Meaning of Life and Death

I recently watched the Dawkins series on the meaning of Life on channel 4. I found it quite interesting, Dawkins is a very eloquent speaker and asks some good questions. He looks at three parts of the meaning of life – sex, death and getting out of bed in the morning – ethics, morality and meaning in life. I like Richard Dawkins and I think he is being genuine in his questions and he seeks answers from different areas – religious people and scientists. The conclusions that Dawkins brings is that basically the reason why atheists can get out of bed in the morning is because there is much beauty in life to enjoy, so get up and enjoy life knowing that you have come from a fish and you will carry on for generations in your DNA. There is no god, no afterlife, no reason of hope – but just enjoyment free of guilt, the creativity from arts and science to keep our minds alive and the knowledge that this life is it so make the most of it.

I wonder how people found this? This is a genuine question because I think on one level Dawkins is right. If you are an atheist then that’s what you must do with life – enjoy it till the end and when death is on your doorstep you are not to fear because your genes will carry on in your offspring.

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (Isaiah 22:13)

Dawkins is right, there is nothing more to hope for than that and there is nothing more you want to hope for is there? But it leaves me with questions. I think back to my atheist self before I was a christian and I remember trying to embrace this, this enjoyment of life and be happy with the idea that there is nothing after. It left me feeling empty. My heart yearned for more, I cannot deny that I was not satisfied in Dawkins approach – I wonder how many other people aren’t either. When faced with death, I wonder how things would change in the way you think? I guess the question is whether Dawkins is right or not regardless about our wishful thinking! For me, I went out and examined what other people were saying and I was persuaded by a man called Jesus Christ – if you watched this program and felt an emptiness and yearning for more like I did, then come and investigate this guy Jesus Christ.

The other thing was that Dawkins is in a very good position and so are most of us. Rich, affluent, good education – dreams and desires are in our grasp and we can pick and choose what we want in life. It’s easy to fill our hearts with the comfort the world offers and dismiss the idea of anything after. We have had our fill and can do with no more – god is crushed under our affluence. But what of those that are not rich or affluent, who struggle each day, who have terminal illnesses – their hope is simply to just enjoy their life even though they may not be able to? Again it feels so empty. Richard spoke to a sweeper guy in India and he says that his sweeping gives him purpose in life, which it may – but I wonder if he hopes for more? You see Richard offers empty darkness at the end of life, a nothingness that engulfs you and if this life hasn’t worked out then its just the pattern of evolution and you need to get over it. I think that way is too easy to say from someone in a nice suit and a big house.

But Jesus offers hope, a man who has walked in the dust, walked among the poor and ate with the outcasts. He humbled himself from the riches of glory to the dust and dirt of the earth. And He offers us eternal life, even if this world is crap we can come to him and receive life in him that is overflowing in goodness and hope. Those that are ill will be made well, those that are poor will be rich, those that suffering will be comforted. It’s easy for the rich to cast such remarks about eternity even though I have no doubt there is time when they will ask… “is there more than this?”… I asked that and found the answer in Jesus.

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6 thoughts on “Meaning of Life and Death

  1. Apologies for the length of this post, but you touched a nerve.

    Like your opinion of Dawkins, some of what you say has worth, but it contains problems – here comprising misinterpretation. For example, you note that ‘Richard offers empty darkness at the end of life, a nothingness that engulfs you and if this life hasn’t worked out then its just the pattern of evolution and you need to get over it.’ That is NOT what the programme said: Dawkins spoke explicitly – when talking about the Dalits in India – of one possible meaning of life being a desire to break out of social-cultural constraints, to better your lot in life, to fight oppression, and especially to help others do so. Helping others, both he and the religious persons involved agreed, is a worthy pursuit.

    Similarly, you mention Dawkins’s wealth etc; well, so did he! He agreed with the Buddhists that Western society is too focused on materialism. One of Dawkins’s responses to that was indeed to pursue art, creativity, and knowledge. Introspection, reflection, and ‘spirituality’ with a small ‘S’ are not the sole reserve of the religious. The non- or irreligious do not become, or are not, necessarily hedonistic. Instead, like Dawkins in these programmes, there can be a great amount of contemplation, whether philosophical, meta-ethical, or other. I would argue that there is just as much, if not more, searching for meaning and understanding right and wrong than within certain religions. And it’s empowering – the human brain, a product of evolution, pondering such issues and attempting to resolve them is a wonderful thought.

