Atheism and the Unscratchable Itch

It is a fundamental datum of our experience that we all long for meaning; we long for a narrative in which to make sense of our lives, our passions, and our beliefs. But, if God doesn’t exist, the cold, hard truth is there is no meaning. We have a scratch, but no way to itch it.In an interview with Harper’s Magazine Christopher Beha, the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg states:

There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.

What is the atheist to do? It seems there are three options, three atheist camps on the question of how to make sense of our longing for meaning in a godless world:

Camp 1: Dissatisfied Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp works hard to salvage the splendor of the religious view in a godless world.

Camp 2: Anesthestic Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp tries to anesthetize the desire for meaning, to rub it out, to reduce or explain it away.

 Camp 3: Apathetic Atheism. The nonbeliever in this camp tries to ignore the desire for meaning.

I think the attempt of the dissatisfied atheist to salvage the splendor of the religious worldview in a godless world is doomed to fail. The best non-theistic option is some kind of Platonic atheism where objective values are identified with various Platonic Forms or abstract object. The problem is Platonic atheism does not sufficiently ground moral duty, nor does it help in providing an over-arching story or compelling narrative for my life. To see why consider: we owe moral obligations to people, not things. For example, I have a moral obligation to tell you the truth, or to not steal your wallet. I don’t have a moral obligation to my chair to not (say) weigh 500 pounds. But, on the Platonic atheist story, I am told that my moral obligation is to a thing—a Platonic property—and this makes no sense. Further, on Platonic atheism, the Platonic Forms are just a brute non-personal reality. Like the universe, there is no explanation for why they exist; they just do. But then, they offer no hope of providing a story, a satisfying narrative, in which to find meaning in life.

It seems that atheism is best understood as naturalistic and a consistent atheist will find herself in Camp 2 or Camp 3. Alex Rosenberg firmly locates himself in Camp 2 and recommends anti-depressant drugs as a way to rub out the itch. Others simply try to ignore our longing for meaning and purpose. Apathy is the new virtue of the 21st century. The problem is we seem hard-wired for the itch. We long to live a life of meaning, purpose, and value. One could reasonably say this is a fundamental longing of the human heart. Perhaps it is time for us to take our longings seriously—for they reveal something about us and the world.

In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it this way:[1]

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Perhaps we can’t rub out or ignore the itch because the object of this itch (or: longing/desire) is God himself. Perhaps this is why, as I’ve argued in previous posts,  religion is not going away—because God exists and is the object of our longing for meaning. It’s time to encourage our atheistic friends to stop trying to rub out or ignore the itch—it is remarkably resilient to our strivings…and to pay attention to it instead. If so, it may lead us, like a kind of ontological argument, to the ultimate object of our desire—God.






[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001 ed.), 136-137.

15 Responses to Atheism and the Unscratchable Itch

  1. Nathan says:

    I don’t think throwing in a deity gives life anymore meaning. I would prefer to live in a naturalistic world than to live in a world where the god of the Old Testament exists.

    I agree that there are multiple answers that atheists will give if you ask them about the meaning of life, but that’s because there really isn’t an innate meaning to our lives. For some people, the meaning of their lives is to raise a good family, for others it may be to make the world a better place. There is no end goal though, no gods, no heaven, this is it so as an atheist I know that I must make the most of the short time I have.

    • says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Nathan–a quick reply–my point is that on atheism, there is NO meaning to life-a point you admit when you say there is “no innate meaning to our lives.” So, it makes no sense to go on after that and say that some people find “meaning” by doing such and such. This is to live inconsistently with the dictates of atheism. Why make the most of your time? What is this the human impulse? I say, it is because we were created by God to live a life of meaning and purpose–the itch that won’t go away. Now, Granted, once you admit the existence of God, you might have other worries to overcome–you mention the God of the OT. While there is no quick and easy answer, I think a rationally compelling case can be made that such a God is worthy of worship, and the troubling passages, in context, support such a conclusion. I think that David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly or Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster do a good job of addressing those concerns. warmly, Paul

  2. Jared Rodriguez says:

    It is always interesting to read these thoughts from theists on what we atheists think and how we find meaning. Everyone “finds” meaning. You find meaning by choosing to believe in Christianity. There is no more evidence or support for that belief than any other belief structure. You chose to find meaning and have done so.

    Many atheists, like myself, find meaning in trying making the world a better place for all of us. That your belief structure dictates that it is innate does not make it true. In fact, I suppose it makes it less true than what many Humanists think. We know humans exist, we know that humans suffer, and we know that with effort we can make life better for ourselves and others. We have no hypothetical, no giant breach of logic and reasoning – sans evidence of course – to make our meaning real.

    As is often the case though, your article is not really about finding meaning at all. It is about attempting to cast your unfounded beliefs as superior while casting atheism and other religions as aimless and meaningless. Do not forget, by your reasoning, you cast down the meaning of not just atheists, but every other religion which does not worship your god as well. That others find meaning and use it to do good should be a celebration. It is a pretty sad commentary on your religion that doing good and helping others actually becomes a target of disdain since it is done without the need for your fictitious deity. This is just a singular example of many where the claims of Christian “love” are a mask for really what is just the opposite.

