Is Life Absurd Without God? A Reply to WLC’s Influential Article

Imagine the reverse situation. Imagine finding an atheist writing what Craig writes.

“Should a conflict arise between the fundamental truth of atheism, and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter.”

That would be lunacy. It’s lunacy when Craig does it, it would be lunacy if an atheist wrote it.

Imagine if that atheist would go on to write about all the emotionally intolerable consequences that would follow of God was real, as if how tolerable a proposition is has any bearing on it’s truth value.

I keep being astonished that someone would even mention the emotional impact of certain propositions in any article purporting to be about whether those propositions are true. How can it be the case that grown adult and otherwise cognitively normal functioning humans need to be reminded that emotions don’t dictate reality?


Let’s quote what Craig actually said, in the conclusion of his essay:

Now I want to make it clear that I have not yet shown biblical Christianity to be true. But what I have done is clearly spell out the alternatives. If God does not exist, then life is futile. If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful. Only the second of these two alternatives enables us to live happily and consistently. Therefore, it seems to me that even if the evidence for these two options were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity. It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness. As Pascal said, we have nothing to lose and infinity to gain.

I think it’s clear here that Craig is not saying that the emotional consequences of atheism have any bearing on its truth value. So, your criticism is misplaced on that point. Rather, it has bearing on whether it’s rational to believe atheism. (And in the essay, it doesn’t seem that Craig is defending some abstract philosophical notion of rationality, but instead a more practical day-to-day form of rationality).

I actually think this is reasonable, even from an atheistic perspective. If it is actually true that not believing in a certain proposition P causes an otherwise normal, functioning, productive person to become insane, hopeless, and self-destructive, isn’t it better for that person to continue believing P regardless of whether P is true? I don’t see how atheism dictates any sort of obligation to for a person to always believe the truth. Especially if it is true that say, religion evolved because it gave people (or societies) psychological and social advantages. Doesn’t it make sense for those societies to continue retaining those advantages? In fact, this is not a new viewpoint at all. Marx famously said that religion is the opium of the people. It serves the purpose of relieving people of their suffering.

Even if you disagree with this viewpoint, is it really fair to call it lunacy? I think it’s at least debatable. Notice that I’m not claiming atheism always causes people to become insane and self-destructive. But there certainly seems to be individuals where this is true, at least for the case of Craig.

Finally, atheists writing about the emotional importance of atheism is not unheard of. For example, here is Thomas Nagel in The Last Word:

“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.


This is also an interesting comment:

It’s true that emotions can’t dictate all of reality. Emotions can’t stop you from dying if you jump off a tall building. But emotions and presuppositions do affect what a person experiences to be reality by a lot. Your day-to-day experience of the world can change a lot if you commit to a religion as opposed to atheism. And I’m not talking about having obligations like going to church. I’m talking about thinking of perception of purpose, meaning, human relationships, optimism, willpower, ethics, and so on. These are all drastically affected by your background beliefs. You can effectively “create” new reality by adopting different ones.

As an atheist with a certain worldview, do you know for sure that your choices are optimal? It’s far from clear to me that assuming atheism, adopting atheistic nihilism or secular humanism is the most optimal strategy with regards to all of these aspects of reality. I think truth is just one of the things to take into account. Of course, if a worldview is too far from the truth, it might create cognitive dissonance later which results in adverse effects. But if say, a worldview is reasonably close to the truth, but otherwise contains some false propositions, I don’t see anything in science or atheism which obliges us to say that such a worldview is automatically objectively worse to believe (and again by “worse”, I don’t mean from an epistemological standpoint, but from a holistic one - optimal for human flourishing, sanity, happiness, and so on).


Take a look at WLC’s paragraph of above from the prospective of a young, happy millennial None. Does a None feel that their life is futile? I doubt it. Does this None feel that their life is not meaningful? I would say no and would add that the God of the Bible is completely unnecessary for a None to have a happy, meaningful, and purposeful life.

WLC is biased to this narrow point of view because he is a Christian. If he was a Muslim, he would say the same things but now the necessity of a meaningful life would be the tenets of Islam. Pascal’s wager is a sham because there are many Gods and many religions to chose from. Given that all religions and Gods are mutually exclusive, you can’t wager them all and guarantee to please all or any of them. Realize that most of the Nones today are the children of Nones. Most of the Nones from my generation left the religion of their parents to become Nones. Most of the young Nones today come parents who are Nones. To them WLC seems like an ancient dinosaur - more like their grandparents than their parents.


