Why Life is Meaningful.

Why Life is Meaningful. January 9, 2015

Someone turned me on to the Atheist Experience cable show and I’m hooked. Today I’m listening to this episode here, and at about the one-hour mark I was simply shocked by something a young, blissfully-ignorant Christian caller to the show said.

He began with the bog-standard bullshit talking-points about how Christians get around the obvious problem with babies going to Hell and why it’s wrong to murder children to get them into Heaven, but then he got into a genuinely disturbing fantasy about murdering the two hosts (the “ums” and verbal filler are edited out):

Caller: I have one more question if you don’t mind.
Host Don Baker (DB): Sure.
Caller: I don’t know what atheists believe. What do you think happens when you die? Is it like going to sleep? If I came and killed you right now, would you be terrified or would you not care?
Host Ashley Perrier (AP), after a clearly mystified micro-pause: I’d feel a little pissed off, yeah.
Caller: Well, I mean, what would you be mad about? There’s nothing after death, and there’s no point to this life, so I might as well kill you now.

This is not an uncommon point of view at all among Christians. I’ve talked before about encountering a whole bunch of extremely fervent fundagelical Christians who likewise were totally convinced that a friend of mine, having deconverted and become an atheist, could no longer love anybody and no longer had any point or meaning to his life, so he might as well rape his wife as give her flowers. One does not have to go far at all to discover Christians who are absolutely convinced that non-Christians–especially atheists–live purposeless, meaningless lives and that nothing matters at all to them if there’s no divine handout of capital-P Purposes and capital-M Meanings. And even weirder, I’ve run into Christians who think that non-believers totally have a god-given capital-P Purpose that they are either ignoring deliberately or fulfilling despite themselves… talk about a complete lack of falsifiability! (I should mention that I’ll be using the terms “meaning” and “purpose” largely interchangeably here, and that my use of “capital-letter X” indicates a transcendent, completely perfect, supernaturally-handed-down thing rather than one arrived at by the person involved.)

The hosts try to disabuse this caller of his wrong assumptions about atheists, but he just can’t come to grips with the idea that without his religion and his “god” that there is nonetheless plenty of point to living life and lots of meaning. He’s put a lot of thought into this strange fantasy of his about murdering atheists, one must say, all to set up that tired “no atheists in foxholes” fallacy.

The hosts do their best with the fellow, though:

AP: There is something before death.
Caller: Fear of dying?
AP: I like my family. I have a lot of good friends. I enjoy my job. I got a new car last week–that kinda rocks! So there are a lot of good things going on in my life that I would like to continue. If I die, that means it doesn’t continue. That’s bad.
Caller: But it can’t continue forever, can it.

Here we come to the crux of this Christian’s errors: he thinks that if someone’s life can’t continue forever, then there is no point to doing or having anything at all.

Even then, we all know (right?) that this young Christian has family he loves, friends, possibly a job or some possession dear to him, and other good things in his own life. But because he thinks he is immortal, those things are worthwhile for him to have–even though every one of those things won’t last forever for him either. And because the atheists he’s talking to are not immortal in his eyes, then those good things–which are finite for all of us, remember–are meaningless to them, while the good things in his own life are meaningful purely because he thinks that he will exist as a sentient being of some sort for eternity while atheists do not think they will. This one mental gap separates him from atheists, he thinks, and changes everything about how one values life.

That’s bullshit. Absolute bullshit. Mean-minded and petty bullshit.

It wouldn’t have been hard for him to have actually talked to some real atheists before forming this ignorant opinion, but no, he just struts it out in front of everybody to behold and thinks he’s scored some kind of major intellectual victory–just like those Christians I mentioned who told my atheist friend he might as well rape his wife as give her flowers. This Christian caller, like his peers, even had an elaborate pseudo-intellectual logical route he took to get there, which he thought was irrefutable and unquestionable. You could all but hear the giddy chorus in the background: CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS! Your lives are meaningless! Admit it! ADMIT IT !

It makes me wonder:

Why is it so damned important to so many Christians to imagine that non-believers–especially atheists–lack something as essentially human as a meaning in life?

