An Atheist Reads Reasonable Faith
Chapter 2: The Absurdity of Life Without God
- “What is the significance of life in a post-theistic universe?” This is a subject Craig recommends exploring with a mark — er, an unsaved person to whom you are proselytizing — I mean, witnessing — before raising the question of God’s existence.
- Craig describes Pascal’s argument that a Christian worldview is preferable to an atheistic one because without God, man faces a brief, meaningless life bookended by nothingness. Man without God is thus miserable, but also great, because Man has the capacity for thought and is therefore able to perceive his predicament and search for an answer to his misery (i.e. God). Craig also touches on Pascal’s wager, which states that, when the odds for the existence of God and the nonexistence of God are even, it is sensible to wager that God does exist.
- Note that part of Pascal’s wager (rarely discussed when the subject comes up) is that the odds for the existence and non-existence of God must be even — which I would argue they most definitely are not, especially if the God in question is the God of the Bible.
- Pascal’s tendency toward wish thinking and appeals to consequences has definitely rubbed off on Craig, as we will see as we move ahead in this chapter.
- Craig disparages C.S. Lewis by wishing that modern evangelicals would turn away from him and instead embrace Dostoyevsky, who Craig considers “a far, far grander writer.”
- See how smart he is? He reads Dostoyevsky, and he thinks Dostoyevsky is better than C.S. Lewis.
- Craig mentions how Dostoyevsky was fascinated/tormented by the problem of evil, and references the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, but disputes the perception of some that Dostoyevsky himself was an atheist.
- Dostoyevsky’s real intention, says Craig, was to defend theism by suggesting that suffering builds character and pulls those that suffer closer to God, and also: “Negatively, he tried to show that if the existence of God is denied, then one is landed in complete moral relativism, so that no act, regardless of how dreadful or heinous, can be condemned by the atheist. . . . Hence, atheism is destructive of life and ends logically in suicide.” (William Lane Craig, REASONABLE FAITH, p. 55)
- Perhaps one reason modern Christians prefer Lewis to Dostoyevsky is because they know Lewis is on their side, whereas Dostoyevsky’s own religious beliefs are much more complicated and not nearly as easy to define as Craig suggests here. I’m not exactly a Dostoyevsky scholar, so don’t take my word for this, but it’s always been my understanding that, while Dostoyevsky wasn’t an atheist, he wasn’t exactly a traditional, church-going, priest-respecting Christian, either.
- Craig doesn’t seem to be any better at literary analysis than he is at philosophy. Poor guy. I wonder if he’ll ever find something that he’s good at.
- Craig describes Kierkergaard’s three stages of life: aesthetic, which is self-centered; ethical, which is guided by a desire to be moral; and religious, which is the stage you reach when the ethical stage gets too hard and you just want to turn your brain off and pretend all the tough questions have already been answered by the Old Man in the Sky in his magic book.
- (Okay, so I embellished that last one a little bit . . .)
- Schaeffer faults the denial of absolute truths in the views of philosophers such as Hegel as the ultimate cause of a “line of despair” that has marred modern culture. Without absolutes, Man’s existence is an absurdity. “Only by affirming believe in the absolute God of Christianity can man and his culture avoid inevitable degeneracy, meaninglessness, and despair.” (p. 56)
- “Schaeffer warns that unless Western man returns to the Christian world and life view, nothing will stop the trend from degenerating into population control and human breeding. Only a theistic world view can save the human race from itself.” (p. 57)
- So which is it, then? Is it a theistic worldview that can save humanity from itself? Or must it be the specific theism imagined by Christianity? Because Craig — as we shall see — and many other Christian apologists seem to conflate the existence of a god with the existence of their god. Coming up with a compelling argument for the existence of any god is hard enough — coming up with a compelling argument for the existence of the specific God described in the Bible is orders of magnitude more difficult, what with how full of shit we know the Bible to be and all.
The Necessity of God and Immortality
- Without God, Craig reiterates, life is ultimately pointless. “If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. . . . Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this is all the life he will ever know.” (p. 57)
- Craig talks about what Paul Tillich terms “the threat of non-being” — the knowledge that, though we exist now, someday we will cease to exist.
- “I remember vividly the first time my father told me that someday I would die. Somehow as a child the thought had just never occurred to me. When he told me, I was filled with fear and unbearable sadness. And though he tried repeatedly to reassure me that this was a long way off, that did not seem to matter. Whether sooner or later, the undeniable fact was that I would die and be no more, and the thought overwhelmed me.” (pp. 57-58)
- I never thought I would identify so closely with William Lane Craig, and yet here I am. This is almost exactly how I learned about death. It wasn’t from my Dad, but from my Mom, but everything else is very close — even being told that death was a long time off as a form of consolation. I know exactly what he’s talking about here. I’ve been there.
