Answering an atheist on meaning and purpose of life

I hope this article “Answering a reasonable atheist on deep philosophical questions” from Creation Ministries International (CMI) 30th September, 2012 provides helpful answers for Christians and unbelievers as well.

To demonstrate that not all of CMI’s opponents are hostile and unreasonable, we publish feedback by Tim W. of the USA to our article – Answering the ‘new atheists’ (interview with Doug Wilson). In this, Tim W. sought to defend the proposition that atheism can provide meaning and purpose. Tim W.’s email is printed in its entirety  (red), and then followed by point-by-point responses by Dr Jonathan Sarfati.

This is an interesting article. I think you are on the right track when you suggest that modern atheists are worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States. Frankly, it concerns me that so many politicians have anti-abortion views with which I strongly disagree. Part of my moral beliefs value limited rights of women to choose the fate of their unfertilized eggs, embryos and their own bodies. Similarly, I understand that Christians have legitimate reason to be concerned that unbelievers will influence a policy or social climate that permits the destruction of actual or potential human organisms. The stakes are high so it should be no surprise that the voices of atheism rise to compete with the voices of religion.

I also agree with the author, and with Hume, that one cannot infer what ought to be, in a normative sense, from what is, was or will be the case. In this way, it is reasonable to say that naturalism or ‘scientism’ cannot suggest a specific theory or morality. However, that does not mean that morality is not compatible with materialism, naturalism or atheism. It only means that morality must come from philosophy (ethics) rather than from theology. There is no reason why an atheist cannot have a more sophisticated ‘sense’ or theory of morality than someone who bases their beliefs of right and wrong conduct (or thoughts) on the teachings of a formal religion. My own beliefs are more consistent with a general sense of basic ‘fairness,’ than obedience to the demands of a deity.

Lastly, I don’t understand the basis of a statement such as “The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile,” or “the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God.” These are philosophical questions that do not seem to be contingent on the existence of a God. Is reasoning trustworthy or meaningful? Those are matters of epistemology, not theology. Moreover, I think it is far from obvious that neither life, nor anything else for that matter, can have meaning unless one believes in God. God may give your life meaning, but that does not mean that nothing can provide meaning for an atheist’s life. I can imagine an atheist saying that her daughter, for example, gives her life meaning. Would you call her a liar?

Response

Dr Jonathan Sarfati replies: Thanks (on behalf of CMI and the article author).

TW: I think you are on the right track when you suggest that modern atheists are worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States.

JS: What is really striking is how many modern atheists have become such delicate little flowers. They are hurt and offended by plastic baby Jesuses at Nativity scenes and are in danger of having a stroke if they hear a student-led prayer at a football game. (But of course, anyone objecting to obscenity or porn should just look the other way or change channels.) Even leading atheist Richard Dawkins is not such a wimp; he joins in Christmas celebrations. What a contrast the modern activists are with the far more robust atheists of yesteryear who vigorously debated the formidable G.K. Chesterton, and remained good friends even after finishing second.

TW: Frankly, it concerns me that so many politicians have anti-abortion views with which I strongly disagree.

JS: It would concern me if we didn’t have that many. Once we dehumanize one class of humanity, there is no limit. See for example article – Unborn babies may “be planning their future”: What now for the abortion lobby?

TW: Part of my moral beliefs value limited rights of women to choose the fate of their unfertilized eggs, embryos and their own bodies.

JS: Well, there’s the problem: the unborn is not part of a woman’s body. A reductio   ad absurdum I’ve explained is: this would entail that a mother carrying a son must have a penis.

TW: Similarly, I understand that Christians have legitimate reason to be concerned that unbelievers will influence a policy or social climate that permits the destruction of actual or potential human organisms.

JS: Yes, that’s exactly the issue. Without the protection of life, no other right, real or assumed, has any meaning. ‘Rights’ to private property, housing, employment, medical care, or anything else, mean nothing if one is not alive to exercise them.

TW: The stakes are high so it should be no surprise that the voices of atheism rise to compete with the voices of religion.

JS: The problem arises when voices of atheism try to silence the voices of Christianity. This includes university ‘speech codes’, ‘hate speech’, the persecution of Christians in atheistic communist regimes, and the GayStapo attacks on the Church and family. See Gay marriage, politicians, and the rights of Christians.