    Dawkins never claimed the pursuit of ‘enjoyment free of guilt,’ and indeed constantly rallied against that view of atheists by emphasising the importance of social bonds, of other people, of essentially – yes – doing unto others as you would have done unto you (a principle often attributed to Jesus which he supports in his writings – he’s not against all of the human-origin reasoning underpinning religious thought!).

    Further, whilst in India, Dawkins spoke with disdain about the ease of life in the West, or at least those who ‘complain about patchy mobile phone reception’ (AKA First World problems). You are doing someone whose intellectual curiosity you admire a disservice by reducing his worldview to an overly-simplistic framework, one naturally juxtaposed against your current mindset. For the record, I do not agree with everything he says either – although I evidently agree more than you do – but I think it only right to outline fairly and properly that with which one disagrees!

    In response to the notion that one is left yearning for more in life according to this atheistic worldview, I would sort of agree with you. Yes, the universe and life is wonderful and natural and down to chance, and we have indeed won the lottery even by existing. But, as the last programme emphasised, that does leave atheists asking searching questions and requiring more. However, just because we may feel like ‘is this it?’, that does not mean that there IS something else. Dissatisfaction with the Dawkins approach, as you put it, does not logically mean that God exists – and even if a creator-deity does exist, that does not logically mean that the Christian flavour exists. I am of course not suggesting that this is the be-all and end-all of your reasons for faith, to which you are entitled; I am merely saying that the argument here that a Godless universe is a tough one, possibly a sad one, does necessarily not make it less true. The truth can hurt. Wanting something to exist does not mean it does, and the fact that someone’s searching for it in the first place suggests that they will be easily persuaded by certain arguments – working backwards, with an idea for which they then see or accumulate potential evidence, however flawed. Naturally, this flawed reasoning applies equally to some atheists who start off by thinking there is no God, rejecting the possibility and not engaging with alleged evidence. I am not one of those: for me, none of the evidence I have examined holds up.

    You seem to, perhaps inadvertently, be admitting that religion is indeed the celebrated crutch – that if you’re rich and well-off, then that’s fine, but if you’re poor and downtrodden, well, you’re desperate so why not turn to religion which offers hope? The same regarding ‘soul-searching’: if someone feels like there is more to life, then why not give a religion a try, because they always say that there is something more! This seems to be an avowal that religion is (just) a coping mechanism, particularly for the emotionally vulnerable.

    I would also dispute the idea that there is no hope in a Godless universe. There are many variations of hope – hope that you will find love, hope that you can help other people, hope that your loved ones have a fulfilling life, hope that you and others can better themselves, hope that people can make a difference, and more. Also, the religious (Christian) hope essentially forces you to accept your lot in ‘this’ life, because the next life is what it’s truly about. This is why African slave populations were so religious, and why their disenfranchised descendants often are (although of course slavery is acceptable according to certain Old Testament scripture anyway).

    I do not wish to be provocative, and certainly not to start an argument on the evidence for or against the existence of Gods and sons of Gods and so on. I just wanted to point out that alternative views are available, that you may be seeing what you want to see in the Dawkins programmes, and that reductionist arguments – assuming the perspective of others without actually engaging with such people – are problematic. I do not believe that all religious people are bad people, quite the contrary, whatever I think of their beliefs; I do not think you should see all atheists as immoral hedonists who live in dark despair, which seems to be the only alternative you’re providing here.

    I am a formerly religious atheist, and although life is tough and there is no God, life is also a wonderful gift, given by pure chance. It is the result of an amazing, random process, full of its own awe and splendour. To have the opportunity to participate in the universe, however small our role, is an honour; to share that experience with friends and family members, with whom we can communicate, to whom we can impart pleasure and joy; and to attempt to understand this life… that is meaning enough for some of us. There does not need to be (and I would argue there is not) a grand plan, a God or gods – you, we, just need to BE.

