Life and meaning

September 24, 2007 | Atheism, Conversion | 55 comments

A couple of articles I came across recently reminded me of a lot of the “life wisdom” ideas I came across when I was an atheist. I was always seeking to know more about our existence, I suppose you could call it a quest for the meaning of life, so I took a keen interest in finding out what the great minds of our time had to say about how we can find purpose and fulfillment in life (without getting into any of that religious nonsense of course).

Unfortunately, in pretty much every case I walked away feeling depressed about what I just heard. All of the secular advice was along the lines of “live for today” or “help others” or “don’t be afraid to live your dreams” or “be a good person”. It sounded great, but I couldn’t get around the fact that we’re all going to die. As I saw it, what does it really matter if I’m a good person or a bad person, if I am happy or sad, since the entity that I think of as “me” is going to cease to exist in a relatively short time? When discussing the matter with other atheist or agnostic friends, the conversation usually went something like this:

ME: What does it matter if I spend this weekend volunteering at the soup kitchen or burglarizing people’s houses? I mean, I am not going to exist for very much longer! Why should I care?

THEM: It’s about your legacy. Imagine how many people you could help at the soup kitchen, and how many people’s lives you’d negatively impact if you stole all their stuff.

ME: But they’re going to cease to exist too.

THEM: Well, your actions could have far-reaching effects into future generations.

ME: OK, let’s take the 5-billion-year view. Let’s fast-forward to when the sun is a red giant that’s either swallowed up planet earth or burnt it to a crisp. Then does it matter if I spent my weekend feeding the homeless or stealing stuff? Does anything I ever did matter?

For me, this is what it boiled down to: when the last life form is gone from the earth, did anything that ever happened here matter? My answer was: obviously not. To my way of thinking, “meaning” was confined to the human brain. It was something we people came up with. So when people were gone, so was any kind of significance to anything that ever happened or would happen. The Holocaust, the great wars, the hidden good and bad that played out in people’s private lives — I couldn’t figure out how to make a logical case that any of it mattered once earth is a smoldering rock. Once we all cease to exist, if there’s no force outside of the material world in which some part of us lives on, we might as well have never existed.

I firmly believed that all of that was true. But it sure didn’t feel right. In my heart it felt wrong — really, really wrong — to say that the events that took place on this earth would not matter one day. Though it would seem to defy logic (as I saw it), I knew the Holocaust mattered. I knew that every injustice, every good deed, every act of kindness ever committed somehow mattered. It mattered now, it would matter after we were all gone, it would matter five billion years from now. I just couldn’t figure out why.

This was one of the many things that fell into place for me when I considered the concept of God and the soul. Though I “saw” no evidence for these things at that point (because I was still thinking in terms of believing only in what could be proven by visual observation or measurement), it resonated on a deep level that something was going on outside of the material world: that “meaning” came from somewhere above humans; that the events that took place on this planet would still matter, even billions of years from now; that our souls would live on to remember what happened here, even after our bodies died.

The crashing sounds and maniacal laughing (or is that screaming?) I hear coming from upstairs mean that naptime, and therefore my blog posting time, must be over. I want to wrap up this post by noting that I offer these thoughts in the spirit of personal reflection. This is part of my story. The last time I wrote a post on a similar topic it seemed to offend non-believers who do find objective meaning in the world without religion. I hope that is not the case this time. These are only some memories that came to mind that I wanted to ramble about for a while, and not an attempt to criticize anyone who sees the world differently.

55 Comments

  1. Warren

    Jennifer,

    Thanks you so much for the new blog! I just discovered it via a link from Matteo at Cartago Delenda Est.

    I am a 48-year-old male who is going through RCIA. I have been happily married for 21 years and have two teenage kids. Unfortunately, I am going through RCIA alone – my wife, who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic high school and college, eventually rejected the Church and has no plans to return to it. My own conversion – first to Jesus Christ and then to the Catholic Church – happened to me alone. I saw an earlier post on your blog about people in my situation, and it helped me a lot. So hopefully you’ll keep blogging for a while!

    Regarding your current post, the 19th century historian H. T. Buckle put it in a nutshell: “If immortality be untrue, it matters little whether anything else be true or not.”

  2. Renee

    To think individuals get upset when a TV series concludes with no ending, but not to care at the end of our own life on Earth, that human life is like a show with such low ratings we will just get cancelled?

  3. Anonymous

    I think it is infinitely more admirable when people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do and not because there’s some big reward in an “afterlife” for it.

    To do something merely because you believe you’ll get something out of it personally isn’t particularly interesting or mature.

    That there are people who don’t believe for a minute that there will be a big fanfare and eternal romping in fantasyland after they die if they put on a show of kindness and generosity, but who are genuinely kind and generous for the other person’s sake is actually quite encouraging and restores my faith in humankind.

    It’s exactly this kind of “it’s all about me and what I’ll get out of it” brand of Christianity that restores my deep conviction that the whole son-of-god-died-on-a-cross thing is a just a huge pile of horse manure.

  4. SteveG

    I think it is infinitely more admirable when people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do and not because there’s some big reward in an “afterlife” for it.

    As usual, you appear to simply want to read into every post what you want rather than what is written. The idea of reward for doing right was not even touched on in the post.

    To do something merely because you believe you’ll get something out of it personally isn’t particularly interesting or mature.

    Again, this is not what was said. Something more important and fundamental WAS said. Without there being a lasting meaning from our actions (lasting as in not transient), doing ‘right’ becomes nonsensical.

    What is ‘right’ in the secular view? It is what you determine it to be. If right can be anything, than there is no such thing as right. It’s a bunch of silly damned nonsense that no one, including the non-believer does or could bear to live by in reality.

    It’s exactly this kind of “it’s all about me and what I’ll get out of it” brand of Christianity that restores my deep conviction that the whole son-of-god-died-on-a-cross thing is a just a huge pile of horse manure.

