At the movies

A recent theme from some of my Christian blogging friends, and where I go round with them a bit on their blogs, is the theme of "the meaning of life". The assumption of many Christians is that without God, life is meaningless and would lead to nihilism. To that, I have countered, obviously ineffectively, that many other animals appear to enjoy life and have a fear of death. They seek pleasure, avoid pain, and avoid death. That is, their purpose in life seems to be to plug on for another day, trying to make the most of it, and rearing young to do the same. They don't have an innate sense that all is meaningless, otherwise they would behave less purposefully.

Another counter that I have used is to say that the meaning of life is identical to the atheist as it is for the theist. I say that because the only thing any of us have access to is the material world, whether you want to say a supernatural interfaces with it or not. Therefore, we employ the same resources -- books, conversation, observation, emotions, thoughts, etc. to our definition of life's meaning.

The attempt I want to make here is to say that theists actually spend very little time in devotion to spiritual concerns despite calls to do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Thoughts are seldom so dramatic as those listed in scriptures to avoid adultery, don't kill, love thy neighbor. Most of our thoughts are around doing our jobs pushing buttons, sorting things, driving here and there, smelling the air, needing to go potty, zapping things in the microwave, tasting home cooking, listening to tunes, reading a newspaper, yearning for an electronic gizmo, learning how to operate a piece of software, getting ready for bed, hoping for a laugh as we watch tv, catching a concert, staying warm, keeping cool, wanting to socialize, feeling flabby and frustrated when we exercise, wondering about our clothes and hair, and losing ourselves completely in another world as we watch a movie. Call it mundane, but all of that stuff is what we have to work with, and do work with, to make life interesting and compelling for us and our youngsters.

If God was the answer to make life meaningful, then to ascribe such a role to the mundane means that all of it is a false proxy, unless Christians at least want to concede that some meaning might be acquired through natural (even "of the flesh") means.

It leads me to my final question: Why do we all love the movies?


Pete said...

Well I am in agreement with you on this. In my normal daily routine my “meaning” for living falls far short of serving some greater metaphyical existence. I am pretty satisfied with life, I enjoy my children, my Friday homemade pizza nights, football, vodka, and good sex (especially the last one). Every time I hear an evangelistic pitch that tries to find some void by stating “Ever feel like their should be more to life?...” or “Ever feel like you are drowning”, my answer for that is NO. I suppose some of this is my own doing (I am easily content), some of it is luck (born in a wealthy country at peace within in borders) and some of it is my age (I'm only 30, healthy, with an attractive wife and two well behaved healthy children). But when we start to deal with age and issues of death, that is when we start grasping for more meaning. And FOR SURE, if one of my children was to die tomorrow, it would be very hard to swallow that our relationship was forever finished, that there was no afterlife in which we would be reunited. This is when we start looking for more to life. When I was younger, I never feared death, because I knew that the afterlife was more bliss yet. Lately as I struggled with some doubts, I have been back and forth on whether I am okay with death being the end, I suppose it is no different then before I was born. But one thing is for sure, the thought experiments almost always lead me to want to live longer. I asked my atheist friend once and he informed me had no intent to ever die. Assuming the results of evolutionary psychology are correct, all of us are at our peak and most satisfied during our reproductive age. So as I move beyond this to my 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s, I don't find it at all surprising that I might start searching to with the real void that is produced when I am no longer a strapping young man and view my own life as declining.
To sum up, I won't accuse you atheists as having no meaning. My atheist friend and I find meaning in our lives in very similar ways (including many selfless things as self-sacrifice and love). I think instead of “meaning” as a catalyst to action, Christianity offer serves a meaning to give a peaceful framework to the effects of age and death.

Tom said...


Thanks for the comment! Based on the lack of response to this post, I inferred that it was meaningless! I appreciate your interest.

I assume you are the same "pete" from the postings at Cliff Martin's blog. It sounds like you are dealing with a lot of questions surrounding your faith. I have a generic question. What keeps you in the faith? Is it the culture, the wife and kids, the fear of atheism/agnosticism, the conviction that you are ultimately on the right path?

The one thing I can say about apostasy is that it isn't easy, but if you allow it, and it may take years, you can find a peace with the material view of the world. Part of that is criticizing the ridiculous things in religion ("religulous" is the contemporary term) and pointing out where it may be in error or its shortcomings. The other part is the hard part -- developing a philosophy and meaningful perspective in a purely material world.

