An interesting article appears here from Alister McGrath, Professor of Theology at Kings College of London. It's part of the ABC's "Religion and Ethics" series, and appears on the ABC's website just before Christmas.
He talks about meaning, science and dark matter (like that pictured left). In particular McGrath talks about finding meaning in life through Christianity. Let me discuss how I disagree with him.
Before I get to general business regarding meaning, there are some irritating clarifications to get out of the way.
I thought the general quality of the responses to his article on the ABC website was a lot better than you see on some of these sorts of posts. First up I would say there are many good points in this article, and I agree with some of them wholeheartedly. I recommend reading it. But his conclusion is wrong.
Firstly I take issue with his generalisations about atheists. I don't label myself as one, because some I have had contact with who would describe themselves that way are those who once were religious, but have been betrayed by religion and are now filled with venom and spleen as a result. I understand their anger, but cannot personally relate to it and find it difficult to be around. Other self-described atheists have at times adopted positions which I don't think are defensible. So generally I reject that label for practical reasons. But I feel the need to defend atheists against claims like some of the ones McGrath makes.
Regarding the labels "atheist" or "agnostic" I find these terms unhelpful and misleading. For myself I don't see why we need a special word to say that I do not accept supernatural accounts of anything - not meaning, and not things in the world. My position is that if someone wants me to accept a supernatural explanation, then they need to provide supporting evidence. Evidence is some observation that cannot be better explained by simpler, non-supernatural means.
If they cannot provide such evidence then I am likely to say that its an intriguing conjecture - get back to me when you have some thing more. I'm not going to demand proof, and I am not going to say that they are definitely wrong. I'm just not going to spend any energy entertaining the claim at all, until there is something to support it.
If not only can they not provide any supporting evidence, but the claim is such that nothing could ever count as evidence then I say it is empty of meaning in that case.
Religion has not really harmed me much, and most Christians I know are excellent people so I am lukewarm on the matter of atheism. As I've said I don't like the word. But I feel I must stand up when these sorts of claims are made because there is disingenuous reasoning here on McGrath's part, or an intent to mislead - and that must be spoken against.
"Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved."
I'm not sure that any published atheist scientists say that. I would like to see him produce a reference for this.
It's very different to say that a claim cannot be tested, than to say it can't be proven.
For example, the dark matter he mentions if it exists might have certain effects in the universe, on visible stars for example. If the theory about dark matter predicts those effects, but they are not observed to be the case, then your theory is wrong and either dark matter does not exist or it does not exist as described in the theory.
However observing those effects is consistent with dark matter, and makes the dark matter theory more compelling. It gives it more explanatory power. But it does not prove it. This is the perfectly valid point that the author makes and here I agree with him 100%. "Where the naive demand proof the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics". Well, limited to analytic closed systems - but yes, spot on.
And I think most scientists would agree with him here.
Which is why I find troubling that he has not named any of these "atheist scientists" whom he says are requiring proof from Christians in this way.
He actually has many many good points in his article, but as I mentioned I disagree with his conclusions.
His argument is essentially the same as Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA argument. Science explains and religion gives meaning, he says.
However the phrases "what is the meaning of my life" and "what is the meaning of this sentence" are not using meaning in the same way.
Science, or at least reason and empiricism does give the second kind of meaning by asking "What would count as this claim being true?". What is a test for it? If you make a claim about the real world and there is no way to make a test for it then it is meaningless.
That is a very important kind of meaning, and one that we all need to ask for constantly. If we allow our faith to blind us to that requirement we will be duped and sapped by every impostor, colour therapy merchant and fraudster that enters our orbit. This is the vital life skill of being questioning, of critical thinking, and its essential that we all do that as often as possible.
So science, or at least its essential fellows reason and empiricism, does provide that kind of meaning, and not just explanation.
Where the non-overlapping magisteria argument really falls down is that various religions do indeed make claims about matters of fact. Religious catechisms and preachers of Christian faith for example do not stop at saying "here is a fictional homily about Jesus miraculously healing someone which illustrates a point about how we should behave".
They actually claim that God exists, gave Jesus miraculous powers, and that the supernatural healing event described actually happened. Claims about supernatural things actually happening in the real world are firmly about explanations of phenomena, and thus are in the magisteria awarded to science by this NOMA argument.
In fact if you do not make enough supernatural claims as a church apparently you lose your tax-exempt status (see 11.14 & 11.23). So in so far as meaning in the first usage where it relates to empiricism, religion crosses over into sciences side of this artificial distinction McGrath makes all the time.
