Andy Bannister is the director and top apologist of RZIM Canada and author of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. In the following 3 minute video (part of a lengthy series of similar videos) he argues that life is meaningless without God.
So what should we say about Andy’s argument?
To begin with, Andy opens with the question of whether one can be “good without God”. That is a question of moral value and it should be distinguished from questions pertaining to existential meaning. Admittedly, the two are linked (and depending on how one cashes out existential meaning, they could be equated), but conceptually they are nonetheless distinct. The same goes for meaning and purpose. They also are conceptually distinct, though they could be equated or otherwise linked in a particular account.
Andy then turns to discuss meaning and purpose (which he appears to treat as synonyms). He says that for purpose to “really be true” it has to be “given”. A rock on a beach, for example, is the product of blind, undirected forces and as such as no purpose in itself. It is only when a person takes the rock and appropriates it for a use that it gains a meaning. Andy then observes:
“If there is no God to grant purpose to our lives we are in the same position as the rock on the beach.”
I understand that this is a three minute video, but that doesn’t mean it is immune to critique. So let me note a few problems with leaving the analysis at this point.
First, Andy has presented one account of meaning — a teleological account — without defending the claim that the teleological account is the only viable account. Needless to say, there are substantive non-teleological accounts of meaning on offer which don’t appeal to deity, and until they are rebutted Andy’s job isn’t done.
Here’s one non-theistic possibility. One begins by endorsing a Platonic moral realism: in other words, the catalogue of existence includes quarks, scientific laws, space, and moral value/disvalue which is exemplified in the intentional actions of moral agents. Once we’ve recognized the existence of a Platonic Good, one can argue that “meaning” consists of becoming the kind of person who lives their life in greater conformity to moral value. This would be an account that links existential value with moral value. And note that it doesn’t require the person to say that they were designed to live morally.
And what about relative accounts of meaning or purpose? Let’s assume for the moment that meaning/purpose are teleological in nature. Why can’t the meaning or purpose derive from society? I know what you’re thinking: cultural relativism. Well, this could be a form of cultural relativism. (Keep in mind: we can’t assume by fiat that cultural relativism is a non-starter. It too must be rebutted.) But an account that traces meaning or purpose to societies could also be melded to the Platonic moral realism I referenced above in which case the individual would have rational grounds to prefer or prioritize the meaning bequeathed by cultures that live in greater conformity to the Good.
Second, Andy never explains what it is about God’s imputing of purpose to an agent which gives it unique authority. As a theologian I understand that the word “God” functions as an end to explanation. But Andy should explain how he believes that God’s attribution of meaning to the creature is uniquely authoritative.
Does God have that unique power to impute meaning/purpose to entities in virtue of having created those entities? That is problematic. After all, Andy’s illustration of meaning/purpose consists of Andy imputing meaning/purpose to a rock that he didn’t create.
Or could it be that God has that unique authority because God is also the source of moral value? If Andy wants to argue this, he needs to address the Euthyphro objection. So yeah, it’s complicated.
Let’s turn to Andy’s second argument which begins at approximately one minute into the video:
“Whatever meaning you invent for your life, the outcome is precisely the same. On atheism you will die, your children will die…”
Andy goes on to explain how the universe will eventually come to an end. And he caps it off with a famous quote from Bertrand Russell that the soul’s habitation can only be built on despair.
But let’s hold on for a moment. Just because Russell says something it doesn’t follow that others are obliged to agree with him. Imagine an atheist quoting John Piper — or C.S. Lewis, or Franklin Graham, or Karl Barth — and then assuming that every Christian is obliged to agree with Piper (or Lewis or Graham or Barth). Nuh uh. Just because somebody says something doesn’t mean others are obliged to agree.
As for the argument itself, Andy seems to assume that if you and those you love do not exist forever then life has no meaning. But there are good reasons to reject this claim. Let me give two such responses, the first of which will appeal to atheists and the second to Christians.
First, an atheist could reply like this: “Okay, but in mainstream Christianity people go to one of two possible states in the afterlife: eternal joy and bliss or unimaginable torment. And since no person can be absolutely certain that they are saved, you Christians are playing double or nothing. The thought that I might end up in eternal torment is a terrifying prospect. By contrast, the finitude of life ending in annihilation is a calming assurance.”
Next, let’s consider the response specifically for the Christian. We can begin by noting that Andy’s second argument adds an additional criterion to his teleological account of meaning or purpose. In addition to the original imputation of purpose granted by the original creating agency, Andy’s analysis also requires that the human person continue to exist forever. Should a Christian accept this?
No. Consider that this entails that counterfactually had God created human beings to live lives of goodness and love for a finite period after which they would cease to exist, that their lives would thereby have lacked meaning or purpose.
But this seems clearly false. In that world of divinely superintended finite human existence there would still be love, relationship, friends, good food, fine wine, dazzling sunsets, sparkling snowcapped mountain peaks, journeys, joy, holidays, culture, forgiveness, healing, and altruism. Why wouldn’t that be sufficient for meaning and purpose? Why couldn’t a person live a life like this and die old and full of years, having lived a great life imbued with meaning and purpose which then lapses into non-existence?
It seems to me that such a life would indeed by meaningful and purposeful. Thus, I conclude that Andy’s claim is false: it is not necessary that a life must endure eternally for that life to have meaning or purpose.