Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Scandal of Atheism

Atheists are facing a grave scandal today that threatens the very roots of atheism.

It is almost identical to the one that enveloped philosophy itself around the end of the nineteenth century. Back in the early 1900s, the question was this: How do I know that you really exist? Maybe you're just a dream of mine, maybe the whole world is a dream. I claim the external world doesn't exist. You say you're real, not just my dream? Prove it!

And so you try ... and it turns out to be impossible. No matter what you say, I can counter by pointing out that in my dream, that's what you'd be likely to say, that it's just my own mind dreaming up answers to my questions.

To most people, it seems like a silly question, but philosophers were very perplexed. Immanuel Kant famously called it "the scandal of philosophy" that philosophers couldn't even prove the existence of the external world.

But the great philosopher Martin Heidegger saw this "scandal" for what it was: a made-up problem. He famously wrote:
The 'scandal of philosophy' is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.
Heidegger's view was that the question was essentially useless (not his words, but that's the idea) – one can make up all sorts of impossible questions, and the only scandal is when you take them seriously and waste whole careers, decades and centuries trying to find answers.

Atheism faces an almost identical scandal today. We've been sucked into a silly argument that has no answer, one that should never have been asked in the first place. But we've been sucked into it, and it has become the Scandal of Atheism. The question is deceptively simple:
What is the meaning of life?
The Scandal of Atheism is not that we've been unable to find a godless answer to this question, but that we keep trying to find meaning, again and again.

The scandal is not that we can't find an answer to this question, but that our immersion in this Judeo-Christian culture has convinced us that it's an important question, one that requires an answer. We humans created gods thousands of years ago, and then used god or gods to give ourselves a purpose: to worship those very gods that we created. Life here on Earth seemed cruel, capricious and difficult, but there was meaning behind it all. Death wasn't the end. It was the beginning of the real purpose of our lives.

The trouble atheists have is that we're now rejecting the gods, but we forgot to throw out the meaning of life along with it. There is no cosmic purpose to our existence, we just sort of happened. But scandalously, we let the theists keep prodding us with this question – what is the purpose of life? – and we keep trying to answer it.

We need to stop. There is no cosmic purpose to life. It just happened. The Scandal of Atheism will keep being scandalous until we stop taking this question seriously. It's a made-up problem that requires no answer.

If you must find a purpose for your life, try using the one discovered over 2,500 years ago by the Socratic philosophers: happiness is a good thing. We can all agree on that, without any deep metaphysical pondering. We can make our lives meaningful by enjoying ourselves, being kind to others so that they can have happiness, and bringing happy, healthy children into the world so that happiness can be magnified and last forever. Surely that is a worthy purpose.


  1. This article makes huge sense.
    We all were taught to look for meaning of life.
    But really, what were we born as? We weren't born with the bible, or learning how to live life. We were born to live. For ourselves, for our family and our community. There is no 'meaning of life'.

  2. It is important to frame questions correctly. It is a common error to ask "Why?" questions about the world, but "Why?" is only relevant to the internal processes of individuals.

    All scientific questions should be addressed as "How?" questions rather than "Why?" questions.

    "Why?" implies purpose.

    "How?" implies process.

  3. After a further consideration, I believe I should have said:

    It is important to frame questions correctly. It is a common error to ask "Why?" questions about the world, but "Why?" is only partially relevant to the internal processes of individuals.

    All rational questions should be addressed as "How?" questions rather than "Why?" questions.

    "Why?" implies purpose.

    "How?" implies process.

  4. Jaycubed -- Since there is no creator, there can be no purpose behind the universe, so asking "Why?" is useless. Is that what you're saying? It's a good way to look at it. You can't ask "why?" if there's nobody to ask.

  5. Yes, but there's more involved when asking any "Why?" question.

    At best a "Why?" question might be answered as to the reason/motivation for a particular behavior performed by that individual.

    "Why did I do that?

    But even that can be tricky: whatever the unconscious might be, I have experience of it (acting both individually & within groups of individuals). Most human behaviors are barely semi-conscious, so asking "Why?" regarding the purpose of ones' own actions can usually be answered only partially at best.

    Usually we don't ask "Why?" about we do the things that we do. Our behaviors are often ritualized/semi-automatic rather than rationally purposeful.

    "Why?" can also be a speculative question concerning the reasons/motivations of others:

    "Why did They do that?"

    Considering the difficulty of understanding ones' own reasons/motivations, it is no wonder that the purpose of much of the behavior of our fellows, even (perhaps especially) those we are closest to, can be impossible to comprehend fully.

  6. There is no need to ask "How" or "Why". Make the two wolds a contraction and just say "Wow". That is what life is all about. "Wow".

  7. There is no inherent meaning of life. Everyone is free to decide, on their own, what meaning their particular life might have. It's the same for all people whether they're honest enough to admit it or not, some people simply waste the opportunity to decide their own fate by adopting a concept dreamed up by someone else and declaring that concept to be absolute, like it or not.

    The "absolute meaning of life" if a pointless question, it simply doesn't exist. It's like asking "what is the meaning of green"?

  8. edmundson said...
    "There is no need to ask "How" or "Why". Make the two wolds a contraction and just say "Wow". That is what life is all about. "Wow"."

    So all that one needs to know is that one has a sense of wonder, yet never should try to examine the source of that wonder. No thanks.

    P.S. I previously neglected one legitimate category of "Why?" questions:

    "Why should I?"

    Sadly, the usual response to such a question is to cite authority; either "the Big Fairy" says so or "I (who am bigger than you)" say so". There are always rational responses (pro or con) to such questions; they are rarely even considered.

  9. This is a really important point. Thanks for bringing it to attention.

    There is no external or divine purpose. It's just us, and whatever we decide to do with our lives.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.