It almost feels bad to spoil such people’s Dehumanization Cakewalk by telling them how completely wrong they are.

This type of talk makes (and wants to make) atheists look like subhumans who can’t truly appreciate anything in their lives because they willfully refuse to acknowledge the Meaning that this guy thinks he has as a Christian–a divine, transcendent Meaning that non-Christians just cannot access. Moreover, meanings that are non-divinely acquired are not only inferior compared to the Meaning that only Christians can access, but these inferior substitutes are false–if non-believers think they’ve found meaning in life, then they’re just mistaken or else they secretly believe in Jesus. Indeed, as the show continues, this young man insists up and down, despite being corrected many times, that the hosts can’t possibly really enjoy their lives or have any meaning in their lives at all. He is just flabbergasted by the idea that someone doesn’t need to be religious to find meaning in life and and to cherish this life we have now. He even goes on to ask the other host how he’d feel about being murdered in cold blood by him, having not gotten the response he clearly expected from the first host–and he gets shot down similarly. At the end, he is unpersuaded and clearly still thinks that atheists live meaningless, totally wasted little lives of lonely isolation and emptiness.

There are a lot of false dichotomies and false dilemmas in Christianity (“you’re either with us or against us” and the “Liar/Lunatic/Lord” ones are among the more famous and popular, and Creationism of course centers around the idea that if the Theory of Evolution could somehow be debunked then that would mean that Creationism was true), but few are so perniciously self-serving as this idea that if one does not possess Meaning, which is only accessed via belief in Christianity’s claims, then one cannot have any meaning at all. The idea that plenty of folks–including themselves!–actually do find meaning in lots of places just doesn’t compute.

At 1:03, the caller even says that murdering people would be “awesomely fun”–I’m not sure if he’s talking about for Christians to do to atheists or what here–and he sounds downright regretful that he’s not allowed to do that. Between this display of casual psychopathy and his clear affection for violent analogies that involve him murdering specific people, I’ve got to ask: Is this where having a supposedly divinely-handed-down Purpose leads–to thinking of others as being so far down the ladder of humanity that eagerly asking them to contemplate their own murders at his hand becomes evangelism fodder? Does he know this mic is on?

As Dan Fincke wrote a while ago (and I’m borrowing as well his use of “capital-letter” terms), Christians’ insistence that meaning can only be found within belief in Christianity is a bit like how many people who believe in the idea of “soul mates” think that someone who rejects the idea of a capital-L One True Love can’t possibly know what love is like at all. It’s beyond irrational and insulting, and we do not need to allow such Christians to dictate our experiences to us in that manner. I don’t care how logical the Christian thinks it is to assert that non-believers don’t find meaning in their lives. I know that I do, and I know that I do it without this god, and I do not need to prove that fact to Christians’ satisfaction. Once again, non-believers’ lived reality simply does not conform to what Christians imagine about the matter.

We should find Christians’ strange insistence on this matter suspicious. We should wonder why a religion that despises (what its adherents think is) nihilism as much as Christianity generally does is so quick to leap to that exact same worldview and paste their false dilemma over people they don’t even know. Christians themselves do all kinds of things in their lives that are temporary and won’t last forever. As the hosts point out, they go to movies and plan parties and do all kinds of things that, once done and gone, are done and gone forever. Ah, but they see their finite joys and their purposes through the lens of this transcendent Meaning they imagine they have. No wonder so many of ’em have such a fear of honestly examining their faith–to lose faith would mean also (they think, erroneously) losing all sense of meaning and purpose and with it much that they think makes life worth the living. At this point the belief is a manufactured need sold to Christians to keep them docile and give them another reason to feel smugly superior to the unwashed scum around them.

But they’ve got this thing bass-ackwards. Eternal life does not make someone’s earthly life meaningful. It actually cheapens it.