    • Hello Enquirer – thanks for your lengthy comment, I enjoyed reading it. You made some good points and yes I intentionally spoke about some parts of the program and left others out – my hope is that people will watch the whole program. I am just going to engage with some of the things you have written, I am totally not up for an argument, but a discussion I enjoy. Hope that is ok and I would love it if you came back to me on some of these things :)!

      I agree that Richard said – “of one possible meaning of life being a desire to break out of social-cultural constraints, to better your lot in life, to fight oppression, and especially to help others do so.” I really agreed with that to some extent – fighting opression and helping others. I think my question is whether that works for people who can’t “better themselves” and they are stuck with the lot in their life. I felt like I was left feeling that Dawkins didnt offer anything here but “strive to get better or just get on with it”. But what if you can’t strive? I guess you felt satisfied with his answer?

      I am not sure I have reduced Dawkins “worldview to an overly-simplistic framework” – to be honest in one blog post its rather difficult to put across everything and someones whole worldview. As with any worldview I imagine it to be complex, I have just engaged with specific things mentioned or questions I have had in my head while watching it. The problem being is that I don’t agree with his worldview! lol

      You wrote: “However, just because we may feel like ‘is this it?’, that does not mean that there IS something else. Dissatisfaction with the Dawkins approach, as you put it, does not logically mean that God exists” I agree! I think I wrote that – even if we wish something to be true doesn’t mean it is true… BUT it does mean we ask questions and the question I would want to put forward is – have you examined the evidence of Jesus? Thats where I started as an athiest. Thats where I would encourager my reader to start.

      You wrote: “You seem to, perhaps inadvertently, be admitting that religion is indeed the celebrated crutch – that if you’re rich and well-off, then that’s fine, but if you’re poor and downtrodden, well, you’re desperate so why not turn to religion which offers hope? The same regarding ‘soul-searching’: if someone feels like there is more to life, then why not give a religion a try, because they always say that there is something more! This seems to be an avowal that religion is (just) a coping mechanism, particularly for the emotionally vulnerable. ” I think there is some truth in what you have written, its funny cos Jesus said that its harder for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of heaven then for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. And what he is saying is that often with the rich, comfortable lifestyles (which is a lot of the Western world , although I appreciate not all) can make it harder for them (myself included) to feel a need for Jesus, because it is often in the times of struggle, need, helplessness, you realise that you can’t do this on your own. Its funny how we see those in need or struggling as people that have been manipulated and are mindless — perhaps we should give them a bit more credit and see that they have seen the state of their need and Jesus offers them to come to him because he will give them rest. That was certainly the case for me when I became a Christian.

      “I would also dispute the idea that there is no hope in a Godless universe.” – all though the list of things can give great hope and meaning, I certainly believe they do – however they don’t last. They don’t give ever-lasting hope, which is what I believe Jesus offers. There are some great articles on what a Godless universe looks like, I don’t know if you would be interested but you can read them here: http://www.bethinking.org/who-are-you-god/intermediate/a-long-way-east-of-eden-contents-introduction.htm in the contents bit there are more links to what he is saying on “identity after God” etc…

      “I do not think you should see all atheists as immoral hedonists who live in dark despair, which seems to be the only alternative you’re providing here. ” Goodness I don’t think that! Some of my good friends are atheists and also my parents are too, I don’t think any of them are immoral. I apologise if that came across! I think atheists can be very moral and have hope and don’t live in despair. But I do think that to see this world as just it and nothing more shows that there is not much hope after this and that is where there is great darkness and despair. When I was an atheist it was something that I couldn’t understand to be true – I yearned for something more and with my friends and parents there are times when they are yearning for more too, and they can see that the hope they get from this world often lets them down or dies. But Jesus offers a hope that is ever-lasting, who satisfies the yearnings of our heart and offers more then this world could possibly give. I know we don’t agree on that, but thats why I would encourage you to look into the evidence of Jesus and see if its true or not – http://uncover.org.uk/

      🙂 Thanks! Sorry for the long reply. But look forward to hearning for you soon.
      Cat

      • Thanks for your response and for engaging with my comments. I’ll try to provide my honest opinion in answer to some of your questions and points.

