The Necessity of Meaning

January 15, 2013

The Atlantic recently featured an article called the There’s More to Life Than Being Happy which considers the difference between mere happiness and having purpose. The piece outlines the difference between the fleeting and selfish desire to be happy versus the lasting value of outward focused meaning which can endure even the greatest suffering. The article highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, a prominent 20th century Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote a seminal book on meaning inspired by his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp called, Man’s Search for Meaning. The article explains the essence of the Frankl’s understanding of what lay at the core of those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps:

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

In reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many conversations I have had with atheists, particularly those of the New Atheist variety concerning the importance of meaning. Whenever I point out (as I often have) that the materialism and naturalism upon which New Atheism is derived essentially renders human life without purpose, atheists begin by pooh-poohing the importance of meaning and then blithely claim that meaning can be created for oneself. Frankl’s witness seems to undermine that proposition; it’s not so easy to lie to oneself when circumstances dictate otherwise. In a concentration camp either one has intrinsic purpose beyond the experience or one succumbs to the suffering.

But the absence of meaning doesn’t just weaken our ability to face suffering; it also corrupts us and increases our tendency to cause others to suffer. In his examination of the motivations of the Nazi regime, Frankl came to this conclusion:

If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone.

I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy, 1982, p. xxi)

This captures as much as anything why as a Christian I see it as critically important to argue against the materialism and naturalism of New Atheism; it is damaging to the well-being of individuals and it is ultimately damaging to society as a whole. Apart from seeing in men the image of God and believing that He has a plan and purpose for our lives we have no substantive basis for hope and meaning.


December 9, 2011

I am always surprised how often atheists of even the most sophisticated variety miss the mark when it comes to discussions on morality. The question really isn’t whether a particular behavior can be explained or understood ‘naturally’, the question of the ages is can human behavior rise above nature?

Interestingly Jesus addressed that very question when He said:

Matthew 5:43-48

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We can easily explain the way Nazi’s treated people via naturalism, but a transcendent morality is necessary to explain the actions of the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

A Dialogue with Judge – 1

April 23, 2011

A while back a poster on this site, Judge asked a number of questions about points I was making, which later culminated in a lengthy post on his own blog. I have wanted to respond to a number of points in part because they are interesting questions, and also because I enjoy dialoguing with Judge.

I personally don’t consider this a ‘debate’ because I don’t think that is his intention to merely contect my points. The response has been somewhat delayed because I have been busier than usual lately, and it is spring in Minnesota when a young man’s fancy turns to cleaning his garage and fertilizing his lawn. 🙂

This is the first of what will be a two, possibly 3 part post.

Jack says: I wasn’t referencing Harris, but if this is his point, then he is plainly wrong – science as a methodology is largely the result of Christian thinkers (like Newton, Pascal, and Bacon) who readily intertwined their scientific thought, philosophy and theology. But science and Christianity are different in their effects on the acquisition of knowledge in this respect – Christianity forms the basis of societies, cultures, and institutions in which human thought can operate in such a way as to allow human flourishing. Science has no creative power in this regard. While science is the product of such societies and can be used as a tool within such societies for much good it is not itself useful as a foundation for human culture; and the outcomes of trying to use it that way can be horrendous.

A few things to say here. Firstly, I find the statement on the origins of science a bit too convenient, as it wittingly forgets to mention fathers of the scientific method who were famously at odds with Christian institutions or their predominant doctrines (Copernico, Galileo, even Leonardo, all of whom precede your thinkers, incidentally). Far more importantly, though, you try to sketch a difference between Christianity and science without bothering to substantiate your points. Yes, if scientific discourse is selectively adopted as the spine of an ethical system, the results can be disastrous (but bear in mind that Nazism wasn’t exclusively the product of eugenetics, perhaps not even primarily – its roots were cultural and historical as well, harkening back to Germanic mythology, romanticised knight-hood militarism, Nietzschean philosophy, among others. The swastika, an ancient mythological symbol, should be an illuminating example, and remember that Hitler was an artist).

A few thoughts; I don’t know that one would rightly put Copernicus, Galileo and Leonardo ‘at odds’ with Christianity per se. Copernicus and Galileo certainly challenged the notion of geocentricism, a stance adopted by the Roman Catholic church via the Scholasticism of the medieval period that brought Aristotelian paradigms into Church tradition. None of the three men ever rejected Catholicism, indeed Copernicus was a Catholic cleric, and some of Leonardo’s most notable works were religious in nature. Galileo had issues with the Church, but he can’t in the least be described as an atheist. And Galileo was a contemporary with Bacon, not a predecessor. Interestingly Galileo suffered from the Counter-Reformation, while Bacon seems to have benefited from the Reformation. None of this seems to contradict the notion that modern science came to fruition as the result of Christian thinkers.

And my point about the difference between Christianity and science was in terms of the ability (and a history) of each in producing cultures. There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic traditions, or the Reformation based European societies, or the Puritan foundations of America were broad and culturally creative in any number of areas – art, music, literature, philosophy,political theory, economics, and the substance of human communities. There is no such correspondence with mere scientific thought. I will touch on eugenics after your next point.

I just to bring even more clarity, I don’t think the scientific method was a direct and immediate emanation of Christian thought, nor do I think no scientific discoveries could be made apart from Christianity – obviously there were many. What I contend is that the methodology upon which modern science is based is the product of Christian minds acting in a Christian culture according to Christian pre-suppositions.