    • says:

      Hello Jared,

      Thanks for offering your thoughts here. I can sense your frustration with the post, but I think you misunderstand. I am not claiming that atheists, or anyone cannot find meaning in life, rather, I am asking, given atheism, can you justify your claim to find meaning? It would seem not in a meaningless, purposeless world–the kind of world atheists like Rosenberg says exist. Thus, for you to say you have genuine, objective meaning in a meaningless world is an inconsistency. And I know, from your reply, this is something you value, as you should. Rosenberg would agree–to live as an atheist as if there is meaning is not to live consistently. I say, as an empirical claim–that all people long for meaning and purpose and this longing points us in another direction–toward a transcendent reality such as God. The fact is that there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that God exists and thus, all positions, worldviews, beliefs are not on par. To say they are, or to argue that all are equally well justified is not only false and illogical, it would be unloving to go on as if this were the case.

  3. Ben says:

    Why do we have to justify our “claim” to meaning in life? You ask that question like like it’s a requirement to living, to co-existing with other humans. Throw out all religion and logic and science and ultimately the meaning to life is to survive and co-exist; preferably peacefully and in harmony. Why muddy the waters, so to speak, with claims of justification and authority in regards to our existence? Why do we need a higher authority to tell us what we already fundamentally know: care for one another and live, survive, and prosper.

    You keep referring to Rosenberg, what someone else has said, as some sort of authority on atheism (who, as an atheist, I disagree with); referring to what someone else has said or written, regardless of their authority, over and over again does not make your point/opinion any more factual or evident; merely more a point of the person you are referring to rather than your own.

    Finally, you say “The fact is that there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that god exists…” I’m sorry, what evidence? The bible? Religion? Your belief? These are not “facts” just because you say so. Please refrain from commenting or corresponding, especially with an atheist, with points that claim your beliefs, opinions and myths are facts. You won’t win any arguments doing so…

    • says:

      Hello Ben,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll just briefly reply:

      1. You only need to justify your claim to meaning if you desire to live rationally. If you aren’t concerned with having good reasons for your beliefs, or examining what you believe, then I suppose, you can stop worrying about justifying your beliefs. But, why would anyone want to live such an unexamined life? As Socrates said (to quote a wise authority) “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I’d say the “unexamined faith (in God or atheism” is not worth having.

      2. I refer to Rosenberg, since he knows what he is talking about. He has studied the issues. He is the chair of the philosophy department at Duke University. He is a consistent atheist who has thought through his views. I appreciate that, even if I disagree with him.

      3. I am a bit baffled by your last paragraph. If you are at all familiar with the state of the debate over the question of God’s existence, you would know that there are a number of powerful arguments for God as well as against God that are hotly debated by philosphers and scientists. The evidence for God comes from philosophy, science, and history, to name a few.

  4. Jared Rodriguez says:

    I am very interested in the evidence that you think exists for god and how you think that it is superior to evidence for any other religion or view. The crux of your last post is highly dependent upon evidence of god. This could be a long topic on its own though, maybe a different blog post?

    Back to purpose, there are a few important points to consider first. We evolved, and while evolution is chaotic and involves chance – though not random – there are quantifiable results. Look at pack animals, and not just those of us on the primate side. The basic ideas of reciprocity are seen across the animal kingdom of pack animals. Dogs, chimps, dolphin, etc. Many people think of “survival of the fittest” on an individual basis. Yet pack animals exhibit it not on an individual basis, but on a pack basis. Members risk their lives for each other, sacrifice food, care for young, etc. For pack animals, survival of the fittest is survival of the pack. There are many scientific studies of pack animal behavior that you can google which illustrate this.

    Pack mentality also drives humanity. It has taken us a long while to start looking at our whole species as part of the pack, and we are not fully there yet. But the basic benefits of pack behavior seen in other animals are exponentially increased in humanity. Working together and caring for each other makes life far, far better for all of us. Matt Ridley’s lecture on “When ideas have sex” illustrates how working together has advanced humanity. Hans Roslings study of world statistics shows the results of this.

    These ideas of reciprocity and the benefits of pack behavior can be easily googled for many more data points than my 2 above.

    The issue is not in finding meaning for us, it is there in front of us – care for your fellow man to make life better for us all. It is objective, tangible and evidentiary. The problem is that many people fear their own mortality and wish to believe in a bigger purpose for themselves. Look at Christianity, for instance. Everyone is immortal via their soul. Man’s purpose is dominion over creation via the “right hand of god.” Our purpose which is easily identified is humble by comparison – thus often overlooked. Yet it undoubtedly results in a better world for humanity. But it does require people to acknowledge their own mortality and insignificance, which is why other grander ideas are much more popular even if lacking in evidence.

    Having a humble purpose does not mean that we cannot go on to do great things. Curiosity has also served us well and driven us to be able to better deliver on our purpose.

