Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning

Mark Leone 6ST530: Apologetics Reformed Theological Seminary Professor William Edgar March 9, 2001

For the greater part of an unforgettable week in November 1993, I sat beside my sister’s bed and watched her life slowly slip away. She was struck down without warning by a ruptured brain aneurysm, leaving behind a two-year old son, a devastated husband, and a close-knit family of six siblings and two parents convulsing in irresolvable grief. In the immediate aftermath we turned our minds instinctively to search for some purpose in this unspeakable tragedy, marshaling the resources of our Christian faith in a collective discourse on God’s mysterious ways and sovereign wisdom. Some of us even thought we glimpsed already the first fruits sprouting from our bitter seed. Laying claim to an order that trumped our grief, we turned away from the abyss that had opened up before us, lest we suffer loss of more than our beloved sister. But my non-Christian brother chose to make his peace with the abyss, telling me in private that Sandi’s death didn’t mean anything except that we had lost her. “God doesn’t get involved with us,” he stated forlornly. “Things just happen in this world. People die, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just what happens.” These divergent viewpoints on my sister’s death, namely the hopeful Christianity of most of my family and my brother’s de-facto atheism, are microcosmic reflections of two contrasting worldviews, each with numerous adherents in the world today. The experience of personal tragedy, such as the death of my sister, often serves as the catalyst for identifying or instigating one’s adherence to one or other of these contrasting worldviews. Apart from such personal experience, however, the assumptions represented by these two worldviews reveal a fundamental question that is asked and answered by virtually every human soul, whether explicitly and consciously, or implicitly and subliminally. Is there or is there not an overarching meaning or purpose to our existence and to the actual events of our lives? In this paper we will examine the argument of a serious thinker who answers this question with an emphatic “no!” Richard Robinson asserts that life has no transcendent purpose, and that this fact has vital implications for how we should think and act.1 The reality of such personal tragedies as the death of my sister figures prominently in Mr. Robinson’s analysis. We will see that although his conclusion appears in some sense justified by the apparently universal experience of the Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 1 Mark Leone

“senselessness” of the world in which we live, a more probing and intellectually open approach to the question reveals significant and insurmountable problems with Mr. Robinson’s thesis. We will also see that the vital concerns regarding the human situation in the world that propel Mr. Robinson to his thesis are most reasonably and existentially accounted for by the antithetical assertion of a transcendent purpose that is inseparably joined to all human existence.

The Heroic Vision
Robinson begins at the point of fact that gnaws at every man’s consciousness, that supremely undeniable datum of our existence– the certainty of our death. Our bodies will certainly perish, he asserts, but even our conscious mind is nothing but an epiphenomenon of our bodily existence, and therefore equally subject to the same futility. It will all come to nothing some day, and we will be no more. Moreover, our death as individuals is not the complete story. Most probably, Robinson argues, the human race itself will one day die, as our world spins down beneath us. We are destined to die not only as individuals, but as a collective phenomenon. Our very category of existence is but a momentary ripple in some cosmic fabric that will carry no memory of us and to which we have no necessary connection. We are doomed. Not only are we destined for nothingness, but even in the midst of the somethingness we presently possess, we are doomed to frustration by our ignorance and impotence. We have need of much information relevant to our well-being and survival, and we can never discover all that we need. There is no single secret we can discover to cure our ignorance. There are a vast number of things we need to know, far more than we could ever discover, our remarkable progress in knowledge notwithstanding. We are powerless to control our circumstances. Our destiny is controlled by forces beyond our control, and we are vulnerable to unforeseen disasters. Worst of all, Robinson asserts, there is no god to save us. We have no superhuman benefactor, neither to aid us in this world nor to bring us someday to a better one. How, then, should we react to this state of things, Robinson asks. It would be “senseless” to rebel, he replies, for there is no god to rebel against. Neither would it be right to let “disappointment or terror or apathy or folly” overcome us. Likewise it would be wrong to be “sad Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 2 Mark Leone

