Atheism and the Meaning of Life


Jennifer Fulwiler explains why she converted from atheism to Catholicism, but frankly her explanation makes little sense. She clearly doesn’t understand context and she confuses what she wishes to be true with what actually is true. And it’s all about the meaning of life:

One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)

By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain. Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable. A life multiplied by zero yields the same result, no matter when you do it.

The first part is absolutely true, of course; the entire span of a person’s existence on earth is not even a blip on the radar in the context of the physical and temporal existence of the universe. But just because our lives have no grand, universal meaning doesn’t mean they don’t have any meaning at all. You do not matter to the universe but you certainly matter to the people around you. You can experience joy and sorrow and the full range of emotions, you can make your own life and the lives of others better, reduce their pain and make their lives more happy and more fulfilling. And the fact that you only have a limited amount of time to do this makes it all the more important that you not put it off dreaming of eternal life on a cloud.

But more than this, she is making an is argument out of an ought argument. Even if you think that it would be nice if there was a God to give all of this some grand purpose — and I don’t agree with that premise at all — it doesn’t magically make that reality exist. Even it were true that the lack of a God makes everything we do meaningless, that doesn’t mean you should believe that there is one if there isn’t.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed the well-worn path of people who are trying to run from something that haunts them: I worked too much. I drank too much. I was emotionally fragile. Many of my relationships with other people were toxic. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of distractions, trying to pretend like I didn’t know what I knew.

I’m afraid you’re projecting your own illogical conclusions on everyone else. The notion that life has no grand, universal meaning to the universe does not haunt me at all. It’s just reality, whether we want it to be or not. And I don’t have toxic relationships, nor do I need to pretend not to know what I know. Nor do I drink too much (or hardly at all, for that matter). I do work too much these days, but I work at something I really believe in so I’m okay with that.

Fulwiler has two key problems here: She wants to replace the reality she doesn’t like with a fantasy she does like, and she assumes that everyone else leapt to the same illogical conclusions she did before deciding to indulge in that fantasy.

Comments

  1. jjgdenisrobert says

    I’m always skeptical of those who claim to have converted from “atheism” to belief, because often, the word “atheist” is used by believers to denote any person who had less than a rock solid belief in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. So your average liberal Methodist, for example, would be considered an “atheist” by these people. This is especially true of people who go from being simply uncommitted, mainly because they’ve never thought about the issue and were raised in a secular household, to being “born again”.

    So unless I see real evidence that this person was, in fact, an atheist, I’ll have to remain skeptical of her claims, even if that exposes me to the “no true scotsman” fallacy.

  2. says

    I’m with jjgdenisrobert on this. The “I used to be an atheist” line is akin to “some of my best friends are black”. yeah right…At best, what people like this mean is “I never really thought much about it before”. I (like most here) could give a days worth of reasons for my atheism. How could one actually articulate those multitudinous reasons only to discover that they were “wrong”

  3. says

    My life will extend past my eventual death. I will live on in the memories of my friends, of my family. If I write a great novel – it will live on in the joy and excitement of the people who pick up my book and read it. I have no illusion of being a name everyone will know. In fact, if I merely make a few people happy to remember “Hey, Katherine was a great friend, wasn’t she?” then my memory would be good.

  4. says

    I was a teetotaler when I was a (liberal/secularized) Christian, and I’m still a teetotaler as an atheist. I have some intellectual curiosity about drug-induced states of mind, but it’s a low priority for me, especially when I have more important things to do and/or safer means of recreation.

    And even when reality gets me down (namely the political situation in the US), I’ve got some things I can do to help fix the situation (or try to), and I can take a break in some idealistic escapism when I need to. There’s plenty of purpose for my life, and it’s purpose of my choosing, not some arbitrary purpose fabricated by some baseless alien being that’s been described as ordering genocide, rape, and pillaging.

  5. DaveL says

    It’s a special case of the False Dichotomy fallacy. Either something has a meaning eternally and universally ingrained in the very fabric of reality, or else it has no “real” meaning. Either something has value that endures forever and for all observers, or it has no “real” value. Either morals are handed down from On High by an ultimate authority or there are no “real” morals.

    Basically the equivalent of the spoiled child who won’t bother coming out of his room if he can’t have a unicorn at his birthday party.

  6. dingojack says

    ‘Atheists’ don’t exist because in all my conversations with non-atheists I’ve never heard of one therefore such a creature is strictly impossible!! (Just thought I’d get in early)
    The life of a single coral polyp is, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant, the Great Barrier Reef on the other hand…
    Dingo

  7. scienceavenger says

    Just another case of circular logic pretending to be reasoning. Why can’t chemical reactions have purpose? Why can’t chemical reactions in our brain be considered real? Chemists would certainly tell you they are. No one who pursues these lines of argument ever answers these crucial questions. They simply assume there must be something godlike and nonmaterial to make things meaningful and real, so they “conclude” that such exists. Circular is as circular does.

  8. sc_061d120c64475291bd5aa124d8faed6c says

    jjgdenisrobert & ashleybell, it is possible for someone to go from being an ardent theist to being a strong atheist, correct? Why should the reverse be less credible.

  9. Eric O says

    And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special.

    Just a minor thing from her essay that irked me: the universe is more than 5 billion years old. It’s closer to 14 billion. It’s a pet peeve of mine to see people just come up with random numbers to describe the age of really old things when their age should be common knowledge.

    Yes, I know I’m overlooking the giant logical fallacy standing before me so that I can nitpick about inconsequential details.

  10. says

    Here’s the thing I don’t get about theistic ideas of meaning. I experience a great deal of meaning in my life; that is, I feel my life is meaningful. But this feeling is completely subjective in the same way my feelings of empathy and compassion are subjective. It is true, however, that the love and support I receive from my friends and family also give my life meaning, in that I feel that love as a gift of meaning for me.

    But, here’s the thing: If I felt life was meaningless, I would feel the love and support from my friends and family was meaningless, too. Further, if I already felt life was meaningless, God’s love would be meaningless to me, too. So, a divine infusion of meaning doesn’t do me any good unless I already find meaning for my life within myself.