I don’t deny this. But while you or a happy millennial None might not need religion to feel happy, perhaps some others do.

I don’t think WLC is saying his argument against atheism applies to Islam and other religions as well. Muslims, believing in the existence of God, presumably have more ultimate purpose and meaning in their lives than an atheist. This is just primarily an argument against atheism.

Maybe in the West. But most of the rest of the world is still overwhelmingly religious. Islam and Christianity are still the fastest-growing religions today. By 2050, even though there will numerically be more atheists than today, the majority of the world will still be religious. In fact, the percentage of non-religious people worldwide are projected by Pew Forum (see page 82 of this document) to drop from 16% to 13%, due to the low fertility rate in secular countries. So, it seems that being religious means you leave more offspring!


It’s good that you don’t think it always causes that, though I think you still greatly overstate things. But what about Craig? He hasn’t made such a qualification, far from it.

What is the ultimate significance of God?

Craig can surely see that there are many atheists who are not insane and self-destructive. In fact, he has debated with many of them. However, he argues that these atheists are not being fully consistent with the real implications of their worldview. But maybe there are some people who cannot achieve this compartmentalization between belief and practice (perhaps including Craig himself), for whom atheism is unbearable.

This is a confusing question to me. God, being immutable, eternal, necessary, infinitely good, loving, and powerful, is what gives significance any meaning at all. If God exists, then God is the standard by which significance is measured. What significance is will have to be defined in relation to what and who God is.

@John_Dalton, one way to think about this which I think might be more helpful is that we (mono)theists don’t understand God as just an instance of a super powerful anthropological being, like Hermes or Zeus or Thor. Rather, God is the Creator and Mover of all. His mode of existence is utterly different from that of humans or these lesser gods.


Fine, but he should say that then.

I’ll restate it–why is God significant? Please note Craig’s words. I can give “significance” meaning without God, and measure it, and define it in ways that have no relation to God.

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Well, I’m going to first refer to what “significant” means. I think we are referring to this definition:

having or likely to have influence or effect: important.

(Please correct me if you have a different understanding of what it means. I don’t mean to take these dictionary definitions as inerrant or exhaustive, only that they are more likely to be commonly accepted.)

So the question becomes: why is God important? We have to consider what makes something important. The definition of important is:

marked by or indicative of significant worth or consequence: valuable in content or relationship

Now, if God (as WLC and other theists are referring to) exists, God is the Creator of all things and also the Divine Lawgiver who sets the rules for how humans are to live and the consequences of obeying or not obeying him. More importantly, these consequences are eternal and final instead of temporary. By any reasonable criteria, God, if He exists, is supremely important and thus significant.


That’s comparable to asking a beloved child what the significance of his/her father is. A short answer is that his significance is reciprocal joy in a loving family.

I think it’s pretty clear to me that this is wrong, and Craig has been pushing the consequences angle his entire career, his entire Christian life, as just another argument to believe Christianity is true.

The same could be said of the opposite proposition. If believing it causes them to become insane, should they still believe it? What completely mad behavior has God-belief not inspired in otherwise normal people?

Well doh, atheism is not a system of ethics, tradition, or anything of the kind. Neither is bare theism. The mere fact that a God exists or doesn’t, says nothing about what anyone should do about anything. To get to how people should behave or what they are obligated to believe you need much more than merely to believe there is or isn’t a God.

Especially if it is true that say, religion evolved because it gave people (or societies) psychological and social advantages. Doesn’t it make sense for those societies to continue retaining those advantages?

We can imagine all sorts of ifs that would make religion “advantageous” to society. And we can do the opposite.

It’s funny how your post is one long appeal to consequences argument for belief.

In fact, this is not a new viewpoint at all. Marx famously said that religion is the opium of the people. It serves the purpose of relieving people of their suffering.

I agree that is what many people say religion does for them. They are afraid of death and it comforts them when they face hardships. If circumstances turn against them they will say to themselves it’s all part of some great plan. They still cry at funerals, oddly enough, and deeply and intensely miss the people who are gone and get extremely angry at criminals and terrorists who kill people. I always found that sort of weird if they really believe they will get to see the lost ones again, and the people who “died” actually didn’t but went on to have even better lives. They say their religion comforts them, they say it relieves their suffering. But does it really do that? It seems to me it’s the rarest of people for which the comforting aspects of religion really works in the face of hardships. It’s almost like there’s still some part of them that doesn’t really believe it. They want it to be true more than they really believe it to be true. Of course, religions are also really good at making people believe they’d be lost and nothing without their religion.

