I’ve been involved in a number of debates as of late, whether via Facebook or in person, so I’m itching to work my way through some of the more stubborn points I hear. For right now, I want to address the idea of meaning.

When I debate my Christian friends, I often hear that everything is meaningless if there is no God. That is, there needs to be some eternal entity that will always care about our actions, behaviors, beliefs, etc, if they are to mean anything at all. I think this ignores what “meaning” actually is and does little more than seek to pigeon-hole the argument. So let’s define our term, beginning with the dictionary:

1. what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import
2. the end, purpose, or significance of something
3. Linguistics
a.the nonlinguistic cultural correlate, reference, or denotation of a linguistic form; expression.
b.linguistic content ( opposed to expression ).
4. intentioned (usually used in combination)
5. full of significance; expressive

Notice how often the word “significant” is used. This isn’t some objective term, but rather one where subjectivity is key. Because, how does one measure significance? We can define particular levels of certainty as significant – 5%, 50%, 75%, 99%, whathaveyou – but that isn’t anything other than relative practicality, as useful as it may be. In other words, when we deem something to be significant, we’re simply assigning it some sort of value. And that leads us to a new question: Can value exist without God?

There isn’t some special interpretation, some in-depth philosophy, or some odd perspective here; the answer is simply yes, value obviously can exist without God. Just as emotions or puppies or rocks can exist without him, so can value. None of these things are inherently dependent upon his existence. Let’s look at a specific example for value: I really enjoy watching hockey. I don’t enjoy it as much as, say, The Walking Dead, but I do rather like it. I place value on it as an occasional piece of my life – though I place a different value on a particular TV series.

Now let me connect the dots. For someone to value, as per my example, a TV program, God is not somehow inherently required for that. And what does it mean to place value on something than to assign it significance? For me, The Walking Dead is highly significant when I compare it to other shows. And this is nothing more than a way for me to say that it means something to me; that show holds some level of meaning from my perspective.

So the question for the theist is, does that meaning cease to exist if there is no God? That isn’t to ask if I will die, thus destroying my memory of that meaning. Of course that answer is yes. Rather, I am asking if that meaning ceases to exist right here, right now if we are to conclude that there is no God? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then what does it mean to value something? What does it mean for something to bear significance?

In essence, meaning is a subjective concept, something we define on the basis of our experiences, likes, dislikes, reasoning, and whatever else goes into how we determine what is significant and what is not. To say that it doesn’t exist if God doesn’t exist is to assume that it must be rooted objectively. Such an assumption is entirely divorced of the process by which we assign anything – absolutely anything – value.

Eternal meaninglessness

It is often the cry of theists that atheism makes everything meaningless. They equate and conflate it with nihilism, claiming it reduces all of human existence to nothingness because life will eventually end and no one will remember anything. To this I have two responses, one pragmatic and one philosophical. First, let me quote the late Christopher Hitchens in Hitch-22:

It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.

Go ahead. Try and live life as a nihilist. See if that is even possible. See if one’s interactions with others somehow cease to have any meaning.

On the philosophical end, what is this nonsense that assumes that for something to have meaning, it must also be remembered? Of course life still has meaning without some external entity remembering it forever. Saying otherwise is an additional, unnecessary attachment to what “meaning” itself means. Moreover, those who argue that for something to have meaning it must never be forgotten are gaming the issue. They are defining “meaning” itself to mean unending; it’s circular. That is, they are trying to argue that for something to have meaning it must be unending, but they seek to prove their point by effectively defining “meaning” to mean “unending and eternal” in the first place.

So let’s get our definitions and arguments straight and linear. “Meaning” simply refers to the level and sort of value and importance one places on something. I place value and importance on many things, including science and writing. They hold great meaning to me. No one can say otherwise. Furthermore, the fact that I will end does not magically disappear the history of that meaning. It will still have existed because, unless someone has evidence to the contrary, the Universe exists independently of me. That means that every event which has happened, whether consciously remembered or not, has happened no matter what I do, no matter what anyone remembers, and no matter whether there is a god or not.

Now let’s flip the coin. The theistic argument is that for meaning to be meaning, it must also be eternal. This is really no more than a value statement on their part; it is not a descriptive argument of reality and can thus be dismissed as actually being factual. But let’s pretend it is correct. What does that mean?

For something to be eternal means that it has no reference to time. It is not possible to look back on something that has happened because “has happened” holds no significance. This means that it is impossible to compare to events. Indeed, it is impossible, under this scenario, to compare two emotions or thoughts or feelings. Happiness will hold no meaning if it cannot be contrasted with sadness. Anger is incoherent if there is no pleasure or joy. Literally every single human concept is rendered meaningless by the claim that eternity is how something derives meaning. That is, “meaning must be eternal to mean anything” is inherently self-contradictory.

The theistic argument is wrong in its wrongness. First, atheism (which is not nihilism) allows for meaning because “meaning” itself refers to the importance and value placed on a thing or idea by humans (or any conscious being). Attempts to play semantics and redefine “meaning” aren’t going to fly. Second, even if we did allow theists to game the argument, what they are saying still fails because eternity takes all meaning from everything. It inherently disallows and denies reference, providing an incoherent path for arguing in favor of something (“meaning”) which is itself premised in reference.