Part of my point with this post is to ask, really, what is the difference of a life with God and without? If you want to say that you will live forever, what will be the purpose of that life 1000 years from now that is different from today? What will be the purpose of that life 100,000,000,000 years from now as compared to 100,000 years from now? What, on earth (pun intended), will you be doing that is different from today? If nothing, how will the spark be kept alive? If it is different, how so?

Part of the movie fascination is sharing and empathy. There is meaning in stories, in imagining the different worlds people live in and experience. There seems a need to communicate and understand each other.

Anyway, enjoy the pizza tonight!

Cliff Martin said...


I don't think you should view the lack of response as disinterest. Your question is very insightful; I have often thought about this question in much the same terms as you present it. A happy, fulfilled, secular life doesn't look much different from a happy, fulfilled Christian life.

I suspect that this is partly due to the watered-down lives of so many of us western Christians. We set the bar for "fulfilled lives" so low that even an atheist can attain it. Even if true, this does not bring much comfort to me; because, like Pete, my fulfillment comes in large measure from pizza, football and sex (vodka? no, but a good cup of joe or glass of Riesling goes a long way.)

[Pete, don't give up on life yet! I am in my 50's and so far I am only finding that life gets better with age!]

Even a comment like that has more to do with temporal pleasures and satisfaction than a growing spiritual life. Still, as I age, I find the need to discover and walk in ultimate, transcendent truths becomes more acute for me. And if, in the end, we all sigh and say of our material, temporal lives, "Well, that's all there was to it", I shall be bitterly disappointed.

So much of life suggests to me that there is ultimate purpose way beyond our material lives. And so far, I've found no better pathway to discovering this purpose and fulfilling it than to follow Jesus. So, I keep on!

Tom said...

We set the bar for "fulfilled lives" so low that even an atheist can attain it.


Okay, so here is some more of my perspective, largely an evolutionary one. All of us animals like to eat and have sex. And many of us like to play, too. The issue, however, is that we can ascribe more meaning to our experience through communication and empathy than other animals can.

I would argue that we seek subjective truths -- validations of what we want to see, but also that we explore others' experiences, stories, and teachings with empathy and curiosity, and also as a way of solidifying or modifying our personal "truth". This quest for principles drives us. We look for them while living by them, and many of us share these same hopes and convictions for what could make the world a better place, how to treat each other, and how we fear death, be it our own or our family's or others.

Is there always more truth? Yes, we yearn for it and seek it out. The idea that there is an ultimate truth and that heaven is eternal, in my mind, is that heaven would be a place where we continue the walk of acquiring niblets of ultimate truth transcended to us. However, this truth is itself infinite, so we keep on keeping on, staying motivated to live out another day, marveling at how utterly naive we were just 34,589,315,865,687,236 years ago.

Our history would indicate that "truth" operates as an evolutionary meme. It is passed on via culture and also within the constraints of biology. For example, I might have just acquired a smidgen of ultimate truth, but die before I get to pass it on. Or as another example, what might have become a "truth" is dependent on my humanity. What is true for me might not hold for another monkey. Or, if evolutionary history had taken a different path, then the truth for the supreme, civilized, intelligent octopuses (or is it "octopi"?) would be different than the truth for humanity. More succinctly put, from an evolutionary perspective especially, I do not see how truth can be anything but subjective.

Now, I suppose you will say, Cliff, that revelation is relative, but then, that is to say that ultimate truth is given subjectively. This leads to the conclusion that there is no way to differentiate ultimate truth from subjective truth. It just ends up sounding pompous if you claim ultimate truth over my measly "Tom-isms".

Cliff Martin said...

Now, I suppose you will say, Cliff, that revelation is relative, but then, that is to say that ultimate truth is given subjectively.

Not entirely, of course. My belief in a supernatural being includes the supposition that might try to communicate with us by objective as well as subjective means. The written word, and his physical acts of creation would be two such objective sources, pieces of the puzzle which ultimately defines life and its meaning.

Suppose for a moment that I am right. As I seek this ultimate truth, sourced in and embodied in a supernatural personal lover, to the degree that I am successful, would not my "meaning of life" be superior to any drummed up by a secularist? and if not, why not?

I don't mean to sound pompous ... but no doubt I do sometimes. I meant to include (and should have) a smiling face or something to indicate that the statement about setting the bar low was written tongue in cheek!

Pete said...