TW: I also agree with the author, and with Hume, that one cannot infer what ought to be, in a normative sense, from what is, was or will be the case.

JS: A key point.

TW: In this way, it is reasonable to say that naturalism or ‘scientism’ cannot suggest a specific theory or morality. However, that does not mean that morality is not compatible with materialism, naturalism or atheism. It only means that morality must come from philosophy (ethics) rather than from theology.

JS: It certainly can’t come from the axiom ‘God does not exist.’

TW: There is no reason why an atheist cannot have a more sophisticated ‘sense’ or theory of morality than someone who bases their beliefs of right and wrong conduct (or thoughts) on the teachings of a formal religion. My own beliefs are more consistent with a general sense of basic ‘fairness’, than obedience to the demands of a deity.

JS: But where does the notion of ‘fairness’ come from in an evolutionary world? Surely it’s just a delusion caused by certain neurochemical activity that happened to be useful for our ancestors to survive. Just like rape was useful to spread our genes, as two evolutionists seriously argued in a book (look how one squirmed to justify why rape should be considered ‘wrong’). Similarly, the article Bomb-building vs. the biblical foundation documents how leading atheistic philosopher/logician Bertrand Russell could not explain why right vs. wrong was any different from choosing one’s favourite colours.

Think of consistent evolutionist and atheistic philosopher Peter Singer, who justifies infanticide, euthanasia, and bestiality. It’s also notable that some critics of my article Abortion ‘after birth’? Medical ‘ethicists’ promote infanticide claimed that Singer was an anomaly among atheists. Yet I showed that his pro-infanticide views were shared by the Journal of Medical Ethics and the vocal antitheist P.Z. Myers. See also Bioethicists and Obama agree: infanticide should be legal. He also wrote the major Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Ethics (1992), and earlier this year, the Australian Government gave him Australia’s highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia.

TW: Lastly, I don’t understand the basis of a statement such as “The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile,” or “the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God.” These are philosophical questions that do not seem to be contingent on the existence of a God.

JS: I would say they are, as natural selection explains only survival value, not truth and logic. In Canada, one atheistic philosophy professor argued that these things would have selective value. I responded that this is not necessarily so under his belief system. After all, he must regard theistic religion as one thing that evolved for survival value, yet he would regard this as false and illogical. Thus survival, under his perspective, can be enhanced by the false as well as the true.

TW: Is reasoning trustworthy or meaningful? Those are matters of epistemology, not theology. Moreover, I think it is far from obvious that neither life, nor anything else for that matter, can have meaning unless one believes in God. God may give your life meaning, but that does not mean that nothing can provide meaning for an atheist’s life.

JS: One of my colleagues wrote in Answering life’s big questions: Only the Bible provides the answers:

Today we are effectively told, in the evolutionary story, that life is a fluke, a cosmic accident. In this case our existence lacks any purpose, so life is a farce. And where are we going, in this view? Fertilizer! In short, life is: Fluke … farce … fertilizer.

Evolutionist Richard Dawkins said that we live in a universe that has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”. The evolutionists’ universe has no purpose because it is an accident; a cosmic accident. With evolution so widely taught in schools and universities, is it any wonder that so many lack any purpose or meaning to their lives?

As Susan Blackmore, psychologist and disciple of Richard Dawkins said, “If you really think about evolution and why we human beings are here, you have to come to the conclusion that we are here for absolutely no reason at all.”

TW: I can imagine an atheist saying that her daughter, for example, gives her life meaning.

JS: But hardly ultimate meaning, since both mother’s and daughter’s entire lives are just a blink of an eye in the uniformitarian cosmic scheme. Bertrand Russell said in his anti-Christian book Religion and Science:

Man, as a curious accident in a backwater, is intelligible: his mixture of virtues and vices is such as might be expected to result from fortuitous origin.

TW: Would you call her a liar?

JS: Not at all. A lie implies intentional deception, not just falsehood. As you could see from searching our site, we are very sparing with accusations of ‘lying’ (although some evolutionists justify deception and are just being consistent), as opposed to having a faulty interpretive framework. (However, we won’t deny that this prior adoption of this faulty framework is culpable according to Romans 1:20 and 2 Peter 3:3–7 and foolish (Psalm 14:1). But the point remains that a valid deduction from a faulty framework is not a lie.)

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