What you fail to mention is that Christianity too has led to some horrendous results in societies were it was adopted as the basis. The Inquisition produced a holocaust comparable for scope and atrocities to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. And you know as well as I do that there are many more examples. Yes, you can argue that these societies were based on distortions or misinterpretations of Christianity. But your own sentence on Darwinism applies just as well to Christianity: And it’s not a matter of whether evolution leads to eugenics – evolution did lead to eugenics – this is undisputable history, not conjecture. Whether it should have is another question. If you don’t know this, then you are either ignorant of history or intentionally being deceptive.

Try swapping the words evolution/eugenics with Christianity/Inquisition, and tell me that the paragraph doesn’t hold up just as well.

Well the difference between the cases is historically apparent. Eugenics was a movement that started within the life of Darwin. It was developed by his cousin Galton who considered it a natural derivative of evolutionary thinking. The first International Eugenics Conference was chaired by Darwin’s son. Eugenics was considered by a worldwide consensus of scientists as the “self-direction of human evolution” and policies implementing it were adopted not only by the Nazi’s but by governments throughout Europe, Canada, the US and Australia. Nazism may have had many influences (including insanity itself) but eugenics gave their policies the sheen of scientific acceptability which resulted in the deaths of millions.

By contrast, the Spanish Inquisition was fundamentally contradictory to the central teachings of Christ (love your neighbor, forgive one another, etc.). It happened a thousand years after the founding of the Church, and resulted in deaths numbering at the most in the thousands, nothing like the millions in Nazi Germany. I don’t hold Christianity innocent in regards to the existence of the Inquisition or the deaths it produced, but the cases are quite different. In addition Christianity has a means of correcting itself morally; the Reformation, which represented a return to a personal familiarity with Christian principles, had a tremendous effect on alleviating the ills perpetuated during medieval times by Church institutions. Eugenics on the other hand was only rejected when the cost in human lives was so overwhelmingly horrible that it couldn’t be sustained.

This isn’t to say ‘science’ is necessarily responsible for eugenics, but I do think it highlights the dangers of scientism, and the belief that science alone can provide a foundation for human societies.

Okay, time to discuss one more point:

I like your interpretation of the social role of Christianity (though it has, ironically, a faintly Marxist backtaste). But it seems to me that you need to address your bias. Christianity too, like science, is liable to misinterpretations and to our “natural tendency to live immorally.” It too can (and has been) readily exploited in the context of power-struggles. In this sense, my question to you is this: why is Christianity exempt from the corrupting influence of power and immorality which plagues all other systems and cultures? Why does Christianity have this ‘special status,’ when it led to just as much suffering and injustice as, say, Marxism or the French Revolution?

Well, Christians certainly are not exempt from the corrupting influence of power and immorality. Neither are Christian institutions. Much of the history of Christianity is in fact a history of stops and starts, moving forward three steps and back two. I believe it is a progressive belief system in that while there are many faults along the way in terms of its perfect implementation (which were anticipated by Christ from the start, by the way) the set of principles we have had from the start lead us constantly forward greater human flourishing. I don’t think it is any accident that the greatest health, freedom prosperity, human education and charity lie mainly in the West; it is where Christianity has its deepest and longest roots.

And I would disagree that there has been ‘just as much’ suffering and injustice as Marxism or the French Revolution. The French Revolution led to the immediate deaths of tens of thousands of people, chaos, and the eventual installment of a dictator who brought even more pain to the whole of Europe.

Marxism, at least in terms of its manifestation in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and various African nations led to the deaths of tens of millions of person, not to mention untold poverty, starvation, and severe limitations on freedom. The suffering it brought in the 20th century was unrivaled in human history.
That’s it for now – I will try to touch on other points at a later time.

Low Hanging Fruit

September 28, 2010

I was just listening to the debate between David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens on the question, ‘Does Atheism Poison Everything?‘ I won’t detail too much of what was said (you should watch it for yourself here) but I did note that Christopher Hitchens made a terrible blunder. At about 36 minutes into the debate he states that it is a, “filthy slander” to say that Nazism was the ‘implementation of Charles Darwin”. He further states that Darwin’s thought was, “not taught in Germany” and that Darwinism, “was derided in Germany”.

Either Hitchens was being terribly disingenuous here (something I doubt as I consider him to be a very honest person) or he was simply and profoundly ignorant of history on this count. A simple review of the relevant history will show us how.

In 1912 the 1st International Eugenics Conference was presided over by Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin. It was dedicated to Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who studied and popularized the idea of eugenics. This spawned a worldwide Eugenics movement which had its implementation in government policies as well as the establishment of eugenics institutes throughout the world. Eugenics was in modern parlance, the reigning scientific consensus.

The 3rd and final Eugenics Conference was in 1932. At that conference Ernst Rüdin was unanimously elected president of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. It was the very same Ernst Rüdin who was to head the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Rassenhygiene (German Society for Racial Hygiene) and who was one of the authors of the statute Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring which was the justification for Nazi sterilization laws, and later the elimination of the Jews.

So Hitchens is quite wrong on this count. While Nazi Germany was not the only country to implement the Darwin inspired eugenics ideas, the Third Reich was certainly the worst outgrowth of a movement which sprung directly from Darwin’s theories.