        For people who, for some reason, cannot ‘better themselves’ or break out of social-cultural constraints – who are ‘stuck with their life’ – I suppose I would say that they may (but may not) be able to live in hope that their situation will improve. Yet maybe it will not or cannot, in which case that is sad and unfortunate, but life can be cruel. Maybe they can’t have any hope beyond the desire that future generations might have better lives. Once again, just because there is the possibility for no hope, it does not mean that everyone lives without hope; and – most importantly – just because there is possibly no ‘sound’ alternative offered by atheist or humanist ideas, that does not make the other ‘answers’ correct (they are not necessarily correct just because they seem nicer). I would honestly love for a God and afterlife to exist, and I once believed they did, but I am now completely convinced that this is not the case. For me, and many others, an idea is not true because it seems positive and plays to our emotions, because it provides hope and one version of meaning. It is true because it has been proven true by evidence.

        I accept your point about his worldview – perhaps I was being a bit harsh in saying you were misrepresenting everything he says! But I think you actually clarify my point when you say that you do not agree with his worldview. It would seem this is what led to the misinterpretation of some of what he said in the programme – which is why I wanted to give the other perspective 🙂 Do you believe in evolution? Because if you do not, then you have been unconvinced by the overwhelming evidence for this, which Dawkins has presented admirably in many forms (TV programmes and books especially). And if you don’t accept Dawkins’s view in his own field of expertise, backed up by peer-reviewed scientific evidence, then I’m not sure you’re really going to take his wider opinions very seriously! If you don’t respect his most rigorous work, you will be unlikely to respect his more personal thoughts.

        I have previously examined the evidence for Jesus in great detail. Out of a sense of fairness and balance, I decided to follow the links you provided (to Uncover). I watched all the videos, read much of the text. That is partly why it has taken me so long to reply. Regarding that site, it may not surprise you to learn that I found and find none of the evidence convincing, and the pseudo-academic presentation extremely (mis)leading. Saying that, whilst reminding me of the severe problems beginning with using the Bible as a reliable historical source and then building up throughout Christian doctrine, the site also reminded me of the goodwill and love present in Christianity. Unfortunately, that is necessarily attached to – among other things – notions of eternal damnation, sin, and airbrushing of historical and doctrinal complications (in one video the guy says that people died for their beliefs in Jesus, but neglects to add that many have also killed for such beliefs).

        Ah, the eye of a needle story, which was always one of my favourite! As an aside, have you heard the widely-accepted interpretation that the reference is to one of the gateways the wall surrounding Jerusalem? The ‘needle’ was the nickname for one of the narrowest gateways, which did not allow wealthy men or tradespeople to pass through with their camels laden with goods… This reminds me of something I never understood, even as a Christian, which is that according to Jesus we should all essentially give our worldly possessions to the poor, who are in many ways purer and better. The problem is, if they get given these goods, they will no longer be poor and may lose their purity! Then they would have to give their goods away to the previously-rich-now-poor, and the cycle continues! This is a slightly facetious point, but a genuine struggle I had with one small part of Christian thought.

        But yes, I completely agree that we should not speak of the poor or disenfranchised as just manipulated puppets (although there can also be an element of this as well). And it is probably true that the idea of Jesus – but more globally of religion, the notion of a protector God, an afterlife etc – provides much comfort to their lives. For me, it’s not Jesus or God/Allah/Yahweh/Krishna/Zeus (back in the day) etc bringing love to their lives, but rather their desperation, unwillingness or inability to accept the admittedly harsh reality of life which makes them seek consolation, no matter what the truth. And I’m a bit split over this, because I would not want to stop people feeling comforted or remove a coping mechanism, however untrue it is, however much it opens them up to possible manipulation, and however much it creates avenues for horrible and dangerous acts and thoughts…

        My ‘alternative hopes’ do not provide everlasting hope, that is true. But why do we need everlasting hope? Also, there are other alternatives to the Christian form of everlasting hope, although I don’t agree with them (Jewish heaven, reincarnation etc). They MIGHT be true (but can’t all be), however there is no evidence. And again, just because atheism does not offer everlasting hope, that does not make it true or untrue, and the reverse goes for Christianity or any other religion.