    • says:

      Hello Jared,

      Thanks for your thoughts here–I find the idea of the pack mentality interesting and plausible.

      In terms of the question of evidence for God, you are right, that is a huge topic. I point to an article by Alvin Plantinga in my post on “Can we know reality if Naturalism is true: or a plea for Creativity in Theistic Arguments.” You can check that out–but really, I’d point you to any book in the philosophy of religion that deals with this question–whether it be atheist or theist. Say, anything from William Lane Craig (On Guard, Reasonable Faith, as well as many of his debates), or say, William Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion. I think that the traditional Cosmological, Design, and Moral arguments work. Or to put it another way, there is a formulation of these arguments that are sound.

      In terms of the question of purpose. Assume everything you say about the pack is correct and that our purpose is to survive and make everyone’s life better. I don’t think this really scratches where we itch. We don’t merely want to survive–we want to be a certain kind of person and experience a certain kind of life–a life full of peace, joy, happiness (in the classical sense), and so on. I think this is a universal human longing. My point is that this universal human longing makes the most sense given theism, and not atheism. And if God exists, as I say, and part of our “end” or “purpose” is to know God and enjoy him forever (which is the consistent idea found in the history of ideas from Plato to Calvin to many contemporary thinkers), then we will not find true peace, happiness, apart from God–hence, the unscratchable itch.

  5. Jared Rodriguez says:

    I am pretty familiar with Craig’s BVG argument. I will point out, what everyone points out – that it is based entirely on what we do not know and Craig simply filling in the answers. What was before the space-time barrier? We do not know. Could there have been some other action before that barrier? We do not know. Can a universe that is tuned differently exist? We do not know. Does our universe have the only tuning that can sustain life? We do not know. Craig also ignores key aspects of the paper that further illustrate what we do not know items that can falsify the paper as physics advances. Good scientists put mechanisms for falsification directly into their works. It is sad that Craig ignores this to try and make his point, it shows him to be disingenuous and more interested in pretending that he knows the answer rather than in finding the answer. Which is not surprising, a cursory look at history illustrates how incredibly wrong apologists have been since the dawn of civilization by inserting their own philosophical beliefs into areas of what we do not know. Science has chipped away at an incredible number of these and will continue to do so. Since the BVG publish in 2003, physics has made significant strides to discredit Craig’s attempts to use it as a foundation for god. Lawrence Krauss “Universe from Nothing” discusses things popping into existence all the time – although that introduces other questions on the quantum field and is it constrained by the space-time barrier. Work at Cern has hit on topics listed in the BVG paper as well – although they have not yet published anything to falsify it. I will read the blog post you suggested as well as picking up the book from Rowe. Hopefully they have more to offer than Craig.

    As you point out, we humans have many itches, not just one, and it is not always easy to see the edge of one itch from the other. There is no question that we long for purpose just as we long for love, joy, life and more. But these other longings are not necessarily the same as purpose. The benefit of your religion is that it helps to scratch a whole bunch of these itches. Atheism, not so much. I do not debate that many people find solace and happiness in religion. Good for them. But this solace is non-evidentiary. Personally, my biggest itch is for the truth, even if that means a harder pill to swallow.

    • says:

      Hello Jared–good thoughts. What was before the space-time barrier. Nothing, and by nothing, I mean nothing. I think that folks like Krauss and Hawkings, who are excellent scientists, are very poor philosophers. All the BVG shows is that there is must be a cause for any expanding universe–so it is scientific evidence, that supports a premise, that is part of an argument that leads to a theological conclusion. That is it. There certainly could have been action ‘prior’ to the big bang, but not from a physical being, since all of time, matter, energy and space come into existence at the moment of the big bang. By the way, you and I are after the same thing–truth–so, press on my friend!

  6. Jared Rodriguez says:

    I read your blog post on “Can we know anything” and the comments section as well. I guess that it should not be a surprise that philosophers seem to have their own lingo. 🙂 In reading the article and comments it does not seem like you or the other philosophers who commented view the original piece as actual evidence for or establishment of god. Perhaps I misunderstood some piece of the references though.

    One thing that is likely covered in other philosophical works, but not apparent in the article and comments is the idea of what is “naturalism” is not a constant. As our senses are so incredibly weak and our knowledge so limited, we do not know the entirety of what is natural. Yet again, history shows us that the “supernatural” is merely that which is beyond our understanding and sense. As our knowledge and tools advance, so does the realm of the “natural.” Which itself seems to contradict the original reference of “Can we know reality” as it posits a fixed set of the natural and ignores that this set grows.

    • says:

      Hello Jared. The book I referenced did argue from the reality of knowledge to the reality of the theistic God. Sorry if I didn’t make that very clear. So, he was offering a kind of transcendental argument for God. You are right to push the question about our need for a godly hypothesis, but I think you mischaracterize supernaturalism. It is not based on our misunderstanding. Rather, supernaturalism is the conclusion to a number of deductively valid arguments for such a beings existence–nothing mysterious about it. (say a cosmological, design, and moral argument, among others).

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