Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Don’t Need God for Meaningful Lives”

So, the next chapter in Bannister’s book that Seidensticker is going to look at revolve around meaning. Seidensticker starts with an argument that should be familiar to us:

Why is this hard? I say that my life has meaning, and that’s it. That’s not a grand platform, but it’s all I’ve got. And it’s all I need. I make no claim for absolute or objective meaning, just my own meaning. Like so many before him, Bannister seems to think that the only meaning is an objective meaning. For this, I point him to the definition of “meaning” in a dictionary.

Again, just like when he talked about morality Seidensticker doesn’t give the dictionary definition that he thinks makes his case, or demonstrates that it does make his case. And here it is even harder for him to argue that meaning can’t be absolute or objective, and so here he almost fudges on the question by implying the minimum argument he can make: meaning doesn’t have to be absolute or objective. The problem is that, at a minimum, this is what would be up for debate here. If Seidensticker means to argue that thinking that meaning is objective and absolute is wrong, he needs to provide evidence and argue for that to demonstrate that Bannister is wrong. If he merely wants to claim that it might be possible to have meaning that isn’t absolute and objective and that therefore Bannister is wrong to assume that it must be objective and absolute, then the immediate response has to be “So what?”. It in no way addresses Bannister’s contention that we can’t have meaning — or, at least, that atheists assuming we can have meaning — without God to say that maybe he’s wrong in thinking that we need an absolute and objective meaning. He might be wrong. And so might atheists. Why should anyone think that the atheist move to personal meaning works at all?

Seidensticker next tries to address this example from Bannister:

In today’s opening episode, our hero dreams that he’s wandering through a penguin colony. He muses that penguins have meaningless lives, but one penguin speaks up and says that, on the contrary, his life has plenty of meaning. He makes his own meaning. And then he gets eaten by a sea lion.

So, let me shake out what I think this example is aiming for. The penguin can insist that he makes his own meaning, but having that sort of meaning has to, in fact, link to goals and purposes and things to achieve in accordance with that meaning. But this assumes that what one chooses for that meaning can lead to goals that are in principle achievable. It would be a very odd meaning of life that sets goals and purposes that the person cannot, in fact, achieve. But it is clear that the penguin’s meaning of life didn’t include getting eaten at that time, and getting eaten meant that any goals or purposes would now never be achieved. Thus, the penguin would not have fulfilled the meaning of his life. And this is because the universe does not care at all about those personal meanings, and so will provide no help in achieving them. Thus, at a minimum, the meaning of our lives is greatly constrained by the universe and what we can do in it. Which also means that our self-selected “meaning” may well have to change repeatedly as we discover that whatever that self-selected meaning is is just not achievable by us in this universe.

But if we have a meaning determined for us by the force that created the universe, then these problems go away. The universe will be set-up for us to achieve the purposes implied by that meaning, and all we have to do is figure out how to actually do it. And if the penguin gets eaten, then that action itself would be to further the purpose of the existence of that penguin, and so fulfills the meaning of that penguin’s life rather than frustrates it. This, then, would be very comforting, as we’d have a set meaning — in Bannister’s case, it’s “Find out the purpose God intends for us” — that would never change, and that the universe and pretty much every action we take and every thing that happens to us works to fulfill.

If Seidensticker was paying attention, he’d see the flaw in this idea of meaning: it proves too much. What reason do we have to actively pursue the purposes and goals that follow from our idea of meaning? Surely even refusing to do certain actions fits into that purpose? Yes, we have free will, but surely God won’t let us simply frustrate his overall Grand Design (which has to be the case if bad things happening to us are to have a purpose). So, then, how do we determine what negative actions are punishments aimed at guiding us back to the right path and which ones are God’s purpose working through us? So Bannister would be stuck between things being so determined by God’s Plan that we need do nothing, and us being able to frustrate God’s Plan but us not being able to understand something so complex in order to be able to figure out what to do.

And from this we can get the mirroring problems with each side. Bannister gives us a set purpose supported by the universe, at the cost of that purpose being too large for us to actually interact with. Seidensticker’s personal view of meaning is understandable, but is so personal that we might find ourselves changing it constantly. Both run into the issue that their views, to work, can’t follow from our personal worldviews: Bannister’s has to come from what God wants, and if Seidensticker’s follows from our worldview we’d be stuck if our personal circumstances and our worldview produces a meaning that cannot be achieved, as the only way to resolve the issue would be to change our worldviews. But surely our meaning of life has to be tied to our personal worldviews in some way. If it isn’t, again for Bannister we wonder how that can be my meaning, and for Seidensticker it becomes simply random selection, and so doesn’t have the importance required to satisfy a desire for a meaningful life.

Unlike morality, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life. However, let me take a stab at a non-God and arguably non-objective meaning of life. I propose that the meaning of life for a human being is to live the best possible life you can, where the best possible life is determined by your worldview. This allows us to change our approaches and even let the universe cause us to fail without having to change our meaning. To return to the example, our penguin certainly didn’t expect to get eaten at that point, but they still would have achieved the meaning of their life: to life as good as life as possible. Getting eaten at that point doesn’t change that; it’s just what happened, but the assessment of whether the penguin achieved the meaning of his life is judged by what happened up to the point where it died.