The hosts of the show are correct: eternity is exactly what makes life meaningless. In the same way that being able to cheat one’s way through a video game makes the game ultimately not as much fun to play for most folks, if one has forever to do anything they want, it seems like that’d get old eventually. This common Christian mindset leads to thinking of one’s life as the impossibly-brief preamble to a long golden eternity of blowing sunshine up a god’s ass and eating feasts, which I think necessarily leads to it becoming meaningless. When I was Christian, I thought that my lifetime here on Earth was meaningless because what really mattered was “eternity in Heaven.” When other Christians did me wrong, which happened on a regular and constant basis, I’d console myself by saying that it didn’t matter what they did now; what mattered was what happened after this life was over (which is something I hear Christians saying both to me and others on a near-daily basis now). When I got told by preachers (erroneously) that the world was getting worse and worse every day, I resolved to keep my eyes on the future, not the present.

If anything, this mindset has only gotten more extreme, with many Christians now insisting that the planet’s just going to get destroyed anyway as a way of rationalizing their bizarre denial of climate change–or saying that their god certainly won’t allow things to get too awful. To this type of Christian, literally the only thing of value whatsoever about this life, literally the only truly meaningful part of it at all, is someone’s “decision” to become or not become the correct type of Christian. That’s why we hear about Christian charities that send Bibles instead of food to impoverished or disaster-hit countries, and wasting money and resources on evangelism rather than on genuine and meaningful aid to those in dire need (which may lead instead to the creation of so-called rice Christians). If these actions are truly the result of a god’s divinely-mandated Purpose for his followers, then it seems quite clear this god of theirs hasn’t developed much in the way of priority-setting skills.

So when a Christian tells me that my life is meaningless or that I have no purpose because I don’t subscribe to their religious claims, I have to wonder if they actually know what they’re saying about how they view me as a person, or if they’ve really thought this one through at all.

This life is meaningful precisely because it is so incredibly brief and because it can all be lost in a heartbeat. Our loved ones are precious precisely because we could lose them at any moment and won’t have them forever. The accomplishments we make are worthy in and of themselves. We don’t need to feel pressured to buy into a false worldview and force ourselves to pay lip service to a god whose existence nobody can credibly verify just to find meaning. Lots of people are already doing it.

Is that maybe the problem here?

Once again we come down to the scary superfluity of religion, don’t we? Just as people are good without a god and just as people love deeply, truly, and passionately without having to buy into flaky One True Love nonsense, people find meaning and value in their lives just fine without having to believe in a god. There is simply nothing that Christianity gives people that they couldn’t do just fine on their own. And I think it cheapens Christians’ own ability to find meaning in life if part of their entire platform is a denial (in the face of contradictory evidence, remember) that anybody else even has the capacity for it. This behavior makes them look like petty narcissists who have to be super-duper-special-ultra-licious-awesome and have all the toys or else they’re worse than dirt and why even bother going to all this trouble. (Are we seeing a hint, here, of why there continues to be opposition among Christians to same-sex couples’ use of the word “marriage,” an allowance which they whine constantly–also in the face of contradictory evidence–would devalue and cheapen their own marriages?)

If a Christian could actually demonstrate that a god is handing out meanings and purposes to people which they could actually discern, and if those meanings and purposes were demonstrably superior to anything people can and do get for themselves, that would be a reason to look more closely at Christians’ insistence about the superiority of their versions of the ideas. Until someone can do that, I see no reason to buy into the worldview they’re presenting.

Either way, not even the threat of utter meaninglessness in life could make me believe in something nonsensical without some kind of credible evidence. “You won’t have a meaning in life” is not credible evidence. It’s a threat. And I know that’s pure bluster anyway because I did what this Christian caller didn’t bother doing before condemning and judging an entire swathe of people: I looked around at the many, many people I know who are not Christian who have meaning in their lives.

Ultimately, this threat (like all the other supernatural threats Christians deploy!) means as much to me as a late-night infomercial’s fevered insistence that if I don’t buy their gadget I will be doomed to a lifetime of broken pickle jars. And ultimately, we’ve really got everything we need right here to figure out what our meaning in life might be.

Next time we’ll be talking about how I took the first and most important step in my own life toward finding real meaning and purpose for myself. I do hope you’ll join me.

Pondering the meaning of life, for sure.
Pondering the meaning of life, for sure. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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