        That link (to the Godless Universe) did not work for me before, but it does now. I will certainly look at it. Would you be interested in looking at this in response? It would take a while to read all of it, but it would be great if you could at least skim some of it. I’d love to know what you think.
        http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ken_daniels/why.html

      • Thank you for your response. I am just going to read the article you have sent me and I will get back to you, but I just wanted to send a quick response so you know that I am not ignoring you I just need some time to read and think before replying :)!

  2. What an interesting discussion! I should state for the record that I have only seen the first two parts of the series in question, and can’t therefore claim a total mastery of Dawkins’ argument. However, it does seem to me that some aspects of The Enquirer’s critique beg closer examination.

    Enquirer is correct in stating that Dawkins does attempt to construct a value and purpose to life beyond death. This seems to rest on two basic human properties; our role as the heir / guardian / transmitter of genetic material, and our ability to transcend that role in when we find it leads to limiting or inhumane behaviour. The problem with this approach is that it never addresses why. Why should we find satisfaction in being biological machinery for the preservation and replication of DNA? More practically, why should we seek to transcend that when it is limiting or inhumane? What is inhumane, when all of our behaviour is merely the result of genetics and environmental pressure?

    For me, the fundamental question is this. How would Dawkins, confronted with someone with a genetic predisposition towards homicidal mania, argue that it is wrong for them to actualise that compulsion? Without an answer, the universe does seem rather dark and futile.

    The same response can be offered to the discussion of hope. Why should we hope for things which we might or might not attain?

    With regards to the existence of a “yearning for more”, it is true that the existence of a felt need does not constitute proof of that need’s satisfier. It does however constitute evidence. The idea that if an argument is not rationally coercive then it loses any value is a classic fallacy. To quote C.S. Lewis, ” The existence of a desire nothing in this world can satisfy suggests we were not made for this world.” It doesn’t prove the point, but it does suggest it.

    Forgive me if that all sounds a little like the small child responding “Why?” to every answered question. My fundamental objection to Dawkins’ synthesis is that he doesn’t present the argument he claims to. He argues (compellingly) that atheists can (and do) experience a rich and wonderful life, be as warm, kind and generous as anybody else, and contribute hugely to human society. Many of my friends do just that. The problem is that to do that he has to appeal to an absolute morality for which he has no basis. He never engages with why atheists SHOULD experience a rich and wonderful life, be as warm, kind and generous as anybody else, and contribute hugely to human society.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    • Thanks for your thoughts. You ask some very valid questions here, some of which are indeed difficult to answer, but I will try!

      Why ‘should we find satisfaction in being biological machinery for the preservation and replication of DNA’? I’m not sure he’s arguing that, for starters. We do not have to be satisfied with that – it is simply a fact that we do preserve and replicate DNA/genes. There is no sense of worth attached, it is just is. Yet your second question actually answers this by noting that Dawkins and others suggest we become more than this, to break free of our evolutionary programming, as it were. And we have, overcoming illnesses and using contraception being just two examples. Your second and third questions are naturally the tougher ones. So, why transcend this animal behaviour? Well, one argument is that we are social primates and that actually acts of altruism are beneficial to us in this regard, actually aiding the survival of the species. Perhaps because of this, often when we carry out acts of kindness, we FEEL good – it may be a biological response, a release of chemicals such as endorphins, which has developed due to evolution. There is also clearly a social element, whereby other humans may praise you for acting ‘well’ etc. Now, in both these cases, one could ask whether this was ‘true’ altruism, and whether this even exists. The same question could be asked of religiously-motivated acts of altruism and kindness: is the religion person (let’s say an Evangelical Christian) really acting kindly towards someone, or is it because they are obeying what they perceive to be the will of God/Jesus? Is it because they want to convert them, convince them (although it may be argued that this is itself born of a belief that you are saving their souls)? Is it because the Christian desires eternal life in heaven, and perhaps escaping hell? Again, ‘true’ altruism is hard to pin down on any human, although perhaps rather optimistically I like to think it can exist (among the religious and atheists alike)!

