Attached is a link to my slides from a talk I presented at the Humanist Convention in April of 2017 (last week as at the time of posting). They summarise some of my recent thinking about metaphysical naturalism, an argument in defence of which constitutes the majority of the talk. I hope they may be of use and interest to some. Eventually I will get around to writing up my thoughts into a proper article, which I will post on my blog. I anticipate, however, that it will be significantly more technical than these slides, so these may make a good ‘first introduction’ to some of these issues for people with less philosophical background.
In this piece I consider what we can infer about the bible, in particular the New Testament, beginning from a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I argue that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the accuracy or reliability of the gospels or of Paul’s teachings, and thus Christians should be more cautious in making hasty leaps from one to the other, and should be more ready to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their convictions regarding scripture.
A great deal of scholarly attention and critical debate has surrounded the question of whether or not there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I myself have written a number of pieces regarding this question. Here, however, I want to venture into realms of inquiry that I seldom hear addressed at all. In particular, I want to consider the question of what we can infer if we came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? That is, suppose that one comes to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and furthermore that we was really the Jewish Messiah and also the son of God. The question I want to ask is: what then? What can we infer from this knowledge?
To set the scene more clearly, suppose I arrive at this belief as a result of some minimal facts-type argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, which leaves me with belief in perhaps the empty tomb, the resurrection, and early proclamation that Jesus was raised by God as vindication of his divinity, but little else beyond this core bedrock. Another route may be an experiential one: I could believe that I have come to a knowledge of Jesus’ divinity through direct personal experience of some kind, experience which allows me to form a justified belief that Jesus is Lord, but does not tell me anything substantive beyond this. In either case, we have determined to follow Jesus and shape our lives in accordance with his will for us. But before we can do this, we need to ask, what is his will for us? I think the typical response from many Christians is just a sort of automatic acceptance of much or all of what the Bible says as being the true ‘word of God’. Not so fast. As I have stated, all we have established thusfar is that Jesus is the son of God. We don’t yet know much else about him or his teachings, at least not in any detail. What did Jesus say? What did he teach? How should we understand our lives and our relationship to God in the light of this knowledge? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear.
The Gospels as History
Let’s start with the gospels. These are the texts which claim to present the words and deeds of Jesus during his life on Earth. Our first problem: which gospels? Of course there are the four canonical ones, but there are also dozens of others. How do we know which of them (if any) accurately preserve the words and teachings of Jesus? How about we restrict ourselves to only early writings, say first century or maybe early second century at the outside. This seems a reasonable approach – later materials are much less likely to preserve accurately the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Restricting ourselves in this way, we are left with the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the first century Gospel of Thomas, and (depending upon exactly when it is dated) also the second century gospel of Peter. We also know of a number of other gospels and similar texts that existed in the first and early second century, which survive today only in brief quotations or fragments found in other sources.
Having restricted our analysis to these five or six texts, we next ask: who wrote these gospels, and where did they get their material from? The answer to the first question is that we don’t know. All the canonical gospels are anonymous (the titles the bear today being later additions), while Thomas and Peter are widely agreed to be pseudepigraphies (i.e. written by someone other than the person claimed in the text as the author). As to the second question, the answer is disputed and complicated, though suffice it to say most scholars would agree that the gospel writers had access to eyewitness testimony of some form, perhaps direct or indirect as preserved through oral tradition or earlier sources. Exactly how much and how accurate this testimony was is the subject of scholarly dispute. For our purposes, I think we would have enough to come to confident beliefs about some broad points. For example, its clear that Jesus taught to love others, to have faith in God and follow him, to be a friend of the poor and downcast in society. He was known to be a miracle worker, to speak with great authority, and he spoke at length about the coming kingdom of God. I’m sure that more could be added to this list, but the real difficulty comes to when we ask about specifics. Christians generally believe a great deal more about Jesus and his teachings (his ‘gospel’) than just these ‘bare bones’ general facts. Can we justify these more specific beliefs given our starting point?
One approach to take would be the purely historical one. We could go through the gospels, canonical and non-canonical, and exhaustively apply careful historical criteria to vouch for each and every purported deed and saying of Jesus, making a judgement as to their likely historicity. This is essentially the approach that was taken by the Jesus Seminar, and although their methodologies have been criticised (as has nearly everything in NT studies), I think they serve as a useful indicative case study as to where this approach is likely to lead. They ended up rejecting over 80% of the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and even if we were to reassess their criteria, we doubtless will find it difficult to firmly substantiate a large number of the individual claims made in the gospels. I think this approach is a defensible one, however it is doubtful to me that the Christian will be able to build up anything approaching the sort of canon of Jesus’ teachings that they typically believe in, and not with the same level of confidence. I also doubt that this approach would tell us what to do with the writings of Paul (see below).
So why, you might be wondering, did we end up with these four gospels exactly, and not any of the other gospels which existed at the time? The answer to this is complicated, but in short, the early church over the second and third centuries gradually came to a consensus that these four gospels, but none of the others, were sufficiently reliable to include in the canon. Notice this key point: we are trusting the wisdom of man in regard to what is included in the New Testament. Perhaps this process was divinely guided (more on that idea later), but at the very least it is very clear that the immediate, direct responsibility for what ended up in the New Testament canon was the actions and decisions of early Christians over the first couple of centuries. The NT did not fall as a divine package straight from heaven, but as a messy outcome of historically contingent forces. As such, we have to be careful judging its accuracy.
The Gospels as Scripture
A second approach, more commonly taken in practise it seems, is belief in divine inspiration. That is, if we believed that the canonical gospels were authoritative texts produced through divine inspiration and whose content has been protected from being corrupted or changed, that would allow us to be confident in taking the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the gospels as accurate. Indeed, I think most Christians just reflexively and uncritically assume that if Jesus was the son of God, then obviously what the gospels say about him is divinely inspired, right? I question the validity of this inference. Remember, Jesus said nothing at all about the gospels – obviously, as they weren’t written until after he ascended! Nor does our belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus entail anything about the gospels themselves – Jesus could have been raised, but the gospels could still be the work of man and not divinely inspired (even Christians believe that most gospels are like this). Reliance on the early date of the canonicals is useful for historical analysis (see above), but its unclear that this especially relevant to the question of whether they were in fact divinely inspired. One argument that comes to mind is an explicitly theological one. We might reason that, given that Jesus is the Son of God, it is reasonable to believe that God would ensure that his essential words and deeds were preserved accurately to serve as guidance for future generations. I think this is the much more plausible option, and something akin to what many Christians (perhaps implicitly) believe. I think, however, that on closer investigation we find a number of problems with this approach.
First, we know that at least some of the books in the New Testament are pseudepigraphies, that is they were written by someone other than the person who claimed to write them. First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians are all widely agreed to have not in fact been written by Paul, despite the fact that they purport to be his letters, and the the early church believed them to be such. From this we can infer that the process of determining the NT canon was imperfect, subject to errors. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the process being (to an extent) divinely guided, but I think it does raise a certain level of doubt, certainly to the precision of the process. It seems far more likely that the spirit and core content of God’s message was what was protected, and not all details. This is not purely an academic exercise. As an example, the famous passage often interpreted as an injunction against women preachers “but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” is found in First Timothy.
Second, we know that some passages of the New Testament, in particular the gospels, were added or changed later. Most famously, the earliest manuscripts of Mark that we have end with the women running away after finding the empty tomb, and include no references to Jesus’ postmortem appearances. We know therefore that some later Christian or Christians inserted an ending onto Mark, and that this ‘improved’ version came to be the predominately accepted version in Christian circles. Again, this casts doubt on the complete integrity of the canonisation process or divine inspiration argument. Another example of a passages not attested by the earliest manuscripts include the story of the woman taken in adultery found in John 7-8. There are also many shorter phrases and passages absent in the earliest manuscripts. Given that the earliest manuscripts generally date from the third century, I am left to wonder what other versus may have been added or changed at a still earlier date, from which time no extant manuscripts survive.
Third, there are passages in the Gospels which cannot have been eyewitness testimony, and bare all the hallmarks of being later inventions, embellishments, or legends. Examples include the genealogies of Jesus (widely disputed, and differing between Luke and Matthew), the birth narratives (which are almost completely different in Matthew and Luke, contain various historical anomalies, and for which there is no clear source), and various statements attributed to Jewish or Roman authorities even when none of Jesus’ disciples were present (for example Matt 27:62-66). Perhaps some details that were not passed on by eyewitnesses were divinely inspired directly, though there seems to be no reason for this when everything else is supposed to come through eyewitnesses, and to me this hypothesis seems rather ad hoc.
