Atheists will often dress up their worldview in hope to make it seem appealing. For example, they commonly refer to themselves as rationalists, freethinkers, and give themselves all sorts of titles in hope to convey the impression of intellectual superiority. They also try to monopolize science and play it off against religion and belief in God which suggests that they wish to be the ones known for the employment of evidence and reason, and so on. But despite these attractive claims, how appealing is atheism really? We will look at several lines as to why I am convinced that atheism, if consistently applied, is exactly the opposite of appealing.
1. The Denial of Objective Meaning & Purpose in Life.
Most people I know want to live meaningful lives, and this includes atheists. People hope to live lives that ultimately make a difference, and that results in something good. Perhaps one even hopes to be remembered in some way for the hard work they put into certain projects after they die. But, on atheism, is there really any meaning to one’s existence at all?
I would argue not. On atheism, specifically naturalism and materialism (the two major philosophies embraced by atheists), the universe exists simply because it exists, and there is no ultimate objective purpose for its existence. The difference with many religions is that they invest the universe with spiritual and theological significance. Often our decisions in life have eternal significance. But atheism proposes the exact opposite of this. On atheism we exist by chance alone (there was no supernatural being who created us for any purpose), and we will cease to exist when we die. On such a view no ultimate meaning can be attached to our lives. It would not have even mattered if we did not exist in the first place, and everything that the human race has ever discovered and all the remarkable achievements that we have thought we’ve made (from the sciences to the philosophies and all in between) will face the same fate.
But don’t atheists live meaningful lives? Well, yes and no. True, on atheism we might be able to create the subjective illusion of meaning. This is the sort of meaning we attach to self-fulfillment in our moments of pleasure and work. However, we should not confuse this with objective, ultimate meaning. If we remove God from the picture we lose the transcendent standard that grounds our existence with any objective meaning.
It is a tough pill to swallow for on one hand the consistent atheist creates subjective meaning for himself while being cognitively aware that when its reduced to its constituent elements the human being possesses no more significance than other life forms on the planet, including the likes of mosquitos, or cows, or dogs.
I believe that this makes atheism, if consistently applied to one’s life, unlivable. Imagine waking up each day having to face this reality.
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
-Richard Dawkins (1)
“At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”
-Peter Atkins (Quoted by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow, p. ix)
2. The Denial of Objective Morality
I recall the harrowing narrative penned by the Spanish Bartolomé de las Casas in his History of the Indies (1561):
“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”
De las Casas informed his readers about events taking place during the colonization of the West Indies and the evils perpetuated against its indigenous populations by the invaders, and what I suspect is that what the invading conquistadors did to these babies and their mothers was no less than a moral atrocity. I would venture to call it evil. Unsurprisingly, I think most people would agree, and suppose that what was committed by the colonialists was a grievous crime, and an act no less than evil.
But how would such be viewed on atheism? As we’ve seen above, if atheism is true, and if we’re no more than chance products with no ultimate meaning in life, and no purpose either, it seems irrational, if not impossible, to claim that any acts are really evil. Similarly, it is equally absurd to claim that any acts are really good. Rather, what we are left with is an indifferent universe within which some creatures get hurt and others get lucky. It’s little more than probabilities and chance what these creatures will face off with. The babies and their mothers chronicled in the account by de las Casas were just unlucky. We might feel the pain of loss, tragedy, and feel that certain things are evil. However, this is merely explained by our superior cognitive faculties that give off these sense than these feelings having any objective meaning to them.
The intellectual challenge for atheists, as is admitted by atheist scholars, is that if one removes God from the equation then one by definition removes the transcendent moral standard and laws set by God. Obviously, if God does not exist, as they believe, then there can be no such transcendent moral standard, and thus we have to create these laws ourselves. The problem is that this view of morality slides into moral relativism. For example, on relativism, given that moral values and duties are relative, one cannot really deem the behaviours of other tribes, people, and nations as morally inferior. If one nation wishes to stone homosexuals for their orientation, another nation, which seeks to upheld the human rights of homosexuals, cannot deem such behaviour as morally inferior. Or consider the example of the colonization of the West Indies. If atheism is true, then it is only my subjective opinion that genocide, or throwing babies off of cliffs or burning them alive in boiling water, is morally wrong. But the conquistadors had a very different view of the matter. They thought they were doing a morally good act, and why not have some fun in the process? Yet how could I say on atheism that what they did was morally evil in any objective sense? My moral view has no more significance than theirs.
This is undoubtedly a point of tension in the lives of atheists. They know that by consequence of their naturalistic and materialistic worldview that objective moral values do not exist yet they continue to make an endless stream of moral judgments, despite these moral judgements possessing no ultimate significance whatsoever.
“In fact, outright atheism remains a minority confession, and the modern Western world has witnessed the proliferation of alternative ‘spiritualities’ of various kinds,” and a major reason for this is that “Many, it seems, are dissatisfied with atheism as the ‘final truth’ of the human condition.”
-Gavin Hyman (2)
3. The Denial of Freewill
On atheism only particles and physical forces exist. But if that is true, then human beings don’t have free will because our actions are completely determined by the laws of physics. Despite the fact that we feel that we possess freewill all of our decisions in life are attributable to some other factor (genetic, environmental, and biochemical) that preceded it. We might think we have freewill but on atheism this is just a very powerful illusion akin to the illusion that some acts are objectively morally evil. This rejection of freewill is what is known as determinism, a philosophical view that appears inescapable on naturalism and materialism.
The implications of such a view are significant. For example, there is the obvious difficulty of moral judgement. For instance, if freewill is an illusion then no perpetrator of a crime, whether that crime be rape or hurling babies from cliffs, could rightfully be convicted of the crime. To use another example, imagine if two friends, John and Tom, are mountain climbing and a sudden gust of wind blows John into Tom which results in Tom falling to his death. It would be unreasonable to hold John morally responsible for Tom’s death for Tom’s demise was a result of external factors beyond John’s control that resulted in John knocking Tom off of the cliff. I believe this analogy applies to our decisions on determinism. If an individual’s decisions have been determined by factors other than herself then she cannot be held morally responsible for them. A leading proponent of this view is the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris reasons that on determinism,
“we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility… You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise” (3).
I engaged Harris’ essay with much interest in which he grapples with the implications. He uses the example of a family assaulted by thieves. The thieves break in, murder the family, burn down the house, and flee the crime. Harris explains that our condemnation of this act is predicated on the belief that these thieves had the choice to abstain from committing the crime. Harris, however, contends that given determinism and the determining preceding factors that resulted in these men committing the crime, the men actually had no choice but to commit it. Harris says that if he were in the shoes of one of these men he would too have committed the crime. There is simply no alternative. Harris makes sure his readers know that he condemns such behaviour, but such condemnation seems entirely irrational on atheism and philosophical determinism.
“Everything that has or will happen was determined at the big bang — and given that our brains are part of the physical universe, free will does not exist.”
-Graham Lawton (The Riddle of Free Will Goes Unsolved, 2011)