Can Atheists Find Meaning in Life?

In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Paula Kirby writes about how she and other atheists find meaning and purpose for their lives. As she sees it, their appreciation of life’s meaning comes from a number of sources, including the inherent satisfaction of doing good work and the built-in empathy that is explainable by “psychology and evolutionary biology.” Along the way she contrasts the empathetic and caring approach of the atheist with her own harshly negative stereotypes of Christian belief.

The first place to begin a response is to acknowledge and appreciate Kirby’s stated commitment to relieving suffering by practicing love, empathy, compassion and respecting one another’s “real dignity, as beings with value in our own right.” Fair enough. She has found a meaning in life – and as stated here, I respect her choices.

At the same time, it bears mentioning that Kirby’s characterization of Christians as people “who debase humanity” and of Christianity as an “inherently warped and uncharitable view” does seem to clash with her loving and compassionate approach to all life. It is unclear what motivates Kirby’s bizarre descriptions of Christian belief (e.g., “the hellish pointlessness of heaven”), but whatever her reasons, these accusations come across with a sour and bitter tone. We should all aim for a more respectful way of disagreeing.

On the ideas side, Kirby’s article is largely a response to “a certain kind of believer [who says] that our lives can have no value if we do not believe in their God.” I suppose that you can find a Christian somewhere who says such things, and this is a relatively easy idea to debunk. However, Christian philosophers would hardly say such a thing, and Kirby’s arguments are quite weak when stacked up against serious reflection on the question of how we establish the purpose of life.

As I see it, there are at least two kinds of questions here, one set about what is true, and the other about what is coherent.

Kirby believes that (1) every living being is valuable in their own right, and she is therefore (2) dedicated to a life of love and compassion for all. These beliefs fit together, they are coherent. That is, based on her ontological view – her take on what living beings are like (1 – “they are valuable”) – her ethical perspective makes sense (2 – “we should be compassionate”). Coherence is a good thing. However, the Christian perspective is that, if atheism is true, then these coherent beliefs are false.

This is a categorically different argument than the weak idea which Paula Kirby attributes to Christians, namely, that “if you believe in atheism, your life has no value.” This argument isn’t about what you believe, it is about what is actually true.

Let’s look at the Christian argument in detail. What Christians are arguing is this:
A: If God does not exist, then there is no purpose to our lives.
Or, alternatively:
B: If God does not exist, then living beings are not valuable.

Why do Christians argue that “if atheism is true, then living beings are not valuable”? Because in the atheist ontology – in the atheist’s big picture of what exists – nothing is real besides matter, energy and space-time. (Here’s how I define atheism). The implication of this is that transcendent concepts like “value,” “purpose,” and “love”, which are by definition not capable of being reduced to arrangements of matter, energy, and space-time, cannot be actually existing entities in a universe as described by atheism. Therefore, if atheism is true, if God does not exist, then living beings are not valuable.

If “humans” are reducible to their constituent parts, then they are no more valuable than any other collection of atoms. If there is no objective standard for value that exists outside of our perceptions of value, then there is no objective way to value humans more highly than very large rocks. If “value” is not a real thing, then living beings are obviously not valuable.

If this argument is right, then whether or not people believe in God is completely irrelevant to the fact that, in reality, there is no such purpose to their life. (I’ve also written a more detailed version of this argument).

We can go one step further than this. Let’s say you are firmly convinced that there is a purpose for our lives. Let’s say you strongly believe that living beings are valuable. Let’s say you believe these things on the basis of different lines of argument and a wide variety of personal experiences.

When we add this statement to the earlier one, we get these two premises:
A: If God does not exist, then there is no purpose to our lives.
A2: There is a purpose for our lives.

What logically follows? The logical deduction is the conclusion, “God exists.” (This is just how the classic modus tollens argument form works. A modus tollens argument looks like this: Premise 1: If P, then Q. Premise 2: Not Q. Conclusion: Therefore not P.)

To conclude, I believe that Kirby rightly affirms many important ontological principles (e.g., human life is valuable) and ethical norms (treat people with love). However, these beliefs, coherent as they are in themselves, are false if atheism is true. (So, on a larger scale, Kirby’s beliefs are also incoherent when she affirms both atheism and the value of human life). By contrast, these statements serve as a key premise for an argument which logically establishes the existence of God.

If you’ve followed my series on Kirby’s op-ed pieces (see here and here), you’re familiar with Kirby’s consistently harsh attacks of Christians. I hope it is also increasingly clear that Kirby’s pieces are also focused on straw man positions, and in fact, some of her beliefs should logically lead her to reject atheism and accept theism.