    I want to challenge you to show us anywhere in this post where Jen indicates that she does what is right based on what she can get out of it.

  5. steve fleming esq

    i dont know why anyone would want to become a catholic, it was formed by a pagan king on his deathbed , and they used to burn with fire anyone who had a bible in english……..big difference between the bible and the church.

  6. Warren

    > i dont know why anyone would want to become a catholic, it was formed by a pagan king on his deathbed , and they used to burn with fire anyone who had a bible in english……..big difference between the bible and the church.

    I believe the official Catholic term for this is “invincible ignorance”.

  7. Warren

    > I think it is infinitely more admirable when people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do and not because there’s some big reward in an “afterlife” for it.

    Congratulations, Anon! I couldn’t have stated the Christian position better myself.

    Oh… you mean that’s not what you were trying to do?

    > That there are people who don’t believe for a minute that there will be a big fanfare and eternal romping in fantasyland after they die if they put on a show of kindness and generosity, but who are genuinely kind and generous for the other person’s sake is actually quite encouraging and restores my faith in humankind.

    Again, your Christian instincts are very good – you’re just a little muddled in your thinking. Are you really under the impression that “being kind and generous for the other person’s sake” is not what Christianity teaches? If so, I’d love to know where you got such a weird idea. Christians are to love God first and foremost, and also their neighbors (because God made them and loves them). This is the basis for Christian morality, not some ridiculous and childish caricature of Heaven.

    And you’ve completely missed the whole point of the original post, which was: if we are not immortal, there is no possibility that anything we say or do has any meaning whatsoever. This is just simple logic, although a lot of otherwise intelligent people can’t seem to see such an obvious point for some reason. (Perhaps because they are given to emotional knee-jerk reactions?)

    > my deep conviction that the whole son-of-god-died-on-a-cross thing is a just a huge pile of horse manure

    If you really believed that, you’d hardly be wasting your time hanging around here, now would you? Oh yes, He’s got His hooks in you good and deep….

  8. AveMaria

    Dear Mr. Steve:

    I don’t think many Christians think of Jesus as a pagan king. That’s an interesting viewpoint, I wish you all the best when discussing that with him directly at some point in your future.

    One of the biggest differences between the bible and the Church, the bible is the inspired word of God and the Church is the very pillar and foundation of truth.

    This fact is the basis of the Church’s authority to bring the bible into existance.

    Without the Church’s authority you and I may each have a viewpoint say for example about Jesus’ bread of life discourse in John 6. If you believe, and I don’t one of us is wrong, we can’t both be right. The truth exists, Jesus is the truth. The truth is not subject to human wims, the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth according to the bible. I am a bible beliving Christian ergo, I am Catholic.

    You are welcome to join us in exploring the truth of the Christian faith as founded by Jesus and practiced by Catholics through out the ages and around the world. Please do.

  9. Bad

    I think your understanding of meaning is confused. Meaning is something that a specific someone finds in some action. It doesn’t exist objectively, apart from any particular being. Talking about it “coming from” somewhere doesn’t make sense: either you find something meaningful or you don’t. When there are no humans, the Holocaust indeed won’t “matter” because there won’t be anyone around for it to matter to. But why is that bad? And why does that have anything to do with whether or not it matters to you or not?

    Whether or not something exists eternally is wholly irrelevant. If a single act isn’t meaningful all by itself, then an infinite amount of time cannot make it meaningful: 0 times infinity is still 0.

  10. Ben D

    I’d like to quote a 19th century poet, Tennyson:

    I hold it true, whate’er befall;
    I feel it, when I sorrow most;
    ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
    Than never to have loved at all.

    Meaning has no necessary correlation with permanence, as Bad eloquently pointed out in the above comment

  11. Warren

    > Meaning is something that a specific someone finds in some action. It doesn’t exist objectively, apart from any particular being.

    What you are describing is subjective feeling, which is inherently meaningless in and of itself. For the concept “meaning” to have meaning, it must be rooted in a transcendent Absolute, ie, God. Otherwise it’s just so much passing stuff, and regardless of how warm and fuzzy it might feel, it means nothing whatever. All of this is equally true of morality, knowledge, free will, etc, none of which are logically even possible apart from God.

    > When there are no humans, the Holocaust indeed won’t “matter” because there won’t be anyone around for it to matter to. But why is that bad?

    It’s not bad – just meaningless.

    > And why does that have anything to do with whether or not it matters to you or not?

    If you assume (as you seem to) that you are a temporary cosmic accident, then you’re right, it doesn’t matter. In fact, in that scenario, nothing whatsoever matters, which was kind of the point of the original post.

  12. Ben D

    Warren – Eh? I’d love to hear your arguments for free will and knowledge being impossible without god…

  13. SH

    Atheists-
    Here’s one thing I can’t figure out. Why don’t you kill yourselves? I don’t think you should commit suicide, because I think it is a sin. I think if you stick around a while, you might learn to serve God and do something productive with your life. That is my worldview. But what is your reason for sticking around? Why bother? Life is hard. Why deal with any discomfort, sadness, aging, disappointment, loneliness, sickness, jealousy or hardship whatsoever? Why not just opt out? Why engage in debate about good, bad, meaning, and so forth? In your worldview, you are just a tiny chemical reaction in a huge, unfeeling universe. Right? Until atheists start killing themselves, I have to call b.s. You don’t really think that life is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions. If you did, you wouldn’t still be living. Put up or shut up.

  14. Warren

    > I’d love to hear your arguments for free will and knowledge being impossible without god…

    Well, they’re not my arguments. They’ve been around forever. Probably the most user-friendly presentation of them I’ve ever seen is by C. S. Lewis, especially in his book “Miracles”. Unless you want to dive into some real philosopher like Alvin Plantinga….

