This is the third in my ongoing series on things I now believe as an atheist and freethinker. See previous posts here and here.
One of the times I can recall really interacting with an atheist before I deconverted was actually during my education program in college, when I was doing a brief internship in a middle school language arts class. When I was actually doing some teaching – the experience was part hands-on teaching, part observation – I ran into a student who had a history of sparring with the regular classroom teacher, who was the wife of a minister, about religion. This student also had a propensity for challenging authority in order to avoid doing any work (and not because of a lack of ability or intelligence, either), and his anti-religious attitude became sort of a tool to that end.
So at one point, I had students doing some writing, and when I came around to check on this student (who wasn’t working), I asked the reason for the lack of effort. To my surprise – and it should be noted, this was a seventh grader – the student said, “If there’s no ultimate meaning in the universe, why should I do this?” I was slightly taken aback, since the notion of no ultimate meaning wasn’t a thought I even entertained at that time, but I was actually being observed by my university instructor, so I reacted quickly and said, “Well, even if so, there’s still meaning for you right here, right now, so get to work.”
That was my first practical experience with the idea of meaning in a secular outlook, although I had been exposed to existentialist ideas when I attended a Christian college briefly. Of course, the attempt of a seventh grader to avoid work by appealing to a common but misleading stereotype is not at all reflective of a more nuanced approach to meaning from a secular perspective.
The first issue to raise here is the distinction between the objective and subjective, which in terms of values doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Objective properties are ones which are not relative to the subject, e.g. carbon-12 has 12 protons regardless of who is assessing any given carbon-12 atom. Conversely, subjective properties obtain only when held by a subject, such as beauty or worth. Currency, for example, is only worth something because it is valued by individuals; this is true of many things, even things we think have broader worth, such as gold.
Using that analogy, it is easy to see what an atheist friend pointed out to me long before I deconverted: the notion of objective values is nonsensical. Facts and values are separated by the objective/subjective divide, and values, unlike facts, only make sense within the framework of being perceived by a person. By this reasoning, even the kind of values that are held by a deity – say, that humans have intrinsic worth – are subjective, not objective (although one could argue that they would then transcend humanity, insofar as that even matters).
So we get to the question at the heart of the student’s complaint: Since the idea of objective values is incoherent, what value can life even have? The answer is simple: Whatever value we want it to have.
Now, I want to step back for a second here and note that values underpin morality, but since I’ve already talked about that, I want to ignore the moral question and focus on values alone. Much of what I have already said will be germane, and I don’t want to rehash those points.
Stepping back to the question, we can see an underlying assumption here: Things should be valued if and only if they are objectively valuable. This is of course nonsense; there is no reason to think that objective values (again, if the concept were even coherent) are necessary for subjective values. If a deity didn’t think that women held intrinsic worth, would I be wrong to think that they do? Clearly not.
But TCC, the eager theist may ask, doesn’t a lack of transcendent underpinning mean that people could value whatever they want and not value what they don’t want? What if people decided not to think that black people have intrinsic worth?
The first answer is that people can do that regardless of whether they should. Do I think that such a person would be (or is, for those who do actually believe that) wrong? Yes, but I also recognize that this is a difference of opinion. That doesn’t preclude me from trying to persuade others, but it does mean that I am limited in what means I have at my disposal. I could try making analogical arguments – for instance, that there is no relevant difference between black people and non-black people that would justify esteeming them different in worth, or perhaps arguing from empathy or reciprocity (e.g. “Would you like being told that you have no value as a person?”) – or social pressure, for instance, but I couldn’t appeal to a fact about people. We project values onto things, not discover them in things.
The second answer is that societies have a responsibility to establish values that have utility within the community structure. If children are valued, then education and supporting children more broadly should be reflected in that society’s policies and mores.
None of this is to say that establishing and reinforcing values is therefore easy – it’s not. Like morality, it involves a calculus on several different levels, and different societies and people make come to different conclusions. Overall, however, the fact that we can’t discern a universal meaning doesn’t mean that there is none: it just means that we have to try harder to support the most productive values that we can in order to make our lives better in the long run.
Readers: Does meaning have any more, er, meaning? Please leave your thoughts or further information in comments below.