  11. gesres says

    I’m also skeptical this person was an atheist, or at least the sort of atheist that arrives at that position via rational thought. Her justification sounds lifted from some apologist book or website, and doesn’t reflect any understanding of atheist perspectives.

  12. says

    I believe it’s mostly induction/inference when it comes to atheist-to-theist conversions:

    Every time I’ve heard of someone claiming to be such a convert, they end up describing their atheism in terms of religious straw men and popular stereotypes, not as familiar atheists would describe themselves. In light of that experience, I tentatively conclude that such stories are very likely false. It would take some strong evidence to convince me that a particular case was a true story.

    The best case interpretation I’ve seen involve people who strongly deviate from familiar forms of atheism and are largely unaware of the beliefs and thought patterns of “mainstream” atheist communities.

  13. says

    Fulwiler does touch on the main reason why I think that atheism (as opposed to agnosticism, deism, mysticism, or some other vaguism) will always be a minority viewpoint in society. The ultimately inconsequential natural of the vast majority of people’s lives — only a vanishingly small few of us will be remembered long for who they were or what they did in the long run — is tough to swallow for many people.

    Amongst the many people I know who have no specific adherence to religious belief and live their lives free of the trappings of faith, hardly any of them are willing to go that final step and rule out the hope or chance that there is more to life than what we can see and touch. It’s usually a rather nebulous hope that doesn’t really have much practical impact on their daily lives, but it does seem to serve as a buffer to protect them from disturbing thoughts that what they do in life doesn’t have any meaning much beyond their immediate circumstances.

  14. jjgdenisrobert says

    @sc_061d120c64475291bd5aa124d8faed6c: It’s not impossible. But I have to reserve judgement because, as I’ve said, too many people who have claimed to convert from “atheism” to theism had never really been atheists, but rather people who just didn’t care about religion. There is a pretty conscious attempt on the part of some theists to muddy the waters by calling anything but the most ardent commitment to their particular belief “atheism”. So because of the confusion sowed by these people, I feel I have to be doubly careful before accepting the claim of converts.

    On the other hand, the reverse is not true. Few if any on our side calls a lukewarm believer who never practiced their religion and certainly never thought much about it “Evangelicals”, or even “theists” without qualification. We tend to qualify our reference to them by adding the words “moderate” or “liberal”, to make clear that we do not mistake those people with the hard-core, fundamentalist version of the believer species…

  15. Randomfactor says

    Why should the reverse be less credible.

    Entropy.

    I’ve always been puzzled by the chain of thought exhibited by Fulwiler and company. Meaning in life isn’t worth anything unless it’s handed to you from a Sky Daddy?

    By that reasoning, an inheritance from your father is preferable to a self-earned fortune. In fact, if you strike out on your own and found your own successful company, it’s worthless–you should’ve accepted that sinecure position in your dad’s corporation.

  16. says

    Here’s the thing I don’t get about theistic ideas of meaning. I experience a great deal of meaning in my life; that is, I feel my life is meaningful.

    I don’t think that’s what troubles most people. I think it’s when they take a step back and look at their life from a wider perspective–what does their life mean in terms of society as a whole or history (and not just immediate family history)?

    There have been billions of people who have lived and died of which there is no longer any record, written or otherwise, and billions more who are now little more than a couple of data points stored in some dusty vault.

    That’s what troubles many people, and scares some of them.

    I am an atheist myself, but I fully understand why such thoughts are troubling to many others.

  17. Aquaria says

    Amongst the many people I know who have no specific adherence to religious belief and live their lives free of the trappings of faith, hardly any of them are willing to go that final step and rule out the hope or chance that there is more to life than what we can see and touch.

    But do they think it because the culture has made it part of their thinking by constant repetition to reinforce it, or is it an idea they came up with on their own.

    I don’t know–that seems to me to be a real problem with a lot of ideas that people think they have on their own, rather than having them because certain emotional tropes are part of their culture.

  18. Randomfactor says

    And of all the religions she could’ve picked, she chose the fractal faith midway between monotheism and the household gods of the Romans?

  19. zmidponk says

    Am I missing something, but isn’t what she’s actually saying, in short, that she couldn’t handle the reality of the fact that we have a few brief decades of existence, followed by oblivion, and this led to depression, which made the fantasies and ‘what if’ scenarios of religion more attractive than reality?

  20. Aquaria says

    There have been billions of people who have lived and died of which there is no longer any record, written or otherwise, and billions more who are now little more than a couple of data points stored in some dusty vault.

    That’s what troubles many people, and scares some of them.

    I am an atheist myself, but I fully understand why such thoughts are troubling to many others.

    I don’t.

    First of all, it sounds like ego-masturbation.

    Second, it goes back to the cultural tropes thing I mentioned above. How much of this thinking that they’re something bigger comes from the prevalence of a particular religion in this country that screams incessantly about how each person is such a special little snowflake to an all-powerful deity and will get to live forever and ever for being the deity’s pet?

    When you study the cultures of Buddhist/Confucian countries, there doesn’t seem to be so much of this childish, egoistic lust to be special forever. But then the purpose of living eternally is a lot different, and living forever isn’t really a good thing to them.

  21. Rieux says

    FWIW (not much), Fulwiler’s story is extremely similar to the one told by Christian apologist (and fantasy novel author) C.S. Lewis in Surprised By Joy and other evangelistic works. The “I used to be an atheist” bit, the “eventually I realized it’s stupid to pretend life has meaning if we’re just chemicals” bit—it’s classic Lewis.

  22. justawriter says

    To quote the famous philosopher, Opus T. Penguin, “Ah, life’s purpose. It isn’t so much found as made.”

  23. Reginald Selkirk says

    Another person making the same mistake:

    Atheist-turned-Christian asks: Is it really all about nothing?
    ATHENS, Ga. (BP) — “When I began to think about the logical conclusion of atheism,” Richard Suplita, a psychology lecturer at the University of Georgia, reflected, “I asked myself, ‘Is it really all about nothing?’ and realized that I could not accept that conclusion.” …

    He didn’t like the conclusion, so he chose another conclusion he prefers, then went looking for any evidence to support it. That’s ass-backwards.

