In the first debate of the book we take on the question of meaning. My concern here is not merely the possibility of meaning that is constructed out of personal preference or social convention. Rather, I am concerned with a meaning that we discover. The theist’s understanding of meaning, as I defend it here, is tied to teleology: what were you made for?
Elton John captures this conception of meaning in his song “Skyline Pigeon” which describes a caged bird longing to be freed to fly. For that bird, meaning, purpose, and fulfillment comes in being allowed to be and do that for which it was designed.
Turn me loose from your hands
Let me fly to distant lands
Over green fields, trees and mountains
Flowers and forest fountains
Home along the lanes of the skyway…
What does it mean for a human being to live a meaningful life? It means that we live in accord with the moral good. As I write,
“The life lived by Mother Teresa is objectively preferable to that of Molly Hatchet because she more closely approximates the intended created end of a human being. And that means there are objective facts that guide the proper living of a human life as surely as there are facts that guide the proper wearing of go-go boots.” (15)
The purpose of a human life is to live in accord with the moral good, to seek to cultivate the moral virtues and expand the realm of justice, love and goodness within the created world. It is a noble endeavor indeed. The doctors who risk their lives fighting Ebola in West Africa are living an objectively meaningful life insofar as their actions of self-service and compassion conform to the moral good. The same is true for each of us insofar as we live in accord with the moral good within our sphere of influence.
And how does Loftus, as an atheist, propose to account for meaning? He paints a picture in which human beings are all locked up in a house together for no reason at all and with no possibility of escape. And so we simply must make the best of our situation. This is how he describes biding his time in this “house” that symbolizes our human lives:
“I would find things to occupy my time for starters. And the more productive these activities are, the better. I would get to know the others by engaging in meaningful conversation, because people are interesting to me. I would do things with the others too. I would find activities we could do together, like playing games, or working to keep the house clean, or seeing how many kinds of meals we could make from the ingredients given us.” (16)
This is an extraordinarily thin conception of meaning and purpose. Indeed, as I point out in my rebuttal, Loftus denies that there is any meaning to life, and so the best thing we can do is to find a way to occupy our time and keep ourselves entertained:
“John suggests helping others because ‘it would give me pleasure.’ That’s fine if you happen to get your jollies from helping others, but what about those who find pleasure in hurting others? Is that okay too? John’s answer is not reassuring; since our existence is ‘pointless’ anyway, he can only say that ‘we must create meaning and purpose.'” (17-18)
Loftus is certainly not the first person to embrace this thin account of a meaningful life. In my article “Anomie and the City: A Reflection on ‘Midnight in Paris’” I argue that Woody Allen takes an approach to life and meaning which is fundamentally like this: find the best way to keep yourself entertained until you die and turn to worm food.
So this is the contrast we have in the first debate. I argue that human beings were designed to live in accord with the moral good and thus insofar as our lives succeed in doing that, we are living in accord with the objective meaning and purpose for which we were created. This, in turn, renders the lives we live objectively meaningful. By contrast, John concedes that on his view there is no objective meaning, and thus the best he can offer is that we all find the best way to occupy our time and keep ourselves entertained.
If you are persuaded that Loftus is wrong and thus that our lives are meaningful insofar as they are lived in accord with the moral good, and if you believe that atheism lacks the metaphysical resources (e.g. teleology) to ground this conception of meaning, then you have a good reason to reject atheism.