Fourth, what is our reason for believing that God would act in this manner? Where does this belief come from? It seems to be nothing more than an assumption. Weighing against this assumption are a number of facts, including that God had not previously revealed and protected his word in this way to serve as a witness to the world (so we have no precedent for this – I don’t count the Old Testament as a precedent because its codification only predates the New Testament by a few centuries, and anyway was only a holy text to the Jews, not to the world). Furthermore, we know that God (if he exists) permits contradictory revelations to be believed, written down, preserved, and widely disseminated: at least one of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran must be examples of such false texts. This isn’t definitive reason to believe that God did not preserve the New Testament, but I think it does cast serious doubt on the assumption that god would do such a thing. What is the basis for this inference about God’s motives and behaviours? It seems that the reasons I cite are at least considerable reasons for doubt that God should act in such a way. Even if one doesn’t regard my reasons against as compelling, one must have a substantive reason for this belief and not merely take it as an assumption.
The Role of Paul
Another fascinating angle to this question is how Paul fits into this story. Paul was exceptionally influential in shaping the practices and doctrines of the early church. Indeed, it is my view (along with a number of other scholars) that it is largely thanks to Paul that the early ‘Jesus movement’ sect within Judaism evolved into the distinct religion we now call ‘Christianity’. But remember, our starting point was belief in Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity. Where does Paul fit into all this? Paul never even met Jesus; he only claimed that Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his death. But heaps of people then and now claim that Jesus (or other figures) appeared to them – why believe Paul but not anyone else? Furthermore, even if Jesus did appear to Paul and he converted as a result, does it follow that everything Paul says about religious matters is taken as the word of Jesus himself? That seems to be a rather big leap to me – what is the justification for it? We know that Paul met with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and John, did they not approve of his teachings and doctrines? Well, Paul says that they did, but we don’t have anything from Peter or the others, so we don’t know what their side of the story was. Did they really agree with everything Paul was teaching and doing? Perhaps they agreed only with most of it? Some parts but not others? Most of what he said, but with some qualifications? We have mentions in Acts about early disputes between Paul and other disciples, though little detail of the content of these. So how do we really know that Paul’s writings accurately reflect the beliefs and teachings of Jesus in all respects? I’m not saying that Paul was in total disagreement with the disciples, but there may well have been notable differences and sharp disputes. So when Christians appeal to Paul’s teachings about (for example) homosexual behaviour (something Jesus is never recorded as having said a single word about), how are we to know that Paul is accurately reflecting what Jesus would have to say on the subject?
A natural rejoinder is that if Jesus were divine, God would not allow his teachings to be distorted (even to a degree) or changed so soon after his death by people claiming to speak in his name. But once again, we must ask what the basis is for such an assumption? How do we know that this is how God would think or behave? Furthermore, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the stories in the Old Testament, where the Israelites repeatedly and very rapidly fall into apostasy after having received God’s word through his prophets. The bible, Old and New Testaments, warns explicitly about false prophets who would claim to speak in the name of God. Christians think Mohammed and Joseph Smith were false prophets, despite them being very successful in attracting followers and spreading their message, just as Paul was. So the argument that God would not permit this to happen appears dubious. Perhaps the argument could be refined to say that God might allow false prophets to arise, but not so close to his earthly ministry in time and location. But this seems problematic too. Firstly, what reason do we have for believing that God is so sensitive to time in this way? Secondly, we know that there were many figures just before and just after Christ, people who claimed to be the Messiah, people who claimed to write gospels of his life, people who promoted various doctrines which were later judged heretical (e.g. the gnostics). There just doesn’t appear to be any evidence that God provided some sort of ‘window of protection’ around the life of Jesus wherein false teachings could not arise.
One final reason for trusting Paul might be that he knew Jesus’ original apostles. Perhaps they didn’t agree with every little thing, but surely they supported him in broad outlines, as otherwise we would surely have more records of deep disputes and discords between them. This is perhaps the case, though it seems to me that we know very little about the details of what was going on at that time, other than what Paul chooses to tell us (our other source for that time is Acts, which was written decades later by an unknown author, so its hard to judge its objectivity on such matters). More importantly, however, is that we don’t have any particular reason for believing Jesus’ disciples to be highly reliable transmitters of his word. From their presentation in the gospels, they are often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ purpose of message, and being less then conscientious about their duties. They are described as bickering with each other and arguing about who was the greatest. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the others ‘forsook him and fled’. Now this isn’t to say that the disciples did not understand any of Jesus’ teachings or could not have preserved his words with some reasonable degree of accuracy, but I don’t see any particular reason to treat them as bastions of unquestionable authority and truth when it comes to Jesus’ teachings and message. There seems to be no reason why they could not have got things wrong. Thus, even if they did approve of Paul and his teachings, that doesn’t by itself validate them as conclusive and fully authoritative, as if they came from the mouth of Jesus himself.
So where does this leave us? It seems to me it leaves us at a position, not of total skepticism regarding the teachings of Jesus (recall that I did argue for a historical core that is beyond reasonable doubt), but nevertheless of substantial uncertainty concerning many details and specifics. Thus, even if we do believe in Jesus as the son of God, it remains quite difficult to infer particulars about what he taught, and how he would want us to live. My point in this piece has largely been to emphasise that the latter does not follow clearly or directly from the former, and that even granting the former leaves us with considerable doubt and question about the latter. In light of this, I think Christians should be more upfront (as some already are) about the fact that there are considerable elements of faith underpinning their beliefs – not just in the divinity of Jesus, but also that the New Testament accurately preserves his teachings, deeds, and doctrines. I think that a great deal more justificatory work needs to be done in order to bridge the gap between belief in Jesus and belief the New Testament, particularly belief in all of the New Testament as the direct word of God. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but if I did arrive at this belief, I would be seriously considering these questions. Given their importance, I think Christians should pay more attention to them then they typically do.
I recently attended a public discussion called “How do You Know”, in which atheist Peter Boghossian engaged in dialogue with Christian Richard Shumack concerning various matters of religion and epistemology. This piece is written in part as a response to that event, though I will also draw upon and refer to the numerous other interactions I have observed between Atheists and Christians, and commonalities I have observed therein. It is necessary to clarify right at the outset that the title of this piece is shamelessly adapted from Richard Shumack’s book The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, and that in speaking of ‘Atheism’ and ‘Christianity’ in this way I do not intend to make sweeping generalisations about such diverse bodies of thought. So please do not read ‘atheists’ to mean “all atheists”. Rather, I am talking about general tendencies that I personally have observed, whereby many atheists often to make certain types of arguments and rebuttals which I believe are unsound and poorly researched. Needless to say, many Christians do this as well, however what I want to focus on in this piece are instances, far more common than I think many atheists would like to admit, when the arguments or rebuttals made by atheists are of far lower quality than the Christian arguments they are directed against.
Atheists and Scientism
“The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t” – Lawrence Krauss
“My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
“Almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” – Stephen Hawking
There is a very prominent strand of atheist thought which, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be described as ‘scientistic’, advancing the view that scientific processes are the only reliable or justifiable methods for arriving at knowledge of the world. Peter Boghossian made remarks to this effect numerous times, repeatedly arguing that scientific methods are the way to truth, and that looking at objective evidence is the only truly reliable way to form beliefs.
I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Those who have been around for a while will know that I have advocated arguments along similar lines before. However, I have lately backed away from at least some of the more extreme, less cautious forms of such ‘scientism’, since I don’t believe it to be philosophically defensible. Schumack said during the event “New Atheists believe in scientism but philosophers don’t”, and in essence I agree with this statement. There are numerous deep philosophical problems with the idea that scientific methods are the only valid ones, or that we can determine what is true by ‘looking at the evidence’ in the relatively straightforward way that Boghossian seems to imply, or that we can dispense with philosophical analysis in addressing these sorts of questions. Below I will give just a few illustrative examples of such problems, which atheists typically do not address and seem generally unconcerned with:
- Evidence: what is evidence? What is it about certain events or experiences that make them evidence for something else? Unsurprisingly, this is a hotly disputed philosophical question which science seems to lack the tools to address by itself. Particularly relevant philosophical problems include the theory dependence of observation (in brief, that it is not possible to interpret any empirical evidence absent some pre-existing theoretical framework), and the underdetermination of theory by observation (namely that there are always a large range of potential explanations equally consistent with any observations). These and other similar questions in epistemology or philosophy of science are essential to grapple with if one is to defend a robust ‘evidence-based’ epistemological methodology, however atheists very seldom address these issues at all.