  24. eric says

    Basically the equivalent of the spoiled child who won’t bother coming out of his room if he can’t have a unicorn at his birthday party.

    +1.

    ***

    Eric O @10: possibly Fulwiler was confusing the age of the earth (4.5B) with the age of the universe?

    ***

    For myself, I am not sure how or why (heh) Christian theology gives meaning to life. So you go to heaven, where you spend eternity being with God, Einstein, your grandparents, etc. Okay…how is that deeply meaningful? I spend my time with friends and family now, and I’m told that doesn’t count. But its the same thing I’m supposed to be looking forward to, right?

    If the complaint is that this life has no meaning because it doesn’t go anywhere, how is the eternal cul-de-sac that is Christian heaven any different? You don’t go anywhere after heaven, either. On the other hand, if one can find meaning in heavenly existence without it having to “lead anywhere,” then there is nothing stopping you from finding meaning in this life.

    The whole theological claim to meaning seems based on a non sequitur. From the description of heaven, it does not follow that there is any deeper meaning there than there is here.

  25. The Lorax says

    A few months ago, I was trying to write an artificial intelligence program. I started with Pavlovian conditioning, attempting to write a program that would recognize words. I realized the limits quickly; it wouldn’t be alive, it would just be processing and regurgitating. I reduced myself a bit, figuring that in order for life as we know it, I would need to replicate DNA, or more specifically, molecules and atoms. I got a really cool program with bouncing balls that repelled or attracted, but that was it. My chemistry-fu was weak. I then decided to take a page out of Mr. Sagan’s book, and create the universe from scratch. I attempted to derive a unique set of physical laws which would govern the motion and interaction of a set of particles that I would also invent. I never finished, but that’s not the point.

    As I worked my way down, from dogs to spherical magnets to the fundamental nature of the universe, I began to realize… this really is all that there is. A great many random occurrences produced you, me, all of us, everything. There really was no meaning. And eventually, all of it will be gone. I had to back off from the project and let my stomach settle as that realization really sank in. It was profound, to say the least. And for the first time in my life, I felt like religion would be a good idea; it would provide a false sense of comfort in a finite world.. and, after all, all senses of comfort are false; they are all the same neurons firing, the same chemical reactions, the same random occurrences. In the grand scheme of things, what’s the difference?

    I then remembered something I had heard a long time ago: “Don’t compare yourself to the universe; you will always lose.” Yeah, it’s all meaningless. Yet, I’m going to go home and eat chocolate, and I’m going to be happy. That’s not meaningless to me.

    “Meaning” is a human invention and thus only applies to humans, and, by a fortunate series of random occurrences, I am a human.

    I’ll keep some chocolate out in case any of you want some.

  26. Pieter B says

    “I used to be an atheist”
    “some of my best friends are black”
    “Rush, I’ve been a liberal all my life, but . . . “

  27. says

    But do they think it because the culture has made it part of their thinking by constant repetition to reinforce it, or is it an idea they came up with on their own.

    It’s probably a mixture of both. Most people likely start with some baseline belief system they have heard about and come to adopt for their own, and then add their own twists and tweaks on top of it and remove the stuff they find they don’t agree with.

  28. harold says

    Assuming Jennifer Fulwiler is telling the truth, and not dissembling as an effort at “stealth apologetics”, then here is my explanation for this whole thing.

    She had/has clinical depression.

    This medical condition causes distorted, negative thinking, including subjective impressions of “life having no meaning” and the like.

    Depression should be treated, because it is a significant problem. Mild depression may resolve on its own, but severe depression can be a risk factor for other diseases, substance abuse, and suicide.

    It seems as if she has used a religious conversion as a proxy for treatment. Her religion is her business, but that’s not a great idea. Catholic or atheist, depression should be treated.

  29. eric says

    A great many random occurrences produced you, me, all of us, everything. There really was no meaning.

    If I may counter: people who think this way confuse the shuffle for the game.

  30. sc_061d120c64475291bd5aa124d8faed6c says

    Good God, that is a horrible word salad, isn’t it? Until I can figure out how to fix that (and I would appreciate any help in that regard), please call me Dweller in Darkness or just Dweller. Sorry for being so rude with my poster name.

    Moving from a position of strong atheism to a theistic position is most certainly an irrational act, I’m just wondering why this specific irrational act is seen as requiring strong evidence in support of proof.

    Since I recognize some of the posters here and it may came up, I feel I should note that I am still a theist myself.

  31. says

    I see someone beat me to the C.S.Lewis comparison. I re-read Surprised By Joy a few years ago, and I was struck by how little it deals with the standard arguments for or against theism, or indeed with philosophical questions at all. Lewis seems to have had a bunch of mythological and literary ideas all jumbled up in his head, and it all came down to an emotional reaction to that intellectual gemish. Conversion by lit-crit.

    That being said, I’m not much interested in hair-splitting on the definition of “atheist”. If someone says they don’t believe in God (or similar transcendent power), and I’ve no positive reason to suspect bad faith, then as far as I’m concerned, they’re an atheist. They may be a confused, inconsistent, or just generally muddle-headed atheist, but those are failings that can attach to any POV (and I know a few atheists who IMHO fit that description in some respect). I think the last paragraph @13 puts his finger on the problem: these people may be atheists, but they’re not skeptical, evidence-based, rationalists. And to my mind, that is the more important commitment.

  32. says

    I really wish I had written this essay, which demolishes that kind of thinking:

    To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea, no different than sentence fragments declaring that “Went to the bank” or “Exploded.” Without first specifying a particular subject and/or object, the very idea of meaning is incoherent.

    Yet too often people still try to think of meaning in a disconnected and abstract sense, ending up at bizarre and nonsensical conclusions. They ask questions like: What is the meaning of my life? What does it matter if I love my children when I and they and everyone that remembers us will one day not exist? But these are not simply deep questions without answers: they are incomplete questions, incoherent riddles missing key lines and clues. Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?

