What ‘Atheist Overreach’ Gets Wrong About Meaning and Purpose

What ‘Atheist Overreach’ Gets Wrong About Meaning and Purpose August 23, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. In it, he makes three central arguments. Up to now, we’ve been talking about his attempt to negate science as the only real source of knowledge humanity’s ever discovered. But today, we dive into why he had to do that. He needs his imaginary friend to be the literal only source of meaning and purpose for every human being in the world. And today, he’ll make his case for that point. We’ll look at his argument, and see just how valid it is as a sales pitch for his product.

build that wall high around meaning and purpose, build it strong
(Micheile Henderson.) But now you have nowhere to run.

(A quick note: The book officially addresses secularization worldwide, not just Christianity’s declining dominance. However, I really think the author occasionally name-drops other religions as a smokescreen. He makes a valiant effort to make his book look more like a generalized discussion of religion’s importance to humanity generally. However, as far as I can tell everything in it pertains uniquely to Christianity and no other religion.)

Meaning and Purpose, Defined.

As soon as people get past the “how shall we eat?” phase of survival (with great thanks to Douglas Adams), larger questions suddenly pop into focus before us. One of those questions concerns our potential meaning and purpose.

The difference could be said to be semantic, really, but I think of meaning as our personal definition for ourselves. The meaning we assign our lives represents our cry of in a teeming sea of not-I. Our purpose, then, represents how we express that definition during our finite lifetimes. So if our life’s meaning is found in improving conditions for animals, our purpose might involve opening a no-kill cat shelter or becoming a vegan activist.

People who believe in various kinds of woo often think imaginary friends give them meaning and purpose. In reality, nobody from any flavor of woo has ever supported this notion with anything approaching objective, credible evidence.

(If you want to hear a lot more about this differentiation, this therapist’s page explains these ideas in more detail. Oh, and here’s some related posts about meaning and purpose: The First Myth About It; Dismantling the Second Myth; The Darker Side of Artificial Meaning and Purpose; Finding Meaning in this ‘Vale of Tears’; The Big Secret About Meaning That Christians Don’t Want People to Know; Captain Cassidy and the Cosmic Purpose.)

This book generally mashes the concepts together into one package: meaningandpurpose. As far as its author cares, both come from the same (imaginary) source.

First, Some Scientists’ Quotes.

Here are a bunch of scientists’ quotes offered up by Christian Smith regarding humans’ search for meaning and purpose (pp. 89-93):

  • Yuval Noah Harari (historian): “There are no gods in the universe.”
  • Edward O. Wilson (biologist): “There is no evidence of . . . [a] demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned to us, no second life vouchsafed to us for the end of the present one. We are . . . completely alone.”
  • Victor Stenger (particle physicist): “Empirical data and the theories that successfully describe those data indicate that the universe did not come about as a purposeful creation.”
  • Richard Leakey (paleoanthropologist) and Roger Lewin (science writer): “God surely had no plans for Homo sapiens, and could not even have predicted that such a species would ever arise.”
  • Marcelo Gleiser (physicist and astronomer): “[T]here is no Final Truth to be discovered, no grand plan behind creation.”
  • Bertrand Russell (mathematician): “Man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving. [. . .] The whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins[.]”
  • Steven Weinberg (physicist): “[T]his present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Interestingly, from what I can tell Smith didn’t quote-mine. I’ve shortened some of the quotes for space considerations for this post, but overall he presents them fairly. His error, as we’ll see momentarily, gets made in his interpretation of the quotes.

What They Didn’t Say At All.

Not one of these scientists said human life itself is meaningless or purposeless. 

These scientists simply rejected the idea of imaginary friends plopping meaning and purpose down on humans’ heads like pigeon poop. If they didn’t say so outright, then they certainly very plainly implied that their opinions were formed after reviewing the data (such as it is) that Christians have supplied for their claims. Also, they were neither insulting anybody nor telling anyone what to believe.

However, Christian Smith utterly and completely and egregiously mischaracterizes these quotes (p. 91):

So “Science” here is supposedly telling us what we must believe about the meaning and purpose and destiny of humanity and the universe: namely, there is none.

And um, that’s NOT what they said at all. Like, he actually quoted them himself earlier. Did he think we wouldn’t read the quotes he himself offered? Looking at what they wrote, there’s no way to get from there to Point OMG Just KYS Already.

What They Actually Said.

Instead, these scientists dismissed the notion of sources outside of ourselves bestowing meaning and purpose upon us. All they said was that:

  • “the Universe” itself lacks intrinsic meaning and purpose
  • no divine plan or purpose has guided or influenced humans’ evolution
  • one day, the human race will die out — just like other species do eventually (including many human species).
  • every piece of available data supports these conclusions — while refuting or contradicting the claims that imaginary friends or magic do anything tangible at all

Nor did they even once hint at denying him his perfect right to believe utter blithering nonsense if it pleases him. They just won’t let him get away with endless streams of reality-based claims that aren’t supported by reality-based evidence, that’s all.

He’s the one intruding on their “turf” (which is his own oft-used word for what he views as his sole demesne). In response, they’ve rightly denied his false claims a place at the reality-based table.

The Ownership Claim, Staked.

Christian Smith needed to assert dominance here for a reason.