What keeps you in the faith? Is it the culture, the wife and kids, the fear of atheism/agnosticism, the conviction that you are ultimately on the right path?

Non-believers often seem to examine a Christian life as to ask what benefits the devotee obtains from such beliefs or rituals. I don't fault the question, if the whole enterprise is imaginary then one would wonder what believers get out of their devotion. From my perspective though, it is not so much what I get out of it, but whether or not it is true. If Jesus Christ rose again and sits at the right hand of God the Father, my concerns over why my wife can't sleep at night or pretty irrelevant towards my need to bow to that very God. Over the last year, there is no question that doubts and struggles at Church have caused more harm to me then if I were not religious at all, but my own personal stress/anxiety meter does not influence the ontological existence of the Christian God.

I know I haven't answered your question yet. I am having a hard time coming up with a straight forward answer. When I was a child, the existence of the Christian God and sin were taken for granted. What was to be decided would be whether I “accepted Jesus into my heart”, or “asked for forgiveness”. I did this at an early age and the rest of my childhood would focus on living a Holy life, along with constant relapses into wondering if I had really asked Jesus, etc. Now I am coming at the whole enterprise from a different angle. Given certain truths about history, namely our origins, the question of the flood, etc, and given my doubts about the present day operation of God in the world, it is not clear to me that my religion is based on actual truth. But I'm certainly not sure about that. And let me be clear, just as I said over at “Outside the Box”, I have no problem with the “faith” namely “trust” in Jesus to forgive me. Quite frankly, I know I am a sinful man, and if perfection is expected of me that I need that assigned from the outside, no question. In our church, it is assumed non-believers think they will get to heaven because they are good. I have certainly not digressed to that. I'm just not sure there is a heaven anymore.

Still haven't quite answered your question. Let me make it more practical. Yes, it is partly because of wife and children. I don't want to be wrong for their sake. I feel like it is the best position for me now, to continue to assume the truthfulness of my core doctrinal statements. I am allowing for skeptical reasoning against them now, but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt. And God exists, right:) And if so and if He is the Christian God of the Bible, then surely He would make Himself clear and evident to me, honoring the fact that I continue on in faith, in this case the unevidenced faith I never wanted to admit the Christian life might be based on. Perhaps over time I will grow in relationship with God. Or maybe God doesn't exist and over time my own emotional hang-ups with drift away and I will finally admit to myself I don't believe. I don't know. To be honest I really don't know.

I am quite a skeptic to supernatural claims, voodoo, ESP, UFOs, demon possession, heck, even herbal remedies. Oopps, better qualify, I am a skeptic of supernatural claims for everything but my own tradition:) Or at least that captured in the Bible. I don't buy any of the faith healing that goes on today, nor do I find anything in the history of the last 2000 years of the Church that would make me suspect real supernatural events ever happen. Being skeptical, I suspect if I had come to Christianity from the outside you would have hard a hard time convincing me of the historical reality of most of what is written within. Then again, who knows, God exists right:), and if predestined me then He would have gotten through to me somehow. But anyway, if I weren't already in the culture, married, with children, and in-laws, etc; I would probably have drifted away from attending church. Not that I would give up and declare agnotism, but I think I would expect a little more actual evidence before I begin to persecute homosexuals. When you arrive at our church, there is an assumption that you will need to wrestle with the truth claims of Christ. This is coded as to mean, the claims that you are not good enough for heaven, that Jesus is God and died and that He will impute his righteousness to you upon belief. They don't ever talk about that to be a good Christian you will also need to give affirmation to the historical reality that all animal creatures were reduced to two pair just 4 thousand years ago. If this happened, the evidence of it would be obvious. On the contrary, the evidence that nothing liked this happened is obvious. But this “belief” gets thrown in as well. Ie, somehow it is sinful to do any data based reasoning. Its not like my church is trying to be sneaky, they don't ever really think about it. And this is why, because most of them are not skeptical at all, if it is not the Christian tradition then they are off when psychics, aliens, and Bermuda triangles. And even upon coming to faith, they don't realize there was really no supernatural (or extraterrestrial) behind those phenomena, instead they realize it was demons doing it all along! (Give me a break.) So if you present the world wide flood to them, they jump on board without any questions whatsoever. At our church, all this makes perfect sense, the reason people wouldn't' “believe”, ie submit to the claims of Christ, was because they are too “proud” to admit they need a savior, or they want to live their own lives without submitting to some authority. This is just not my issue. I'm not too proud to admit I need a savior, that has not wavered. Nor am looking to apostate to participate in some sinful practice, like extra-marrital sex. I just think if all the evidence clearly indicates Australian marsupials radiated over millions of years into their present forms on the isolated continent of Australia, God would not be displeased that I acknowledge this reality.