    Once those clarifying questions are asked and answered, the seeming impossibility of the original question evaporates, its flaws exposed. We are then left with many more manageable questions: What is the meaning of my/your/their life to myself/my parents/my children? These different questions may have different answers: your parents may see you as a disappointment for becoming a fireman instead of a doctor, and yet your children see you as a hero.

  33. Rieux says

    I see someone beat me to the C.S.Lewis comparison.

    Ha ha ha! PwnZorD!

    It’s really a striking resemblance. I almost wonder if Fulwiler cribbed part or all of the text Ed quotes.

    That being said, I’m not much interested in hair-splitting on the definition of “atheist”. If someone says they don’t believe in God (or similar transcendent power), and I’ve no positive reason to suspect bad faith, then as far as I’m concerned, they’re an atheist.

    Agreed.

  34. Sastra says

    But more than this, she is making an is argument out of an ought argument. Even if you think that it would be nice if there was a God to give all of this some grand purpose — and I don’t agree with that premise at all — it doesn’t magically make that reality exist. Even it were true that the lack of a God makes everything we do meaningless, that doesn’t mean you should believe that there is one if there isn’t.

    Years ago I read a description somewhere of this tactic which I subsequently adopted: The Argument from Boo Hoo.

    It always takes the same form:

    1.) If there is no God, then X is true.
    2.) X is bad.
    3.) Boo hoo!
    4.) Therefore, God exists.

    Or, rather: therefore, we have to believe that God exists or the way we live our lives either doesn’t or shouldn’t make “any sense.” Then confuse what it means to rationally make no sense with what it means to emotionally react to things making no sense — and call your sense of satisfaction the result of finding a “satisfactory” answer.

    Sounds like Fulwiler thinks the Argument from Boo Hoo gives her intellectual credibility by giving her emotional credibility. She found God because she was sooo sensitive.

  35. pennybright says

    I believe it is perfectly possible for a person to move from a position of atheism to one of theism. I see it as a matter of thought vs feeling. I suspect Ms. Fulweiler didn’t think herself into accepting atheism, and therefor was readily able to feel herself out of accepting it.

    As Michael Shermer pointed out in “Why People Believe Weird Things”, humans are the rationalizing animal — once we’ve reached an emotional conclusion, our ability to intellectually justify it to ourselves is magnificent (if often misguided).

    I also agree that is Ms. Fulweiler was suffering from a depressive episode, and her recovery from it coincided or was helped by her religious conversion then it certainly would strengthen her rationalization of her theism.

    On a personal note, even though I am intellectually an atheist, I find that the structure of my religion and the culture of my religious community are often invaluable tools for helping me manage my mental illness. But then, I am one of those dancing pagans, a slightly healthier religious structure then most. My psychiatrist and medications are also invaluable tools, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

  36. eric says

    …we have to believe that God exists or the way we live our lives either doesn’t or shouldn’t make “any sense.”

    IMO, QM pretty much nailed the coffin shut on the idea of the universe “making sense” in the way that term is used above.* The universe is absurd. Scientifically, empirically, mind-bogglingly ridiculous. A single atom going through two parallel slits at once? Ridiculous. Realizing the uncertainty principle is not a limit on measurement but a fundamental property of reality? That’s absurd. Quantum eraser? You must be joking.

    20th century science has changed the question. It is no longer whether the universe makes sense. It is how we, as humans, should respond to the fact that it doesn’t.

    *Its still sensible in the more formal usage of the term, i.e. we can empirically make sense and understand what is going on around us.

  37. Glenn E Ross AKA HeartlessB says

    I remember the first time I was in the Smoky Mountains standing near the top of one mountain looking at the vast valley stretching out below, seemingly forever with other peaks hazily in the distance, thinking how completely inconsequential I really am. For the first time I actually felt the meaning of the word awestruck. It did not make me think, wow, there must be a God. It only reinforced the reality that bacteria and I are not too far apart in the overall structure of the universe.

    So be it.

    I think it is the height of fear and arrogance to reach the conclusion that there must be God so that I do not feel so small. Honestly I personally feel more comfort in knowing that “my world” is small, my family, my friends, my city, my state, my country, my planet. My life has more meaning BECAUSE it is finite. I must make a mark in my limited world to live on in the memories of those that survive me. This gives me more incentive to have a positive impact, not less.

    (I can only imagine how the astronauts feel when they see the entire planet, which is almost as minuscule as I am when compared to the expanding universe.)

    To quote the end of The Galaxy song by Monty Python:

    So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
    How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
    And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
    ‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

  38. says

    @ sc_061d120c64475291bd5aa124d8faed6c:

    there are so many strong reasons to not believe and any one of them would be enough to dismiss faith altogether. I would haver to find the reasons to believe more convincing than reasons to not believe. ie “reasonable” reasons.

    how could god allow suffering to be so unfairly and arbitrarily distributed?

    if he doesn’t exist, the explanation is clear. How could I go from an atheistic explanation (which makes sense) to one where I’m left with the initial problem again?

    How do theists (of specific stripes) account for the high probability that they will believe the same faith as their parents/ community/ country…and still be sure of being of the “right” faith? That’s the one that convinced me when I was about 10. Either one faith is right (where even adherents of the same faith can’t agree) or none are?

    How could someone have actually thought that though, concluded that there was no god, and then use reason to conclude that god actually does exist. If you can do this, you really hadn’t thought it through.

    now of course if one believes in the wishy-washy god-as-true-metaphor variety, then that mushy kind of god loses by being utterly meaningless.

  39. d cwilson says

    @jjgdenisrobert – I have that same reaction whenever I hear Kirk Cameron talk about how he used to be atheist “because it was cool”.

    In a similar vein, I keep waiting for the day when S. E. Cupp stops pretending that she’s an atheist.

  40. Modusoperandi says

    If there’s no meaning without God, why is Christian Rock so crappy?

