Atheists, Agnostics, and the Search for Meaning

[ 3 ] November 16, AD 2011 |

Last week over at Why I’m Catholic we posted Jennifer Fulwiler’s conversion story from Atheist to Catholic. Since it’s gone up it has manage to make a few rounds in some atheist circles who take issue with one of Jennifer’s main points in the article, that as an Atheist she always struggled with meaning.

Although I can’t speak on Jennifer’s behalf I can add my own two cents from my own experiences as an agnostic.

When I was in high school I encountered the quote by British philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Although I didn’t agree with his utilitarian conclusions, this idea had a profound impact on me and at an early age. I decided that I would always strive to live in the truth, even if it was disagreeable to my own sense of fulfillment and joy.

In college after studying many of the modern philosophers who championed subjectivity and skepticism I found myself at a crossroads. On one hand was my upbringing in Catholicism, and on the other was what seemed to be solid arguments as to why belief in God was unreasonable, at least to the degree that I couldn’t prove His existence from my own subjective experience and knowledge.

I never actively tried to commit suicide as an agnostic, but I would not have cared whether I lived or died. It was a very dark time in my life.

One of the responses to Jennifer’s testimony makes the point that “life is meaningful because it seems meaningful.” The assertion that followed really surprised me:

“Epistemic best practices recommend treating “life has meaning” as a more-or-less self-evident, non-conditional proposition”

Really? That seems so strange to me for a skeptic to assume such a large issue. Maybe it’s due to my lack of a doctorate in philosophy but it sure seems like meaning is no simple a priori concept like “2 + 2 = 4″, “all bachelors are unmarried.” I’d like to raise a few questions from this “self evident” conclusion:

Why assume meaning?

Can meaning for one person come from something different than meaning does for another?

What happens when the sources of our meaning get in the way of one another’s?

If a group finds meaning in power or hedonism, how does this group’s pursuit of meaning take shape in a society at large?

Does human life have inherent dignity? Where does it come from and who does it extend to?

If someone would have told me that my life had meaning as an agnostic because I could inherently accept it as having meaning I would have told them they were being intellectually dishonest. I simply can’t see how one can assign meaning to an action or life anymore than one can assign goodness.

A life with a priori meaning seems a lot like putting makeup on a pig and calling it Socrates.

Here are some links to some other commentary on Jennifer’s post if you would like to join in the discussion:

Andrew Sullivan – The Daily Beast

Big Think

Truth Plus Lies

Not Not a Philosopher

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  • http://thecornerwithaview.blogspot.com Julie Robison

    GREAT article- I especially liked Sullivan’s responses! It is interesting to me that the non-believers find the conversion stories so lame. Perhaps they need to experience the fire? This should also be a reminder for us to pray for nonbelievers because faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit!

  • http://layferg.com/ Anthony

    Very cool stuff. Believing requires a giant dose of humility, something we humans aren’t overly keen on…

  • http://layferg.com/ Anthony

    One other thing…

    I think the atheist argument that life is so utterly pointless that it is all the more precious is the most dangerous and deceptive lie to come out of modern philosophy. What can be more absurd than the romanticization of meaninglessness?