- Explanation: we know that science explains things, but what exactly is an ‘explanation‘? What properties distinguish good explanations from bad ones? There is little agreement about them among philosophers, and no clear way of answering the question within the bounds of what is generally thought of as ‘science’. We may also ask what is it about theistic or supernatural explanations which makes them so inferior to those provided by science in all circumstances? Boghossian said at one point that even if Jesus appeared to him in front of a large crowd of witnesses he would still not be convinced (I have made similar statements), because he could not rule out alternate explanations such as aliens. The question is, on what basis should we conclude (as he implied, and others have explicitly stated) that an alien intervention constitutes a better explanation, or is more likely, than a supernatural one? Unless we assume a priori that supernatural explanations are inherently implausible, it seems difficult to justify this assertion, at least not without a great deal more analysis and clarification of relevant concepts than atheists typically provide.
- Probability: Boghossian mentioned a number of times ‘the likelihood that one will have true beliefs” (which is language very similar to that which I have been known to use). There are, however, several different interpretations of probability which entail different interpretations of the meaning of probabilistic statements such as those being made by Boghossian, and little agreement about which of them is ‘correct’ or when different conceptions may be most applicable. Again, it is difficult to see how such disputes can be resolved within science itself, without recourse to philosophical analysis.
- Semantics: a fairly common critique of philosophy is that it concerns itself predominantly with endless and largely pointless debates about the meaning of words. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this view in part in his quote above, and Boghossian hinted at some similar notions at various times in his presentation. The problem with such critiques is that we absolutely cannot get around debating about the meaning of words. Consider this statement: ‘philosophy is not very useful for learning about the world; science is much better suited for finding truth’. Is this statement (or others similar to it) a statement that is the product of scientific, or of philosophical reasoning? To me it seems very much the latter and not the former, in which case the strong anti-philosophical views expressed by certain atheists are self-undermining – they are making philosophical claims in the act of denouncing philosophy. If we do need to do philosophy in order to consider a question like ‘is scientific reasoning a paramount method for finding truth?’, first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by the word ‘science‘. Likewise when analysing concepts like ‘evidence‘, ‘reason‘, and ‘explanation’, we have no recourse but to discuss the meanings of these words and the concepts they attempt to describe. Maybe we could say ‘don’t use such confusing words then, just say more precisely what you mean’. But what is it they we mean exactly? What words could we use in place of ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ to be more precise? To answer that question we need to know what is meant by these words, which is precisely the question we were hoping to avoid. Hopefully the point I am getting at is clear: atheists absolutely need to do philosophy, and that necessarily involves debating about the meaning of words. Complaining about this is foolish and results not in replacing philosophy with its much better cousin science, but instead in replacing some philosophy with other, bad forms of philosophy.
Atheists and Jesus
“I have no idea about whether Jesus was a real historical figure” – Peter Boghissian
“It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all… although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history” – Richard Dawkins
In the past I have been quite vocal in criticising Christians about their lack of engagement with what I consider to be essential aspects, questions, and issues pertinent to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Here I want to shift the direction of such criticism, and emphasise some points that I have made before (and indeed strengthen them to a degree), with regard to the lack of engagement on these points by most atheists. In particular, it seems from my experience that if Christians are perhaps generally not as informed about historicity questions as I think they should be, atheists are in general at least ten times worse. Only a very small number of atheists appear to have any knowledge or interest in such matters at all, and even many who do seem to use what knowledge they have as a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination (I didn’t invent this lovely turn of phrase, like basically all my ideas it was shamelessly stolen).
Here I want to focus on addressing some of the common falsehoods, misconceptions, and irrelevancies that I hear from many atheists, a number of which were raised by Boghossian or by various audience members during question time.
Outright False Claims
- Jesus probably never existed: though I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the language of some Christian apologists responding to this who have used phrases like “historically certain” (I don’t think anything is certain, in ancient history least of all), nevertheless I am in agreement with the thrust of this response, namely that to reject the existence of the historical person of Jesus is to reject the overwhelming majority of scholarly work on the matter, secular and sacred alike. We do not have totally unequivocal evidence beyond all conceivable doubt of any sort that Jesus existed, but to deny the historicity of Jesus is to reject the consensus of relevant experts to a similar degree as do climate change deniers and other proponents of pseudoscientific theories. I don’t think Jesus mythicism is quite as bad as Young Earth Creationism, but the difference in terms of the solidity of scholarly consensus is mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind. Expressing scorn at one for being ignorant of relevant scholarly whilst simultaneously embracing the other is, in my mind, deeply problematic.
- The bible is all fairytales and is not a historical document: this statement goes too far even for the Old Testament, and most certainly for the New Testament. Certainly many scholars have raised questions about the historicity of particular details of the New Testament accounts, for example the miracles and the birth narratives, but to say that the NT has no historical content or value is once again to completely reject the consensus of relevant scholars. Atheists who do this arbitrarily treat the NT documents differently to essentially all other ancient documents, which are likewise written by biased (in the sense of not being totally disinterested in their subject matter or the reactions of readers) persons who held views that today we would likely regard as dubious. Unless an atheist likewise wishes to mostly or entirely reject essentially all ancient documents, it is unjustifiable for them to refuse to consider the historical evidence of the NT on the basis of such considerations.
- The bible has been translated and re-translated several times: Boghossian didn’t claim this, but it is something that I occasionally hear atheists say. The claim is false – current English translations are compiled by large teams of scholars working from documents written in the original ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Such translations and the documents from which they are derived are not beyond criticism on certain points, but nevertheless one cannot say that the bible has suffered from multiple rounds of translation. (Note: this was true of the very earliest English bibles, which I believe were translated from the Latin Vulgate, in turn translated from the Greek, but this is no longer the case with modern translations).
- The story of Jesus bears many similarities to other mythical Gods: it is true that the story of Jesus bears some similarities to claims about other deities. In particular, ideas of a virgin birth and of a ‘dying and rising god’ are found in other mythologies of the ancient world. But the many lists of alleged similarities one finds posted in various online forums are for the most part inaccurate: some of the similarities are invented, others exaggerated, and in all cases differences are ignored (readers can research the details at their own leisure, I won’t get into them here). Furthermore, even if such similarities pertained, I cannot recall ever having heard an atheist present a clear explanation as to what could be inferred from this fact. At least to me, the notion that corrupted divine revelations pertinent to Jesus could have become entrenched in the mythology of various ancient peoples would explain such similarities quite as well as the notion that they were the product of careful copying by the authors of the New Testament.
Irrelevancies and Distractions
- The NT accounts were written decades after the events they describe: most (though not all) Christian arguments for the historicity of the resurrection hinge on the claim that people like Peter and Paul claimed to have seem the risen Jesus (alone and in groups), and were later harshly persecuted for their beliefs. That personal acquaintances of Jesus (which Paul wasn’t but Peter and the other apostles were) made such claims is widely accepted by relevant scholars, and therefore is problematic for atheists to deny (see also above about Jesus never existing). If this crucial fact is accepted, then it is largely or entirely beside the point how long after the event the gospels were written, because the key historical detail they contain pertinent to the matter has already been admitted. If the atheist wishes to argue that the gospels were written so long after the event that even this central fact is unreliable, then they are going against the consensus of scholarship.
- There are contradictions and inaccuracies in the NT: along with (I think, though I haven’t seen survey data) the majority of scholars, I agree that there are events recorded in the NT which are very unlikely to be historical and which are both seemingly internally contradictory and at odds with extra-biblical evidence (the birth narratives being my favourite example, the genealogies being another). Some Christians won’t agree with me on those points, but that’s irrelevant here. The key point is, what I think about these passages, and indeed what other scholars think about them, is not essentially relevant to most of the arguments that Christians make concerning the evidence for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter that the birth accounts are problematic. The evidence, so the argument goes, rests on the eyewitness testimony provided by the apostles and others and recorded (perhaps not first handed but recorded nonetheless) in the New Testament.