    Bronze Dog “I was a teetotaler when I was a (liberal/secularized) Christian, and I’m still a teetotaler as an atheist. I have some intellectual curiosity about drug-induced states of mind, but it’s a low priority for me, especially when I have more important things to do and/or safer means of recreation.”
    Well, I’m no expert, but…
    Short version: Pot makes covering Rock Lobster on the acoustic guitar seem like the greatest idea ever. Actually, it makes everything seem like the greatest idea ever. The cloud of smoke is like a genius bubble. Then you leave it to pay the pizza man and realize that your friends are kind of dull (but at least they aren’t poking you in the chest, trying to pick a fight with you for “lookin’ at my girl” like your drinking friends are). Then you go back in and pizza is the greatest food ever and the next thing you know you’re mellowly rocking out to the greatest idea ever; an acoustic cover of Birdhouse in Your Soul.

  41. Sastra says

    eric #37 wrote:

    IMO, QM pretty much nailed the coffin shut on the idea of the universe “making sense” in the way that term is used above.*
    *Its still sensible in the more formal usage of the term, i.e. we can empirically make sense and understand what is going on around us.

    I think the religious have a third concept of what it means for a life to “make sense” — it has to be part of a coherent narrative, a story where the believer is the main character. Everything fits together not just through causal connection, but in a moral storyline.

    From that perspective, there has to be an Outside Author, a Cosmic Observer weaving out a satisfactory plot. Thus the common trope that “everything happens for a reason.” The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and if anything is introduced into the story it must be there in order to move the characters along. You only get sick so that you can triumph over adversity.

    Fulwiler evidently thinks that if her life does not end with a vague but reassuring “… and then she lived happily ever after” then she’s been cheated by a lazy Author.

  42. says

    @42:

    I think the religious have a third concept of what it means for a life to “make sense” — it has to be part of a coherent narrative, a story where the believer is the main character. Everything fits together not just through causal connection, but in a moral storyline.

    Speaking as an ex-believer: this.

    According to some accounts, narrative is the way we give structure to raw experience (even scientific theories are a sort of narrative). Being able to write yourself into the Grand Narrative of the Universe (though really, you’re only a supporting character — God/Jesus is the lead protagonist) can be enormously attractive.

  43. Modusoperandi says

    ashleybell “How do theists (of specific stripes) account for the high probability that they will believe the same faith as their parents/ community/ country…and still be sure of being of the ‘right’ faith?”
    If memory serves, apologist William Lane Craig says it’s because God puts the saved souls in the right places. Honky places, mostly.

  44. Dweller in Darkness says

    (formerly known as sc_061d120c64475291bd5aa124d8faed6c)

    ashleybell, thanks for the clarification – I think it comes down to what Eamon Knight said: “these people may be atheists, but they’re not skeptical, evidence-based, rationalists.”

  45. eric says

    Sastra @42: I think the religious have a third concept of what it means for a life to “make sense” — it has to be part of a coherent narrative, a story where the believer is the main character.

    That can’t be exactly right, as each person’s life can certainly have a coherent narrative, a story, and a main character even without an afterlife.

    I suspect that for the religious, the sticking point is not how well the plot holds together, its whether the story has an ending or not. If the book ends, none of what you listed really matters – to them a book with an ending doesn’t have meaning.

  46. ArtK says

    @42

    I think the religious have a third concept of what it means for a life to “make sense” — it has to be part of a coherent narrative, a story where the believer is the main character. Everything fits together not just through causal connection, but in a moral storyline.

    I really like this!

    To me, it leads to a new question: Are atheists people who can live without the narrative or people who are able to write their own?

  47. says

    @46: That can’t be exactly right, as each person’s life can certainly have a coherent narrative, a story, and a main character even without an afterlife.

    Yes, but how much more exciting when your little one-page subplot is embedded in a Cosmic Saga, making its contribution to the whole. And that’s not an exclusively religious impulse, nor need it involve an afterlife: if you’re now an active member of the secular/skeptical/”New Atheist” movement (or any other social movement), don’t you get a kick out of contributing your little brick to something bigger than yourself? Well, religion promises that, raised to the Nth power.

  48. says

    @47: I’d say we are people who can write our own moral narrative about the betterment of the human condition within the larger amoral, indifferent, purely causal narrative of the universe.

    We don’t need the universe to care about us: it is enough that we care about each other.

  49. says

    Ms. Fulwiler makes the same mistake as other believers. She assumes that the existence of God means her existence has meaning. She assumes that she has a role in the supposed “mysterious plan” of God, and that God is interested in her. She doesn’t consider the idea that only some people are of any interest to God, and that the rest of us are just random background characters in whatever story he’s creating.

  50. Dennis N says

    I’m always skeptical of those who claim to have converted from “atheism” to belief

    I’d add to this that the theism -> atheism conversions generally have documentation. Church photos, congregations who recognize you, priestly titles, baptismal records.

    On the flip side, the atheism -> theism conversions generally consist of a story wherein the theist tells the tale of how they were a debauched atheist with no morals, see Kirk Cameron.

    It does happen, but it is very rare to have someone with documented atheistic leanings, say by being a member of a local freethought group, converting to theism.

  51. says

    I hate that “no true atheist” thing. You should go read Greta Christina on why US atheists are so awesome… and why that state of affairs won’t, and shouldn’t, last. Clearly Fulwiler wasn’t one of the awesome, and you can expect more and more of those in the US in future. We already have plenty of non-awesome atheists in other, less religious, countries.

  52. jakc says

    Indeed Heartless B, life has meaning because it is finite – a point implicitly accepted by Fulweiler as she does not embrace religion because it offers meaning in eternity but because it offers meaning in this life. Her mistake, and frankly one that goes back to Plato, is the idea that accepting myths can create meaning. I read her entire piece and I think she was an atheist – surely her younger self would regard her new-found beliefs as ridiculous. The saddest part is how she came to accept Catholicism as providing this meaning and not even some ethereal deism, and the risk that Catholicism poses to her life because of its irrational stand on birth control. I can’t help but think of a Bob Dylan line: “nothing was revealed.”

