My partner and I had a visit this weekend from my aunt. She stayed for three days, during which we took in a few of London’s finest museums. I rate the Imperial War Museum very highly, but the Natural History Museum has got to be my favourite. We managed to spend a couple of hours there, at the dinosaur exhibition and the human evolution exhibition. For reasons I can neither comprehend nor defend I hadn’t ever seen the human evolution exhibition before. It was wonderful; human evolution blows my mind. It’s incredible to think of having a connection to something as familiar, yet as alien, as another hominid species. I’m enthralled by the sense of looking at something so physically and cognitively foreign, yet seeing so much of myself looking back at me. That feeling is the reason that, when people get to know about cephalopods, they become fascinated by them, and I think it’s also why I love having pets and learning about animals. Ironic as it is, I always imagine Adam experiencing that feeling when he saw Eve for the first time, and declared her to be “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone”.
Then there are the big questions that arise from us being here while the other hominid species aren’t. How did we survive and thrive so well while they died out? Should we be proud or ashamed? When and how will we go the same way?
Three days ago, the centre of my wonderful home city, London, became the scene of a terrorist attack in which four innocent people were murdered and many more were injured. The aim of the attacker was to incite terror, so it was immensely satisfying to visit the city centre the very next day and see for myself precisely how hard he’d failed. London is a huge and resilient city and, as always, the centre was jam-packed with shoppers and commuters, tourists and photographers, buskers and dancing Hare Krishnas. Walking the pavements from Regents Street down to Embankment, I didn’t for so much as a moment remember to feel afraid – that is, until I approached Trafalgar Square. A shiver of anxiety ran through me as I saw that dozens of police vans and personnel in high-viz vests had formed a formidable ring around the iconic plaza, where people had come together to remember the victims. The police kept a protective watch as the crowd observed silence, lit candles, and gave strength to one another.
I’m a fan of watching formal debate. One of my favourites is William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan debating and discussing the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?”. because it’s a topic I find pretty interesting, and both men are lively, engaging debaters. I was struck by how poorly Craig argued his case in comparison to his usual performances, but then the loosey-goosey format didn’t seem to play to his strengths. I’d never heard of Shelly Kagan before but after hearing his passionate defence of animal welfare I’ve decided that I probably love him. Anyway, the discussion made me think about some things: Meaning and morality, the priorities we hold, and the different ways I thought about them both pre- and post-deconversion.
At the outset, I have to admit that I might have found Craig’s argument to be difficult to fully comprehend. Craig stressed that his argument wasn’t “life, if it is finite, is meaningless” but rather “life, however long it is, is meaningless if God doesn’t exist”. But then, he also kept on talking about how our existences are rendered meaningless by the eventual end of everything, and at the same time, he didn’t appear to make a very robust argument that only the existence of God can bring meaning to human actions; he asserted it, certainly, but without much in the way of supporting arguments. That being the case, I have understood his argument that “human life is only meaningful if God exists” to be much the same as the argument that “human life is only meaningful if it is infinite”, and have responded accordingly. So if what I write appears to be a strawman, it’s unintentional. Listen to the debate yourself before deciding if my characterisation of Craig’s argument is fair. I certainly did intend it to be.
After I “came out” as an atheist, I started noticing something about the responses I got from Christians. Here’s the kinds of things people would say:
“How sad that you don’t believe anymore!”
“Doesn’t it make you miserable to think that your life doesn’t have any purpose?”
“Wouldn’t you like to believe that there’s a God who really, really loves you?”
“But Christians are happier than atheists!”