- Craig extends the inevitability of death to the universe as well, citing the ever-accelerating expansion and eventual heat-death of the universe: “The universe is plunging toward inevitable extinction — death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope.” (p. 58)
- There’s nothing really to argue with here. Craig is simply describing reality as we have come to know it. Yes, life is finite. Yes, we will all die and cease to exist someday. Yes, eventually our civilization, our species, our planet, and ultimately our universe will also cease to exist. These can be incredibly depressing facts, they’re big, dark ideas that can be difficult to accept and to reconcile. But why do I get the feeling that acceptance and reconciliation to reality is not where Craig is going?
The Absurdity of Life Without God and Immortality
- Without God, and without eternal life, our lives have no ultimate significance, value, or purpose.
- Craig is really starting to repeat himself here . . .
No Ultimate Meaning Without Immortality and God
- Craig asks whether or not it really matters if an individual simply passes out of existence after he dies. A life might have relative significance in the way it affects the life of another, or influences history, but this is only relative significance, not ultimate significance. Ultimately, Craig concludes, life makes no difference.
- Ditto for the universe, for the same reasons: if the universe is destined to cease to exist no matter what, what difference does it make if the universe ever existed or not?
- “And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. . . . This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.” (p. 59)
- But, Craig stresses, more is needed to render life ultimately meaningful than mere immortality. Without God, life and the universe would still be ultimately meaningless even if they lasted forever.
- Craig cites a handful of 20th century writers who express this sense of futility without God: Samuel Beckett, who wrote Waiting for Godot about two men who spend the entire play waiting for a third character who never arrives; Hermann Hesse, who wrote Steppenwolf with its protagonist Harry Haller, who smashes his own mirror reflection after realizing his life has been meaningless; and existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who write about life being essentially meaningless.
- “Thus, if there is no God, then life itself becomes meaningless. Man and the universe are without ultimate significance.” (p. 60)
- As I said a moment ago, Craig really repeats himself here. He goes on to make essentially these same arguments two more times one after the other in this chapter, only instead of the meaning of life, his subjects are first value, and then purpose. So, to cover that very quickly:
No Ultimate Value Without Immortality and God
- Without God there are no objective standards of right and wrong, says Craig, no objective morality: “In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God.” (p. 61)
- “This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist — there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.” (p. 61)
No Ultimate Purpose Without Immortality and God
- Without God and immortality, what’s the goal of life? “If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life.
“So if God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose — since the end of everything is death — and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.” (p. 63)
- There are three big problems I see with what Craig is saying to this point in the chapter. First: Whether he is talking about ultimate meaning, ultimate value, or ultimate purpose, this definition of “ultimate” is describing something that is imaginary. He goes on for ten pages about how, without God and immortality, there is no ultimate purpose to life! There’s no ultimate morality! There’s no ultimate value or meaning! And I agree with him. But he and I part company on this issue because I don’t see this as any kind of a crisis. I’m not troubled by the lack of ultimate meaning, value, purpose, because — even though I used to be a theist, even though I used to believe that such things were real — I now see those things as fantasies, as things that never existed. So I don’t feel like I’m owed those things, and I don’t miss those things any more than I miss being able to fly or see through walls. So that’s the first problem — Craig’s ultimate values are imaginary.
- Second, Craig doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate how the existence of God would make any difference as far as ultimate meaning, purpose, value, etc. He asserts that it would make a difference — repeatedly — but he never explains the how and the why. He says without God, life is meaningless, without God, life is without reason. So let’s add God. Okay — God exists. Craig’s God. The Christian God. Why is life meaningful now? Because God says so? What’s the purpose of life? Whatever God says it is? Why should I prefer having God dictate what my life means to me to being able to discover and decide the meaning of my life for myself? And even if I concede that, through some magical means, God is capable of imbuing life with value and meaning that it would not have without him, how is that ultimate value or ultimate meaning? Craig mentions morality here — without God, there is no objective morality — but if morality is determined by God, that’s not objective. That’s subjective. Ultimate morality would be morality that stood over everything, God included. Ultimate purpose would be purpose that is there no matter what, that is subject to nothing. Ultimate value, ultimate meaning, same thing. If you tie it to God, it ceases to be ultimate. It becomes secondary, it becomes subjective, by definition.