  15. Ben D

    stephen – Believe whatever you want – but your, and my, beliefs about reality don’t alter it one bit. Coming from a theist, I find that somewhat ironic, but I agree entirely – however,what evidence do you have for the rest of what you say but your beliefs?. But I’ll have a look at the link when I have some spare time.

    SH – Just because you believe atheism to be meaningless has no relation to whether it is or not. Also, if you believe in hell, I don’t see how you can spend one second doing anything but charging round the streets trying to stop people going to it – anything else would be a huge evil. Yet you don’t. Therefore I don’t believe you’re a Christian. Or you may be evil – your choice. Til then I call b.s., so put up or shut up. Oh wait, does that sound familiar?

    Incidentally, here’s a post of mine that addresses atheism and meaning, if anyone’s interested in a civil discussion – The Meaning of Life. Or, do theists ever even talk to atheists?

  16. Oryx Orange

    I completely identify with you as a former atheist, Jennifer, although I’m more of a former agnostic. A dear friend of mine made a comment the other day that I thought was great, that might be relevant to this discussion. We were discussing my latest blog post (http://www.orangelife.info/2007/09/god-conclusion.html) and she said “I think the question ‘Do you believe in God’? is a stupid one”, the point being that, given the logical impossibility of proving God’s existence, the more relevant question to living a meaningful life is “Will having God in my life make it better?”

  17. lar

    hey, “anonymous,”
    Even back when I was an atheist I knew a “strawman” argument when I heard one. Now I’m Catholic and guess what? I still do. Perhaps you’ve got something important to say. If so, bring it. Misrepresenting the original post does you no good at all.

  18. UltraCrepidarian

    Hi Warren! Another Warren here! Also a convert.
    Do you have a blog?

    Warren

  19. loving my life

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for stopping by…. Love your thoughts. I’ll be back:)

  20. Warren

    Ultracrepidarian,

    Nope, no blog. I have a job instead. 🙂

    Nice to meet you.

  21. Anonymous

    I haven’t misrepresented the original post at all.

    The author herself states that acts of kindness and generosity, of goodwill and compassion were essentially one big why bother to her since there was no “greater meaning” attached to them.

    I guess being kind and good and compassionate aren’t very important to some people unless there’s something more in it than just being kind and good and compassionate and helping out a fellow human being. If there’s no “meaning” (and it is obvious, in the context of this blog, that “meaning” means “God” and “heaven”.).

    However, I know people who don’t believe in “God” and “heaven”, who don’t believe there is anything after death, and who manage to very quietly extend genuinely heartfelt, sincere kindess and aid to those around them. They do this without having to pridefully consider themselves part of some “great plan”, or without calculating what their actions will buy them as far as “eternal salvation” goes, or without thinking about how it makes them look in other people’s eyes or how it compares to other people’s actions.

    To me, that is infinitely more admirable than doing good because you believe your afterlife is in jeopardy if you don’t, or your place in the frought-with-“meaning”-Great Plan is in jeopardy.

    That there are people who encounter fellow humans who are suffering and who immediately react with no other goal in mind than to alleviate that suffering is a good thing. Not a bad thing. That they don’t need some sort of divine validation for bothering to waste their time helping others is a good thing.

    To think that, if there is no greater meaning in helping someone, it’s a waste of time for some people is sad. And the author herself asserts this. To her, during her life as an atheist, the simple act of ending the hunger pangs of a child was just a big huge waste of her time since the kid was going to die any way and so was she, and her big Lady Bountiful act wouldn’t be noted by anyone, would be forgotten eventually, etc.

    Well, exactly what does that say about the author? That unless she personally gets something out of a basic, simple act of human decency, it’s not worth her time or trouble. But give her the old carrot/stick motivation and she can find the time.

    How sad. How deeply, deeply sad.

    And, yes, I realize that genuine kindness and sincere acts of compassion are what are supposed to be at the heart of Christianity. Where did I get the idea that this wasn’t so and that Christianity is only about doing good in order to earn yourself something? Gee. Can’t imagine…

    Think it might be the actions and attitudes of far too many Christians themselves…? Think it might be because of this sort of self-obsessed drivel?

  22. jrg

    orxy orange said in part, “the more relevant question to living a meaningful life is “Will having God in my life make it better?” “

    Going a step further – reminds me of what I recently heard – for those who are already believers in God – “is God a part of my story, or am I a part of His?”

    Having lived a good part of my life with the former mindset, I can attest that choosing to be a part of God’s story makes all the difference.

    First step, though is to believe in His existence – and that’s something He supplies. We need to be patient as God is with those who haven’t received His unmerited gift of faith.

  23. Oryx Orange

    I feel I have to echo the sentiments of ‘anonymous’ here, although I might not go so far as saying that the carrot/stick reaction was “deeply sad”. I would go with “deeply human”, but, to support the point made by “anonymous”, there is much more value in an altruistic act made for its intrinsic value than for consideration of its consequences. A true believer should, in my view, have contemplated and understood her/his beliefs completely enough that the motivation should be empathy and not fear of divine retribution. If it isn’t, and the belief system is just about telling you what you should do in this situation and that just because the belief says you should, it’s probably time to re-examine those beliefs.

  24. SteveG

    Anon:
    You must be related to N., or maybe you are N.? Yeah, I kind of knew that from the first post you made.

    It’s your amazing ability to read into any post your own pre-conceived notions, combined with your unrelenting adherence to those notions, even when all other readers of the post, and the author themself, tells you that is not what was meant. Yeah, definitely N. The style is unmistakable.

    Oryx
    Again, the post simply did not touch on divine retribution, reward, or the afterlife in the least.

    Jennifer is pushing in on something very different here. It’s not about what our motivations are for good acts, or that we shouldn’t perform them if there is no ‘reward.’