or sarcastic or cynical or indignant.” Rather we must acquire cheerfulness, Robinson advises, for it is an important part of training for difficult times. “Cheerfulness is a part of courage, and courage is an essential part of the right attitude. Let us not tell ourselves a comforting tale of a father in heaven because we are afraid to be alone, but bravely and cheerfully face whatever appears to be the truth.” Here Robinson adds a surprising twist to his argument. The atheist is far nobler than the theist, he asserts, precisely because of the bleak horizon made visible to him by his affinity for the truth. While the theist offers obedience to the all-powerful and all-benevolent god on the promise of eternal victory and happiness, the atheist contemplates his friendless position in the world and affirms his own ideals in the vacuum. “Our dignity, and our finest occupation,” Robinson insists, “is to assert and maintain our own self-chosen goods as long as we can, those great goods of beauty and truth and virtue.” Foremost among the virtues are love and courage. The former is crucial since there is no one to love us but ourselves, and the latter is needful in light of our dire predicament. Man’s glory is manifest in his ability to maintain cheerfulness, love and decency in spite of his insecurity and coming extinction. He is utterly alone, and any good he attains is thereby rendered all the more indicative of his remarkable nobility and strength of character. Buoyed by this self-defined purpose, man snatches cheerfulness from the jaws of despair. “We have good things to contemplate and high things to do. Let us do them.”

Our Crisis of Meaning
There can be little doubt that Robinson has put his finger on a critical and fundamental issue that drives our sense of meaninglessness and undermines any assertion of a transcendent purpose to life. Death is the specter that haunts us all, whether we admit this to ourselves or not. It is a raging beast, an all-powerful enemy whose eventual victory over us is absolutely certain. Furthermore, the futility wrought by death is nearly unspeakable. The horror is not the pain, nor even the unknown, but the ending– the finality, the no-return. Is it possible to believe in an overarching purpose to life, when all life is universally subject to eventual repudiation? How can we honestly cling to any sense of purpose when those we dearly love are ripped away from us Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 3 Mark Leone

without warning, when we are powerless to cling to them, and their very factness evaporates and is gone forever? If we come from nothing and end in nothing, from whence comes any transcendent and objective purpose to our radically ungrounded existence? The indisputable answer is that on Robinson’s materialist premise there certainly is no defensible meaning or purpose to life. If we are nothing but flesh, and the universe is nothing but matter, then our futility is self-evident. But Robinson merely asserts, and does not argue, the premise that the mind is entirely dependent on the body. This assertion cannot be argued any more convincingly than its antithesis, so we acknowledge at once that we are dealing with two suppositional frameworks. We will see, however, that Robinson’s framework cannot stand on its own premises, and requires the very assumptions it is designed to disprove. Robinson argues that life has no purpose, and then applies his doctrine by illuminating the meaning of our existence in light of its lack of meaning. We cannot assume that such a serious thinker was either unaware of or unconcerned about such a glaring contradiction. A reasonable reading of his intent is that it is transcendent meaning that he denies. His thesis is that there is no objective purpose to man’s existence, and that man therefore ought to assert his own. But how can Robinson say this on his premises? It is self-evident that such a normative assertion must come from outside his framework, and indeed is repugnant to it. Perhaps, then, this ought is not intended in any objective sense. Perhaps it is only Robinson’s opinion that this would be best for mankind, and he is not intending to assert an objective norm. But this does not rescue his system from incoherence, it only reveals further problems. If his opinion has no objective ground, then why is he writing to us and even trying to persuade us? It is doubtful that the very usage of the word ought with respect to others in a statement of pure opinion has any coherence whatsoever. It is clear that Robinson does not present his thesis as an opinion, but argues confidently and assertively, as one presenting facts that his reader can look into and be persuaded are objectively true. And it is not only the explicit appeal to ought that subverts his thesis. He uses astonishingly normative language throughout his argument. “It would be senseless to be rebellious…It would be wrong to let disappointment or terror or apathy or folly overcome us. It would be wrong to be Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 4 Mark Leone

