Is Naturalism Bleak and Hopeless?

Editor’s Note: This is an updated, reposted, and retitled revision of a previous post.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a naturalist-humanist. I’ve spent a good amount of time explaining what this implies; what experiences we will predict if naturalism is true; recently in “Defining the Natural and Supernatural” (and I wrote about why it is important for beliefs to predict experiences in “The Origin of Truth”.)

It turns out that if naturalism is true, then everything that exists is the result of interactions between fundamentally mindless, purposeless things, like matter and energy. Your mind is indeed incredible, but it is also fully and entirely an arrangement of fundamentally mindless and purposeless atoms that don’t think for themselves or have goals — your ability to think and have goals is a result of these interactions. This part of naturalism is called reductionism.

For some reason, this doesn’t strike people as very hopeful: it seems that nearly every theist who has written on atheism is utterly convinced that life is downright absurd if atheism is true. The assumption sometimes goes as far as saying atheists have nothing to live for and have no reason to be moral. This claim is repeated many times, but it is not true.


The Critique Summarized

While the critiques come from the entire religious community as a whole, I offer William Lane Craig, the most famous Christian philosopher and theologian alive, who states them rather succinctly. He has a book that devotes an entire chapter to the alleged absurdity of life without God. In that chapter, he writes:

If there is no God, then, man and the universe are doomed like prisoners awaiting execution; we await our inevitable death. There is no God. There is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself becomes ultimately absurd. It means that the life that we do have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.

Craig further writes:

If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death… Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment[…]

Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitoes or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same…

…The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race – all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance.

He agrees on his blog that, in summary:

  1. There are good reasons to believe life without God is absurd because:
    1. humans will each experience an individual, permanent death
    2. human action is insignificant compared to the cosmic scale
    3. the universe itself will likely experience a permanent death

  2. Life with God is not absurd because it avoids those three problems

He summarizes it with the question:

Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would that make?


Is This Argument Logically Valid?

When we’re looking at an argument, we need to know if the argument is logically valid. If an argument is logically valid, that means that the conclusion must be true if each individual argument is true. Let’s look at Craig’s argument. If (a), (b), and (c) are true, is (1) true?

We might ask ourselves, why does it matter if I am going to die? That doesn’t mean things I do don’t matter. I want to be happy now. I have desires right now. Not everything has to be so long-term.

This aragument sounds good. People hear that they are accidents and this strikes them as intuitively horrible — it makes them feel unloved and unwanted. But when we actually look at it, the question makes little sense: what is it about being accidental arrangements of atoms that makes life bleak and hopeless? Why can’t accidental arrangements of atoms still live good lives?

This argument is based on what is called the fallacy of composition — where one assumes that the whole has the characteristics of the parts, without actually proving that to be the case. Just because the individual parts lack purpose doesn’t mean the whole necessarily lacks purpose. It’s also a fallacy of mediocrity — humans can be animals despite other animals not possessing human characteristics.

Secondly, the question critiques nothing about the truth of atheism. Facts don’t stop being true when you declare them to be emotionally inconvenient. Perhaps it is possible that there is no morality. Perhaps it is possible that life is meaningless and absurd. So what? If you want the truth, you must accept the facts as they are, even if they don’t conform to comfort you.

Thirdly, even if these arguments were shown to disprove atheism and even if the problems on the side of the religious were solved, such an argument does nothing to indicate which religion we should follow. Each major and most minor religions all grant significance, purpose, free will, morality, and justice to the world in their own manner. Furthermore, all of these manners also conflict with each other. You must pick one, and not more than one.

Fourthly, it kind of talks past the evidence. There are atheists living in our world who are living happy, enriched lives. I’m one of them. How do we do it? Where do we get our purpose without god? These millions of people must be doing it somehow.


How Can You Have Meaning Without What Gives Me Meaning?!

Such talk of requiring God in order to have a purpose in life is ridiculous. It is assigning a completely arbitrary value to a single purpose and discarding the values of all competing purposes, both atheistic and from other religions. It’s like looking at a deck of cards and declaring that only the diamonds are worth playing with or looking at countries and declaring that only those that have a population above ten million are worth living in. Even if you say that and sincerely believe that, such does not mean that other people, who are not you, might find value in the spades cards or living in Montenegro.

However, as Greta Christa notes in her essay “How Can You Have Meaning Without …?”, setting an arbitrary standard to a certain purpose is not unique to God. The same is echoed by those who declare “how can you have purpose without having, or trying to have, a significant other?” or “how can you have purpose without a creative outlet?”. I may not personally know, but I would never deny that other people have found a way. I recognize that other people can be different from me.

So the question itself doesn’t establish anything. It’s just an argument based on emotional blackmail, devoid of any actual logical content. It only works for as long as you aren’t willing to think about it logically, because your caught up in the emotions. But still, there is something worth talking about. What exactly makes life not bleak and hopeless?