  53. dingojack says

    Sastra (#35) –
    The theist/atheist Two-Step
    1) Without god there is evil
    2) Evil is bad
    3) Boo Hoo
    4) Therefore: a good god
    5) Shit – there’s still evil
    6) Therefore: no good god
    7) Rinse, repeat @ step 1).

    Personally I’m quite happy to live as a cell, in a tissue, in a organ, in an organism bigger and longer lasting than myself. Yes I doubt if I died tomorrow anyone much would miss me, but I’m not the point. I’ve done a little bit to improve the lives of others, who in turn, improved life of still others a little bit and so on.
    You theists want something bigger? How about humanity as a whole?
    Dingo

  54. Pinky says

    I am surprised no one has yet remarked on the reason Ms. Fulwiler test drove a religion; a man she had fun with, whose presence made her world better and presumably caused her hormones to run hot was a Catholic.

    I think it’s great Ms. Fulwiler is happier in her new community. All the feedback from her new family, based around the worship and fear of a supernatural figurehead, must be raising her serotonin levels.

    While I can almost feel the warm glow when a person comes closer to the finish line in their pursuit of happiness, I am mystified why some choose to piss on what they once (supposedly) were.

    Reading the article I had a mental image of Ms. Fulwiler’s words mixing in smoothly with the homogenous overcooked gruel in the ‘what’s wrong with Atheists’ caldron. Christians dip into the modern fads of Atheist demonization, write their attack pieces and throw it all back into the pot. Unlike a quality sourdough culture producing delicious bread, banality has turned the anti-Atheist meme into a scraggly group of overused tropes crawling into the slime pit of obscurity.

    In the last few years all converts to Christianity started out as Atheists. In our fathers day, witnessing a “come to Jesus” moment, meant colorful stories of slouching towards perdition arm in arm with demon rum and loose women. Stories of the unrepentant roaming the west laughing, belching and scratching when good church people were about was the norm. Those old tried and true witnessing stories became outdated or perhaps were rocketed into hyperbolic nonsense as more and more sinners became Christians.

    Today all those with a redemption to witness were once Atheists. Christians have a long list of meanings for “once an Atheist”; starting with missed church last Sunday and continues to: fellated Beelzebub.

    I shudder to think of the abominations future witnessing stories will hold.

  55. coryat says

    For those of you who haven’t read the whole thing, she goes into a spiel about C.S Lewis and a depressive episode that lasted for several week following the birth of her child. Sound reasons indeed! Although I am always a little wary of claims that people were never ‘really’ atheists who converted, this bit sounded odd to me:

    ” I found that I couldn’t put the [christian] book down, and ended up buying it (loudly noting to the cashier that it was a gift for a friend).”

    I can’t imagine any atheist I know saying such a thing; if anything it sounds like a good bit of later literary creation to fit the ‘Christians are persecuted!’ trope. Can anyone else offer insight / opinion on this?

    God is dead and the decadence of faith in the modern age is shown by the weak and stupid reasons offered for conversion here.

  56. coryat says

    “As Joe once pointed out when I asked him why he considered himself a Christian, Christianity is the only one of all the major world religions to be founded by a guy who claimed to be God. That’s an easy claim to disprove if it’s not true.”

    lol, shifting of the burden of proof. The nebulous concept of God requires rigorous definition as well.

  57. dingojack says

    Coryat (#57) – Oh so true! Just few pages of C.S. Lewis is enough to send almost any sane person into a deep depression.
    :) Dingo

  58. heddle says

    I really, really love all the “no True Atheist™” anecdotes affirming the first law, The Law of the Converts:

    The Law of the Converts: Every atheist who claims to have been a devout Christian was. Every Christian who claims to have been an atheist, wasn’t.

    I especially love the novel argument in #51 supporting the Law of the Converts, that only one direction is documented with “Church photos, congregations who recognize you, priestly titles, baptismal records.”

    Ingenious. That, to me, is as close to bullet-proof as any supporting argument I have ever heard.

  59. coryat says

    Heddle:

    A couple of things occur. Firstly, that isn’t a law. It’s something you wrote on your blog. I mention it because you seem quite pleased with yourself (you’ve posted this ‘first law’ of yours before) but it is simply ‘Heddle’s First Assertion’.

    Secondly, if you could hold back the sarcasm for a moment (or even if not), I can’t see what is so absurd prima facie with #51 and documentary evidence. Could you enlighten me?

  60. heddle says

    coryat,

    A couple of things occur. Firstly, that isn’t a law.

    Yeah..about that.. the title “Internet Atheist Facts O’ Fun” should have been kind of a dead give-away that I wasn’t posting axioms.

    Secondly, if you could hold back the sarcasm for a moment (or even if not), I can’t see what is so absurd prima facie with #51 and documentary evidence. Could you enlighten me?

    Really? OK. The documented evidence offered in #51 suggesting that conversions in the theist to atheist direction are more credible is:

    1) Church photos, 2) congregations who recognize you, 3) priestly titles, 4) baptismal records.

    Where to begin? I’ll choose my experience as a routine atheist

    1) Church photos. What would be the corresponding documentation I could provide? Photos of me not going to church? Maybe in front of a TV showing a live broadcast that could confirm that at least on Sunday Morning, 25 November 1995, I was not in church?

    2) Congregations who recognize you. What would be the corresponding documentation I could provide? Hire a PI to take my photo to local churches and ask “Have you seen this guy?”

    3) Priestly titles. What equivalent to a priestly title could I have held confirm my bona fides as an atheist? An OM from PZ?

    4) Baptismal Record. What would be the equivalent? A Debaptismal Record? For a routine atheist?

    So, in short, the first criticism is that these four documentations cannot speak to the relative credibility of the two directions of conversion because they only exist for one and nothing equivalent exists for the other. If by magic we had 50 trustworthy, unimpeachable converts in each direction, only the 50 theist-to-atheist converts could provide such evidence–therefore it is worthless in speaking to the relative credibility.

    Secondly, the documentations themselves are not even close to being reliable–as even a quick read of the various “how I became an atheist” compilations sprouting up indicates.

