Of Course Atheists Have Meaning and Value—Just No Good Way To Explain It

By Tom Gilson

Atheists often confuse Christians’ position on meaning and value. The typical version, as it comes from atheists’ mouth, is, “Christians say you don’t have meaning or value unless you believe in God. But that’s obviously false! I don’t believe in God, and I have no trouble finding meaning and value in my life.”

This morning’s post is a comment that ran away from me. I was responding to Otto Telick’s comment last night, when I realized my response was suitable for a new blog entry.

Belief vs. Reality Otto said there that (Christian theist) BillT’s position is approximately that “human life is worthless when humans don’t accept Christ as their savior.” That’s not approximately correct, unfortunately. His representation of (Christian theist) SteveK’s view is better: “true, immutable, universal morality exists, defined independently of each and every specific human society, and only Christ defines what that morality is.”

Here’s the difference between his versions of the two positions: in the first he makes belief in Christ the main thing, in the second he makes the reality of Christ the main thing.

For many things, though certainly not all (see my final paragraph below), it is just the reality of the triune God that matters. Humans have meaning because God made us that way. Nothing can remove that from us, including disbelief in God.

Needing God vs. Needing Belief in God Thus when an atheist says she has no trouble experiencing a meaningful life, I jump to agree with her. If however she says she doesn’t need God to have meaning, then I disagree. It’s the difference between “needing to believe in God” and “needing God.” Let me explain.

Clearly we all experience and know that we have meaning and value. That’s an empirical fact. No one here is denying it. Christianity explains that fact quite readily.

Suppose there is no God, however. Then that empirical fact becomes very difficult to justify. though it is still true that we experience this sense of meaning and value, it is extremely hard to explain that experience.

Theistic vs. Naturalistic Explanations of Meaning and Value On theism we are created with value or worth. On non-theism, we came about by naturalistic evolutionary processes. So one must conclude that there is some evolutionary advantage for humans having the belief that we have intrinsic meaning and value (or worth). The difficulty there is that evolutionary advantage is nothing but shorthand for “that which causes individuals to reproduce more successfully.”

Let me re-emphasize that “nothing but” clause. On standard evolutionary theory, there is nothing but differential reproduction that could cause anything in organisms, including both physiology and behavior; and behavior includes our thoughts.

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