    I strongly suspect that Jen would say that even though she had those thoughts, she probably still would have done the good prior to belief.

    The problem is that there is a total disconnect between doing that good and the atheistic world view. Under that world view, no real explanation of why we ‘should’ do the good makes any kind of sense.

    There is a lot being taken for granted in the comments of those here saying something like ‘ending the hunger pangs of a child is good.’

    Under the atheistic system of thought there is no way to justify such a statement as anything other than really meaning, ending the hunger pangs makes me ‘feel good.’

    Such comments take for granted an inherited acceptance that the child has intrinsic worth and deserves to be cared for. It takes for granted the Christian view of the dignity of the human person.

    An atheist may feel very similar in their sentiments, but if I ask them ‘why’ it is good to feed that hungry child, they’ll have at bottom nothing other then their personal feelings and preferences as their justification.

    I am going to throw anons charge back at her full force and ask who is doing the truly altruistic thing?

    Is it the person who’s reward is the warm fuzzy they get here and now for being a ‘good’ person. Or is it the person who, based on their faith, does the good knowing full well that in the Christian faith their good works can NOT get them into heaven or earn them any reward (that’s orthodox Christian teaching after all)?

  25. Anonymous

    Oh, Steve, really. Man up already, ‘k? Have something substantial to say, or shut up. If you can’t respond to what I actually said, don’t respond at all. But to make a big pretend response that boils down to little more than you pretending you’re a big tough guy on teh interwebs is really just pathetic and, well, unmanly.

    You challenged me, and I responded, and because you can’t come up with anything else, you play this baby game? Please.

    Like I said, you really never have to go much farther than the next so-called Christian you meet to prove that all this Jesus stuff is crap.

    She herself asserts that it made no sense to be decent to other human beings unless there was “meaning” to it, and that meaning, in a Christian/Catholic context includes eternal reward/damnation.

    This isn’t something I’m reading into this. This is what the original post is about. That decent human behavior wasn’t worth much time or effort unless there was something more to those actions than alleviating someone else’s suffering. There had to be a personal pay-off to the actions, whether that pay-off was more of a fundamental belief in divine reward, or some big BS second-rate, psuedo-intellectual blather about “meaning”.

    For some reason, the author was not able to foster a kind and giving heart unless there was something more to her effort than the alleviation of another’s suffering. She herself states this in black and white, yet you claim I’ve misread it — what have I misread?

    Where does she NOT say that unless there’s greater “meaning”, she couldn’t make sense out of being a decent human being?

    And isn’t it so funny that the author ALWAYS has to add these big phony disclaimers about how she doesn’t mean to offend…once you’ve had to add that to your “opinion”, you know damn well that you’re being offensive, judgmental and out of line. It would be a thousand times more honest to say this is what you believe and leave it at that instead of trying to backtrack and cover your butt while at the same time saying something pretty disgusting.

  26. Anonymous

    Steve, I realize you’re Christian, and can’t quite wrap your head around this, but there are actually people who don’t believe in God, in an afterlife, in a “divine soup”, in a master plan, or in some self-serving “meaning”, who help other people, even though they don’t necessarily even feel good about it.

    It’s because you can’t get past your preconceived notion that people need a self-serving motivation, whether that motivation is being part of a big meaningful plan or divine reward, or just feeling good about yourself, that you can’t accept that there are people who do the right thing because they’re decent people.

    But, see, one of the things you’ll read most often on the average Catholic blog is that being a decent person isn’t enough, doesn’t fly with their god, doesn’t “mean” anything at all unless one follows all the rules and regs and memorizes all the right crap.

    So I can see where genuinely decent people who do the right thing just because scare the living daylights out of people like you who’ve invested in the legalistic, idolatrous view.

    To me, the person who has zero expectation of any personal pay-off and who still does the right thing is always the better person.

  27. Oryx Orange

    Question for ‘anonymous’. Is there instrinsic good in kindness, or are acts of kindness simply a complex behavioural tendency of homo sapiens?

    This is not a rhetorical question. I would be interested in hearing your answer.

    Here is something I wrote in a blog post that contains part of my view on that:

    Even notions of great altruism and charity can be double-edged; is the self-fulfillment in noble philanthropy related only to the simple joy of helping another person, or is there some part that craves the adoration and respect that “selflessness” will surely invite? Can anyone really know for certain what truly motivates another individual?

    Interested in hearing your answer.

  28. Stephen...

    anonymous,

    Why the anger? Do you feel offended? Unjustly judged? You think you can appeal to some standard? You can’t.
    Like steveg was saying, any sense of your value or dignity is borrowed from a Christian view of Man and Nature.

    I’m pretty sure Jennifer’s post is about eternal significance (not reward/punishment), but even if it isn’t…
    Why do you care? Do you think the empty cosmos cares what we do? That we have any significance whatsoever?
    That when we dissipate into atoms spread throughout the universe, and that universe fizzles into dead, cold, lifeless matter…do you believe What you do today matters?

    Of course you do! But you’re being totally inconsistent to your worldview.

    Your sense of being affronted, or your babbling about some kind of right and wrong actions, as an atheist, is really, to borrow ben_d’s phrase, ironic.

  29. Anonymous

    No — we can’t ever really know entirely what motivates another individual. I’m not sure people always know themselves what their motivation is for doing anything.

    Also, there are many, many anonymous acts of charity on record, attached to no individual or organization in particular, so, for those people, recognition is obviously not a factor in their behavior. Some of these people are probably atheists — actually, I know at least one who is — so we’re not even talkin’ divine recognition here.

    “Goodness” implies something I don’t want to imply.

    Beneficial? Sure, there’s something intrinsically beneficial to doing the right thing when it comes to extending aid/compassion/kindness to others. It’s beneficial to our species (not to be confused with the general, lesser-evolved mammalian population).