- Third, Craig — either intentionally or as a result of ignorance — is grossly misstating the scientific, naturalistic understanding of life and the universe and reality. He says that the universe is doomed to death, which seems to be the case given our current understanding, but he also says that there is no hope — which seems to me to be a very childish way of looking at it. If life is short and finite, if the universe is destined for heat-death, if immortality is a man-made fantasy — then that’s not hopeless, that’s just the nature of existence. That’s what we start with. And we should define things like hope, and meaning, and value, etc., within that context, not within some fantasy scenario where God and everlasting life are part of the deal. If you say that anything short of eternal paradise is hopeless, then yes, things might seem pretty bleak. But why would you make eternal paradise the standard? It doesn’t exist! Be hopeful that you and your friends will have happy, productive lives. Be hopeful for your children, if you have them. Think about the big things that give you hope, whatever those may be — for me, it’s science, it’s space exploration, its “what will the Large Hadron Collider allow us to discover next?” Does the fact that the Large Hadron Collider will cease to exist someday, along with every other trace of evidence we were ever here, rob me of that hope? No, because that’s just part of the deal. That’s the world we were born into.
- We are not a miscarriage of nature, as Craig so stupidly puts it — we are a product of nature, we are a part of nature. And we’re a splendid product — we perceive, we think, we feel, we make decisions. Craig asks, without God who decides what is right and wrong? We do. Without God, who is to judge the actions of Adolf Hitler? We are. Craig says that morality loses all meaning without God, he says without God no one can condemn war or praise brotherhood — what a deranged thing to say. The thing — and the only thing — that gives our morality meaning and weight and consequence is the fact that we have decided for ourselves that these things are good and these things are bad. If the opposite were true, if we received our morality from on-high, if we just took it off the shelf, then it would be absolutely meaningless. How can we condemn Hitler? How can we judge right and wrong? Because we are thinking, feeling beings, we are social animals capable of empathy, and we can ask moral questions and try to answer them.
The Practical Impossibility of Atheism
- Craig examines the three areas he’s already discussed from the atheist perspective, to illustrate how impossible it is to live consistently and happily without belief in God.
Meaning of Life
- “The point is this: if God does not exist, then life is objectively meaningless; but man cannot live consistently and happily knowing that life is meaningless; so in order to be happy he pretends life has meaning. But this is, of course, entirely inconsistent — for without God, man and the universe are without any real significance.” (pp. 65-66)
- Again, an atheist doesn’t have to pretend that life has meaning. As an atheist, I accept that God doesn’t exist, that these concepts of ultimate meaning, etc., that Craig cherishes, are imaginary. So I define the meaning of my life within the context of what I perceive to be reality, not within Craig’s theistic fantasyland.
Value of Life
- “First of all, atheistic humanists are totally inconsistent in affirming the traditional values of love and brotherhood. . . . The point is that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist.” (p. 66)
- Just went over this — if right and wrong are defined relative to God, then they aren’t objective, they’re subjective. And there are plenty of reasons to affirm love and brotherhood apart from the belief that God is telling us to: society, empathy, our innate sense of conscience, the moral consensus of humanity.
- Craig blames the lack of absolute value for the horrors of the holocaust. He details a few of the crimes of Dr. Joseph Mengele, including an episode where Mengele was angered to learn that one of his nurses gave a patient a morphine injection so she could painlessly kill her baby to spare it more painful experiments. Craig employs italics to emphasize how horrible these things are, in case we miss the point.
- I guess the italics are for my benefit as an atheist, since I have no other way of knowing whether experimentation on and vivisection of human beings is wrong.
- “A second problem is that if God does not exist and there is no immortality, then all the evil acts of men go unpunished and all the sacrifices of good men go unrewarded. But who can live with such a view?” (p. 67)
- Well, I can, for one. Because I’m a grown-up and I accept the world as it is. I can live with the good people and the bad people all going to the same oblivion after death because I have no reason to think things work any other way. And I define my morals, my sense of justice, etc., within that reality. I feel like I’ve made this point like thirty times already in this video.
Purpose of Life
- “Finally, let’s look at the problem of purpose in life. The only way most people who deny purpose in life live happily is either by making up some purpose, which amounts to self-delusion . . ., or by not carrying their view to its logical conclusions.” (p. 68)
- So I don’t think the purpose of my life is defined by the magic man in the sky Craig believes in, and the purposes I do have for my life, the things that are important to me, are just delusions. As we saw in the last chapter, Craig puts his own worldview on a pedestal above everyone who holds a different view. If you don’t think the way he thinks, if you don’t get your purpose from the same place he does, then you’re living in self-delusion. There is a two-word retort for this, and it’s: “Fuck you.”
