Do we live in a world with a god? It doesn’t look like it (part 1 here).
Let’s continue our survey with the next clue that we live in a godless world:
Christians like to claim that their religion can answer the Big Questions, the questions that are fundamental to all of us. (It’s usually just one Big Question, some variation of “What is the meaning of life?”) However, the power of this question and Christianity’s claim to answer it crumble under closer inspection.
This is a special case of C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire. Sure, we can want things—a blissful afterlife, a big brother to watch out for us, or God-given meaning for our lives—but that doesn’t mean that those things exist. The same is true with any big question: just because we can think up supernatural answers doesn’t mean that they’re valid.
Alister McGrath, a priest and professor of theology who wrote a book about his journey from atheism to Christianity (responded to here), explains the motivation of his quest to faith this way: “I began to realize that human beings need existential answers about meaning, purpose and value, not just an understanding about how the universe works.” We find a similar drive from apologist William Lane Craig, who traced his life’s work back to the “fear and unbearable sadness” he had as a boy when he first learned about death (more here).
Can we find common ground? Perhaps we must retreat to something as obvious as this: fear of death is no evidence of the afterlife. And I doubt that even this straightforward observation is agreed to by all Christian apologists.
Christians’ big questions (“Why are we here?” or “What is my purpose?”) are actually childish questions. Few people ask why a dog is here or what its purpose is, and science makes clear that humans are just another animal. If there’s no profound reason or purpose for dogs or badgers or mosquitos, why imagine that there should be for humans?
Think of some other biggish questions. Questions like “Why can’t I fly like Superman?” or “Why can’t I move things with my mind?” are frivolous, not important. Most of us accept that this just isn’t how reality works and move on. Questions like “Is this the right person to marry?” or “Should I take that new job?” are individual, not universal. We know that there is no perfect answer.
“Why are we here?” is both universal and important, which gives it few peers . . . but it’s still childish. Let me clarify that asking this question, which many of us wrestle with, is itself not childish. The problem comes when we see that this is a widely asked question and conclude that it must have a bigger-than-us answer. It’s as if they imagine that this question is powerful enough to create a God-shaped vacuum that will suck a supernatural answer into existence if asked by enough people.
Let’s grow up. It doesn’t work that way.
McGrath explains his frustration with science: “The epistemic dilemma of humanity is that we cannot prove the things that matter most to us. We can only prove shallow truths.” But McGrath has it backwards. Show us that there’s more than life here on earth, and then we can worry about those unanswered questions. Until that point, science is the discipline that’s tackling issues that actually exist rather than chasing pink elephants that don’t.
What McGrath labels as “shallow truths” are the fruits of science that prevent and treat disease, feed billions, and teach us about the workings of the atom, the cell, the solar system, and the universe. Religion can’t even get its act together to tell us how many gods there are or what their names are.
That Christians have the luxury of pondering these existential questions is proof of how comfortable their life is. These Western Christians don’t worry about their next meal or staying warm. They can think that food comes from the grocery store, that their favorite sitcom is real, or that Jesus invisibly walks next to them when life is tough. Contrast this with people who have real problems—boys used as soldiers in Congo or girls used as sex slaves in Cambodia. The “Big Questions” are the ultimate #FirstWorldProblems in a society with air bags and training wheels.
Many Christians ignore this and return, like a dog to his vomit, to claim, “Yeah, but I have the answers!” Uh huh. Lots of people have answers. Jim Jones had answers. The Westboro Baptist Church has answers. The Mormons who knock on your door have answers. Are your answers worth listening to? Why should I listen to your answers over theirs?
You ask what you say are the most profound questions of all, and yet the answers are location specific. In Pakistan, Muslims will give you one meaning for life; in India, Hindus will give you another; and in Mississippi, fundamentalist Christians will give you another. What kind of truth depends on location?
And we return to the legitimacy of the question itself. To the Christian who pouts, “Yeah, but what is the purpose of my life?” I wonder if someone needs a hug. Jesus Christ, stop being a baby and answer it yourself. You’re an adult—if your life needs a purpose, give it one!
If you want answers to these questions, they’re right in front of you. You just don’t like them. What is the meaning of life? It’s the meaning you assign to it.
Why are we here? For no more eternally significant reason than why a dog or badger or mosquito is here.
Where did we come from? Big Bang explains the matter, and evolution explains the biology.
Science does a good job at answering questions about reality, it’s just that Christians don’t always like the answers.
Continued in part 7.
and then offers you the homeopathic remedy.
— Matt Dillahunty
Image via johndal, CC license