...The following exchange took place on the dalnet #atheism message board. Sastra (the responder) is a well known and very articulate humanist debator (and she's beautiful too). The thread had been going on for some time as to what meaning an atheist could have in their life given that life itself is so transient:
Graeme wrote: "you cannot get past the fact that if you become extinct after you die, life is meaningless. Everything is for nothing."
Sastra replied: "Imagine you agree to play chess with a new friend. He tells you that he loves and enjoys the game, and has played many times. Within the first couple of moves, he takes his queen and puts it right where one of your pawns can take it, with no penalty.
"'Are you sure you want to do that?' you ask.'The Queen is a very powerful and important piece.'
"Your friend laughs. 'Powerful and important? Ha! No way...look at this!' And with that, he picks up his queen and crushes it under his foot. He kicks it across the room, and then says 'There, I proved my point. Now, let's play.'
"Would you say your friend has proven his point? Or would you say your friend is a fool for taking the words "powerful and important" out of context? The Queen is a powerful and important piece within the context of "the game of chess." It doesn't matter if you can kick it across the floor. If you are going to play chess, then it is wise to follow the rules of the game, and make good choices that will help you win.
"It does not matter if we die. It does not matter if the entire universe is wiped out in a billion billion years and nothing lasts. Within the context of human lives, human dignity is a powerful and important piece of the universe. Within the context of the mindless universe, it is not. I live my life within the context of human lives. And so do you. If you are going to play the game, if you are going to want to live this life and make choices that lead to happiness and satisfaction, then it would be wise to live by the standards, principles, and values that are most likely to give your life meaning. Meaning is what we create, it isn't a task that is handed to us. A task has no value for you unless you care about it. To a humanist, the task is to give our lives meaning through living good lives, whatever the facts of the matter concerning the universe.
"There is no logical principle that says life has no meaning unless it is eternal. That is a matter of personal choice on your part, a taste you have cultivated, and isn't inherent in the definition of meaning. Humanists think it is as foolish to insist that life loses its meaning now if it ends later as to insist that if one does not have the noble blood of kings flowing in one's veins then all one's actions are unimportant. Why?
"We can argue about whether or not there is an afterlife and whether or not there is a God because those are fact claims which might be true or false; but if someone tells you that they find a deep sense of meaning and purpose in a godless universe there is no argument you can make to show them that they are *wrong*, that they are shallow or silly or mistaken for finding life acceptable on its own terms. I personally think it is far wiser to care about life and love and virtue whether God exists or not, and so do many humanists, theist and nontheist. You can't make a convincing argument that people ought not to enjoy life unless it meets *your* expectations. If we say we are happy, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why we ought not to be happy. I don't think you can do this, and I seriously question whether it is a sign of depth and maturity to even try. Atheists don't argue that Christians are not happy, or should not be happy because they do believe in an afterlife: we say they are probably mistaken in their fact claim that there is an afterlife.
"You are wrong when you say that we lose either way. We gain either way. If there is no God, since we have not chosen to define God as necessary to happiness, we still have meaning and purpose. If there is a good and loving God, then this is rather nice icing on the cake I suppose, but it wasn't critical. Your world view, on the other hand, only 'wins' if you can continue to maintain your belief in God. You are playing the game assuming that the queen can not only take pieces on the board, but ought to be secretly able to annihilate Russia or the game of chess "has no meaning" for you and you would never want to play it. We'd play it anyway.
"So who really loves chess, and who is playing another kind of game?"
5 November 1999
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