    I’d even go as far to say that there’s a weird, negative sort of motivation in “doing the right thing”, and that some (admittedly a small percentage) people of all philosophies and belief systems are guilty of it, and that’s a sort of icky desire or need for others to be indebted to them in some way.

    So…whatever. You never know.

    But to imply that unless there’s this one brand of “meaning”, it’s all pointless, well, that’s just selfish.

    The person receiving the aid or even just a moment of kindess sure doesn’t think it’s pointless. A starving child doesn’t care what you believe. He’s just happy to be fed. Why can’t that be motivation enough? Do you think any god, Christian or otherwise, thinks that someone who doesn’t seek a greater meaning in his acts of charity is somehow less than someone who does seek greater meaning?

    Anway, all this searching for meaning can be as much about the warmfuzzyfeelgood stuff as anything can be. A person might feel all fab and special about themselves for discovering this “meaning” thing…

  30. SteveG

    OK, N. I will try again since you so politely requested it.

    She herself asserts that it made no sense to be decent to other human beings unless there was “meaning” to it

    Saying that it makes no sense is saying that it’s senseless, irrational, not based on a rational foundation, it’s not meaningful, in other words it is meaningless.

    That is NOT the same as saying she WOULDN’T or DIDN’T do such acts. It’s saying that there is a disconnect between the act and the fact that there is no truly meaningful (read not a reasonable, rational, meaningful) foundation for such behavior.

    , and that meaning, in a Christian/Catholic context includes eternal reward/damnation.

    Not so. As I and others have already said…this is not what Catholicism teaches. We are explicitly told that we can NOT gain such a reward through good acts.

    This is why I am saying that you are reading into the post. Yes, eternal destiny is an important part of the faith, but it is not at all the foundation of why we are to do good acts.

    The foundation of why we are to do good is because the other person(s) is a creation of God, and by that fact alone, is deserving of our love. Such dignity for a person as worthy of ‘good’ treatment can be shared by non-believers, but it can not be justified on rational grounds.

    Let me say again…the issue of damnation and reward didn’t even come up until you brought it up. You’ve read that into the post.

    This This is what the original post is about. That decent human behavior wasn’t worth much time or effort unless there was something more to those actions than alleviating someone else’s suffering.

    No, the post was about trying to understand if and why, in the long run, those acts can have any meaning. Again, and again, she didn’t say it wasn’t worth the effort.

    She ASKED (herself and others) for an explanation of how such acts can be anything other than emotionally based transient deeds that have no ‘lasting’ value, and why she should do them.

    The answer she found was nonsensical as it must be in atheism.

    There had to be a personal pay-off to the actions, whether that pay-off was more of a fundamental belief in divine reward, or some big BS second-rate, psuedo-intellectual blather about “meaning”.

    Are you back tracking then, and realizing that the post was about the meaning/value of our actions, and not about reward/punishment?

    And it’s not pseudo-intellectual blather despite your dismissal. It goes to the heart of what it means to be human. ALL of us, atheist and theist, look to make sense of the world, and to find ‘meaning’ in it.

    For some reason, the author was not able to foster a kind and giving heart unless there was something more to her effort than the alleviation of another’s suffering. She herself states this in black and white, yet you claim I’ve misread it — what have I misread?

    I’ll keep asking you to point such a statement out to me, please? Again, asking questions, analyzing one’s foundational principles, seeking understanding, etc. is not the same as claiming that one will NOT alleviate another’s suffering.

    You presume to know what Jen DID from this post, when she’s only revealed to you some small inkling of a thought process she was engaging in.

    Where does she NOT say that unless there’s greater “meaning”, she couldn’t make sense out of being a decent human being?

    That’s a very different criticism now, isn’t it? And it again speaks to thoughts not acts.

    We can have a discussion on how atheism’s lack of ‘greater’ meaning is a senseless (irrational) position if you want, but again and again, such a realization does not imply one will NOT be a decent human being.

    It only says that the do so, is based not on ‘meaning’ as you’d have it, but on mere personal preference and feelings.

    Would you like to have such a discussion?

  31. Anonymous

    Stephen —

    For the record, please show me where I stated I was an atheist.

    Since you’re convinced you have my “worldview” down, will you please let me in on it? Seems you know everything.

    So funny when some dumbass assumes you’re an atheist just because you’re not a Christian…heh.

  32. Anonymous

    BTW — just a thought — “eternal significance” from a human perspective doesn’t mean a damned thing without the reward/retribution aspect attached to it.

    Would the blog author be as high on all this meaning stuff as she is if it came from a god who created us to exist only for about 80 years, give or take, and then that was it? Would anyone accept that master plan?

    No matter how you dress it up, all this meaning and eternal signficance always boils down to “what will happen to me personally after I die”.

    It can’t ever mean anything else, or the meaning itself becomes meaningless to a human.

  33. Stephen...

    anonymous,

    I apologize if I mistook this quote, for example, for your worldview:

    “Steve [you’re addressing steveg], I realize you’re Christian, and can’t quite wrap your head around this, but there are actually people who don’t believe in God, in an afterlife, in a “divine soup”, in a master plan, or in some self-serving “meaning”, who help other people, even though they don’t necessarily even feel good about it.”

    I realize you say “people” and not “I”. The context implied you were defending this view as your own against the Christian view.

    Well, then… for the sake of understanding, instead of insulting my intelligence and hiding behind a brave moniker as well as being deceptively ambiguous in your position, please… let me in on your worldview.

  34. SteveG

    Steve, I realize you’re Christian, and can’t quite wrap your head around this, but there are actually people who don’t believe in God, in an afterlife, in a “divine soup”, in a master plan, or in some self-serving “meaning”, who help other people, even though they don’t necessarily even feel good about it.