    Many of those stories relate how the person was raised a Catholic, Baptist, whatever– but never really believed. This type of person, though not a theist, would

    1) Be in church photographs
    2) Be recognized by congregations
    3) Priestly titles–not likely I’ll grant, but this particular claim of documentation is bizarre to being with.
    4) Have Baptismal records

    So the documentation, even it what it purports to do, is woefully unreliable. It is way too susceptible to false positives.

  61. heddle says

    Anyone (Owlmirror?) care to comment on the 2009 Pew Report on “Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” That report uses the categories “Catholic, Protestant, Other Religion, or Unaffiliated (with any Religion)” I wish they gave a precise definition of “unaffiliated” but I can’t find it. Anyway it has interesting results. From the executive summary:

    The biggest gains due to change in religious affiliation have been among those who say they are not affiliated with any particular faith. Overall, the 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found that 16% of the adult population is unaffiliated, with the vast majority of this group (79%) reporting that they were raised in a religion as children. In total, more than one-in-ten American adults and more than a quarter of all those who have changed religions have become unaffiliated after having been raised as part of a religious group.

    But then it also adds:

    Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups. Indeed, most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group. Nearly four-in-ten of those raised unaffiliated have become Protestant (including 22% who now belong to evangelical denominations), 6% have become Catholic and 9% are now associated with other faiths. Overall, 4% of the total U.S. adult population now belongs to a religious group after having been raised unaffiliated.

    Fascinating reading.

  62. coryat says

    Heddle:

    Thank you for taking the time to post such a detailed response (no sarcasm intended). I stand corrected. However your ‘Atheist Facts of Fun’ defense is inane. You wrote a trite generalisation which you keep posting as a sincere response to things, but apparently it is also not serious and not sincere. In my opinion you are also using your reputation as a physicist here to indirectly argue from authority. People perhaps generally defer to you in regards to things such as laws, theories and axioms due to your scientific expertise and I don’t think it is too wishy washy to suppose that some of that could be transferred to your blog writings on ‘laws’.

  63. heddle says

    Coryat,

    You wrote a trite generalisation which you keep posting as a sincere response to things, but apparently it is also not serious and not sincere. In my opinion you are also using your reputation as a physicist here to indirectly argue from authority. People perhaps generally defer to you in regards to things such as laws, theories and axioms due to your scientific expertise and I don’t think it is too wishy washy to suppose that some of that could be transferred to your blog writings on ‘laws’.

    I’m not understanding. Are you saying that because I am a scientist that I hope that when I write:

    The Law of the Converts: Every atheist who claims to have been a devout Christian was. Every Christian who claims to have been an atheist, wasn’t.

    that I am actually claiming it to be a law? And not just snark/sarcasm directed at an oh-so-common response to a conversion story?

    No kidding–I would never have imagined that particular criticism.

    So let me be clear. This is not a law. It is poking fun of people who seem to think it would be the end of the world if a true atheist converted to Christianity–an irrational concern that apparently compels them to cast doubt on any such claim.

  64. Childermass says

    Why is being made out of mere [whatever spirit stuff is] be make anyone more special than mere atoms?

  65. eric says

    Heddle @63: I wish [the PEW survey] gave a precise definition of “unaffiliated” but I can’t find it.

    Look at the subcategories. It includes (self-reported) atheists, agnostics, “secular unaffiliated” and “religious unaffiliated.”

    If you look at Table p26, it appears the low retention rate/high throughput in unaffiliateds is due to the the latter two groups, not the self-described atheists or agnostics. PEW lumps the last two into “nothing in particular” for that table, and the rate of change in that group is an order of magnitude higher than the rate of change in the atheists or agnostics.

    Which makes common sense; a lot of religious people change sects during their life. Those surveyed while in the process of changing sects would report as unaffiliated, but only for a time. The flux is mainly due to e.g. Catholics becoming Baptists, not atheists becoming Baptists.

    At least, that’s my interpretation. I don’t think that my conclusion (or any other) is very solid; the survey numbers for those subgroups are too small to really say what’s going on. I can only really say that my hypothesis would explain the data, but so would many others.

  66. says

    “One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there.”

    So, for humans, and only for humans, there must be meaning? Boy, if I was GOD, I would be supremely pissed that one my millions of created groups of beings thought that they were the only ones whose lives had meaning. In fact, I would be so righteously pissed that, with the exception of a few, I would cast them all into an eternal fiery pit* of people-cue.

    Believers v non-believers. Short story. I compete in a trivia contest at a local bar every tuesday. I used to play by myself but about six months ago a new team was getting an unaccountably high number of answers correct. There were many people who saw said group using cellphones during the game. I joined up with another team (one that I had beaten in two straight tournaments–I am #1, I am #1!!–and we proceeded to KICK THEIR ASSES! Anyhoo, one week when we were playing I discovered that not only was I the only atheist at the table but that there were four very fundy Kkkristians** and a couple of guys that are sexualagnostics***. After some weeks of playing together, the young GODly types went off to do some “Young life” stuff and we only saw them at Karaoke (they are not JW or SDA’s, I guess). Nice kids and a couple of them sing like angels–even if they are doing songs that have pretty naughty lyrics.

    Last night I was informed by one of the sexualagnostics that he is “dating” one of the Kkkristian lasses. He also told me that someone would retrieve something for me from his apartment ‘cuz he wouldn’t be sleeping there last evening (a late date, apparently). Now, I like all of these people and I don’t doubt that they are decent human beings, if I did I wouldn’t spend time with them. However, it seems to me that a lot of christians I’ve met have no genuine justification for their stated beliefs. I’m not talking, here, of evidence to support some extremely specious claims, but their own thinking that might explain their “faith”. They don’t actually do any, thinking, that is. Perhaps this is why so many of the young christians I’ve met are deeply devout and would never dream of doing anything to hurt BABY JESUS, like, being the GAY–but when some hottie or hunkie comes along they can just chuck morality into the nearest trashcan. Fortunately, for me, being an atheist means I have no morality or purpose to begin with. Therefor, I can go from thoughtful (if meaningless) contemplation of things universal to hot, sweaty sex, drinking tumblers of vodka and smoking angel dust laced crack in a New Age second.

