Can There Be Meaning Without God?


Teaching Sisyphus to Sing

NOTE: This is NOT an argument against atheism. 

King Sisyphus (“Siss-uh-fuss”) was a mythical king who enjoyed killing random travelers and starting wars. He killed for pleasure. He killed for profit. When he died the gods showed him no mercy. The wicked king was condemned to spend eternity pushing a beastly rock up a hill. The hill was such that when he heaved the rock to the top it would immediately roll down the other side, and Sisyphus was obligated to descend the hill and begin pushing again, ad infinitum

The myth of Sisyphus is a haunting picture of a futile existence. When we really imagine the punishment (the shoulder pressed against the stone, the awkward footing, the windless heat, the monotony of the endless task, and the pointlessness of the accomplishment) we might feel a peculiar dread buzzing within us. It is not merely dread born out of pity for Sisyphus. It is dread for our own lives. It is the implicit question: Is my life merely a bunch of pointless tasks without any ultimate payoff for my toil? Why do I try as hard as I try? Is there any meaning to it all? 

The Myth of Sisyphus
Illustration by Steve Robbins

Atheists believe there is no God.  But if there is no God, it has been argued, then life can have no ultimate meaning. Historically the argument has gone along these lines: If humans are here only because of bio-chemical circumstance, then humans are accidents. (Oops!) We weren’t “meant” to be here. The universe did not require us. The universe does not have rules for us. The universe does not have a plan for us. The universe doesn’t even care about us. We are thrust into the machine of the universe and can struggle to stay alive (or choose not to). But eventually we die. And that is all. 

Most atheists will deny that life without God is meaningless. But not nihilists. Nihilists, you could say, are a sort of "atheist fundamentalist." You will often find nihilists defending the meaninglessness of a godless life. To be clear, these folks are not adolescent, goth teens getting all morose and forlorn with the black pants and the evil eye paint. We are talking about pipe-puffing, bearded academics dwelling in the book stacks. We are talking about well read, thoughtful, atheist scholars who care a great deal about having a well thought out, authentic worldview. Their attitude is: "If there is no God and that implies meaninglessness, so be it." Crying won’t garner sympathy from the universe. And pretending life is meaningful when it isn’t is inauthentic (and maybe even cowardly). 

Camus nihilism meaningless
Albert Camus striking a pose

But meaninglessness is a heavy gravity and futility sucks vitality. If life is truly futile and meaningless… well, that is simply too difficult for most people to tolerate. Enter Sartre with the red cape and the bright tights. Jean-Paul Sartre was a brilliant atheist philosopher who was convinced that life as an atheist was meaningful. His argument went something like this: 

(1) First, distinguish “Objective Reality” (reality outside of us) from our “Subjective Reality” (our inner experience of reality). 

(2) Objectively, the universe seems like a machine that has no meaning or freedom. 

(3) But subjectively it seems like we are free. Free to do as we choose. 

(4) Subjectivity is more convincing than objective appearance. 

(5) Therefore, we are justified to believe in our own free will.

(6) If we have free will, then we can create our “self” how we wish to.

(7) Creating a self gives our life meaning. 

In other words, if I can be whatever person I want to be, then I can give myself my own meaning in life. I do not need the universe, God, or Abraham Lincoln to give me meaning. Meaning has nothing to do with anything but me. I can decide to be a good father, or a professional fisherman, or the world’s wealthiest investor. We are thrust into this world without definition. Our meaning is whatever we define it to be. 

Sartre existentialism meaning
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir about to make some meaning

This is a brilliant argument (especially in its full form), and I do not get pleasure out of smashing on people’s worldview or their sources of hope. But I think Sartre is dead wrong in his entire effort. Sartre has not created “meaning.” He has only created “purpose.” Purpose is a powerful thing to create and should not be trivialized. Hey! Purpose is great. But… it is not meaning. There remains great confusion about the difference between purpose and meaning.  The difference is easy to show.

Suppose Sisyphus decides: “I am going to be the fastest rock pusher ever.” According to Sartre Sisyphus has created meaning in his life. But even if Sisyphus accomplishes his goal the rock still rolls down the other side of the hill. There is still no ultimate point to Sisyphus’ existence. No meaning. In fact, the original task of getting the rock to the top of the hill was, itself, a purpose!  

Sisyphus could learn to sing opera, memorize the Bible, and push the rock up the hill while walking on his hands, but his existence is still meaningless and futile. Without God the best we can accomplish in life is purpose. Nihilism is right.  Existentialism fails.  

Sartre isn’t the only thinker to make this mistake. The great Richard Dawkins puts it thus: “The truly adult view… is that our life is as meaningful, as full of wonder as we choose to make it” (The God Delusion, pg. 404). Viktor Frankl, in one of the most powerful books ever written, states: “Life ultimately means… fulfilling the tasks which life constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ for each of us” (Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 98).  We would like to ask Frankl: "So, for instance, one of us might be faced with the task of eternally pushing a rock up a hill? And that would be meaningful?"

Let me make my position clear: atheists can not have meaning in life. But this does NOT mean that atheism is false. What I am saying is that maybe the atheists are right, and God does not exist. But the existentialists are wrong. Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong. Richard Dawkins is wrong. Nihilism is the only coherent position in a universe without God. Acting as if there is meaning in a godless universe is, as Camus puts it: “absurd”; an “incomprehensible, dumb show” (The Myth of Sisyphus, pg. 11). In a universe without God the best we can do is Sisyphus singing opera as he pushes against his giant stone.

Why is God necessary for meaning in life?

  • CATEGORY: theology for your God-shaped hole

  • 09-09-2012

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