- There are many other competing miracle claims: this is not completely irrelevant (and indeed I have written quite extensively on the issue of comparative miracle claims), however it is not sufficient for an atheist to merely cite the existence of competing miracle claims in other religions, as the existence of false miracles does not preclude the existence of genuine ones (though it may well alter relevant probabilities concerning our belief that the miracle is genuine). As with anything, the details of a claim, including the evidence available and the potential presence of competing non-miraculous explanations, need to be examined and compared to those of competing claims. I have been critical of Christians for making relatively little effort to do this, but in my experience atheists tend to be equally disinterested in such an endeavour, which is perhaps even more problematic given that atheists tend to spend more time talking (at least in general terms) about ‘other miracle claims’.
My purpose in writing this piece is not to point fingers or imply that atheists are stupid or ignorant (though undoubtedly some are). My purpose is rather to promote better, more carefully considered dialogue between Christians and Atheists, where all persons take the time to think carefully through their own arguments and those of their opponents. Atheists typically pride themselves on being rational and basing their beliefs on evidence, but very often I have found they are far less consistent in applying these ideals to questions of religion and philosophy than they should be – not that I am perfect myself, but I think we can all try harder. Making arguments which are grossly dismissive of the scholarly work on relevant matters, as unfortunately atheists often do, is not helpful in moving forward dialogue on these very important matters. It is also not consistent with an unyielding and impartial (or as near as we can make it) search for the truth, wherever such a search will lead us. This is the search I am on, and I warmly invite all others, Christian and Atheist alike, to join me.
In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.
Background and Methodology
Momentous and Forced Options
Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.
To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.
The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)
The Key Questions
So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:
- What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
- Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
- What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.
Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.
What Role for the Holy Spirit?
Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.
The Need to Consider Plausibility
How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?
Evidence and Truth-Tracking
It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.
Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.
To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).
It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.
Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.
Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism
Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.
I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.
I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.
Four Types of Arguments for Christianity
Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.
Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God
This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.
On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.
Arguments based on the Bible
This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).
Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.
Subjective and Experiential Reasons
Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.
Historical Evidence for the Resurrection
The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.
Three Arguments Against Christianity
I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.
The problem of evil/suffering
I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.
The Problem of Religious Confusion
This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.
Evils done in the name of Christianity
This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.
The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).
Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.
I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.
In this piece I consider the two related concepts of ‘moral facts’ and ‘moral obligations’, contrasting them within theistic and naturalistic worldviews. I first consider what is meant by ‘moral facts’, and argue that, subject to a certain clarification regarding the meaning of ‘mind-independence’, objective moral facts can exist within a naturalistic framework, as facts concerning states of affairs relating to idealised human desires. I then consider the concept of ‘moral obligations’, and argue that such obligations may be consistent with naturalism depending upon how the notion of ‘moral duty’ is interpreted. I also argue, however, that the concept is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic worldview, as it does little beyond what is done by the concept of ‘moral facts’. I conclude with some analysis of how theists and naturalists may respond to the moral skeptic, arguing that neither can provide moral motivation to the skeptic on the basis of reason alone.
The first question to be considered is whether or not ‘moral facts’ exist. For a moral fact to ‘exist’, what I mean is that the proposition in question is true. Thus, the question I am asking is whether any propositions about moral states of affairs are true, a view called moral realism, as opposed to error theory, the position that all moral propositions are false. (There are also so-called non-cognitivist positions which hold that moral statements are not propositions at all. I will not address such views in this piece.)
To facilitate clarity, let me propose a working definition of objective moral facts:
(1.0) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, which is true irrespective of the mental state (opinion, belief, etc) of any person.
In my personal view, I think it unlikely that objective moral truths as defined in (1.0) exist, as I believe that the rightness or wrongness of any action is always ultimately determined by the mental states of human beings (and potentially other sentient creatures too, but I’ll leave that out of the discussion for now). According to the view that I lean towards, moral facts are propositions concerning the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences, considered from a social point of view (see my earlier piece describing Railton’s Reductive Naturalism for more detail).
In keeping with this view, I would propose a new definition of moral facts:
(1.1) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, the truth of which is not dependent upon the mental state of the agent making the moral judgement in question.
The difference between (1.0) and (1.1) is that, while (1.0) requires that the truth values of all moral propositions be independent of the mental states of any person (i.e. they are facts about nature itself independent of humans, or perhaps something beyond nature), (1.1) only requires that the truth values be independent of the mental state of the person evaluating the claim. Thus, if one person or group thought that genocide or female genital mutilation or ignoring the poor were not morally wrong, by this view they would be mistaken. They would be mistaken because they hold a false belief concerning the truth value of a certain moral proposition, which proposition derives its truth value from particular states of the world concerning which states of affairs would be conducive of the maximal fulfilment of idealised desires, from a social point of view. Moral facts are thus facts about the world with objective truth values independent of the mental states of those evaluating the truth of the claims.
Also note that according to my preferred view, it is even possible for everyone to be mistaken about moral facts. This is because the truth value of moral propositions does not depend (primarily, though it may have some relevance in some cases) upon people’s opinions concerning the truth value of the proposition. Rather, moral propositions derive their truth value from states of affairs concerning idealised preferences of agents considered from a social point of view. It is perfectly possible for entire societies to hold systematically mistaken views regarding such idealised preferences – indeed, I think I can cite some plausible historical examples, though I won’t do so here because I’m fairly sure that doing so would distract the discussion. The main point to note is that, although according to my preferred position, moral facts are subjective in the sense that their truth value is dependent upon the mental states of humans, and not merely upon natural states of affairs outside of humans (as are, for instance, many scientific claims), they are also objective in the sense that their truth value is not determined by the attitudes or preferences of the person making the judgement, or even the collective judgements of a society, since it is possible for an entire society to hold mistaken views concerning what would best satisfy idealised preferences from a social point of view.
Having considered objective moral facts, what can we make of the idea of moral duties? It seems that the mere existence of moral facts, absent certain further assumptions, need not necessarily imply any moral duties – after all, there are any number of other propositions which are objectively true, but nonetheless do not entail any duties.
Let me (tentatively) define moral obligations as follows:
(2.0) A moral obligation is a duty to act in a certain way that arises as a consequence of one or more objective moral facts.
While I think this definition goes some way towards capturing our primitive notion of ‘moral obligation’, I am left rather unsatisfied. I still find it very hard to understand what is meant by this notion of a ‘duty to act’ -what does it mean to say that we have a duty to do something? Sometimes duties are acquired on the basis of someone accepting a formal or informal position of some authority and responsibility, and explicitly or implicitly promising to act in a certain way in fulfilment of this role. It seems, however, that this does not really capture the inherent proscriptivity entailed by our concept of ‘moral duties’. That is, we would generally want to say that there is no action that one needs to take in order to acquire moral duties, nor is there any way of eschewing them, as would be possible for other duties by, for example, stepping down from the role in question.
The idea of ‘moral duties’ seems to be that, in some sense, we “must” act in a particular way, regardless of whether or not we want to, or whether or not we agree, or even whether or not we even know about the duty (though some may perhaps dispute this last point, at least my naive notion of ‘moral duty’ would say that even, for instance, feral children would have moral duties, even though they would presumably have no notion of the concept of morality). But what does it mean to say that we “must” act in a certain way? Obviously this doesn’t mean that we are literally unable to act differently, because quite clearly it is possible to act immorally.
One possible answer, traditionally advocated by some theistic philosophers, is to ground the notion of ‘moral obligation’ in the commandments of God. That is, moral obligations are injunctions to act in a particular way which are made by God, and are (ultimately) enforced by God through some sort of final judgement. The notion of ‘moral obligation’ is thus analogous to that of a legal obligation – both derive from some external authoritative source, both are binding regardless of our particular attitudes or opinions, and both are ‘enforceable’ in the sense of there being consequences for disobedience.
This would lead to a definition something like the following:
(2.1) A moral obligation is an enforceable injunction to act in a certain way, deriving from some legitimate authority ‘external’ to human preferences or opinion.
I think there are various problems with approaches such as this to ground moral obligations on God’s commandments. For example, I think it is at least plausible that one may acknowledge an injunction to come from God, but still question whether or not obeying is the right thing to do. It seems to me that God could at least potentially be evil, and that therefore moral duties are not constituted solely in the injunctions of God, but have reference to things outside of God as well. I’m not saying these and other issues are necessarily insoluble, nor do I wish to get distracted into an extensive debate about them here. I just wanted to flag them as being tangentially relevant before moving on.
