Why be an Atheist – in 400 Words

Introduction

I was recently asked to write a 400 word piece on some arguments one might give to a religious believer to cause them to doubt their beliefs. I’m generally not in the business of trying to dissuade theists from believing in God (though I may try to dissuade them from holding particular beliefs about God), however I am in the business of writing and critiquing  arguments, and so I thought I would give it a go. Here’s what I came up with. Note that the very strict wordcount meant that I could not explain the arguments in nearly enough depth to be properly persuasive, nor could I consider common rejoinders and how I would respond. I do not do any of these arguments justice or engage with them in all their complexity and nuance. Nonetheless, I think very short writing can have value at times, so for what its worth, here it is.

The 400 Words

There are many compelling reasons to believe that an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist:

  1. There is too much suffering. If God exists, he permits plague, war, genocide, natural disasters, mental illness, and much more, all of which he has the power to prevent. Some believers say God must have reasons for allowing such things, even if we don’t know what they are. There is, however, no reason to believe that such reasons exist, and every reason to expect that a world created by an all-powerful and all-loving God would not need to include holocausts and black deaths. Every time another such event takes place, we must believe that God has yet another unknown and inexplicable reason for permitting it. The more such unknown reasons we must accept, the more evidence we gain that such a God does not in fact exist.
  2. Religions are too parochial. Many religions believe that God chose reveal his teachings at a specific time to a specific group of people, thereby leaving large swaths of humanity largely or completely ignorant of him. This is not what we would expect from an all-loving, all-powerful God who wished to draw all humanity to him, but it is what we would expect if each religion is an outgrowth of a particular human culture.
  3. There is too much religious confusion. Believers of many different faiths report similar experiences of God speaking to them, guiding them, and comforting them. If God existed and wanted humans to follow his true path, we would not expect to see so many people experiencing God in such different and conflicting ways. We would expect God would make himself clearer to mankind, rather than providing so many conflicting religious experiences and manifestations. Such a degree of religious confusion is far more understandable if religious feelings and experiences are instead solely the product of human psychology and society.
  4. God is a poor explanation for anything. God cannot explain why the universe exists, but merely pushes back the question, for we can then ask why God himself exists. Likewise, God’s existence cannot explain human consciousness, for any talk of immaterial souls or spirits merely applies a new label without actually saying anything about how or why consciousness arises. The ability of God to provide answers to such questions, therefore, is illusory, leaving us without any strong reason to believe in such a God.
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Are there Moral Facts or Duties without God?

Synopsis

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.

Moral Facts

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.

Moral Obligations

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.

What is Atheism? What is Agnosticism? And who has the Burden of Proof?

Synopsis

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.

Defining Atheism

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:

  1. Strong Atheism: explicit endorsement of the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”
  2. 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”)
  3. 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.

Default Positions

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.

Conclusion

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.

A Meaning to Life without God?

Synopsis

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.

Objectivist Naturalism

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.

Inter-Subjective Naturalism

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.