sad or sarcastic or cynical or indignant…” The question that immediately arises if we accept his premises is why? Why would it be wrong to respond to our predicament in these ways? One could certainly argue that it is more honest to react in these ways to the chilling news Robinson brings us than to gin up some cheerfulness. Why not give in to despair? Why not be terrified? Why not be apathetic? Who says it is better to be confident than terrified, if these emotions are simply particular arrangements of molecules in brains on their way from non-being to nothingness? Perhaps his normative assertion is intended from within the framework of the brute factuality of human preferences. Humans prefer to be happy rather than sad, purposeful rather than purposeless, etc. On this premise, we ought to react with courage and love because such a response will best accomplish the objective we all just happen to share. This line of reasoning, however, also fails to rescue Robinson’s thesis. It is far from evident that courage and love are the best means to happiness on materialist presuppositions. Adherence to these virtues is usually not the easiest path, and they are generally incoherent without recourse to transcendent ideals. If human happiness is the main goal, then we are far better served by eschewing any noble pretensions in favor of a more direct pursuit of pleasure. Inventing a sense of purpose in a teleological vacuum is hardly the only, much less the happiest, response to Robinson’s ontology, and certainly no better than inventing a transcendent God, of which he accuses the theists. Clearly, Robinson believes it would be wrong to respond to our powerlessness, contingency, and inevitable extinction in the ways that he outlines, but he cannot get this idea from the premises he lays down as fundamental to his belief system.

A Tale of Two Tales
Another peculiarity of Robinson’s thesis is that he argues against the theistic position by accusing them of something that is endemic to his own system. “Let us not tell ourselves a comforting tale of a father in heaven because we are afraid to be alone, but bravely and cheerfully face whatever appears to be the truth.” Robinson tells his own comforting tale, however, and does not face up to the full implications of the truth he claims to discover. On the face of it, Robinson’s thesis is genuinely realistic, embracing the stark truth of our Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 5 Mark Leone

predicament with a frank and unswerving commitment to the intractable given. But he abandons this starting point for more favorable territory with no basis whatsoever except the telling of a comforting tale. It is hard to imagine a more sobering and bitter reality than the picture Robinson paints. We are vulnerable and exposed in an impersonal universe, lacking the resources to maintain our well-being, forever ignorant, doomed to extinction, and there is no god to help us. Where does Robinson go from here? He argues simply that we ought to be cheerful because “cheerfulness is part of courage and courage is an essential part of the right attitude.” What is this if not a comforting tale? Robinson argues that we should “cheerfully face whatever appears to be the truth.” But what if the truth is not conducive to cheerfulness? Robinson does not allow this possibility because he uses truth in the narrowest sense here. The truth he so bravely faces is all fact and no value, the neat product of his Weberian razor. He is free to attach whatever value he chooses to this fact, and his pre-commitment to cheerfulness is obvious. But if there is no necessary connection between metaphysical facts of our existence and the value those facts possess, so that Robinson is free to arbitrarily insist on cheerful acceptance prior to the ascertainment of those facts, then an opposite valuation of them is equally valid. This would be fatal to his thesis, by definition. Thus he is compelled to tell a tale of cheerfulness to establish his thesis. He is therefore incoherent when he argues against the theist on the basis of telling a tale, since he thereby impugns what is endemic to his own system. Both “tales” are comforting on their own premises, and this does not invalidate either of them. There is, however, an important difference between the tales. Robinson accuses the theist of telling a metaphysical story unsupported by ascertainable facts, but the value that the theist attaches to those putative facts is not problematic. Robinson himself accuses the theist of telling the tale because it is comforting. It is natural and unproblematic to be comforted by the facts of theism when they are known to be true. Robinson, on the other hand, finds comfort in his tale through a pre-commitment to cheerfulness− a comfort that is not discernibly grounded in the supposed facts of the tale, but is asserted arbitrarily as an antidote to the natural human reaction to the facts he asserts. It seems he Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 6 Mark Leone

is not willing to face “what appears to be the truth” in its integrity, but is compelled to sanitize this truth through a pre-commitment to optimism that is grounded in an antithetical premise.

The Other Side of the Coin
We have seen that Robinson fails to face the existential implications of his thesis, fashioning a value system that has no ground or justification in the facts he asserts. His thesis not only fails to support the value system he asserts, but also militates against it. This has been illustrated so far with respect to the desirability of living according to his thesis, but there is also an ethical dimension to this discontinuity. Robinson argues for a noble response to the news he has delivered, pressing us to service in place of the god whose nonexistence has been declared. Because there is no one to love us, we must love each other. Because there is no one to protect us, we must protect one another. Disabused of the illusion that we live in God’s shadow, we can acquire a real sense of purpose as we take up our autonomous mantle and accept our self-defining role in the world. “We have good things to contemplate and high things to do. Let us do them.” Once again, however, Robinson has arbitrarily selected a position that is not supported by his thesis and attached it as if there were a necessary connection. As previously noted, his normative injunctions have no ground in his system. Even if a number of us could agree on the definition of these “good” and “high” things, why should we contemplate them and why should we do them? Robinson can give us no reason from within his system, and the oughtness implied by their labels and their usage points to a transcendent order and a purpose that belies his thesis. More importantly, however, a fundamentally different moral response could be asserted on Robinson’s premise, one that is certainly not excluded by it and arguably is more legitimate. It is far from evident that courage, love, and the other commonly accepted human virtues are in any way justified or instigated by Robinson’s thesis, and the cultivation of opposite virtues would seem to be a more plausible result. If there is no god, we simply have no basis for any ethical system, as all contenders fall victim to the “grand says who?”. This is not to insist that atheists do not produce ethical systems, but that when they do their systems have no necessary connection to their atheistic premise. Thus we need not enter into the debate as to whether useful ethical Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 7 Mark Leone