What’s the Point?

But what’s the point if we’re all going to die someday? This seems to take the attitude that if two lives end in the same way (death), that no other differences in the lives matter. If Alice loved everyone, lived a great life, donated a lot to charity, and made numerous scientific discoveries of great impact before dying at the age of 150, is her life really no better than Bob who lived his life as a common looter, completely uneducated and uncaring, stealing from stores and beating up people, before getting shot by the police at 25?

Interestingly, we can compare this to another common idea: what’s the point if we’re never going to die? Immortality has long been held to also be pointless, because anything you do now could just be done tomorrow, or millions of years from now, with no drawback.

If life doesn’t matter when it is finite and life doesn’t matter when it’s infinite, this says a lot more about our inability to consider what matters than it says about the nature of life. If a Bob’s life isn’t worth living on a day-to-day basis, it certainly won’t be worth living just because Bob lives to be 1560. And if Alice’s life is completely worth living for each day among 150 years, in what sense is it not worth living when you consider the sum of all 150 years?

So what here is making life worth living? It seems to be the lasting happiness from forming and keeping loving relationships and making the world a better place versus the fleeting thrills from wanton stealing and making the world worse.


What is a Purpose And What Does it Do?

It is self-evident that everyone seems to desire some sort of purpose in life. But what the heck are we talking about? What does a purpose look like? How do we know when we’ve found one?

Perhaps we can start defining purpose by saying what happens when we don’t have a purpose. If we lack a purpose in life, we feel dispair. We feel directionless and we start feeling like “nothing we do matters”. Without a purpose, things are absurd.

This means that getting a purpose means finding a compelling reason to justify participating in life. The purpose answers the question: For what reason am I still living? Albert Camus, godless himself, posed it as the ultimate question of atheism, “Why not commit suicide?” (He responded with the idea of absurdism, see here, here and here).

Purposes give us a grounding; purposes give us something to do that we can feel good about. Purposes are how we add value to our surrounding community and to ourselves. Purposes are things like “be a doctor and save lives” or “be a scientist and make bold discoveries” or “be a businessman and sell products people want”.

It’s interesting that the purposes people like and find valid are almost always altruistic. “Be a looter and go around stealing from people” is generally not seen as a purpose to orient your life around, because it makes the world worse, not better.


From Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson


Our Purpose is Our Own

Another interesting quality regarding purposes is that it makes no sense to have it imposed upon you. Since a purpose is doing what you want to do in your life, it only makes sense that you decide what your purpose is. Your life is your own, is it not? There must always be some room for you to make your own choices — you can’t have someone tell you exactly how to achieve purpose and expect it to still be meaningful. In order to have some degree of meaning, you need to have some freedom to choose your own purpose.

As soon as someone is telling you your purpose in life, you become a slave to them. Belief that you make your own purpose thus becomes a liberation from this slavery. Imagine a society like the one in The Giver, where everyone is told what their job should be. Such a job forced upon you isn’t meaningful at all, and produces discontent, and therefore destroying the utopian society that they tried to create. People choosing for themselves can always do better.

If you’re lost on your life purpose, you have to figure it out on your own. It’s more meaningful that way. People aren’t toasters — we wouldn’t find meaning in doing what we were created to do even if we were created to do something specific. If God existed and gave us a purpose like “count all the trees in the Amazon”, we would find this boring and we would not want to do it, even though we were designed to do it. Our purpose is our own.


Pearls Before Swine by Stephen Pastis


The Godless Good Life

Sure, you can believe in God and have a good life. But God is not required to live a good life. Millions of humanists are already doing so without God. One may attempt to argue that atheists are naïve for rejecting God, but then we would just be arguing the evidence. There is no basis to say that humanists can’t live a fulfilling life without God, because millions simply are. Such an argument is on the same level with saying that the Earth can’t possibly be round. It simply is round. You have way too much evidence to contend with.


In this sense, humanism is humble. We don’t demand that the universe be made for us. Instead, we can change what we can, and learn to accept what we can’t, and find more ways to move the can’t into the can category. We can live good lives with each other and enrich our surroundings rather than expect our surroundings to enrich us. We can be perfectly happy with what we have.

In this sense, humanism is also freedom. We don’t require someone to give us a purpose in order to have it. We are not the hammer, designed to hammer nails and nothing more. How boring would it to be designed with a specific purpose? The sad hammer could never live out dreams to be a swimmer or fly to the moon.


We are not hammers. We have no purpose forced upon us. Since we were not designed, we can do whatever we desire. If we want to swim or fly to the moon, we can try. We define ourselves and are free to live out our own lives. Humanism is uplifting. We get to be free to explore our own universe, to love each other, and to cherish all our moments.

