Tuesday, 2 May 2017

William Lane Craig on the Absurdity of Life without God

Is life meaningless without God? That is what the Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig claims with great confidence in a chapter of his book Reasonable Faith, published in 1994:[1] “if there is no God, then man’s life becomes absurd.” (40) The main reason for this appears to be, at least initially, the fact that we all have to die. If there is no God, then death is real, both for us and for everything else, including the universe itself, and “the prospect of death and the threat of non-being is a terrible horror.” (41)[2] Without God there is no immortality for us, and without immortality “the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.” (42)

Life has no ultimate significance because all the significance it can ever have is merely relative. What we do is relatively significant if it impacts on other events. But if the changes we bring about do not change the final destiny of the universe (because whatever we do, things will cease to exist someday), then they have no ultimate significance. Whatever we accomplish in life, it is then “utterly meaningless”: “This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.” (42) Immortality, however, is not enough. Without God, an immortal life would still be meaningless because we “could still ask of life, ‘So what?’” (43).

In addition to having no ultimate significance, life has no ultimate value either since we will die (i.e. be punished by death) no matter what, whether we are good or bad. This means that good deeds remain unrewarded and bad deeds unpunished (or, if we see death as punishment, then they are not punished more than good deeds, which is, presumably, what justice would require). Moreover, there are no objective standards of right and wrong. Hitler’s values are just as good as those of a saint. Good and evil do not exist.

Finally, if God does not exist, our life has no ultimate purpose either. “If there is no God, then our life is not qualitatively different from that of a dog.” (45) We are just like all the other animals, freaks of nature, a “blind product of matter plus time plus chance”, soon to return into nothingness. There is no reason why we are here. Only if God exists, is there any hope for us. Without him, there is only despair.

For all those reasons, Craig concludes, atheism is a practical impossibility. We cannot live consistently and happily without believing in the existence of God. We can perhaps think atheism, but we cannot live as atheists. In order to do so we need to delude ourselves. We need to live a lie, pretending that the universe acquires meaning when we give it one and things matter for some reason or other. That, however, is not the case. “Without God, there is no objective meaning in life.” (47) And since there is no absolute (objective) right or wrong, the consistent atheist would have to acknowledge that “all things are permitted” (49). In fact, however, the vast majority of atheists do not act as if they really believed that. They act as if there are things that are not permitted, which makes no sense if there are no objective values. What they should do, if they were consistent, is care only for themselves. They should do whatever it takes to survive, because that is what natural selection “dictates” (51). If there is no God, but only nature, then the atheist has no reason to be moral, and every reason to be immoral. For in nature, “whatever is, is right. But who can live with such a view?” (51) Indeed, why would we want to live with such a view? Clearly, it is better to believe that there is a God (and not just any God, but “the God of the Bible”), because if we don’t, our lives are “absurd”, i.e., worthless and pointless. Therefore, “a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity” (54).


Craig insists that life without God is meaningless, but he does not really explain why we should expect the existence of God to make a difference. Why does the existence of God rid our life of absurdity? Or is it actually our belief in the existence of God that does that? “It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness. As Pascal said, we have nothing to lose and infinity to gain.” (54) The reference to Pascal suggests it is the belief that matters. This would change things. If the existence of God gives our lives significance, value and purpose, then it doesn’t really seem to matter whether or not we believe in God. Even if we don’t believe in God, our lives are meaningful. If, on the other hand, it is our belief in the existence of God that makes our life meaningful, then it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not God actually exists. Even if he does not, our lives would still be meaningful if we believed he did. Craig would probably want to argue that for our lives to be meaningful it must both be true that God exist and that we believe in his existence, but he does not give us a reason why this should be so. (Will God perhaps punish us if we don’t believe in him, by withholding eternal life from us?) As it stands, his position is certainly ambiguous.

But let us assume that it is God’s existence that matters most for the possibility of living a meaningful life, and ask why we should think that. Only if God exists, is there any hope, Craig says, but hope for what exactly? It cannot be immortality as such because Craig has stated clearly (and quite plausibly) that an immortal life without God would be just as meaningless as a mortal life without God. So it is not really death that is the problem, and not really immortality that is the solution. Immortality may still be necessary for a meaningful life, but it is not sufficient. But if it is not because of the immortality that God’s existence promises to us that God’s existence can be expected to make our lives meaningful, what else can it be?