systems can be built on non-theistic principles, such as utilitarianism, existentialism, or the will to power. The point is that many ethical systems are indeed proposed and asserted, and the atheist has no basis to reject any of them. If there is no god, then man is free to assert whatever ethic he chooses, and there is no basis for scoring them. Moreover, human experience suggests that when we perceive that no one is in charge, our moral behavior deteriorates to the opposite of the virtues cited by Robinson as the proper response to his thesis. Thus it appears that Robinson has given us only one side of the story with respect to his thesis. It is significant not only that he fails to report the opposite moral response that is arguably more legitimate, but also that he seems to assume that the superiority of the response he recommends is self-evident. Something outside his system that he fails to acknowledge is having a significant effect on his thinking.

We Have Met the Savior and He is Us
We have seen that Robinson’s argument in denial of a transcendent purpose to life is rendered incoherent by the necessity of assuming the very premise he is arguing against. We consider now how this incoherence is extended to the conclusion he reaches. There is no god, he argues, but there is need for someone to do the work we once thought God did. Man requires a sense of meaning, a noble purpose, and because there is no god he finds such a purpose in loving, protecting, conquering, and providing as men once thought God did. Man is ever ready, indeed, to try his hand at the job of savior, but he invariably does so in a way that undermines Robinson’s thesis. He is forever appealing to the transcendent, even when he is trying explicitly to deny its validity, as Robinson’s own argument shows. It is doubtful that the radical relativism that Robinson is attempting, but failing, to argue could ever succeed in motivating mankind to contemplate and do the “high” and “good” things he refers to. Even in his most selfish moments man wants to appeal beyond himself, to ground his selfish motives in something thicker and more far-reaching than his own existence. He instinctively recognizes the need for something transcendent to legitimate his self-chosen project. Unable to completely mask his own inadequacy, he is continually searching for “the ultimate,” even when he turns his gaze Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 8 Mark Leone

inward. To the extent that Robinson succeeds in convincing us that there is no ultimate order, that our self-defined purposes are all there is, he cuts the nerve of human nobility, and undermines the love and courage he seeks to promote. Love and courage are inherently transcendent ideals. They are appealing to man not because they are what he created in the vacuum, as Robinson argues, but because they connect him with something beyond himself, which man is bound by his nature to seek. This is an intractable reality that will persistently frustrate Robinson’s project.

An Adequate Basis For Cheerfulness
A epistemological tragedy is realized when someone is right for the wrong reason. We find this to be true in Robinson’s case, but we also find it to be a great opportunity for encountering truth. Robinson has no adequate basis for the cheerfulness that is fundamental to his argument, but such a basis can be found in the belief system of Christian theism. Robinson’s instinctual perception of the necessity of cheerfulness is instructive, commending the plausibility of any system that provides a truly adequate basis for the hopeful outlook that humans universally seek. Robinson correctly discerns the teleological vacuum that pervades all existence if there is no transcendent God imparting order and purpose to a universe of his own making. He is unable to maintain this materialist supposition, however, as his argument for a human self-defined teleology presupposes at many points the existence of a transcendent order and purpose. This transcendent purpose is a central tenet of Christian theism, presupposed by all its assertions, supported by a diverse set of evidentiary claims, and held together in a coherent system that has exerted a profound and lasting effect on the course of human history. The God of Christian theism is self-contained and self-referential. He is “in no sense correlative to or dependent on anything outside his own being. God is not even the source of his own being. The term source cannot even be applied to God. God is absolute.”2 All assumptions of transcendent order and purpose embedded in Robinson’s argument presuppose the existence of precisely this God. This God, however, is not merely transcendent. He is truly present to all his creation, sustaining and ordering its existence by his sovereign will. His will is executed and his presence Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 9 Mark Leone