    I probably know this far better than you do. I’d be willing to lay money that I personally know, and have conversed with more non-believers than you’ve ever met.

    See, I used to be a non-beleiver. My wife was a non-beleiver. Her parents still are non-believers, as are her sister, brother-in-law, oh heck her whole clan.

    And I know very well that with the exception of myself, they are all generally very kind and good people.

    And when I’ve talked with them about why they are so…they speak absolute nonsense. I am very glad indeed that they don’t live out their principles, because the world would be much worse off for it.

    It’s because you can’t get past your preconceived notion that people need a self-serving motivation, whether that motivation is being part of a big meaningful plan or divine reward, or just feeling good about yourself, that you can’t accept that there are people who do the right thing because they’re decent people.

    I know and accept it. I am not sure why you’d think otherwise. Though it is true, and happily so, it still makes no sense when you ask them to explain it on a deeper level.

    But, see, one of the things you’ll read most often on the average Catholic blog is that being a decent person isn’t enough, doesn’t fly with their god, doesn’t “mean” anything at all unless one follows all the rules and regs and memorizes all the right crap.

    Wait, didn’t you say that we do the good deeds only BECAUSE of the reward? Now you are saying that’s not why we do it. Which criticism do you want to level? You can’t have both.

    So I can see where genuinely decent people who do the right thing just because scare the living daylights out of people like you who’ve invested in the legalistic, idolatrous view.

    Sorry, I don’t spend my day trying to judge peoples thoughts, actions and motivations. I am simply glad when good is done, whatever the reasons.

    I’ll leave the judgments as to who’s ‘better’ in one whose hands are far more capable. Indeed I often suspect that I’ll come up very short in such a judgment.

  35. Anonymous

    Okay, Stephen, “Stephen” on the internet is equally as anonymous as “anonymous” on the internet.

    Unless I see an address, a phone number, a drivers’ license number and a social security number next to your name, you’re equally as anonymous as I am.

    Stop distracting from the fact that you decided to make this about personal attacks.

    I’m not going to respond to personal attacks. Or, from now on, anyone named Stephen or Steve. Seems like men just have to start bullying when they can’t get people to capitulate, and I’m just not interested in pansy-assed men who are big bullies on the ‘net, but who are, no doubt, powerless little loser middle-manager types in real life.

    And when I have a set-in-stone, absolute, certain “worldview”, I’ll let you know what it is.

  36. SteveG

    Beneficial? Sure, there’s something intrinsically beneficial to doing the right thing when it comes to extending aid/compassion/kindness to others. It’s beneficial to our species.

    So why is something that is beneficial to our species ‘good.’ What does it matter if our species survives?

    What if I told you that I’ve had atheists (rare I admit) argue that feeding that hungry child is ‘bad’ because it allows a less fit individual/society to continue? How would you contend against such an argument?

    But to imply that unless there’s this one brand of “meaning”, it’s all pointless, well, that’s just selfish.

    That isn’t the position being proferred. What’s being suggested is that the secular alternative simply makes no sense. I can disagree with the Islamic/mormon/Hindu ‘brand’ of meaning, but can respect it at least as being coherent. That is not something which can be said of the atheistic position.

  37. SteveG

    Would the blog author be as high on all this meaning stuff as she is if it came from a god who created us to exist only for about 80 years, give or take, and then that was it? Would anyone accept that master plan?

    Yep. I could. IN fact that’s what I did accept when I first came to belief. Before becoming Catholic, I had a far more deistic mindset, and I was absolutely fine with the thought that I personally might continue on. It was enough for me if what I did had meaning to the Divine. In fact many sects of ancient Judaism rejected the afterlife and the resurrection. Do you recall Jesus explicitly refuting that belief (which was actually quite common)?
    So the answer is yes, some people can and do find that master plan acceptable. You are mistaken in you notion that this boils down to what will happen to me after I die.

  38. Stephen...

    Good for you anonymous. Follow your moral intuition. You can’t be mistaken. Impossible. Everybody is right about everything.

    (I agree, though, I’m as anonymous as you. Good call [and in such a friendly manner].
    I was merely pointing out that I know as much about you as you write, which, along with not believing in God, you like to use a generic name).

    Several things:
    1) If you don’t believe in God, you have an atheistic worldview.
    2) Don’t argue against other people’s worldviews if you haven’t figured your own out – it may be your own.
    3) I think your view of ‘eternal significance’ is too shallow. It includes more than just ‘me’.
    4) Your ‘insults’ are really funny.
    5) I look forward *wink* to your response.

  39. SteveG

    N.
    This…
    I’m not going to respond to personal attacks. Or, from now on, anyone named Stephen or Steve. Seems like men just have to start bullying when they can’t get people to capitulate, and I’m just not interested in pansy-assed men who are big bullies on the ‘net, but who are, no doubt, powerless little loser middle-manager types in real life.

    …is to rich for words.

    Every encounter that I’ve seen you have here, and on the blogs of believers, you are always the aggressor, the one who is out for personal attacks, the most judgmental, and the quickest to take offense. I begin to suspect this a big shtick for you. I hope so.

    I realize you can’t see it, and at least in this medium you lack any capacity for self reflection, so I’ll beg off the conversation as well and stop responding to anyone named N. or Anonymous.

    BTW, what you call bullying is simply folks standing up to your judgmental, ill informed vitriol.

    Playing the ‘bullying man’ card is beyond pathetic for someone who invariably enters every conversation with guns blazing, and opened this very discussion by calling our beliefs a huge pile of manure.

  40. Stephen...

    Hey steveg,
    I really like your thoughtful comments. I didn’t want to get ‘into it’ with anon. because of the blindness people like that do show to their beliefs, words and actions. (Though of course, we should all be open to having our blind spots revealed).
    But, you gotta try right? Well, on second thought, maybe it doesn’t work too well on the internet. I’m encouraged by your words that you speak, in person, to so many…
    Keep it up.