- Craig brings up the idea of the Noble Lie, the notion that we should pretend that life has meaning even though we know it doesn’t, in order to live happily and to inspire us beyond self-interest. “But even the Noble Lie option is in the end unworkable. . . . In order to be happy, one must believe in objective meaning, value, and purpose. But how can one believe in those Noble Lies while at the same time believing in atheism and relativism?” (p. 71)
- Hey, check it out, an argument from incredulity! Nice to see him changing it up in the midst of all these appeals to consequences.
- Bill — can I call you “Bill”? Because I’m sure as fuck not going to call you “Dr. Craig” — I don’t need you to tell me that I need to believe in objective meaning to be happy. You don’t have the power or the right to decide what I need to believe to be happy. You can’t imagine how someone can be an atheist, and not believe in the things you believe in, and still be happy, and still find reasons to not be self-centered, to be empathetic, and helpful, and compassionate, and merciful, and hopeful. But it’s possible. And the fact that you can’t imagine how that is possible is absolutely irrelevant.
The Success of Biblical Christianity
- “According to the Christian world view, God does exist, and man’s life does not end at the grave. In the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God. Biblical Christianity therefore provides the two conditions necessary for a meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life for man: God and immortality. . . . Thus, biblical Christianity succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down.” (p. 72)
- Why? All Craig is doing here is making assertions. And not only assertions of facts — the existence of God and objective values, for example — but assertions of how things work. But it’s not a given that God and immortality are necessary for life to have purpose and value and meaning. And it’s not a given that Biblical Christianity provides these things any better than anything else. You have to demonstrate that. You have to explain why that is. As Christopher Hitchens liked to say, that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Saying “thus” when you haven’t even attempted to make an argument isn’t good enough.
- “Now I want to make it clear that I have not yet shown biblical Christianity to be true. But what I have done is clearly spell out the alternatives. If God does not exist, then life is futile. If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful.” (p. 72)
- He hasn’t spelled out anything. He’s made assertions and hasn’t even tried to demonstrate why we ought to accept them.
- “Therefore, it seems to me that even if the evidence for these two options were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity. It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness.” (p. 72)
- But of course, the evidence for these two options is not even close to being equal — the existence of the Biblical God is nowhere near as likely as the non-existence of that God. That’s why atheists “prefer” death, futility, and destruction — though I don’t choose to characterize it so cynically most of the time, since I’m fortunate to be here at all. Because we think those things are true, and the “meaningfulness and happiness” Craig is talking about are undemonstrated and imaginary.
- Craig tells his students that many non-Christians will be driven to accept Christ after having the alternatives explained as Craig has done in this chapter. However, though an unbeliever must be pushed, it must be done lovingly, in such a way that does not place him on the defensive. “Although students may give lip-service to relativism, my experience is that 95% can be very quickly convinced that objective moral values do exist after all.” (p. 73) Of course, the number of people you can persuade to your belief has no relevance whatsoever to whether or not your belief is true — but Craig would rather keep score than pursue those kinds of questions.
- “I would encourage you to employ this material in evangelistic dorm meetings and fraternity/sorority meetings, where you can compel people to really think about the desperate human predicament in which we all find ourselves.” (p. 75)
- This makes me sad, in a way. Speaking of desperation, this poor guy — his desperation soaks these pages, his desperation to be important, to be influential, to be an inspiration and a leader of men — “Go, take these lessons I have taught you and share them with your frat, win your wayward brothers to Christ!” It’s pathetic. Not pathetic enough to make me empathize with Craig — he’s far too smug and condescending and stupid and too much of an asshole for that — but pathetic enough to increase my already ample contempt for him.
- There is no “desperate human predicament.” There is reality, as it is and as it has always been. That we have trouble handling our shit in the face of oblivion, that we — and I include myself in this, because I used to think this way — are a bunch of big cry-babies who want more than we have, who aren’t satisfied with just getting to live — we want to live forever! — that we felt the need to invent myths and fantasies about gods and immortality and then judged real life alongside those fantasies and found it wanting — that’s not the universe’s fault. That’s not atheism’s fault. That’s our fault. There is a real world. We can examine it objectively, we can seek to discover it and understand it honestly, and accept whatever we find and build our purposes and meanings and values on top of that, or we can turn away from it in favor of our infantile delusions — see, Bill, I can condescend, too! — about ultimate meaning, ultimate value, ultimate purpose, and everlasting life. I’ve made my choice, and obviously, William Lane Craig has made his.
Next: Chapter 3: The Existence of God