I probably didn't answer your question. I guess the real answer is I am still struggling with all these issues.
I find your story extremely interesting. I am one of those naïve enough to believe that identical twins are identical in everything. So the fact that you are an atheist and your twin a young earth creationist ignites tremendous amounts of curiosity in me. Is your story written out somewhere on this blog, I haven't yet identified any such post.

Cliff Martin said...

I appreciate your honesty, Pete. I identify with so much of what you write. Assuming the truth of Christianity's core, the church has not been a friendly place for questioning faith. You have found that to be true, and so have I. Unlike you, there have been many experiences of spiritual reality in my life that are uncanny if not genuine. And I find that when I approach the Scriptures in light of our present understandings of cosmology and evolutionary biology, I find a Christian theology that is exciting, and has (for me) a ring of truth. Many gnawing questions that troubled me most of my life are actually settled by these emerging theological understandings. So even though I share many of your issues with the church, and many conventional church teachings, my Christian faith is as strong as ever. Still, I think I would really enjoy a face to face with a person like you.

And I second your motion about Tom's personal story. I'd like to read that, too.

Tom said...

Cliff, I knew you were tongue in cheek with the "lowering the bar" comment. No emoticon needed. :-)

Pete, I appreciate your disclosures on this and Cliff's blogs, and I hope you continue to comment. It is somewhat difficult to have continued, respectful-yet-passionate conversation between atheists and Christians, so I value the rarity of our exchange.

Regarding my story, well, I'll post that next.

Tom said...

Oh, Pete, I did just have to chuckle at your sentence: "Nor am looking to apostate to participate in some sinful practice, like extra-marrital sex."

I guess I should have been clearer about the bonuses that come with apostasy. Dude, man, we're talking not only extra-marital sex, but you can also do heroin, run naked through downtown, spout off at your neighbor, rob convenience stores, and throw bricks through stained glass church windows with absolutely no guilt! ;-)

Brian Forbes said...

I know this was written 4 years ago, but I daresay the topic will never go out of style.

Meaning isn't subjectively "found" in our feelings about given situations. If we find meaning, it is because it was objectively "there" and we became capable of seeing or experiencing it. I find meaning in evangelism, not because it makes me feel fulfilled, but because it is in my job description as a Christian. It may feel purposeful, but that's irrelevant to the objective truth that it is purposeful. Of course, many things that are taken as true will have feelings that follow.

It is also true that some people don't really think much about their religion. It's prophesied. There are tares among the wheat. I think about it all the time. That's how I like it.

It seems like you chose to reject your Christianity upon evidence. Does that mean you can be moved back by evidence? You've made it clear that you find sin enjoyable. Does that mean you also found it enjoyable before your conversion? I invite you to ask me why I believe in Christianity. It stems from evidence.

Tom said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for stopping by and revamping this old (yet timeless) conversation.

You said,
Meaning isn't subjectively "found" in our feelings about given situations. If we find meaning, it is because it was objectively "there" and we became capable of seeing or experiencing it.

This is chasing the homunculus. Also Google "cartesian theater". Many mathematicians agree with you -- that given some set of rules everything falls into place and it is just time that we are biding until all is revealed. There is nothing really dynamic or ultimately worthwhile in participating in this kind or world, is there? I mean, if you know the script, what is there?

My world -- and I would argue that all of reality -- is subjective in space and time. What is true and just today is relative. I agree with you that at face value, this is a concerning proposition. It sort of says that nothing is pure, just, true, or stable and that we are free to go willy nilly into our own morality. Make no doubt about it; this is the bleeding edge of free choice. It does not mean, however, that we can or even would go out and selfishly rape the world. That is a Christian belief -- that we are destroyers but for the grace of God. But make no doubt about it: Evolution could not sustain without co-option and cooperation. I'm not saying that everything is altruistic in evolution, but ultimately, evolution and the unfolding of our natural world is about building systems that are in perpetual dynamic interplay with their environments.

You've made it clear that you find sin enjoyable.

I don't think I'm sinning. But that's relative.