Who cares if they don’t last forever, and who cares what happens in trillions of years. We’re free now. We get to live out the most fortunate accident in the history of the universe. How grand is that? As said by Penn Jilette: “Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jello, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”

Followed up in: Reductionism Made Simple


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On 11 Aug 2011 in All, Counter-apologetics, Hope, Naturalism. 5 Comments.


  1. #1 Cristian says:
    11 Aug 2011, 7:04 pm  

    “We don’t demand that the universe be made for us. ” I am not proud that that Universe is made for me, because I know it’s not mine. How can I be proud of something I don’t own? That’d be foolish.

    Humbleness goes hand in hand with thankfulness. If you have no one to be thankful to for being in the first place, than you can’t really be humble. Humbleness is absurd in a meaningless Universe.

    Atheism, on the other hand, sometimes suffer from the ‘we know so much’ attitudine, even if the Universe is not for us. We know so much, we explain, we find out, we learn, we progress, all with our own effort and minds. It is not given to us, but it’s ours and we have no one to be thankful for that.

    We are as free as a rock that falls into a whole. It doesn’t make any difference that we’re conscious. We’re just following our natural path to void.

    Absurdity of a purposeless Universe is not necessarily an emotionally inconvenient. It’s also rationally absurd. Imagine an universe made a single, atomic, elementary particle type, and with just one interaction between these particles. And you, as a type of imaterial entity, conscious, rational, but emotionless, being able to see those particles (let’s say there are 42 of them), asking yourself, all by yourself about the meaning of your existence and the Universe.

    The Universe has so many things in it, so many things to learn about, but also so many distractions. They give us pleasures that we mistake with happiness. We live now, and forget about the after.

  2. #2 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    11 Aug 2011, 9:42 pm  

    If you have no one to be thankful to for being in the first place, than you can’t really be humble. Humbleness is absurd in a meaningless Universe.

    I’m not really sure what you’re saying. Everything is absurd in a meaningless universe, but we’re not living in a meaningless universe. What I mean by this is that meaning exists; we give meaning to many things throughout our lives, both individually and as a society.

    It is not given to us, but it’s ours and we have no one to be thankful for that.

    This is true in the cosmic sense, because no one gave us the universe, but it doesn’t mean that there is no reason to be thankful or no one to be thankful to. We can be thankful that we’re alive and happy, and thankful to all the people who have made this possible and continue to make it possible.

    We are as free as a rock that falls into a whole. It doesn’t make any difference that we’re conscious. We’re just following our natural path to void.

    I think this ignores a lot that I have written in this essay. Why exactly does it not make a difference that we’re conscious? Why does it not matter what we do before the void?

    Absurdity of a purposeless Universe is not necessarily an emotionally inconvenient. It’s also rationally absurd. Imagine an universe made a single, atomic, elementary particle type, and with just one interaction between these particles. And you, as a type of imaterial entity, conscious, rational, but emotionless, being able to see those particles (let’s say there are 42 of them), asking yourself, all by yourself about the meaning of your existence and the Universe.

    I don’t understand what you’re getting at here. How does that compare to our actual lives? Clearly we can understand our own purpose, as I’ve explained in this very essay.

  3. #3 Anonymous says:
    8 Nov 2012, 8:19 pm  

    So the ‘proof’ that naturalism isn’t bleak and hopeless is because someone’s flawed argument somehow proves it and that it is simply convenient to think such because someone can live a happy life? This article says nothing and is disappointing as I was trying to get a logical explanation on how there is meaning without a purpose to satisfy (or being a slave as you put it). Sorry, but this just seems fodder to those that want to fill a void of an otherwise meaningless life without having a real purpose.

  4. #4 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    10 Nov 2012, 2:19 am  

    For a comment that’s upset about how I said nothing, you have said nothing yourself. All you have done is stated that the essay is inadequate; you have not interacted with anything actually said in the essay and shown it to be inadequate.

  5. #5 Meg says:
    5 Jun 2013, 7:28 am  

    :D To be honest, I don’t understand why people have to spend so much time thinking about this.
    When I was little and my teachers told me about God, I believed them at first (then my parents taught some sense into me) they told me about Heaven.
    I remember feeling as if they had stripped meaning from my life. Even as a seven year old, the idea of an immortal soul scared me. I had simply assumed that I would reincarnate, but living my life in the same body, forever, surrounded by happy things… It sounded boring, to be honest. Sitting next to God for eternity if I did well, or burning otherwise.
    It seemed unfair, boring and meaningless. Because nothing happened after. Living forever made everything I did feel like a chore. I would keep doing good things until I died, then live a similar life with less work.
    Immortality is MEANINGLESS. A short life, where you can just be happy because you know it’s the only way… I love that.
    There is only so much we can do. The clock is ticking, and we have to make the most of it.
    As a quote from Terry Pratchett, “I would rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel.”

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