Let us suppose, however, that we can develop a consistent and plausible theory of theistic moral duties which circumvents some of the difficulties mentioned above. Can the same be done from within a naturalistic worldview? I think doing so is at least conceptually possible – it seems for example that a principle like karma would go some way towards meeting the criteria set out by (2.1), and at least some understandings of karma see it as essentially a completely natural phenomenon. However, I personally do not believe in karma, or any such natural process like it. As such, I would lean towards the view that, if there is no God, then moral obligations as defined in (2.1) do not exist.
In essence, I lean towards the view that the notion of ‘moral obligations’ is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic universe, and is really only the cause of conceptual confusion. I believe, as I argued above, that objective moral facts as defined by (1.1) are perfectly capable of existing in a naturalistic universe, and that there is simply no place for or need of ‘moral duties’ that go beyond moral facts. So, for example, I do not believe that it is necessary to interpret a statement like ‘you should behave in this way’ as a statement about the existence of moral obligations or duties. Rather, I think it is perfectly consistent and sufficient to interpret this as an assertion of the proposition ‘behaving in this way would promote the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences from a social point of view’, as well as an injunction to act in accordance with this fact (this notion of moral assertions constituting injunctions relates to another model in meta-ethics that I find persuasive, R. M. Hare’s Universal Prescriptivism, however I do not wish to get too distracted discussing that in detail).
Furthermore, I do not believe that the mere truth of particular moral facts provides any rational obligation to act in accordance with them. That is, those who ignore morality are not necessarily irrational, they are just immoral. Do I believe that the truth of moral facts provides any moral obligation to act in accordance with them? It depends upon what is meant. If by ‘moral obligation’ one means something like (2.1), then no, I do not think moral facts entail moral obligations (since the moral facts are not injunctions from an external authority in the sense required for moral duties). On the other hand, I think a lot of people talk about ‘moral obligations’ more loosely as essentially referring to the same thing as ‘moral facts’, and in this looser sense I do tend to think that moral duties exist, because (as I argue above) I tend to believe that moral facts exist.
Responding to the Moral Skeptic
So where does all this leave us? Certain theists tend to phrase this discussion in terms of having a response to the ‘moral skeptic’, who when confronted with a moral claim, asks question like ‘why should I?’ or ‘what privileges your view over mine?’ I believe that, working within the framework of Railtonian Reductionism that I have outlined here and elsewhere, the naturalist can provide answers that are at least as satisfactory as those the theist can give (I personally think they are much better, but that’s a stronger claim I won’t attempt to defend in full in this piece).
The theist could answer (something like) ‘you should because God commands it, and he is our creator and so has legitimate authority over such things’. It seems to me, however, that the moral skeptic could acknowledge that God exists and mandates particular commandments, but still either dispute that they are morally obliged to follow these commands, or even just fail to care about divine moral obligations, and not feel motivated to live up to them. It seems to me such a person has not committed any mistake of rationality here – they just don’t care what God has to say on the matter, and so far as I can tell this violates no precepts of sound reasoning. It may, of course, make them an immoral person, but there seems little else the theist could say to motivate or convince them.
The naturalist could answer (something like) ‘you should because doing so would better promote the fulfilment of idealised desires from a social point of view’ (this is often described less verbosely using language like ‘promoting human flourishing’ or ‘maximising wellbeing’). Of course, the moral skeptic could acknowledge this to be the case, but still dispute that they have any moral obligation to promote human flourishing, or simply fail to care and see no reason to act in accordance with any moral facts or duties that may exist. As before, such a person may be immoral, but as far as I can see they have not committed an error of rationality, and as such there seems little else that could be said to motivate or convince them.
Thus, at the end of the day, I think that neither the theist nor the naturalist can convince the moral skeptic to follow the precepts of morality using reason alone, which perhaps they may antecedently have wished to do. I think, however, that this inability should not come as a great surprise, as to suppose that rationality and moral motivation are inextricably linked in this way would be to believe that the most rational people are also the most moral, a view which seems highly dubious at best, nor indeed does it even seem consistent with our naive notions about morality. As such, I think that what Adam Smith described as ‘moral sentiments’ are very important – not to ground the existence of moral truths as such, but rather to provide a basis for our caring about them and acting in accordance with them. I think this is necessary regardless of whether one believes in God or not.
In this piece I wish to consider the question: “does atheism need to be justified?” That is, does an atheist need to provide arguments and reasons to support their atheism, or is it sufficient for them to merely say that the evidence and arguments provided in favour of theism are insufficient? I first consider at length the meaning of the term ‘atheism’, distinguishing it from more specific appellations such as ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnosticism’. In doing so I present a tripartite typology of nontheistic views about God, based on differing attitudes taken to the proposition “God exists” and its negation “God does not exist”. I also defend my characterisation of the definitions of atheism and agnosticism based on historical and conceptual considerations. Finally, I apply my definitions of atheism and agnosticism to answer the question originally posed about justification and burden of proof, arguing that, in fact, agnosticism bears a greater burden of proof than does atheism simpliciter, which being (in my usage) a mere lack of belief, does not bear any burden of proof.
The first and most obvious thing to do is establish a working definition as to what is meant by the term ‘atheism’, and its close relative ‘agnosticism’. This represents a problem, because atheism is used in different ways by different people. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:
“The task is made more difficult because each of these words are what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblance’ words. That is, we cannot expect to find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for their use. Their use is appropriate if a fair number of the conditions are satisfied. Moreover even particular members of the families are often imprecise, and sometimes almost completely obscure”
Much ink has been spilled attempting to categorise and define the differences and similarities between atheism and agnosticism. As a result of such efforts there is now a positive cornucopia of differing terms and labels, including agnostic atheism, agnostic theism, weak agnosticism, strong agnosticism, explicit atheism, implicit atheism, weak atheism, strong atheism, apatheism, naturalistic pantheism, antitheism, ignosticism, and many more.
In this article I cannot possibly attempt to satisfactorily address each of these terms. Instead, I shall present my own preferred typology, drawing a distinction between three broad classes of positions: strong atheism, weak atheism, and agnosticism. For clarity, henceforth when I use the term ‘God’, it should be understood that I am referring to something akin to the traditional God of monotheism.
Belief and Reasons
Before proceeding, I think it may be helpful to say a few preliminary words about the nature of belief. I consider belief to be a particular sort of cognitive attitude that one holds toward a proposition. To any proposition, it is my view that there are essentially two possible cognitive attitudes which are relevant to our concerns here: that of accepting the truth of the proposition, and that of refusing to accept the truth of the proposition. These, of course, can come in degrees of enthusiasm or confidence in accepting or refusing to accept, but I consider the two to represent extremes along a single spectrum.
Note that under this typology, refusing to accept a proposition is not equivalent to assenting to its negation. This may strike some as counterintuitive, but I do not think there is anything especially new or unusual here. For example, suppose someone were to ask me “would you accede to the statement ‘it will rain on this day one year from now’?”, I would respond “no I would not”. But that does not mean that I would affirm the negation of the statement, namely “it will not rain on this day one year from now”.
My Tripartite Typology
Consider the following two propositions:
- “God exists”
- “God does not exist”
In my view, it is possible to hold separate cognitive attitudes concerning each of these propositions, though not all combinations of attitudes will be logically consistent. I foresee the following possibilities:
- Accept the proposition “God exists” and refuse to accept “God does not exist”: a person who hold this view would typically be called a theist
- Accept the proposition “God does not exist” and refuse to accept “God exists”: this constellation of views is typically described as strong atheism
- Accept both propositions: belief that it “God exists” and also that “God does not exist”. Aside from some unusual equivocation in the definition of ‘God’ between these two propositions, it seems difficult for this view to be coherent
- Refuse to accept either proposition: this person refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but also similarly refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”. In my view, both the weak atheist and the agnostic fit into this category
Given this understanding, let me now outline my preferred tripartite topology:
- Strong Atheism: explicit endorsement of the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”
- Weak Atheism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but without explicit endorsement of the truth of its negation (namely “God does not exist”)
- Agnosticism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists” and also the proposition “God does not exist”, motivated by a belief that such claims concern matters which are simply unknown, and perhaps unknowable
Strong Atheism, Weak Atheism, and Agnosticism
There seems to be a certain class of people (in my experience typically theists, but some atheists as well) who seem adverse to the entire concept of ‘weak atheism’. Such people seem to believe that ‘weak atheism’ is not a real position, that it is either another name for agnosticism, or another name for strong atheism, and that there is no meaningful ‘middle ground’ between the two. I believe that this view is mistaken, and that if we tried to do away with the concept of ‘weak atheism’, there would be sufficient demand for a ‘third position’ distinct from agnosticism and strong atheism such that a new label would emerge to take its place.
