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.

Motivation to Care

January 7, 2013

There was an interesting piece in the NYT’s in late Dec. concerning the ‘Humanist’ response or in this case, non-response to the Newtown massacre. It appears to confirm what many Christians have often said – there is no substantive comfort in atheism when faced with grief and loss. Interestingly certain secularists acknowledge this shortcoming:

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.

“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

In an attempt to protect atheism from responsibility for any wrongs committed by atheists, secularists are quick to point out that the term atheism is descriptive, not proscriptive. But when it comes to positive actions like caring for those in need atheists are quick to take credit for ‘being good without God’. This might work when it comes to feeding the hungry or raising money for a charity, but when it comes to offering hope to the bereaved or dying, atheism obviously has nothing to offer. Like it or not, when one faces the finality of death, existence apart from God is always nihilistic; and there is certainly no hope or comfort in nihilism. Of course this is quite different for the Christian who is commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and who have hope to offer beyond the grave.

That fact that Christianity offers hope to those who have suffered tragic losses doesn’t in and of itself prove Christianity true, but it does demonstrate that the lack of faith represents a significant loss. And given the fact that humans have a universal need for such comfort and hope, it demonstrates that there is a deeper aspect to human life that atheists simply don’t comprehend.


April 17, 2012

Most atheists that I know aren’t nihilists, and atheism doesn’t invariably lead to nihilism, but on the road to nihilism atheism is a critical first step.

Honest Atheism

May 11, 2010

Occasionally I will run across a statement by an atheist that is refreshingly honest. This isn’t to imply that all atheists are somehow intentionally or necessarily dishonest, but rather they simply don’t honestly assess the implications of their own claims. Occasionally this occurs (as happens here, where PZ Myers acknowledges how atheism reduces humans down to mere biology) but more often than not they try to put a happy face on the nihilism and despair inherent in atheism.

Jerry Coyne made such an honest assessment recently when discussing the possibility that chimps are aware of their own mortality, and the fact that humans have knowledge of their inevitable deaths:

Although many atheists see our knowledge of death as a blessing, making us realize that life is ephemeral and we should live it to the fullest, I see it as a curse. It takes a certain amount of courage to face the fact that one day we will lose everything we have.  Few of us, I think, are enough like Socrates to accept our mortality with equanimity.  Yes, our consciousness is gone when we die, and yes, we don’t agonize about our absence from the scene before we were born, but I for one would choose immortality or, barring that, at least merciful ignorance of my finitude.

The reality is that it is a hallmark of humanity to want to prolong life beyond it’s limits, and we are unique amongst creatures in this respect. Whether through plastic surgery in modern times, or by building pyramids in ancient times, humans universally attempt to ameliorate what is supposed to be ‘natural’. There is no good explanation or remedy for this condition in atheism – there is only the bleak prospect of the abyss and the fact that our existence doesn’t ultimately matter in any real sense to an indifferent universe. The Christian however knows that the reason we fear death is because we were not designed to die and cease to exist – we are inherently eternal beings, and death is not natural to us, it is an aberration. Of course, we also have hope in eternity, and the assurance of the life Jerry Coyne can only dream of – a life without end.