is mediated by his immanent Spirit, intimately bound to every molecule of matter and persistently imparting the very life-principle to all that breathes. Moreover, this intimate connection between God and his creation is not limited to the structural realities of our existence. God’s involvement with man includes his valuation of our existence and his assignment of purpose. Created in his image for the manifestation of his glory, we are of infinite, though derived, worth. Assigned the task of representing God in ruling and enjoying his creation, living by a life-principle that is an expression of the ultimate life that God has in and of himself, man is imbued with a real purpose. The purpose that Robinson could not avoid assigning to man in the course of his argument finds its most cogent expression in the purpose God has assigned to man. This purpose is a real purpose because it is transcendent and enduring, not self-assigned by men who have nothing but accidental existence and no teleological resources to legitimate any asserted bestowal of purpose. The most significant pointer to transcendent purpose in Robinson’s argument, however, lies in the point with which we began, the futility and horror of death. On Robinson’s premise death means nothing at all beyond itself. It is simply the intractable is, the reality that life contains within itself a principle of ultimate and complete repudiation. This is of course at odds with actual human existence, for death is nearly universally perceived as portentous of something dark and foreboding, something beyond the physical facts of electro-chemical processes that someday cease. This fact, too, is profoundly addressed in Christian theism, where death is understood as the separation of soul and body, a parable of the separation from God that has been pronounced against our race for committing high treason against he who alone has life in himself. Robinson’s cheerfulness may find its ultimate ground in this truth, however, for the Christian God has overthrown death, overcoming it on its own principle in a sort of spiritual Judo. The author of life takes upon himself a body, and in that body dies the death that was deserved by all. But because he is the author of life, death cannot hold him, and finds itself utterly spent. All who are united to Christ in faith partake with him of his death and resurrection life, so that physical death for them is transformed into the path to true life. This is in marked contrast to Robinson’s inability to deal with the human apprehension of the horror of death. His approach amounts to Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 10 Mark Leone

mere stoicism and short sighted utilitarian coping mechanisms. "We can't do anything about death, so let's just assign it benign status and get on with living the life we do have." If we know anything at all, however, we know death to be our enemy, and any system that purports to make peace with death is an execrable betrayal of the universal experience of human existence. Christian theism makes no such bargain with death, but claims complete and utter victory over it. The significance of this point can hardly be overstated. What victor has there ever been like death? Who has been able to stand against it? The greatest of men have been vanquished by death, unable to stand against it no matter how powerfully they acquitted themselves in the world, no matter how vast the resources at their disposal. All great religions except Christianity and its derivatives have faced death only by denying its reality or its significance; Only Christianity presents a coherent and credible claim of victory over this redoubtable foe, “the shroud that covers all nations.”3

Conclusion: Heroes with Purpose
The worldviews we have examined represent two competing visions of the heroic element in man, each operating on its own assumptions. In Robinson’s view, man’s heroism consists of his self assignment of heroic purpose, while Christian theism asserts a derived purpose for man that imbues a heroic character of a vastly different sort. Robinson asserts that autonomous man is more noble than man-the-creature-of-God. Such a valuation, however, is a function of the presuppositions of the competing worldviews, as may be illustrated by taking the Biblical characters David and Goliath as paradigmatic representatives of man-the-creature and autonomous man, respectively. As the world reckons bravery, it was Goliath who was the braver and nobler of the two. To stand against a god (as he saw Yahweh) whom you know nothing about requires great bravery. This is the self-assigned hero, trusting in his own resources, even in the face of an unknown opponent. The bravery that David possessed was of quite a different kind, far greater than what Goliath had, but operating according to an opposite principle. To stand with confidence in the power of an infinite God does not require bravery, it bestows it. Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning 11 Mark Leone


Heroes on Purpose: Atheism and the Crisis of Meaning


Mark Leone

Richard Robinson, “Life Has No Purpose” in Constructing a Life Philosophy, David L. Bender, ed. (Greenhaven Press: 1993), pp. 38-41. 22 Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: 1976), p. 5. 33 Isaiah TBD