  41. Warren

    steveg,

    You have the patience of a saint! Far more than I have. You set a good example.

  42. SteveG

    Thanks for the kind words guys. 🙂

  43. Jennifer F.

    Ladies! Gentlemen! Can we not set aside our differences and agree that this is a perfect summary of the human existence?

    Anyhoo…I’m considering closing comments to save us all from spending more time out of our day on this discussion. It’s been very, very interesting to follow — thank you all for your contributions — but I feel like the main points have been made. Anyone object?

  44. Stephen...

    Haha. I agree that that picture is… Awesome!
    Also: I cast a “No Objection” vote.

  45. Darwin

    I realize I’m way late to this show, but just for kicks:

    There’s a point in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations where his friend Scipio (who was a man of great political an military accomplishments) comes in and relates a dream that he’s had. In the dream, he was taken up to a point far, far above the earth and told: “Do you see that tiny spot on the world? That is the only place where anyone has ever heard of you. Why do you bother about your ‘greatness’ when it is so tiny?”

    Keep in mind, for the Romans, virtue was very much tied up with civic virtue. So basically what he’s being told is: What you’ve done makes very little difference in the grand scheme of things. You think you’ve made order throughout the world and done good, but few people now now it, and in a hundred years, who will remember? And a hundred years after that?

    What Cicero was essentially grappling with (and one could hardly accuse him of being a Christian, so we can’t pin it on that) was: If it’s not possible to fundamentally change the world through your actions, is it really worth doing the right thing in the first place. The answer he seems to take is that we can take pride in doing good even if there’s no reason to believe that it makes a difference in the grand scheme of things — but if that’s the best he can do, you can see why the question persists.

  46. Anonymous

    No, Steve. I offer an opinion or a comment and then, because YOU read vitriol or anger or judgment into it, you feel justified in making snarky personal attacks.

    I know. Same old drill. Jen’s blog, kiss Jen’s ass, agree or else, blahblahblah.

    Stephen is still insisting I don’t believe in God.

    Even when I’ve said that’s not true.

    See? But I daren’t get pissy about having to defend a negative because he is Catholic and therefore right about everything.

    Whatever.

    You people prove this over and over and over again because you don’t really believe in anything outside of the High Holy Church of St. Blogs.

    You don’t believe in any of the Christian nonsense you spew. If you do, you sure don’t act it. Never did, never will. That much is documentable.

    It doesn’t really seem like any of you are attuned at all to anything larger or greater than yourselves. The ego, among this crowd, seems to be at the center of all your beliefs and all your actions.

    That you are so insanely shallow as to believe that feeding a hungry child for no other reason than to alleviate the hunger of a child is not “meaning” enough for you just goes to show that you don’t give a damn about the child. What you really care about is how the action measures up on some scorecard or in some eternal archive somewhere.

    Just feed the damn kid and don’t make it about yourself and your nauseatingly self-obsessed, navel-gazing search for meaning worthy enough of your precious time already.

    Because that’s EXACTLY what your Jesus told you to do. Duh.

  47. Stephen...

    *sigh* – sorry to those who find this tedious.

    anonymous/whomever:

    I’m not going to respond to personal attacks. Or, from now on, anyone named Stephen or Steve.
    You kept your oath for, what? 2 hours? Amusing.

    I’m not insisting you don’t believe in God. If you read my last post to you, you see my interpretation, followed by the qualifying “IF you don’t believe in God…” etc.

    Your position is very much either a mindless or forced ethical behavior existence. “Don’t think! Do!”. We’re just lucky you’re promoting feeding starving orphans and not killing them.

    Also, I’m not Catholic, but, like Catholics, I am Christian.

  48. Anna

    Wow! Great perspective that you shared. It gave me much to think on and appreciate.

  49. Anonymous

    Dude. Learn to count. S’okay. You still wouldn’t even have had to remove your shoes to get it right…

    No. Again, you’re wrong.

    THIS is what you wrote:


    I agree, though, I’m as anonymous as you. Good call [and in such a friendly manner].
    I was merely pointing out that I know as much about you as you write, which, along with not believing in God, you like to use a generic name).

    I never wrote that I didn’t believe in God, a god, gods, whatever.

    Just because I take issue with one believer’s perspective does not mean I am automatically defending all non-believers’ views.

    I’m saying that the author’s opinion, as expressed, is appallingly self-centered and self-serving.

    To not be able to find any sense in stopping a child from suffering outside of the act of stopping the child from suffering is…obscene. It’s positively foul.

    Why does it have to be about her? Why can’t it be about the child without being about her? Why the need for Meaning with a capital M? Who says everything has to make sense or have a logical set of proofs before it has any intrinsic value? Why not just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do? How cold and devoid of empathy can she be that it’s all just so bloody meaningless to her if there isn’t some big divine significance to it all?

    That’s revolting.

    One really begins to fear for her children’s well-being. What happens to them the day she stops finding enough personal “meaning” in caring for them? They’re royall screwed, because it’s all about her first and her ability to find enough appropriate meaning before it happens.

    That’s actually pretty damned evil, when you get right down to it — questioning the value of not allowing a child to suffer based on the worth of the personal meaning you can find in the act.

    It has value in itself when you focus on the other person instead of your own special, precious, oh-so-freaking-holy self.

    But when all you ever think of 24/7 is your selfselfself and your personal holiness and your special little path to sainthood and how you look in God’s eyes and how you compare to Joe Blow down the street, yeah, I guess it’s hard to find any value in such an act unless you can find some way to land it all back in your own lap.

  50. Anonymous

    Wasn’t it the Christian God who asked a father to kill his own son and then lauded him for his willingness to follow along without thinking…?