Since forever, Christians have tried to stake a sole ownership claim — a stranglehold even — over meaning and purpose. In their marketing, they promise repeatedly that the correct use of their product will grant meaning and purpose to their customers. (The product: active membership in their particular groups.)

Everywhere we look in Christianity, however, we discover Christians seeking meaning and purpose — and frustrated that their imaginary friend is playing coy all of a sudden. Christian leaders offer a number of glib assurances, but I haven’t seen any of those easy answers satisfying anyone. (There’s an bad one in the manipulative book Don’t Waste Your Life by Rowdy John Piper (ch. 6). He suggests the cultivation of a proper Jesus Aura. I doubt that’ll satisfy many Christians, though.)

When I was Christian, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what my imaginary friend wanted of me. I never did get an answer. Eventually, I worked out why.

Meanwhile, countless Christian pages and resources exist to guide Christians who feel their lives lack meaning. These Christians have begun to sense the bait-and-switch of Christianity: after being promised that the product they bought will grant meaning and purpose, these still have not materialized.

And Refuted.

Their god doesn’t actually exist, so Christians simply are not able to receive any new information from that source. Instead, they must imagine every single thing they think he’s saying. In a very real way, the creepy phone calls are all coming from inside their own houses.

So they’re really barking up the wrong tree about how to find meaning and purpose. Adding this imaginary middleman to the equation only makes their search more difficult.

One thing they do know, though:

Nobody else is allowed to find meaning and purpose in any other way but theirs.

As hopelessly ineffective as their way is, it is the only valid way.

Thus, any other way is not only inferior but a vast and demonic deception masking their imaginary friend’s plans for the people involved. By corollary, if someone knocks their ineffective, inadequate, utterly unsupported way, obviously that means that critic thinks life entirely lacks meaning and purpose.

Suddenly, the Christian’s attention swivels around to focus on how ickie that critic is for saying something so awful.

Whew! Crisis averted!

Quick! Activate the Antiprocess Shields!

In this book, Christian Smith gets super-frosty about these assertions he’s decided these scientists have made.

His antiprocess filters went into overdrive immediately, very clearly.

He couldn’t even take in their real arguments to begin processing any of it. That would have involved a whole lot of reading for comprehension about his own completely unsupported claims. One cringes to imagine the compartmentalization his mind must labor under, if he reads half as many real-science books as he claims.

Instead of taking in and processing those scientists’ quotes, Smith created a strawman of what these scientists said. It embodied his own sense of trespassed-upon “turf.” Then, he set fire to that strawman and danced around it, all the while celebrating what a good job he’d done negating those ickie close-minded scientists.

However, he never once actually reacts to what those scientists actually said.

Gon’ Build That Strawman, Build It Strong.

A caricature is always much easier to attack, to set ablaze, to claim victory over.

But Smith’s constant mischaracterizations of the quotes he himself offers in his own book stand out like a blazing sun. He fills his book with assurances about how incredibly rational and science-loving he totally is. And yet he offers up these quotes and then immediately mischaracterizes every single one of them. He assigns these quotes meanings that can’t possibly be derived from what he’s offered.

He wrote this book and presumably spent many hours perfecting the text. Someone proofread it and edited it. Someone typeset it. Publishers presumably had someone else checking it out as well. From everything I could find about him, he’s a greatly-respected sociology professor at Notre Dame. Catholic leaders as a whole seem to like him as well, at least enough to publish a number of books by him about stuff like their young-adult churn problem.

And yet he apparently never noticed these absolutely breathtaking mischaracterizations, nor apparently did anybody else involved with this book.

(Someone out there needs a spur to write and shop that book they’re working on. Here it is.)

The Context of the Book.

As I said, this whole what use is science anyway? thing represents only one-third of the book. Overall, Christian Smith is trying to assert that humans need religion in order to function successfully in groups.

When he talks about science supplanting religion, then, he wants it to sound like science can’t answer the big questions humans have about their meaning and purpose. In fact, he wants us to think that only religion can answer those questions. Therefore, religion must be allowed to dominate societies again like it used to in the Good Ole Days.

But if people can and do find meaning and purpose without religion, then his argument tanks hard. And if people want to build meaning and purpose based on reality’s objective facts rather than religion’s false claims, then it tanks extra-hard.

The Real Good News.

Indeed, here’s the real Good News: our lives have plenty of meaning and purpose.

It’s just not assigned to us by fiat by an invisible wizard, is all. We find it for ourselves. Not all of us will even want to do that. To a great extent, I suspect that this cosmic-sounding need might be manufactured by, well, Christian marketers — much like the supposed god-shaped hole they insist everyone has.

What’s more, everyone who even wants meaning and purpose must figure this stuff out for ourselves. That includes Christians. Just some of us don’t realize we’re adding an unnecessary and counterproductive middleman to the process.

And guess what? That power to define meaning and purpose for ourselves actually makes our lives more meaningful and genuinely purposeful. We’re not just cogs in a cosmic machine.

Figuring out for ourselves what would make our brief lifetimes meaningful, and then figuring out how to express that meaning, is a beautiful part of the human situation — and might be one of the most human quests we can undertake, next to a nice mimosa brunch.

NEXT UP: Being “good without gods” in an age of increasing secularization, and how that idea gives Christian moral scolds the vapors. See you tomorrow!

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Build that Wall” comes from the Bastion soundtrack.

Also: Obligatory:

How King Arthur found his meaning and purpose.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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