Sure, there are problems with this idea, but it’s at least a credible example of a meaning that can work. Let’s look at Seidensticker’s direct response to this:

Next, he considers the fate of the penguin—eaten just as he was pontificating about the meaning he had for his life.

Yeah. Shit happens. It could’ve been our hero who got eaten instead. What’s your point?

Yeah … that’s not a reply, and there’s clearly more of a point there than Seidensticker recognizes.

And another familiar argument:

For one of his “problems,” he contrasts meaning in a book, where we can ask the author to resolve differences in interpretation, with an authorless universe where we’re on our own for finding meaning. “Claiming that we have found the meaning is utter nonsense.”

Right—that’s not my claim. But Bannister is living in a glass house. He does claim to know the meaning of life, but his source is the Bible, a book for which there is no the meaning because Christians themselves can’t interpret it unambiguously.

Just because people don’t at least currently agree on the answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Morever, it should be clear from the quote that Bannister’s reply to this will be “Which is why we need to ask the author … in this case, God”. Seidensticker will of course make great hay over us not really having a way to ask the author about that since the author — God — doesn’t really answer directly and stays hidden, but this attack on the Bible is completely and totally misplaced and completely misses the point.

I’ll skip the rest of Seidensticker’s ranty replies, as he continually refuses to give any notion of meaning and just rants about how Bannister is wrong. Let me address, then, the cases Bannister gives where he says that if you put your idea of meaning in God, you have a better idea of meaning. The first one:

<blockquote>Who am I? You aren’t an accident but were fashioned by God. I was fashioned by God to burn forever in hell? That’s what your book says is the fate of most of us. Jesus said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Thanks, God.

Objection! Non-responsive! This has nothing to do with meaning. If your meaning is to end up in Hell, then it is. But the quote and the implication is that we have a choice in that, and Bannister would argue that we need to live up to the purpose God has for us if we want to avoid that, which gets back to the free will issue raised above. This is taking a shot at Christianity, not at the idea that putting meaning into God doesn’t make for a more overall satisfying idea of meaning.

Do I matter? “God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us.” An incredible price? Nonsense. Jesus popped back into existence a day and a half after “dying.” The sacrifice narrative is incoherent and embarrassing (more here and here).

Um, willingly dying and suffering just to redeem us, I think, counts as “an incredible price”, even if he only stayed dead for a day and a half — and, if Christianity is right, any similar sacrifice we might make might mean that we don’t stay dead any longer. Again, the idea is indeed that if Christianity is right God cares about us, and so we matter. Seidensticker needs to demonstrate that he can find a meaning that everyone will accept that also means that we matter. He doesn’t even try.

Why am I here? Our purpose “is to know God and enjoy him forever.” Seriously? Yeah, that’s a purpose that will put a spring in my step. Not to help other people, not to make the world a better place, not to eliminate smallpox, but to enjoy God, who won’t get off the couch to make his mere existence obvious.

It’s a set purpose that can be true. What do you have to offer? Why should anyone accept a purpose of helping other people or making the world a better place? And under your view, how are we to come to the conclusion of what our purpose should be?

Can I make a difference? We can be part of God’s greater purpose. That atheism thing is sounding better all the time. Instead of brainlessly showing up to get an assignment from the foreman, we’re on our own. We are empowered to find our purpose rather than have it forced upon us. Yes, that can be daunting. Yes, we might get halfway through life and realize that we’d squandered much of it. But the upsides are so much greater because there’s a downside. Because we can screw up, it makes the successes that much more significant. And we have ourselves to congratulate for our success.

In order to find a purpose, there has to be one to find, which makes it objective: the idea is that there has to be at least a right answer for us. And why should we admit that we’ve squandered our life, instead of simply redefining our purpose to match what we did do, if meaning is to be left up to us? Seidensticker, as usual, contradicts himself by assuming there is a right answer and that we can’t come to any conclusion we want while insisting that meaning is left entirely up to us and isn’t objective. It is at least very difficult to find a way to make those two views consistent with each other.

Seidensticker then turns to the question of nihilism:

Of course not. Citing his oft-mentioned but ill-supported claim that the only meaning is objective meaning, he calls atheism, not cake, but “the soggy digestive biscuit of grim nihilistic despair.”

Wrong again. You can try to find someone to impose this on, but that’s not me. Ah, well—so much for the possibility of evidence

But perhaps Seidensticker only avoids that by deluding himself about what atheism implies about meaning. He certainly has given us no real reason and no real method to determine meaning for ourselves, so we have to wonder if he has really achieved meaning at all.

Again, as we saw last time, Seidensticker’s defense of the arguments is simply to say that the arguments are right and Bannister is wrong, with lots of shots at Bannister tossed in. That is not the way to defend arguments, especially if you want to insist that your ideas are true and reflect reality and are evidence-based, as Seidensticker does. So, another case where Seidensticker doesn’t even defend the arguments he is purportedly defending.

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