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.