Sunday, August 05, 2012

What do unbelievers live for?

Atheists are touchy on the meaning-of-life question. They resent the fact that Christian apologists keep harping on this issue.

Now, there are academic atheists who conduct very dignified, highbrow discussions comparing atheism to Christianity, viz. Michael Tooley, Richard Gale, Evan Fales, Paul Draper, Graham Oppy, Nicholas Everitt, J. J. C. Smart.

Likewise, many atheists talk about how we create our own meaning. You don’t need God to lead a purposeful, worthwhile life.

But how does that highfalutin’ theory translate into practice? What do people actually live for? How do they fill their lives? What’s the meaning they make for themselves?

Let’s take some examples from the pop culture? Why the pop culture? Because, by definition, it’s popular. It reflects popular attitudes and interests. This is where many people live.

Many years ago I watched Dick Cavett interview his old philosophy prof., Paul Weiss. After Cavett asked him a series of questions, Weiss turned tables on Cavett and asked him a question. Of course, as a philosophy prof., Weiss was used to grilling students.

I don’t remember his exact words, but as I recall he asked him, of all the famous people Cavett had interviewed over the years, if he could remember anything any single guest ever said that changed his outlook on life?

Cavett drew a blank. He was visibly embarrassed. He couldn’t think of anything that stood out.

Cavett was just killing time. Nothing he ever heard made a difference. It was irrelevant who the guest was, or what they said. It was all a blur.

I also remember reading an interview with Pauline Kael. She mentioned talented people who used to come to her parties. Brilliant conversationalists who frittered their lives away in brilliant conversation that didn’t leave a trace. Just idle chatter.

Roger Ebert is a very prolific film critic. He churns out 200-300 movie reviews each year. I believe he’s written over 5500 reviews.

But isn’t there a point at which more becomes less? What does adding another 300 reviews really add up to? What difference would it make in his life if he didn’t see the next 300 films?

Doesn’t viewing so many movies tend to dilute the value of the viewing experience? Eye drops become pints, then quarts, then gallons, then swimming pools, then lakes, then oceans.

Or take television fare. Every year, year after year, decade upon decade, there’s another sitcom. Another talk show. Another game show. Another hospital drama. Another courtroom drama. Or private detectives. Or the NYPD.

Not only does this create an overwhelming sense of sameness, but replaceability. Interchangeable actors, interchangeable scripts, interchangeable settings, interchangeable plots. Just watching the trailers tells you all you need to know, because it’s so deafeningly familiar. You could write the script yourself. You could cast it yourself.

Yes, this is fiction, but this is how many people entertain themselves. Pad the empty spaces in their lives–when they’re not at work.

There’s also the social media.

I’ve been talking about pop culture, but what about high culture? What about a conductor, pianist, or violinist who performs the same symphony, sonata, or concerto hundreds of times in the course of his career. What’s the point, exactly? It’s like beginning and ending and then starting right back over again.

Now none of this is wrong in moderation. Sometimes we need to unwind.

But in my observation, a lot of what many people do with their leisure time is just filler. A way to pass the time. There isn’t anything more they have to live for. That’s it.

I know retired relatives who spend half the day at the tavern. They only leave at closing time, then go back the next day. 


  1. Without an afterlife nothing that you do matters.

    This poem: was provided to all employees of a company that I worked for. The author states "What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example."

    To some extent I can agree with this, however where's the eternal significance? Sooner or later all of the people that love you or look up to you pass away as well, then what? "What will matter" doesn't matter for very long without an eternal context.

  2. Your blog makes me think of Jay Leno, one of the hardest working people in Hollywood. He has earned millions of dollars and has a collection of expensive cars that would make an Arab oil sheik green with envy. Yet, he can't seem to retire. I get the feeling he knows he'd go crazy from boredom if he completely left show business. I think he grew up in a nominally theistic (Catholic?) home. I have no reason to believe he's self-consciously a Christian or professes a personal relationship with God through Christ.

    Adam Clarke said in his commentary on Rom 8:25

    "Hope is a sort of universal blessing, and one of the greatest which God has granted to man. To mankind, in general, life would be intolerable without it; and it is as necessary as faith is even to the followers of God....Hope stands justly among the highest mercies of God."

    I suspect many non-Christians (I'm thinking particularly of atheists) go on with life having a false sense of hope based on the illusion that their lives have meaning because what they are doing will have a lasting impact either on history, in popular culture, for science or their family etc.

    Oh, if only they knew and understood the truth of C.T. Studd's famous verse, "Only one life, 'twill soon be past; Only what's done for Christ will last"

    The Absurdity of Life Without God (video) by William Lane Craig --->>Here<<---

    The video quality is poor, but the audio is more than adequate.

  3. I was talking to a friend who is a chaplain's assistant in the army about this just yesterday. Apparently, suicide is a big problem and the higher-ups just don't know how to handle it. They're trying accountability partners, but this really is the root issue that has to be addressed.