That being said, given that I have categorised both weak atheism and agnosticism in 4) above, what is my basis for distinguishing them in my tripartite typology? I think that the meaning of ‘weak atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ is very similar and overlaps a great deal, which is precisely why there is so much conflict and confusion concerning their meanings. Nevertheless, I also believe that there are meaningful (if subtle) distinctions between these two positions. I would put these differences into two categories, which I will discuss in turn.
First, while united in their rejection of belief in the proposition “God exists”, weak atheists and agnostics differ slightly in exactly what cognitive attitude they hold with respect to the proposition “God does not exist”. Agnostics refuse to grant assent to this proposition either – they view both beliefs as essentially equally unsupportable. Weak atheists, on the other hand, while refusing to explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (if they did, they would be strong atheists), typically are reticent to be so explicit in their refusal to assent to the proposition “God does not exist”, in general because while they lean towards the truth of this proposition, they are not quite confident enough to categorically endorse it without qualification or caveat (strong atheists, by contrast, are typically much more confident about this belief).
Second, agnosticism is, at least in my view, and contrary to how it is often perceived, a more substantive position than weak atheism. Agnosticism, as originally outlined by Thomas Huxley and generally explicated by its proponents since, incorporates not only a rejection of assent to either proposition about God’s existence, but also includes certain epistemological views about the limits of what can be known, and what sort of attitudes are appropriate in the face of such limits and uncertainties. Agnosticism is, in this sense, a profoundly skeptical position, in the traditional sense meaning ‘belief that firm knowledge either way is difficult or impossible’. Weak atheism, in my view, lacks any of these connotations, and as such it is a less substantive position, having less to say.
To summarise, therefore, we might say that agnostics and weak atheists are united in their refusal to accept the proposition “God exists” (which distinguishes them from theists), and are also united in their refusal to explicitly and clearly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (which distinguishes them from strong atheists). They differ, however, in the credence or probability they tend to assign to the proposition “God does not exist”, as weak atheists generally lean towards accepting this proposition, while agnostics refuse it with a fervour equal to that with which they refuse to assent to its negation. These two positions also differ in that agnosticism entails certain highly skeptical beliefs about the limits of human knowledge concerning matters of the divine, while weak atheism makes no claims either way about such epistemological issues.
My definition of ‘Atheism’
On the basis of the above analysis, my personal preferred usage of the term ‘atheism’ simpliciter, is to refer to the lack of a belief in God, irrespective of what beliefs may be held about the plausibility of the claim “God does not exist”, or broader philosophical questions about knowability. Therefore, so say that someone is an atheist, in my preferred usage of the term, is merely to assert that they refuse to assent to the proposition “God exists”, without saying anything else whatever about them or their views.
I acknowledge, of course, that this is not the only way the term ‘atheism’ is used. Many people, including many atheists, use it to refer to people who explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist”. I think this is a valid usage of the term, however it is not my preferred usage because I believe it can contribute to conceptual confusion. I also acknowledge that agnostics will probably not agree with my preferred usage of ‘atheism’, as it means that essentially all agnostics are atheists. I would say, however, that whenever possible it is best to clarify with the more specific terms ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnostic’, all of which (in my conception) fall under the broad umbrella of ‘atheism’, as making these distinctions can alleviate much of the confusion that otherwise tends to beset these sorts of discussions. I think this is also a helpful classification, since many non-believers (myself included) are often happy to refer to themselves either as agnostics or as atheists. My preferred usage thus allows for a single generic term to refer to all such people (‘atheists’), along with more specific terms to differentiate with some greater precision what precisely they believe.
Defending ‘Weak Atheism’
As I noted above, there is a certain class of people who believe that ‘atheism’ can correctly only refer to those who explicitly endorse the claim “God does not exist”. They may argue that any alternative conceptions of atheism are invalid ‘redefinitions’ and not what atheism ‘really means’. Let me say first and foremost that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter concerning what the ‘real meaning’ or ‘true definition’ of a word is. All we can talk about, in my view, are the following: 1) the origins of a term and how it was originally used, 2) how it is commonly used today, and 3) how we think it ought to be used so as to promote conceptual clarity and ease of communication.
I have already outlined my argument as to why I believe conceptual clarity is best achieved by my preferred usage of the term ‘atheist’, as this allows for a clear generic term as well as more specific labels of more subtle positions. As to common usage, I refer readers first to essentially any online discussion about the meaning of atheism, where the usage of atheism in both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ senses will be readily apparent, and secondly to the excellent wikipedia page on the subject, which links to a number of quotes from various authorities exhibiting both forms of usage.
Regarding the historical usage of the term, the word ‘atheist’ was originally used as essentially an insult – it did not have any particularly clear meaning other than being a term of derision. Karen Armstrong writes that:
“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic … The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.”
One of the very first such self-professed atheists, a French philosopher by the name of Baron d’Holbach, famously stated “all children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God”. This is, to me, a very clear endorsement of a form of weak atheism, as clearly children, having no idea of God, cannot form the belief that he does not exist. I believe that this clearly demonstrates that my ‘weak’ understanding of atheism is an old view that traces back to the very first modern professed atheists. It is not a ‘redefinition’.
It is interesting to note that, while the first publicly declared, self-professed atheists in the modern period appeared during the 18th century, agnosticism is a much more recent concept. Although there are antecedents to the idea (as there always are to any idea), the term itself was coined by English biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869. He said:
“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”
This, I believe, supports my contention that agnosticism is actually a more ‘substantive’ position than atheism understood in the ‘weaker’ sense that d’Holbach uses, which refers merely to a lack of belief in God.
A brief note on the idea of a ‘default position’. To be blunt, I have very little interest in this notion. If ‘default position’ is taken to mean something like ‘the position held in the absence of knowing anything about the question’, then I agree with d’Holbach: young children are not ‘agnostic’ by Huxley’s understanding; they are atheists (simpliciter) by my understanding of the term. That said, some theists believe that all children are born with some knowledge or understanding of God’s existence and goodness, and so if God does exist, it may be the case that theism is actually the ‘default’ position in this sense. Personally, I care very little about what is the ‘default position’, since literlaly no one comes to discussions of religion from any sort of ‘default position’. What I am interested in is the question of who bears a burden of proof and for what sort of claims, and I do not think that the notion of ‘default position’ is necessary in order to answer this question.
Burdens of Proof
Having outlined at some length my preferred understanding of the term ‘atheism’, I will now briefly return to the original question I posed, which was whether or not atheism needs to be justified or supported as a position. Some argue that atheism is just as much an affirmative position as theism, and that therefore both bear essentially equal burdens of proof. The ‘default position’, on this view, and the only one to avoid any burden of proof, is agnosticism, which makes no claims either way.
In accordance with my typology given above, I disagree with this analysis. In my view, ‘strong atheism’ does bear an equal burden of proof to ‘theism’, as both make ontological claims of essentially equal strength with respect to God. Perhaps surprisingly, agnosticism too also bears some (though arguably less) burden of proof – not with respect to disbelief in the existence of God, but with respect to the positive claims agnostics tend to make concerning the inability of human reason or evidence to arrive at justified beliefs on the matter either way. Even weak atheism, I think, can bear a burden of proof, although only insomuch as weak atheists ‘lean towards’ accepting the claim “God does not exist” do they bear a burden of proof for demonstrating the basis of the greater credence given to this position (the burden is, of course, greater as their stated degree of confidence, or ‘leaning’, is increased).
As I have defined it, however, ‘atheism’ simpliciter, the generic term referring to mere refusal to accede to the proposition that “God exists”, does not bear any burden of proof, for it makes no positive claims about anything. In fact, often I do not think it greatly matters if a person calls themselves an atheist or an agnostic – if all they are asserting is that they lack belief in the existence of God, and are saying nothing about God’s non-existence, or relative likelihood thereof, or about the unknowability of the answer to this question, then they are not making any substantive claim, and so bear no burden of proof.
