I had an interesting conversation with someone today and one of the questions that came up was: “Why does God matter?” In essence, the person was perfectly content with life and wanted some kind of tangible or practical advantage to believing in God. I believe that there are many good reasons to believe that God exists, however for the sake of argument let’s say it’s 50-50. What advantage does theism give over atheism? Although a full answer to this question could fill volumes, I tried to give the person the two that are easiest for me to explain: purpose and insurance.
The major advantage that humans have over animals is our intellect. Unlike animals, we are driven by more than our survival instincts. Our senses help us to observe things in the world around us and our intellect tries to explain them. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle thought up a systematic process for being able to fully explain something; this process is known as the four causes:
a. Material cause: the underlying stuff that an object is made out of
b. Formal cause: is the structure or pattern that the object shows; it’s basic features
c. Efficient cause: what it is that brings the object into being
d. Final cause: the end, goal, or purpose of a thing.
When applying these thoughts to a cherry pie for example, we might reason that:
1. That it is made of dough, cherries, etc.;
2. That it has a round shape with the cherries in the middle surrounded by dough; and
3. That somebody baked it in an oven as opposed to being formed naturally on its own.
What we can’t explain is why the cherry pie was made. We could only figure that out if the person that made the pie told us. We could have many theories; lunch, birthday party, photo-shoot for cherry pies, or even to sell. We could never really be sure and it would be speculation for the most part.
I think Atheism at best gives satisfactory accounts for three of the four causes, while ignoring or trivializing the fourth cause. According to atheism humans are carbon based life forms made up of sub-atomic particles (material cause). Human beings are animals in that we are capable of independent motion, unlike plants or rocks, but we also display rationality (formal cause). Human beings were formed due solely to the forces of nature (efficient cause). Lastly atheism states that the forces of nature that brought humans into existence acted in a blind and random process without humans in mind as an end goal. Therefore humans have no intrinsic purpose and their existence is ultimately meaningless (final cause). So an atheist ignores or denies purpose. Or, even if God exists and got things started, we don’t need Him anymore, so He’s unimportant. Accordingly the only purpose humans have is that which they create for themselves.
This, I think this has a few implications:
1. Atheism logically leads to nihilism or utter despair because there is no purpose in life. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether a person lives for 60 minutes or 60 years. In such an existence, life only means continued senseless pain and anguish. For such a person, suicide is always an option. One can see the reasoning through a parallel situation: if I find an object in my attic whose existence I can explain in terms of its material, formal and efficient cause, but that has no purpose, I throw it out because it’s useless. Its presence only takes up space which is a nuisance to me. Likewise, an atheist’s life becomes nothing more than an existence that he or she puts up with until it becomes a nuisance.
2. Or, since an atheist finds himself in existence with the ability to reason, he may as well live life to its fullest; finding whatever enjoyment that he can find. I think this leads ultimately to a wasted life. Using the same parallel situation as before: I might decide to keep the useless object that I find in my attic because I can use it for something even though it has no purpose. Maybe, for example, since it is a solid and blunt object, I can use it as a hammer. However, since it was not uniquely suited to be a hammer, the use that I come up with doesn’t fit the objects’ nature very well and it ultimately never fulfills its full potential. Its existence was wasted. Often, when humans create their own purpose, it amounts to constantly seeking amusement or fulfillment of our carnal urges. I call such an existence a wasted life because that type of lifestyle is a waste of the human intellect’s ability to discover the truth about the world. The only difference between such a person and a dog is that the person can think of a more sophisticated ways to pleasure himself.
3. Lastly, if the atheist has decided to live in order to maximize his enjoyment, obligations to other people and to the planet only matter to the extent that he is allowed to do what makes him happy. If he’s honest, he enjoys causing harm to people that annoy him. He also enjoys having sex. Since it’s easier to take women by force rather than wasting time courting them with drinks and witty conversation, he might choose the easier route. The only reason he likely won’t harm people or rape women is because he might go to jail which would certainly decrease his enjoyment. However, if he can do either of those things and be reasonably assured that he won’t get caught, he must take that opportunity because once it passes, he can’t guarantee that he’s going to live long enough to get another chance, since he only lives once anyway.
Therefore atheism, if practiced consistently can lead to either utter despair and suicide or a selfish, immoral and ultimately wasted existence.
I’m sure that an atheist that has read this far would probably object and be offended by what I’ve written. Many atheists believe that they live moral decent lives that would in some cases put Christians to shame. I agree with that 100%. I do not believe that one has to believe in God to live a moral life. I personally know a few atheists whose kindness and integrity I admire. My point is not that atheists can’t be good people, I know they can. My point is that if they lived consistent with their worldview, the options that I’ve described above follow logically. One should be troubled if their worldview has logical implications that they’re uncomfortable with.
Fortunately, many atheists don’t live consistently with their worldview. They don’t realize that based on their worldview, there’s no reason in going above and beyond the minimum amount of moral behavior needed to avoid jail. Thus atheists behave better than they should because they’ve never really thought deeply about it. Atheistic philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche have all reached similar conclusions on the implications of atheism. Russell wrote that given his atheism, his own views on morality and ethics were “incredible.” See Bertrand Russell, Letter to the Observer, 10/6/57.
Theism on the other hand, gives satisfactory answers to all four causes. A theist can agree in part, with all of the material, formal, and efficient causes that an atheist identifies. However, the theist, a Christian in particular, believes that God exists and that He intentionally created the universe with humans in mind. Having been created in God’s image with the ability of rationality, the greatest fulfillment of our intellect is to know God, make Him known to others, and to live in accordance with what God wants for our life.
This, I think has implications that are directly opposite to that of Atheism:
1. Humans have a reason for optimism because when we know our purpose we have a reason to live on through bad times. Since God made us intentionally, our lives have intrinsic value and it matters to God and His plan for us whether we live or die.
2. When we live out God’s purpose, we are in tune with what we were uniquely created for and we can live out our full potential.
3. Part of us realizing our full potential is to gain knowledge of how God wants us to live our lives. With our intellect we can discern right from wrong and strive to make morally correct decisions. We do not seek to be lawful just to avoid jail.
Therefore Christian theism can lead to a happy, meaningful and morally good life. Unfortunately, Christians also don’t always practice what they claim consistently. We doubt God and get angry with Him when we go through tribulations; failing to trust in His plan or failing to acknowledge the consequences of our own immoral actions. We find our identity and purpose and meaning in fleeting things like our careers, money, clothes or social status. In trying to obtain those temporary things we sometimes make immoral decisions.
In conclusion, I think people who are apathetic about their belief in God have never really thought it through. Belief in God gives humans purpose whether they realize it or not. An atheist says he doesn’t believe in God, yet spends his life seeking purpose even though none exists. The theist on the other hand has ultimate purpose and thus always has a reason for optimism. In part two, I’ll continue with the other benefit to theism: insurance.