    I’m not sure if I had a any point with this rant, but I sure had fun;-).

    * In memoriam to Andy Rooney, “Have you ever wondered why hell is so hot and yet we still have to pay almost $4/gallon for heating oil? Have you ever wondered what sort of uncaring GOD would let that happen. Wouldn’t you think HE’d do something about that? I sure would!” I would shrug my eyebrows expressively, here, if I had any to shrug.

    ** I’m only using the one UC “K”, because they are young, there’s still hope.

    *** They don’t want to believe anything that might keep them from getting laid.

  67. says

    Just got around to reading Fulwiler’s post: she read Mere Christianity and found the Natural Law argument convincing? That’s another Lewis book (I used to be fanboi) I tried to re-read, and stopped right after that chapter because Lewis himself says “If you’re not convinced by what I’ve already said, then there’s no point in reading further”. Which was really very thoughtful of him, to avoid wasting the time of people who aren’t under the spell of the quasi-Platonic mindset necessary to make his argument coherent. (And when you read Fulwiler’s blather about “meaning”, you realize that’s exactly her problem).

  68. says

    heddle, the reason we question the claims of Christians who say they “used to be devout atheists” is simply because their stories don’t hold water. That’s why some people here are demanding more evidence for such stories than you consider fair. Seriously, the stories all follow the same template (helpfully provided by preachers in need of a conversion story); they make claims about what atheists say that CURRENT atheists don’t support; there’s almost never any detail about the converts’ specific experiences when they were atheists (i.e., no details of why they de-converted, what it did to their family relations, etc.); and what details they do provide point, not to atheism, but to ignorant, rudderless, emotionally unstable mindsets and self-destructive life-choices. And who can trust the stories told by emotionally unstable people who’ve made such asinine choices in the past?

  69. says

    It is poking fun of people who seem to think it would be the end of the world if a true atheist converted to Christianity–an irrational concern that apparently compels them to cast doubt on any such claim.

    So what “irrational concern” compels you to mock us for doubting claims that have so little credibility?

  70. says

    Another thing that kills me about this “God gives life meaning” stuff, is that the people who preach on and on about how God gives meaning to everything, will also quickly point out that we mortals are so puny and imperfect that we can never understand, let alone question, the mind or purpose of the infinitely wise Creator. God will provide, human actions will never amount to anything, all is vanity, dust in the wind, let go and let God, God destroyed the Tower of Babel, you can’t accomplish anything without God…trust me, NO ONE strips life of meaning faster than a Christian trying to belittle everyone who doesn’t think exactly like him. At least the atheists are only SELF-deprecating.

  71. says

    Her reaction to finding reality unsettling is a widespread one…it’s called religion. It’s too bad that she called herself an atheist, since she obviously hadn’t thought through the issues very deeply before adopting that label.

    Like many people, being troubled by the stark reality of a godless world, she decided to believe in fairy tales to make herself feel better.

    Religion, in the end, is a “feel-good drug” that helps some people get through the day….

  72. says

    After all this time in the thread, I suppose I should mention that before I was a Christian I was an atheist or agnostic (at any rate: a non-believer), having been raised by agnostic parents with no religious influence beyond that prevalent in Toronto suburban culture in the 60s (which is to say: not much, outside RE at school, which I took about as seriously as I took Graeco-Roman mythology when they us taught that). I converted to fundamentalism at age 15 for what seemed like perfectly rational reasons at the time (and yes, I got a certain amount of mileage from that in my Christian circle). It’s easy now — almost 40 years later — to see that my critical skills were poor, that I didn’t know the right questions to ask, and I didn’t have enough experience of the world to recognize the characteristic smell of bullshit, that there were social-emotional things going on in my life that helped maintain the conversion once started, and well, I was a *kid*, but it’s silly to say I was “not a real atheist”. I certainly wasn’t anything else.

  73. mithrandir says

    Heddle,

    One of the problems you have to contend with is that there are a number of well-documented examples of evangelical Christians that tell tales of themselves as unChristians who found God, when said tales were demonstrated to be fabrications on further investigation. Mike Warnke and his bogus Satanism is the first to come to mind, but it’s definitely a familiar pattern. To my knowledge, there just aren’t examples of atheists wildly exaggerating or fabricating their prior religiosity.

    This is because a Christian has an additional incentive to lie in such circumstances that an atheist does not: a sincere, if misguided, desire to save unbelievers from Hell.

    That said, the woman under discussion here does not fit that pattern; rather, she fits a different pattern where she hadn’t really arrived at her original atheism by reason, and likewise departed from it for irrational reasons. That pattern, I suspect, may well be equally common in all directions.

  74. heddle says

    mithrandir,

    To my knowledge, there just aren’t examples of atheists wildly exaggerating or fabricating their prior religiosity.

    Of course there are if by that you mean a smell test. I’m not going to look for them, but I have certainly read examples where people claim to convert to atheism because an encounter with a preacher sermonizing on miscegenation or the like. Or they asked a profound question and the sunday school teacher’s jaw dropped and they received a whippin’ for their impertinence, and they just knew at that moment that it was all bull. Can I prove it didn’t happen? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that I have to accept at face-value the “magic moment” accounts of deconversion.

    I doubt your claim in the sense that I doubt that there are statistically significant numbers of accounts of atheist to theist conversion that have been documented as false. You seem to imply there are many. I say there are effectively zero given that the number of people who claim an atheist to theist conversion would be in the millions. I do not doubt that many claims are exaggerations or outright lies in the same manner as described earlier for theist to atheist conversions–they don’t smell right. The less a claim in either direction is a relatively boring description of a slow burn–the more I discount it.

    This is because a Christian has an additional incentive to lie in such circumstances that an atheist does not: a sincere, if misguided, desire to save unbelievers from Hell.

    An atheist might exaggerate his deconversion to make himself look better/smarter, to gain attention, to make the religious look dumber/more-bumpkin-like, or from a perceived noble cause of trying to stop a friend from wasting his life on a Bronze-age myth.

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