If there is no God, Craig claims, then there are no objective values, and if there are no objective values, then “all things are permitted”. So does God’s existence make our life meaningful because only then what appears good to us really is good and what appears evil to us really is evil, so that not everything is permitted? There are at least two problems with this interpretation. First of all, it is unclear how exactly God makes values objective. We may want to say that God has a privileged perspective, so while we may occasionally be unsure about what is right and wrong, good and evil, he knows exactly what is good and what is not. However, in that case we seem to be presupposing that there already is an objective good and evil (because if there were not, how could God know about it?). Therefore we don’t really need God for there to be good and evil. The only thing we might need him for is to tell us what is really good and evil. But not knowing for sure what is really good and what is really evil does not seem to make our lives absurd, at least not to the same degree that the non-existence of good and evil would, and certainly not in the sense that Craig uses the term. The alternative is that God literally makes things good and evil: he decides that, say, looking after a sick friend is good and torturing a puppy to death is evil, and the one is good and the other bad only because he has made that decision. Had he made a different decision, then it might not be. Had he decided that looking after a sick friend is evil and torturing puppies to death is good, then that would be what is good and evil objectively. This is of course exactly what Craig believes,[3] but this view strikes me as a lot more absurd than the view that some things are really bad and that for this very reason God does not want us to do them. In any case, either things, or rather actions, are good or bad in themselves independent of whether we regard them as good or bad, or they are not. If they are, then God is not needed to make them so. And if they are not, then God regarding or postulating them as good does not make them good in themselves. They would still be only subjectively good, namely for, or from the perspective of, the divine subject.

The second problem with the argument that without God there are no objective values and that without objective values “all things are permitted” is that even though it might be true that from the point of the universe all things are permitted, meaning that the universe does not care what we do and do not do and whether we are “good” or “bad”, from our own point of view there are clearly many things that are not permitted. And it seems to me that our own perspective is, and should be, more important to us than the point of view of the universe, even if there is a God and the point of view of the universe is in fact God’s point of view. Craig is obviously wrong (and blatantly inconsistent) when he suggests that natural selection “dictates” that we only care for ourselves. In nature, he claims, “whatever is, is right.” This is of course not the case. Natural selection does not dictate anything, and if there are no objective values, then whatever is, is neither right nor wrong. It simply is. Yet among the things that are, are also our values, our views on what is right and wrong, what should and what should not be done. The atheist, therefore, is in no way rationally compelled to be a selfish bastard. Perhaps in theory nothing is (absolutely) forbidden, but in practice there are certain things we approve of and others that we disapprove of, certain things that we forbid ourselves, and each other. And that is all we will ever have. Even if there is a God who could tell us how things really are (that, for instance, torturing puppies is actually not so bad at all), we could still think that what God tells us is good is a heinous thing to do, even if the only basis we have for our judgement is the fact that we are repulsed by it. Why would it matter so much to us what God thinks and wants? Because he is more powerful and (presumably) holds our fate in his hands?  

To sum up: if our lives are meaningless because our values lack objectivity or absolute validity, then it is not clear how God’s existence would change that. Nor is it clear why we should, in a naturalistic, godless universe, have to live as if nothing mattered, given that certain things clearly do matter to us.
The situation is similar with respect to purpose. We clearly do have purposes, so in that sense our lives have purpose (though perhaps not a purpose). Are they good for anything else? Perhaps not. But why do they have to? There is no reason for our existence, Craig says. Maybe not. Probably not. But again, why does there have to be such a reason? We may be better off without it. Certainly, we may need a reason to go on living (and fortunately most of us have such reasons most of the time), but we don’t really need a reason for being there in the first place. And more importantly, why should our being part of some greater, divine purpose make our lives more meaningful (in the only sense that matters: of being more worth living)? It seems to me if there were a God and God had assigned some role to me, so that my existence had in that sense a purpose (i.e., it would help realize God’s purpose), then I would still have to think about it and then either accept or not accept my role in the divine plan. If I did not like the role I was supposed to play, then playing it would not make my life any more meaningful. But if I have to accept a role in order for it to give my life not just a purpose, but a meaningful purpose, then why can I not just create a role for myself that I am happy with and play that role as best I can? Why is God’s purpose better than my purpose? Why would my existence be more purposeful if it aligned with God’s purpose rather than my own?

Finally, it seems strange and rather implausible to say that because we end in nothing, we are nothing. Why should only the eternal, the never-ending, count as something? This (essentially Platonic) assumption is especially weird since all the somethings we have ever encountered and are ever likely to encounter are finite. As far as we know, everything that exists one day started to exist and will one day cease to exist. This is what being something means: being something in time and therefore for a time. What is absurd is to expect and desire more than that.

[1] William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life Without God”, in: William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologies, Wheaton, Ill.: Good News Publishers/ Crossway Books 1994, 57-75. Reprinted in: The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke, New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 40-56. My citations are from this edition.
[2] It is not quite clear to me why the death of the universe is relevant for Craig. If the prospect of my own personal death makes life meaningless/ absurd already, then why does Craig make so much of the ultimate fate of the universe? Also, Craig thinks that death only becomes horrible when we contemplate our own death. The death of others is not such a big deal. (41) But it seems to me that often the death of others (most frequently the death of our loved ones) is more horrible to imagine than our own death. I can live with the fact that I have to die. That they have to die I find much harder to accept.
[3] Craig supports the divine command theory, which holds that certain actions are right simply and solely because God commands us to act that way, rather than that he commands us to act that way because it is the right thing to do. Morality thus depends entirely on what God wants. It follows that without God there is no morality, no objective right and wrong.

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