It seems like the God industry is getting increasingly frantic about its market share slippage, especially among younger people who have grown up with the information explosion of the internet. Some analysts call the shifts among millennials and “Gen Z” a “massive religious realignment.” So it’s not surprising to see on back-to-back days last week reports of shrill denunciation of the godless from leading Christian bigwigs.
This week I want to focus on the attack from Protestant theologian William Lane Craig at a January 27 University of Toronto forum on “The Meaning of Life.” Next week, we’ll turn to Cardinal Péter Erdő, who delivered the annual Bampton Lecture at Columbia University on January 30.
William Lane Craig is best known for his Christian apologetics—his supposedly rational defenses for the existence of a deity and the Christian version of God in particular. Secular Coalition for America founder Herb Silverman, who once debated Craig in a religious college setting, calls him “one of the most experienced and smooth Christian apologist debaters in the country.” His signature argument, borrowed from Thomas Aquinas, is that the universe must have a cause, and the cause therefore must be God. (He uses more words, but that’s the gist of it.) He conveniently omits, though, what the cause of God is or why whatever it is that caused or didn’t cause God couldn’t have done exactly the same thing directly to the universe, skipping the God step.
In Toronto, though, his diatribe was aimed directly at atheists and agnostics, accusing us that: “If you live consistently, you will not be happy. If you live happily, it is only because you are not consistent.”
His argument is founded on what he loudly but incorrectly proclaims is the “scientific fact” that the universe is ultimately doomed to fizzle out. He seems to think he can make the statement true by repeating it over and over. “This is not science fiction. This will happen.” The truth is, though, that no scientist has ever observed a universe fizzle out, and no scientist has ever disproved the hope that humanity (or whatever follows us) will be able to figure something out to keep the ball rolling. Maybe we’ll punch through to another universe, or start our own new one. Maybe the secrets of whatever is hidden inside quarks will give our consciousness a way to survive without an outside energy source. None of this is likely to happen anytime soon, but so what? Humanity has come an awfully long way just in the last ten thousand years. How far will we go in the next ten million? We’re told the sun won’t turn nasty on us for another billion years, so we’ve got some time to work the problem. Maybe we won’t succeed, but nobody knows that now.
Craig goes on from his false initial premise to argue that since humanity (but for God) is ultimately doomed, godless people cannot possibly be happy. Even a life of helping others is pointless, since all those others we’re helping are just as doomed. If we’re “consistent,” and acknowledge our pointless fate, we cannot possibly be happy. He cites a number of nineteenth and twentieth century non-believing philosophers, most prominently Friedrich Nietzsche, to “prove” that a consistently godless viewpoint must inevitably result in unhappiness.
It’s no fairer to saddle all nonbelievers with the Nazi-linked ideas of Nietzsche than it is to saddle all Christians with the anti-modernism of Pius IX or the religious bigotry of Edouard Drumont or Daniel Malan. My personal preference is for the much simpler philosophy of Epicurus. In his view, and mine, the meaning and purpose of life is quite simple: to be happy. That’s it—the be-all and end-all of what I’m trying to do, the self-measure of my success.
It turns out that happiness is not entirely easy to achieve. There’s a lot more to it than transient physical pleasure (though that’s not to be ignored). Being happy requires feeling good about myself. It requires feeling that I’ve made productive use of whatever talents I have. I’ve done a few things I’m proud of, both professionally and personally. Reflecting back on them makes me happy. I’ve also botched a few things up, and remembering those makes me decidedly unhappy.
The most important element of being happy is managing my constant interaction with other creatures, and getting it right. In pre-K I began appreciating the value of the golden rule, as it applied to toy sharing, and I’ve been attached to it ever since. It is hard for me to believe that serial violators of the golden rule can be very happy in a world where they are distrusted and loathed (as they certainly were in pre-K). My experience from then on shows that when I follow the rule, I tend to get it back from others around me, which is immensely conducive to my happiness. Not always, of course, but every now and then I’m able to strike back at one of the rule-breakers, which puts a smile on my face. I even get a little happiness boost when I do something gratuitous to help someone who’s not in a position to help me, like a child or a homeless person—it’s like socking away a little kindness in the “favor bank” if I ever need undeserved help from a stranger sometime.
My happiness fixation would be the same even if I were sure, which I am not, that the universe will ultimately end. That would be sad for someone then, but it doesn’t really affect me one way or the other.
I work hard at being happy, as comprehensively as I can. I even read books about it. Do I succeed? I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be happy all of the time. A semanticist might argue that would then be just “neutral,” not “happy,” which implies being above some imaginary line. I have some dark moments. But overall, I’d give myself a solid B+ on my happiness performance.
Professor Craig is free to call me simplistic, or even simple-minded. He might be right about that. But he is utterly wrong to call someone who is dead-set determined to live a happy life, and who’s pretty good at it, either “unhappy” or “inconsistent.”
Refuting him makes me very, very happy.