Inspired by an analogy invented by Daniel Dennett, I have some thoughts for the benefit of those who believe that an atheist’s life must necessarily be meaningless and nihilistic.
Imagine that there’s a society which, instead of God, believes in Cupid. This is the Cupid of Greek mythology, as co-opted by greeting card companies: the rosy-cheeked cherub with tiny wings, who flutters around firing magical arrows into people’s hearts that make them fall in love. Imagine that people in this society were genuinely, wholeheartedly convinced of the existence of Cupid; they build altars in his honor, sing his praises every week, and feel extremely devoted and thankful to him for conferring upon them a feeling as joyous and wonderful as love.
Now imagine that this society, like ours, has its skeptics. These skeptics note that Cupid cannot be seen and leaves no evidence of his presence. They notice that people who are extremely ill-suited for each other sometimes fall in love, which would cast some doubt on Cupid’s wisdom and benevolence even if he did exist. And, finally, they observe that love appears to be a neurological phenomenon whose antecedents can be detected in the physical functioning of human brains. Some of these people finally come to doubt the widely held assumption of their society, and conclude that, in reality, it’s highly probable that no such being as Cupid exists.
What is the rational next step for doubters of Cupid? Cupidian apologists will be only too happy to tell them: “If you don’t believe in Cupid, then you must believe that love is a superstitious delusion and doesn’t really exist! What a bleak and miserable worldview that is! You may try to convince yourself otherwise, but we all know that love does exist, and that it’s a wonderful and beautiful feeling that gives meaning to our lives. The fact that love exists is proof of Cupid’s existence, and you’re being ignorant and unreasonable to say otherwise.”
In this scenario, the fallacy should be clear. Disbelief in Cupid does not require a person to disbelieve in love. On the contrary, even a Cupid skeptic can and most likely will agree that love exists, that it’s a wonderful feeling and that it confers meaning on our lives. One can maintain this even while believing that love is a neurochemical phenomenon occurring within our brains, not the result of invisible magic arrows. All these skeptics say to society is that love is not caused by what they always thought it was caused by. They agree with everyone else about the effect; they simply differ about the cause.
Why would denying the existence of Cupid rob love of its power? I may love my partner because she’s kind and compassionate to me, because she’s been there for me in times of trouble, because we enjoy similar activities, because she selflessly gives of herself to make me happy, because I’ve grown close to her so that her happiness is bound up with my own. These are all perfectly sufficient and rational reasons to fall in love, and don’t need the blessing of magic arrows to confer validity on them. The fact that love is grounded in material reasons rather than supernatural causes doesn’t make it any less real or less true.
The situation is the same in our world. Too often, religious apologists seek to take credit for love, happiness, purpose and other desirable qualities by asserting that God causes them, and then claiming that to deny the cause is to deny the effect. Not so. We acknowledge the effect, but propose a different cause. We still find meaning in all the other things that give life meaning – in friendship and community, in exploring and learning about the world, in applying our skills and our minds to worthwhile endeavors. We just don’t believe that a supernatural being is required to confer meaning on these endeavors when they are already meaningful in themselves. Anyone who acknowledges that denying Cupid is not the same thing as denying love itself should take the next step and recognize that atheists can and do affirm life and all it offers without any necessity of believing in a hidden supernatural being that undergirds it all.