    Yeah. Damned right it’s a good thing I don’t follow that god and I’m not asking people to kill children…

    I’m not telling people not to think.

    What I’m saying that it is appallingly ignorant, shallow, self-centered and quite repulsively piggy to insist that an act of kindness only has any value if you personally can assign to it a Meaning that satisfies YOU.

  51. lyrl

    The suggestion in Jen’s post (and indeed in many other places, such as the historian warren quoted) is that something that is meaningful now, is not truly meaningful unless it is remembered forever. Billions of years is not long enough, it needs to be forever.

    As an agnostic who believes meaning exists independently of God, and as a geek, I suggest that people who subscribe to this argument have not studied enough quantum physics, and so does not realize the permanence every moment has in space-time, regardless of whether that moment is remembered by anyone at another moment of space-time.

  52. SteveG

    lyrl:
    I think it’s helpful in these discussion to clarify terms, because more often than not we are simply speaking of different things when using the term meaning.

    I don’t think any of us would argue that there is NO meaning in a good act just because it’s transient meaning. It’s simply not transcendent meaning. Transcendent meaning is what’s under discussion in Jen’s post.

    I’ve said this before in discussions with you, and Darwin’s quote says it much more eloquently. If transient meaning satisfies your own understanding, that’s fine. But it simply doesn’t satisfy most people, and thus the question persists.

    Most people seem to inherently seek some more transcendent meaning.

    In addition, I think the charge that all the ‘meaning’ being discussed is self focused, is largely untrue. It’s not just that I want MY act to mean something because it’s important to me,me, me.

    It’s even more important to know that that the deed done for the other has real meaning for them.

    If I alleviate the hunger of a person, but they are nothing but a meat robot in reality, ultimately controlled by deterministic forces, what does this act actually achieve?

    This person will die and the good done that THEY experienced will be gone with them. In that case the real meaning, not my feelings, but the actual good done, goes with them.

    Yes, they had their hunger alleviated and in the end it meant nothing more than delaying the inevitable, that they would cease to exist. Were is the good done to that person? It is gone.

    If I had to choose between my own immortality so that I could retain the memory of all the ‘good’ I’ve done, or the immortality of those who received the good, it would be no contest. I’d rather have the good live on with them.

    That’s the essence of true Christian charity after all. To will and work for the good of the other for THEIR sake, rather than our own.

    I think that most of us rather take this point for granted in these discussions. If what we really meant was simply related to what these acts mean to US, I could see why someone would think that the height of selfishness.

    Thankfully, that’s not really how it’s being conceived in my own understanding. I just took/take it for granted that we are mostly talking about the meaning being present because it rests in the immortality of others (God and the recipient).

    I’ll let others agree or disagree as they want.

    As far as Quantum physics goes, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ‘studied’ it in any scholarly terms, but I’ve read enough about it by those who are experts to know that it says absolutely nothing about this question of meaning, transcendence, or permanence.

    If you think I am mistaken on that front, I am totally open to being corrected, but you’ll have to describe your own studies of QM and how it bears on this discussion.

  53. Stephen...

    Well anon., this will be my last response to you.
    (I just don’t have time to argue with someone who doesn’t seem to grasp the crux of the problem.)

    I thought you might get nit-picky about the tongue-in-cheek hour duration comment re: your oath-keeping.
    In fact, I was sort of hoping you would. It shows your ability to focus on the wrong issues (or put inordinate attention on the wrong issues).
    As if my little joke (that didn’t need millesecond exactitude) is more of a foul up than your breaking your word.

    Along the same theme of your missing the point, my comments

    as you write, which, along with not believing in God, you like to use a generic name

    were framed, as you may recall, in my interpretation of your writings… which is accurate to the degree that I was talking about the Christian God, Whom you later disparage in no uncertain terms. But, that doesn’t matter because you miss the point of this whole blog entry, as written by a former atheist, who used to have epistemological crises based on her worldview. Good for you that you hold certain moral certainties. Atheists do not – (or to be consistent with their worldview – ‘should’ not). For you see… ultimately to an atheist nothing is, as you say, ‘revolting’ or ‘evil’ – for it (humanity, life, the universe, and everything) is all and only nature/material interaction – which imputes no moral properties whatsoever.

    I don’t expect you to understand since you haven’t to this point, nor will I respond (intent on keeping my word) to any of your confused entries.

    Further examples of your confusion are your interpretation of certain scripture passages.

    I see that you’re stuck on making sure people aren’t so selfish/self-centered – and that’s good. But you are not graceful in communicating it, nor do you understand why that is utter nonsense in a world with no intrinsic, ultimate meaning.

    Farewell to you, and God (the Christian one) bless.

  54. SteveG

    Jen, it’s your blog of course, but I just wanted to put my 2 cents in on this thread.

    I know you desire to keep it as free and open as you can, but does there not come a time when a rude guest needs to be shown the door?

    N. (Anonmous)’s posts are dripping with spite and anger throughout from comment 1, and that’s the norm for her since she showed up here a while back. But more importantly, she appears to be obstinate in her desire to misread, and misrepresent what others write. And most significantly of all, on several occasions she’s simply gone way overboard for a forum where the norm is civil discourse.

    The examples are numerous, but most egregious is this….

    One really begins to fear for her children’s well-being. What happens to them the day she stops finding enough personal “meaning” in caring for them? They’re royall screwed, because it’s all about her first and her ability to find enough appropriate meaning before it happens.

    D you really need someone coming to a place you consider a journal for yourself hurling such evil at you?

    And none of this is a first time occurrence (including the implication that you children are ‘screwed’ because they have you as a mother). This simply goes beyond the pale in my opinion.

  55. Jennifer F.

    SteveG – Agreed. I’d just been offline for a while and hadn’t kept up with the comments. I do try to keep comments pretty open, but I’m not opposed to deleting comments that cross the line.

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