      As for what actually constitutes kindness or its opposite for atheists, we can invert the premise. Your idea would be that God provides a sense of good and evil, a moral framework, so without God how can we judge this? Even if we speak of a certain ‘feeling’ – which I do sometimes invoke, although questions of morality are rarely black and white and require a lot of philosophising before an inevitably inconclusive decision is made – I imagine you would claim (as I once did) that that comes from an innate sense of morality given by God. That’s how I justified my previous cherry-picking of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bits of the Bible: it was GOD, working through me, that guided that decision – others had just misinterpreted it. However, as I said, let’s invert the premise: God and religion is man-made, thus religious morals come from man, so in a world without God, humans rely on the same (or similar) moral framework as before, albeit with potentially more debate because of the freedom from scripture. We have amazing brains that have evolved to allow us to conceive of deeper problems and to attempt to resolve them; they have also, according to many atheists, allowed the invention of religion. It is in these brains that the struggle to answer questions of morality rages, but IS a struggle, within reason.

      There’s also, again, the evolutionary argument, which you may dismiss out of hand if you already dismiss evolution! But according to one form of such logic, killing other members of your species is not beneficial, thus we shouldn’t kill. Killing a neighbour may lead to revenge attacks, so don’t kill. Although killing an enemy, a territorial threat, becomes more acceptable (slightly like the Christian Just War doctrine). I do not agree with the bare animalistic logic of the latter point, and I think humans and our attendant communication and society have evolved enough to at least try to get above some of these instincts and forms of argument.

      Human behaviour is linked to genetics and environmental pressure (including other people and creatures), from that our brains have been created – it is our brains, our thoughts, which guide our behaviour. To use a loaded word, we have evolved consciences!

      Dawkins would without a doubt argue that it would be wrong for a person with a genetic predisposition towards genocidal mania to actualise that compulsion. As you have already stated, he would argue for being at one of the same time both agents of genetic reproduction, and MORE than this. We can and have overcome genetic programming, with advances in science and societal mores. Clearly, the second understanding of this question is, again, actually why it would be WRONG, i.e. what is wrong? As sentient, thinking beings who experience a whole host of emotions, and as social primates living in friendship and kinship groups, we would hopefully all think that we would not want someone we know or love to be killed by this maniac. Being attacked and killed is detrimental to survival. We would also hopefully want the maniac to enjoy as full a life as possible without killing someone, because then both s/he and his/her victim’s lives would be ruined. Evolutionary speaking, killing other members of your species is not good; living a happy life is good and benefits the wider group. I do not claim to have resolved the issue here, because if I could lay out a solid moral framework which was definitive, I would be a genius surpassing many great philosophers and legal scholars! What I am saying is that there are some possible explanations beyond God.

      Why should we hope for things we may not attain? Even asking this question makes me sad! Hope is a possible motivator, for starters. It’s also a coping mechanism, which is why religious people (according to many atheists) are also hoping for something they may, arguably, will not attain – but we understand it completely! Also, aren’t Christians in the same boat? You’re hoping for eternal life in heaven, but you may end up in hell – you cannot know for certain, because according to doctrine, only God can decide.

      Further, once again evolutionary speaking, hope aids survival. It at the very least aids mental, emotional survival, potentially increasing life expectancy (and thus the number of fertile years). Some scientific studies have shown that religious people are happier, and some even live longer. If we assume – hypothetically for you and actually for me – that there is no God, then clearly a belief in God can be beneficial, whatever the reality. And this will help the species.

      In summary, atheists are humans too. As humans, as social beings, most of us would like to get on with others, being happy and if possible spreading happiness. Why? Just one answer is that it makes us feel good, it makes life and survival easier. Why not just inflict suffering and be selfish? Because we are both empathetic and sympathetic beings, hard-wired to feel pain when we see it in others, and this has led to social and legal structures providing punishment and opprobrium for those who transgress acceptable norms – often, admittedly, built upon religious texts, but for me this is simply related to the human origin of these texts. In both the religious and non-religious spheres, many have debated the specifics of morality for hundreds of years, if not more. Neither provides and absolute answer, because humans are far too intelligent! For a discussion of morality and ethics, including much from Christians, I recommend Michael Sandel’s online Harvard course here: http://www.justiceharvard.org/
      If your faith allows you to come to definitive conclusion for every situation, then that is truly remarkable.

      I hope this has given some insight at least into an atheist’s point of view, especially how we’re not (all :P) psychopathic, hedonistic and selfish, and can be so without God.

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