Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 3: Christian Existential Nihilism

In case you missed the first two parts, here they are:
Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 1: A Distinction

I considered putting this position forward as theistic existential nihilism, but I don't know enough about other religions to make such a bold sweeping claim.So what is christian existential nihilism? Well lets start at the beginning. The video below is the inspiration for this blog series. The speaker, Timothy Keller, seems very well spoken and knowledgeable, but he makes his point so exhaustively that the first ten minutes is just about all you need to get the idea. 

So what is the idea? He asks for the reason why we do anything at all. Once you frame your existence in this vast universe, vast in both space and time, what is a mere 80 years on a tiny imperceptible speck worth?Everything you do will ultimately end in destruction. The universe is running down into an ultimate heat death of nothingness. So why does what you do in your life matter at all? 

He uses Sisyphus as an analogous situation to ours. From Wikipedia:
In Greek mythology Sisyphus (/ˈsɪsɪfəs/;[1] Greek: Σίσυφος, Sísyphos) was a king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth) punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.
The preview image is telling. You should be able to tell that the job of rolling a boulder up a hill all day only to watch it roll back down every night could make for an extremely frustrating life. What is it all worth? I really hope I have represented this argument honestly. We are not yet in the realm of christian nihilism, but most people will see where this is going.

If life is a mere speck of existence, but there is an infinite afterlife with infinite love and joy to follow then we have a reason to live. Our reason to live is to reach this utopian existence. There we can live in bliss forever. Does this make life meaningful? It positively does not. What it does is it makes the ultimate reason for living death. We are living only to die. There is no point in life besides dying. Life has no absolute meaning. 

This is where Tim makes his error, and since he is a smart guy, it is likely intentional. The idea is that life must have a purpose, life cannot be an end in itself, it must be a means to an end. You must be a tool of some other higher meaning in order to have any meaning at all. The image on the left comes to mind. 

If we live our lives for ourselves then apparently our lives are meaningless. Our lives have to necessarily be an implement to be discarded. Think of which of the two roles on the left you think that fulfils. 

It gets worse. After our lives are over, we will still be tools. Our meaning will then still be defined by this ultimate giver of meaning. Christians believe that their eternity will be spent in blissful worship of the One True god. In other words life must necessarily always be lived for someone else, not yourself. You live your life as toilet paper and spend eternity as a toothbrush implement for the sake of the vanity of a deity. 

The logical conclusion we can draw from this argument is that to christians ice cream, movies, sleeping in on Saturday, pets, friendships, lovers, family and children all mean absolutely nothing. Nada! Zip! Bumkiss! These things are chores akin to pushing a boulder up a hill every day with no purpose or meaning whatsoever. 

That's why we ask the question: why doesn't christian nihilism seem right? I mean life doesn't feel meaningless to most of us. So what's going on? Remember the motivators I spoke about in the second installment of this blog series? Well these biological motives in themselves are enough to give our lives plenty of meaningfulness. If our lives were bereft of happiness, we might feel that the boulder analogy applies to us. In fact people who suffer from depression run into this problem, as also mentioned before. We can cure depression, or we can find cures for it, so sufferers of depression are not ultimately doomed to a Sysiphian trap either.

But why do the things we do in our daily lives make us happy? The simple fact is that creatures who evolve thinking that life is meaningless won't want to live, eat or procreate. They will thin themselves out and the creatures that enjoy life by embracing the chemical high that our brains give us when we eat a donut, solve a math problem or have an orgasm, will ultimately come to dominate the landscape of living things. This kind of meaning is not ultimate meaning. We don't need ultimate meaning. This is why we don't see animals constantly committing suicide. We are also animals, and the same stuff that makes a puppy wake up and chew up your slippers is the stuff that makes our lives worth living. Christian nihilism attempts to convince us that we have an existential crisis, and therefore we must give in to their flavour of superstition.

Christian nihilism cheapens life, it discards everything we find meaningful and beautiful and worth living for. Ask a parent if their children make their lives worth living, if a teenager in love thinks love makes life worth living. The answer is a resounding YES!

This does not offer a complete picture. After all living life can be fun, but sometimes life is a drag. We can find higher meaning, even if there is no ultimate meaning. Stay tuned!


Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 2: Motivators




If you missed the first part of this blog series, here it is:

Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 1: A Distinction

All animals, including humans, are driven by motivation. Hunger motivates us to eat, tiredness motivates us to sleep, sexual desire motivates us to engage in sex. In that sense we are much like any other animal is.Our brains contain machinery that makes things feel good, and to a large extent just enjoying day to day life gives our lives meaning. Some people don't want to admit to such blatant hedonism, but the opposite is telling.
In psychology and psychiatry, anhedonia (/ˌænhiˈdniə/ an-hee-doh-nee-ə; Greek: ἀν- an-, "without" + ἡδονή hēdonē, "pleasure") is defined as the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, music, sexual activities or social interactions. While earlier definitions of anhedonia emphasized pleasurable experience, more recent models have highlighted the need to consider different aspects of enjoyable behavior, such as motivation or desire to engage in an activity ("motivational anhedonia"), as compared to the level of enjoyment of the activity itself ("consummatory anhedonia").[1]
People who suffer from anhedonia are likely depressed. To them life feels a lot like that of Sisyphus[2], where life essentially starts feeling like a huge chore. Lacking in motivation or pleasure, they wonder what life is about and whether the whole thing is worth a damn to begin with. Our little daily pleasures play an integral role in why we find our lives meaningful. Without them we would struggle to get up in the morning.  

When it comes to death, the fact is that nothing motivates us to die in any normal circumstances (of course being in pain, mental anguish, or self sacrifice for the sake of an ideal break this rule, but I'd like to consider the mundane life of the average person). If the ultimate end of all actions is death, then there is no ultimate motivator. It could be said that for the believer, the afterlife is a worthy motivator, making continued living desirable and much more meaningful.

There is a problem with this view in that human beings, like any other animal, don't live their day to day lives with any ultimate goal in mind. By claiming that the afterlife is a motivator for living, the believer devalues every single motivator that normally drives us, chief among which is the pursuit of pleasure. This is something I like to call theistic existential nihilism (I will refer to it just as theistic nihilism for brevity). Theistic nihilism is the view that no motivators in our mortal lives make life worth snot. In the next installment of this series, I will explore theistic nihilism in more detail.

The primary take away point of this post is that without motivators, we would be completely inert. We require biological motivators in order to continue living at all. Basic biological motivators are pretty shallow, and it must be realised that there is a whole other layer of motivators when it comes to humans.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anhedonia
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisyphus

Click here for part 3: Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 3: Christian Existential Nihilism

Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 1: A Distinction

A charge commonly brought out by religious apologists is that to be an atheist means that life will by extension have no meaning or purpose. I've seen this commonly being pushed by them in order to dissuade people from questioning their faith. Upon realising my atheism, this vexing question did keep me up at night, and I would like to write about it here. I don't think a single post could justify the topic, so I will do it in parts. I don't know how many as yet, but one is insufficient. 

In this first post, I'd like to make an important distinction that would make consequent discussions easier to understand. When believers talk about meaning and purpose, what they mean is that life must have a purpose. In other words, life must be a means to an end. If life is all there is, it naturally follows that no such end exists, and therefore such meaning and purpose does not exist. I will call this type of meaning ultimate. Ultimate meaning and purpose in the context of my posts will be referring to things as a means to an end. Let me give an example. The ultimate purpose of throwing together ingredients and following instructions is to have a cake as the end result. In the ultimate sense, the activity would not be meaningful if there were no end result or purpose that is desired. 

The other kind of meaning I'd like to address is what I will refer to as relative meaning. Relative meaning is quite different. The relative meaning of mixing the ingredients of the recipe may be because I enjoy mixing ingredients and following recipes. The outcome is somewhat irrelevant. I may even be diabetic, and not properly able to enjoy the cake. The important thing to note about relative meaning is that the process is an end in itself, and not reliant on some ultimate goal. 

I'll try to draw another comparison, because this can get a little confusing. I may start jogging in order to get fit. I may not enjoy jogging, but that is what I consider the least painful method of getting fit. The process is only meaningful to me because the ultimate purpose defines its meaningfulness. If a scientific breakthrough proves that jogging does not make people fit (yes this is highly unlikely), I would abandon jogging, in the same way that apologists claim that one should have no reason to continue living if life was found to have no ultimate purpose.

Of course, baking cakes and jogging are irrelevant to the meaning and purpose of life itself. Why continue to live if there is no ultimate purpose to living? The conclusion for me, and maybe for some others reading may seem obvious, but I think it still deserves explanation.