A God Above Means Purpose Below

copper-colored coins on in person's hands

We have meaning below because there is a God above. If there were no god above, we would have no meaning below. Trust me, this isn’t just some “Sunday School” idea. Even celebrity atheists will admit as much. The famed skeptic Richard Dawkins concedes that in a world without God there is no purpose, meaning, or justice. There is nothing but “blind, pitiless, indifference.”

An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe there is a god above. That doesn’t mean they live as though nothing matters. Surely, they all get out of bed in the morning with some sense of purpose, as we all do. I bet there are people in their lives they care deeply about, so love would be one of those purposes. I bet if someone lied about them, or stole from them, they would be upset, which means truth is one of the purposes they care about as well.

So, why would we say that if there is no god above there can be no meaning below? How might an atheist family member or fellow student respond to such a big claim? While I can’t predict how everyone might answer, let me share a poem that illustrates the challenge of making sense of life without reference to God. It’s “Lament,” written by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise wit.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.

The mother in the poem is struggling to understand meaning in the face of the death of her husband. Without a reference to God or the afterlife, we see a sad confusion and lack of defining purpose.

Many skeptics will quickly admit in a world without God there are only purposes we create for ourselves. These kinds of purposes are like goals or even preferences. I might set a goal to lose weight. You might not struggle with your weight like I do, so you might not need that goal. It’s specific to me as a person, as a subject. Such a purpose can be described as subjective.

Or, another example, I might prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream. You might not. That preference is specific to me as a subject. That means it’s another subjective preference. It could change tomorrow if my taste changed. And it’s not the same thing for every person. It’s entirely personal or subjective and it’s able to change.

Can we just live with subjective purposes and preferences? Sure, you can try. But none of us really do.

Here’s what I mean, we all think there are some purposes that go beyond the individual. For example, you probably think it is morally wrong to be mean or violent towards those with mental disabilities. Why do you think that? If you see someone doing something cruel to someone with that kind of disability, would you say something? Would you be angry?

If your answer is yes, that means you believe there are purposes outside of a person’s preference. If someone prefers to be harmful to others who may not be able to help themselves, we would tell them they need to stop. We would believe their personal purposes or preferences on the matter are somehow wrong. We would be acting as though there is a meaning that is bigger than my own subjective or personal opinion or mood.

Just consider what is going on in Ukraine. Russia is attacking them without justification. They are bombing civilian centers. Thousands of lives have been lost. And the world has rallied to Ukraine’s aid providing critical supplies. The world is behaving as though what Russia is doing is wrong. Whatever Putin’s personal goals or preferences are in the matter, countries around the world have responded as though there is some kind of law that is bigger than a person, or even a country’s, own subjective desires.

That brings us back to our opening statement. If there is no god above, there can be no meaning below. What we’re talking about is the kind of meaning that is bigger than our own personal preferences and opinions. We’re talking about the kinds of things we say are true for all people regardless of how they feel about it. Those kinds of values are not based in a subject, a person, but are objective, meaning they go beyond our preferences and opinions. But to make sense of these kind of objective obligations and duties, we need God.