goal that I myself have determined for it. My life is significant because I’ve made it significant; it’s valuable because I myself value it.”
On the face of it, this sounds quite plausible, even attractive. Why couldn’t we make our lives meaningful by choosing to live in certain ways, by choosing to embrace certain worthy goals? Unfortunately—for the atheist—this idea faces two serious objections.
In the first place, it suffers from a problem of arbitrariness. If the meaning of life is subjectively determined, then anything could become the meaning of life depending on one’s personal preferences and predilections. Sitting around all day eating donuts and playing video games could just as well be the meaning of life as finding cures for illnesses. A suicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of his life. Worse still, a homicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of other lives.
Once we recognize that the meaning-from-within view requires us to treat Osama bin Laden’s self-ascribed purpose on an equal footing with our own, that position seems considerably less appealing. The only way we could non-arbitrarily discriminate between all these subjectively meaningful lives—to deem one better or more worthy than another—is by smuggling some objective values through the back door. Sooner or later the meaning-from-within camp has to pilfer from the meaning-from-outside camp.
The second objection arises from what has been called the bootstrapping problem. This challenge is faced by any system expected to initiate and sustain itself without any external assistance. Just as it is impossible for you to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps, so it seems impossible for you to confer meaning on your own life if your life lacks meaning at the outset (whether meaning-from-outside or meaning-from-within). If your life is meaningless to begin with, how could any of your choices be meaningful or meaning-creating? How could meaningful choices arise out of a meaningless life? Can you get things off the ground by simply choosing that your choices be meaningful?
Cornelius Van Til brilliantly captured the incoherence and absurdity of such a view by likening it to a man made of water in an infinite, bottomless ocean of water, trying to climb out of the water by building a ladder of water (see Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, P&R, 1972, p. 102). Could anything be more futile?
At this juncture the atheist might reply that these objections only apply to an individualistic view of life’s meaning. It’s not that individuals confer meaning upon their own lives, but rather than human society as a whole confers meaning upon human life. It doesn’t take much reflection, however, to see that both of these objections can be reformulated to apply just as well to the societal version of the meaning-from-within view.
Atheists Have Meaningful Lives Too
“But I’m an atheist and my life is very meaningful!”
This is the retort I’ve encountered most often when I’ve offered arguments like those above. (It’s usually followed by a list of worthy activities and valuable relationships enjoyed by that person.) My reply is simple: “I don’t deny for a moment that your life is very meaningful. But that’s true in spite of your atheism, not because of it!”
Atheists certainly do have meaningful lives, yet that’s only because their atheistic beliefs are false. A person can deny the existence of God and still have a meaningful life. But this fact no more proves that life can have meaning without God than a person who denies the existence of oxygen and still enjoys good health would prove that you can be healthy without oxygen. It only proves that people can hold beliefs at odds with reality—as if we didn’t already know that.
So here are some closing words to any atheists who happen to read this article. If you believe that your life has meaning—if you sense that it must have meaning—you’re absolutely right. But that meaning cannot come from within you, nor could it come from a universe outside you that lacks any ultimate purpose or value. It can only come from a transcendent personal Creator who made you, and the universe around you, for the most spectacular end: his eternal glory and the eternal joy of his people (Isaiah 43:6-7; Romans 11:36; Psalm 16:11; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Revelation 21:1-4).
My concern is not that you’re mistaken in thinking you have a meaningful life. No, my concern is that you don’t realize just how meaningful a life you have. So I pray that you would embrace the One who authored your life and who freely offers life in all its fullness (Acts 3:15; John 10:10; John 20:30-31).