I mean, look at you, and Craig who blather about how intolerable it would be without religion. Your religion has made you believe that life without it is some emotionally intolerable hell-hole that makes people insane and self-destructive. It’s completely ridiculous. And yet religious people seem not to be comforted that much by their supernaturalist beliefs at all.

If there’s one function religion does carry out in society it’s to give people a sense of belonging and community. The social support structure is better simply because it exists. For all sorts of historical and traditional reasons the way people are often “born into” religion through upbringing from their parents means they are connected to these huge support structures automatically through childhood. Knowing there is this place where people can go to get emotional support and that it is actually encouraged does a lot for people. The fact that people congregate in churches at various times and celebrations gives opportunities to meet new people and break any potentially negative cycle of loneliness and feeling of exclusion. Everything that happens in curch is about fostering this sense of community and interpersonal relationships. Babtisms(you are part of the group), confirmations(you are still part of the group), marriage (you and me are now together) and so on and so forth.

We are a social species, and more than anything else the feeling of not belonging and being alone is detrimental to human mental health. All the supernaturalist stuff about “ultimate” meaning and “ultimate” significance is an artificial, constructed problem. But once you understand this, it also becomes clear that these things can be had without religion. There are ways to ensure the same sorts of support structures exist in a secular society.

What I write is lunacy his the methodological presupposition that:

Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter.” ( Reasonable Faith, Third Edition, p. 48)

"Even [people] who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit." ( Reasonable Faith, p. 50)

Which would be just as nuts if an atheist were to write it. That is the lunacy, the insistence that we should continue to believe something is true even when all arguments and evidence runs counter to it.

Notice that I’m not claiming atheism always causes people to become insane and self-destructive. But there certainly seems to be individuals where this is true, at least for the case of Craig.

I highly doubt this is actually true. That’s one of the things you learn when you leave religion, that many of the problems you perceive of an irreligious life are synthetic, and seem to have functioned more like scare tactics, and that these existential questions of ultimate meaning and significance actually have good secular answers, and people really can live entirely satisfying lives not bogged down by worrying that you will one day die.

Finally, atheists writing about the emotional importance of atheism is not unheard of. For example, here is Thomas Nagel in The Last Word :

Yeah and that is a really really bad argument for belief either way. I don’t want to because I don’t like it.


The universe certainly exists, and is incredibly important. What’s the difference?

Sure. And my own father, for example, is that significant to me. Ditto to the question above

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From everything I’ve heard the very reasonable atheist Peter Millican say, he actually suggests that belief in God is reasonable if the alternative for a person is suicidal futility. I would be interested what he thinks the odds of each being true would need to be in order to be rational in believing in God.

He talks about this near the end. It’s a truly remarkable and amicable discussion all around.


That’s a great show for such discussions!

I guess almost anything is reasonable if the alternative is “suicidal futility”, and I would recommend God belief to anyone if those were the two alternatives. Is that really a realistic description however?

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Take a listen. Maybe I get some things wrong. I listened to it a couple weeks ago.

I don’t doubt that you got it right; it just seems like an exaggerated notion. Just anecdotally, I don’t recall such a rationale in any suicide case I’ve heard of. I’ll try to give a listen!


For this to have any value in this question, atheism would have to be shown to be uniquely (or at least disproportionally) responsible for people going insane and self-destructive, compared to other belief systems (for lack of a better word). I’m aware of no such demonstration and the idea that religion can and does also lead people to terrible inner and outer suffering is pretty obvious. WLC is smart, but this article is really weak. I would also call it offensive, but this boring and evidence-free line of reasoning is trotted out so frequently that it doesn’t really faze any atheist I know. It’s usually trotted out by ignoramuses, though. Quite disappointment to hear it come from WLC.


The true function of these common Christian tropes is not to evangelize and persuade atheists to become believers, it’s to discourage believers from leaving the religion. That’s why they look so ridiculous from the outside and so compelling from the inside.


I think this line sums it up well:

Craig begins by recounting how he first learned as a child that life is finite. He said, “I was filled with fear and unbearable sadness.” That his own death was far in the future did nothing to allay the problem. Whether his death was hours or decades away didn’t matter—it was eternity or nothing.

Here Craig tips his hand. His life’s work has been dedicated to resolving that little boy’s fear of death.

This may sound overly Freudian to some, but Craig has invited us to dismiss his entire belief system and life’s work as the attempt for a young boy to cope with his fear of death.