Now if it does not, and its all accepted as being a fictional homily - then I have no problem with it. But that - as far as I know it - is not the case at all. And the link I posted above was just from a brief Google search - these stories are claimed to be historical facts. McGrath's article states at the foot that God entered our history - this is a claim about facts in the world. So we are no longer talking about some abstract type of meaning, and are firmly on the turf of the empirical.
However, let's move to the second kind of meaning. The "meaning of life" kind of meaning.
This other kind of meaning is personal.
If someone can truly find that in religious faith, well more power to them. I mean that. If religious faith can be truly really fulfilling then great news.
I do not accept at present that it is possible. Its like taking a pharmaceutical substance that makes you feel happy. That is not real happiness. If a sense of meaning in life is externally induced, then its not real. If you don't accept this think about whether you believe taking a pharmaceutical that causes you to see pink elephants actually makes you see real pink elephants, or illusory ones. You really do see them, so the visual event in your brain might be real. But the elephants are not. Moreover they vanish when the substance is taken away. Similarly you might feel you have meaning in life if induced by some agent in this way, but its not in actuality real and certainly not sustainable.
Please don't think I'm saying religion is the opiate of the masses. That is not my point here at all. What I am saying is that mental states - such as visual images, happiness, or self-esteem - induced by an external agent are not true or sustainable instances of those states. They are illusory and ephemeral facsimiles, which further do little or nothing for the individuals ability to reach those states by true or sustainable means.
It's a case of trying to get self-esteem from someone else. There's a reason its called "self-esteem" - it has to come from you, not from some external source. You can coach someone, and they can find inspiration from your deeds and words, but ultimately it has to come from themselves.
I understand its difficult to find that self-belief. I think that when people say they are having a conversation with God about weighty things in life, it is actually a way of lending credence and substance to messages from within themselves, that are fraught with self-doubt.
For those who suffer from poor self-esteem and personally struggle with believing in their own importance as people, it may seem that one's own belief in what is valued and worthwhile is not enough, hence those thoughts must be recast as coming from one's deity.
The way I see it is that meaning in the personal sense either comes from within yourself, or from external sources - inspiring books, deeds, experiences and people. To the extent that it comes from within yourself, it has the quality of true hard-won self-esteem - no-one can ever take that away from you. This is the sustainable, long-lasting self-esteem. To the extent that it comes from somewhere outside yourself, it is potentially out-of-date, irrelevant, incorrect or even fraudulent. To determine that it is not any of those bad things, you yourself must do the work to determine that it is not - and thus full-circle we are back to relying on ourselves again.
Experiences of being on a mountain-top, or near death in a war, or any other life changing moments, however transcendent, come through the filter of ourselves. We must understand them, and interpret the meaning of them for ourselves. Same with books and deeds of others, and same with the advice from those who would preach to us.
Even Descarte found himself before he went on to find anything else (including God).
To the extent that we go in the other direction, and look to surrender our selves to the external self-proclaimed experts in meaning, then the more the meanings of our lives are placed in the hands of the fallible, corruptible and at best out-of-date. If we are unlucky we find out that the minister who has been preaching chastity and abstinence has been up to no good with the choir boy, or the pastor has been spending the ministries money on his mistress.
I think that even for the very best of religious institutions it is just a matter of time before bad comes of it. Even if that is a very very long time, how would anyone know if their local church was becoming the Westboro Baptists or the Branch Davidians, unless they look to their own values first?
Also if we accept that we must be the first authority for our own meaning in life, but resort to the the books and the catechism for unsullied meaning, then where is the chapter on stem-cells and the internet? What about out-dated exhortations about how what to do when your oxen gores someone's daughter? If we interpret the books to find that meaning then we are back to relying on ourselves again.
I think that it is great that this man who wrote the article is encouraging people of faith to think, and to find ways to understand and defend their beliefs.
I would have loved to respond to the article but comments on it are closed, and them "mail" link is only a thing to share it with others.
Finally can I say that written at Christmas time as it is, this is a bad time to be filling people with the guilt and self-loathing that comes from so much of religious dogma. Original sin, the debt we supposedly owe God for giving his son: all of this is weight that no-one needs on top of the pressure of modern life, as we try to make sense of it all. I personally have never had to suffer any of that but have had several close friends who have.
My advice if you want it, is to look inside yourself, and work to know well what you can do to make a unique and valuable contribution to the world. What is it about you that is special, and what can you do that is worthwhile? Help and inspire others to do the same, where possible, but most of all believe in yourself, and your value as a person.
This is the true source of self-esteem.