Given my analysis, I do not believe that an atheist, in the sense that I have defined the term, need give any positive justification for their mere refusal to assent to the proposition “God exists”. They need only provide responses to whatever reasons or evidences are advanced in favour of this proposition (as this is necessary in order to justify rejecting the claim), but they need not provide any arguments of their own in favour of the proposition “God does not exist”, as being an atheist (in my usage of the word) does not entail holding any particular belief concerning this proposition. Of course, many atheists do advance particular beliefs concerning the non-existence of God, either concerning its impossibility, or improbability, or even its unknowability. In my view, whenever atheists step beyond the very narrow bounds of merely denying belief in God, and make further claims concerning his non-existence, then they also bear a burden of proof for such claims.
In this piece I consider the question of whether life can have meaning in an atheistic universe (i.e. if God did not exist). I first consider a common theistic notion, according to which the meaning of life consists in the purpose or reason for which life exists. I argue that under this definition, life probably cannot have any true meaning without God, as there would be no reason for which life exists. I then proceed to contrast this theistic notion of meaning with some possible alternative naturalistic conceptions of the meaning of life. I argue that, although life probably does not have any intrinsic, mind-independent meaning in a naturalistic universe, nevertheless we can construct a cogent (albeit vague) inter-subjective understanding of the meaning of life. I therefore outline a notion of the meaning of life along these such, according to which an action or lifestyle is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’, where this notion of ‘positive regard’ is a vague and loose conglomeration of many inter-related concepts and notions, but loosely corresponds to a form of quasi-nostalgic approval and believe that the action or life has been enriching in some way. I then consider some potential objections to this view, including that inter-subjective meaning of this sort is not ‘real meaning’ but is merely ‘made up’, and also the idea that any such atheistic conception of meaning is necessarily undermined by the eventual end of humanity and heat death of the universe. I close the essay with some reflective thoughts on nihilism and the challenge it can pose for us all at different times.
Theistic Conceptions of Meaning
There is no agreement among philosophers as to what is meant when we ask the question “what is the meaning of life?”. That said, let us consider the following working definition which I believe many (though of course not all) theists would be broadly happy to endorse:
(1.0) The meaning of (human) life is the reason or purpose for which humanity exists or was created.
Theists, as I understand it, would generally say that humans were created for the purpose of serving, glorifying, relating to, and obeying god, and as such these things are the (ultimate) meaning or purposes of life.
Under an atheistic worldview, of course, humanity was not created, but came into existence without the influence of any external agent (this is usually described as ‘by chance’ or ‘by accident’, though I think that words like ‘chance’ and ‘accident’ are somewhat vague in this context, so I will stick with ‘without the intervention of any external agent’). The question we then ask is: can there be any purpose or reason for which humanity exists, in the absence of any creator God (or other similar agent)?
To answer this question, we need to determine what is meant by the ‘reason for which humanity exists’. Suppose we interpret this phrase as follows:
(1.1) X constitutes a reason for which humanity exists iff X is some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist.
So, for example, if we take X to be “God’s desire for humans to enter into relationship with him” (theists who object to attributing desires to God can read this in the same analogical way in which they presumably read such attributions in their respective holy books), then we may say that absent this desire, God would not have created humanity, and therefore we would not exist. Thus, God’s desire is in a direct sense a necessary and intentional prerequisite for our existence, and therefore underpins the meaning of our lives.
Understood in this way, our question “does life have any meaning if there is no God?” becomes the following:
(1.2) If there is no God, does there exist some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist?
It seems to me that the answer to this question is fairly clearly ‘no’. Certainly there will be various physical causes in the absence of which humanity would not exist, however mere causes, in this analysis, are insufficient to imbue purpose. What is needed is some motivation or justification, and in the absence of any external agent influencing the process, there seems no possible way this could exist (absent sufficiently powerful aliens, but for our purposes here I will simply call that a variation of God).
I therefore conclude that, if we conceive of the meaning of life as the reason for which humanity exists, and if we interpret the reason for which humanity exists as the motivation or justification absent which humanity would not exist, then life has no meaning.
Naturalistic Conceptions of Meaning
As a naturalist, however, I do not accept (1.0) as being the only possible conception of what is meant by ‘the meaning of life’. In particular, I deny the premise that the meaning of life need bear any relation at all to the reason for which humanity was created or came into being. I believe that, at least potentially, meaning could be determined by the present nature and properties of human beings and they way they relate to one another, without any explicit reference to the reasons for which we came into being. Perhaps when we look for such meaning none will be found, but my point is that I don’t think we can rule it out definitionally by simply asserting that meaning necessarily related to purposes of creation. Some theists may reject this as being ‘not real meaning’, in which case I have nothing to say other than we differ on our understandings and usage of the word ‘meaning’.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says the following:
“Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.”
I tend to agree with this analysis. I believe that when people speak of ‘the meaning of life’, they have in their minds a fairly amorphous and often confused set of overlapping and intermingling ideas, connotations, and conceptions, which can often differ considerably from person to person. This, when different people consider the question of the meaning of life, they are in effect pondering different questions, as each person conceives of what the question is asking, and what a potential answer could look like, differently.
As such, I lean towards endorsing the Amalgam Thesis, according to which ‘the meaning of life’ is really a constellation of related questions, including ‘what is the purpose of life’, ‘what makes life valuable’, ‘what makes life worth living’, and ‘what does a good life look like’. As such, it is unlikely that the question will admit a single clear answer. This viewpoint informs my later analysis, and I think justifies a certain degree of imprecision and vagueness in answering what is, after all, a very imprecise and vague question.
One proposed naturalistic basis for the meaning of life could be outlined as follows, which can broadly be described as ‘objectivism’, can be outlined as follows:
(2.0) The meaning of life is some natural property of the world external to humanity which exists independently of whatever human beings may believe
I know of no way to determine whether this statement is true or false. I do not know how it would be possible to look at the world and determine the existence of some meaning-giving natural property, but nor do I know of any argument by which we could rule out such a thing categorically (some may argue along the lines that mere facts about nature cannot imply any facts about meaning, however absent any justification for this assertion I consider it to be question-begging).
That said, I tend to think that this proposition is false, as I think it unlikely that such natural properties exist. I acknowledge that I do not have especially strong justifications for this belief, other than my fairly insubstantial sense that it is hard to imagine what such natural properties would look like, or how we could find out about them (though of course proponents of this view argue that we already do know what they look like and have considerable knowledge of them). Theists will probably not agree that strong justifications for this belief are lacking, however I maintain that the burden of proof falls on those making that claim that ‘meaning-giving natural properties of the world do not exist’ to justify how they can know this, and I believe that is quite difficult to do.
Having rejected this form of objective, naturalistic meaning of life, what is left? My views on the subject are quite uncertain and in flux, and I do not have a fully articulated or clearly worked out theory. However, I do have some thoughts on the matter, which I will outline below.
I tend to think that ‘meaning’ cannot exist absent some agent making an evaluation, and as such I do not think there are any facts about what outcomes or activities are meaningful ‘in themselves’. That said, I do think that there are ways of living which are relatively more meaningful than other ways of living. I think that this ‘meaningfulness’ consists not in any meaning imbued by an external agent (e.g. God), nor do I think it consists in certain outcomes or actions having meaning or purpose ‘in themselves’. Rather, I think that actions and lifestyles can attain meaning as a result of the impact they have on ourselves, and also other people. Importantly, these other people may be those living in the distant future, and so need not be people we will ever know personally or interact with directly. Thus, we have our first rough definition:
(2.1) An action or lifestyles is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’
Exactly what sort of ‘positive regard’ this is I cannot say, precisely because this notion of the ‘meaning of life’ is so vague and difficult to pin down. That said, I can paint a broad picture of the sorts of actions that I am talking about, which includes helping others, striving for and achieving excellence in various fields, making scientific discoveries, producing great works of art, exploration, building and sustaining deep positive relationships with others, and many other such things. To me, meaningful activities are not merely those which produce pleasure or spark our interest in the moment, but those which we tend to hold in a certain sort of quasi-nostalgic positive regard when reminiscing about later on. This means, of course, that we may not be able to determine how meaningful something is at the time it occurs. Indeed, perhaps we will never know, as we have no way of nothing what impact our actions will have on others, now or in the future.
I do not think this idea should seem especially strange or unfamiliar. Most people, I think, can recall occasions when, after spending some time doing something, one looks back on this and thinks to oneself ‘that was just a total waste of time’. This need not, I wish to emphasise, necessarily have anything to do with said activity being ‘productive’ as we typically understand the word to mean. For example, if I spend a few hours playing marginally entertaining online games as a way of procrastinating for something else I should be doing, I might feel bad about this not only because I didn’t get done whatever I was supposed to, but also because this simply wasn’t a ‘meaningful’ use of my time: it neither enriched me as a person, nor did it enrich anybody else. It did not add to my flourishing as a human being, or help anyone else. It did nothing to contribute to the development of me as a person, or humanity as a group. As such, I am not likely to remember it with particularly fond or positive feelings. On the other hand, if (for example) I invited some friends around and we had a great afternoon playing exactly the same online games, I might look back on this as a very meaningful and enriching activity, as a result of the bonds of friendships strengthened and relationships built. Thus, I do not think that it is the inherent nature of the activity itself which determines whether it is meaningful or not; rather I believe it is the context in which we engage in the activity, and the attitudes which we and others have towards it afterwards, which will depend in part on the long-term effect the activity had on our flourishing as human beings (even if we may not consciously think of it in such terms)
I might also say, to avoid potential objections, that these attitudes with which the meaningfulness of an action or life is judged, should be properly informed and reflective attitudes. For example, perhaps I think that spending months learning a new musical instrument was a complete waste of time and not at all meaningful. But perhaps I am just in a bad mood when making this judgement, or perhaps I don’t actually realise the subtle positive effects this has had on me, which I would consider meaningful if I knew about them. Or to give another example, a person suffering from an episode of depression may not think that anything they have ever done is meaningful, even though when they are functioning more normally they would not hold this view at all. Thus, I adjust slightly my rough definition:
(2.2) An action or mode of living is meaningful to the degree those affected by the action or mode of living would hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’ if they were considering the matter with access to all relevant information and in an appropriately uncompromised mental state.
Broadly speaking, therefore, I would say that my conception of meaning in life is ‘inter-subjective’, meaning that on the one hand it is determined by the subjective reactions of human beings (rather than some external mind-independent fact about the universe, or by some external agent), but on the other hand it is not purely subjective to each individual. Thus, even if a pure hedonist (for example) claimed that their lifestyle was meaningful to them, (and it is not clear to me that this would necessarily be true, because perhaps they merely crave more of the same sorts of pleasures, rather than being enriched and holding in positive regard the actual experiences they have had in the past), but even if this were the case, I would still say that their lifestyle was probably not particularly meaningful, because (presumably) few if any other people would similarly hold their life in comparable positive regard, as this sort of life is (in general) fundamentally selfish, and does not enrich other people or humanity as a whole.
Objectivity, Reason, and Meaning
One major line of theist attack on such an inter-subjective conception of the meaning is that it is not ‘real meaning’ – it is merely something that we have ‘made up’. In response to this, I would say two things. Firstly, this conception of the meaning of life is not subjectivist in the sense that it depends only upon the beliefs of the person in question. That is, I have not said that each person determines their own meaning in life, or decides for themselves based on their own totally arbitrary personal criteria whether or not their lives are meaningful. Rather, I have said that I think that the meaningfulness of a life is determined by facts about the sort of regard we and others hold that life in, when reflecting on it from an appropriately informed and sound mental state.
Meaning is thus subjective in that it is dependent upon the reactive attitudes of human beings (which is not something I think should come as a surprise given that meaning is generally understood to be an emotive and cognitive phenomenon), but that does not mean that it is totally arbitrary or just ‘made up’. The way we react to things and the attitudes we hold towards them are determined by very fundamental components of who we are as people. We can, of course, alter such attitudes through introspection and practise, but I do not think it is the case that they can (generally) be frivolously changed at whim. As such, I fail to see the force in the objection that such meaning is ‘just subjective’ or ‘made up’.
On a related note, many people seem to have an intuition that the meaning of life must, in some way, be derivable from reason alone if it is to count as ‘real meaning’. In other words, meaning cannot ‘merely’ be based on our reaction to things – there must be some factual, propositional content to it beyond that. I, however, question why this need be the case. Why is meaning derived from the nature of the world by reason to be preferred over one that is based on people’s inter-subjective sense of what is meaningful and important? Is it because we feel that we need this to be the case in order to convince others to agree with us about what is meaningful? This seems like poor justification, as even on many questions that are clearly matters of objective fact, there is still immense disagreement and inability to convince. Is it because we feel that the ultimate source of meaning needs to come from some transcendent force or power or agent in order to be ‘real’? But why should this be the case? If certain actions and mods of living enrich our lives in such a way that we hold them in a certain sort of positive regard (i.e. they are meaningful to us and others), then why is that source of meaning somehow less ‘real’ simply because it does not derive from a transcendent source?
Indeed, many theists already believe that reason alone is insufficient to lead one to submit one’s life to God – there also is some scope for a choice, or the work of the spirit, or ‘something’ else. However we describe this ‘something else’, theists are typically already comfortable with the idea that decisions about what ultimately matters, or what ultimately to commit oneself to, are not based purely on reasoning about facts, but that other considerations and motivations can be relevant too. Of course, the nature of these ‘other considerations and motivations’ is not identical in the cases of believing in God and deciding what we think the meaning of life is, but my point is only to highlight that there seems to be a similarity in ‘going beyond pure reason’ in both cases. As such, if the theist is willing to accept non-rational (or what I tend to think of ‘pre-rational’) motivations in one case, then what bases do they have for ruling such motivations as inferior or lacking in another case? If one can justifiably choose to follow God partly on the basis of reasoning, but also partly on the basis of one’s inner convictions and sense of what is right and good and true, then why cannot one similarly justifiably pursue what one believes to be meaningful for a similar collation of reasons?
The Temporal Question
Another line of criticism levelled against naturalistic conceptions of meaning argues that they fail to adequately address what I will call ‘the temporal question’, the fact that we will all die and, ultimately, the Earth and everything else that we know and care about will eventually cease to exist (e.g. through the heat death of the universe).
William Lane Craig outlines this view in the following quote:
“The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance. The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.”
In response to these criticisms, I would ask what basis there is for the belief that the final end state of the universe is of unique (or even primary) importance in determining the value or meaning of our lives? I see no reason why the fact that something will eventually cease to be implies that it cannot have any meaning or value for the time while it does exist.
The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy article on this subject includes a quote which aptly expresses my views on this matter:
“Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?”… why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins.”
I cannot deny, however, that the fact of ‘ultimate cosmic ruin’ does resonate strongly with many people as being a strong argument against the notion that life has any ultimate meaning. Perhaps that is what some people believe ‘the meaning of life’ is – being able to make some ultimate difference to the final end state of the universe. If this is the definition we adopt, then I agree that in an atheistic universe life has no ultimate meaning. However, I see no reason to accept this very particular conception of what it is for life to have meaning.
In particular, I would ask people how, exactly, the eventual heat death of the universe in any way takes away from the meaningfulness of great acts of courage or kindness, deep and meaningful relationships one forges with friends and family, the awe inspiring beauty of nature and some of mankind’s greatest accomplishments in art and science. I think these things (and many others) are meaningful precisely because they have great emotional and cognitive significance to us here and now, and in many cases will continue to hold great meaning for generations to come. We may wish that such things could last forever – perhaps if they did, they would be even more meaningful. But why should we suppose that their eventual extinction undermines their meaning completely? Why does the temporality of our existence, our finite extension along the dimension of time, somehow undo or negate the positive attitudes and reactions that hold towards such things for that duration of time for which we do exist?
The Ugly Head of Nihilism
In my experience, it is often very difficult to remember, through times of pain and other trials, what we think the meaning or purpose of our lives to be. I think this is a problem for people of all philosophies and worldviews; Kierkegaard, for example, talked at length about the absurdity of the world, and though he believed that God acted as an ultimate source of meaning and a source of comfort against such absurdity, nonetheless he acknowledged and explored the ongoing difficulties in living in this mad world of ours.
Though I am often tempted by nihilism, and often it can seem to me that life as no meaning or purpose (or at least that my life has no meaning or purpose), ultimately I do not think that the justifications given for nihilism are particularly compelling. I believe that life does have meaning, even when it often seems like it does not. I believe that we can make sense of the meaning of life in an atheistic universe. This is not to say, of course, that God could not serve as a crucial serve of meaning if he does in fact exist – indeed, to many he clearly serves as a source of meaning regardless of whether he exists or not. It is, however, to say that we do not need God for our lives to have meaning. For this we need only ourselves, and perhaps also a few good friends.