Ultimate Meaning and the Danger of William Lane Craig
“If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.” – – William Lane Craig
William Lane Craig and His Claim of Ultimate Meaning
I wish to address a very disturbing essay that provides the Christian community with a dangerous arsenal for understanding purpose in life. I say it’s dangerous because it casts anything ‘non-Christian’ in a very damming light. In essence, William Craig’s essay entitled The Absurdity of Life Without God claims that ultimate values, ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose is impossible without immortality and God. Craig’s followers capitalize on these ‘ultimate’ claims by using it as a vehicle to get people to join the faith and show that those who do not believe are doomed to a life without real meaning. I will demonstrate in this essay how William Craig fails to provide sufficient reasons for ultimate meaning and how his argument leads to the polarization of large swaths of people.
As an humanist chaplain, William Craig’s claim strikes at my core. My career is spent in helping people understand meaning and purpose while in the midst of profound crisis in their life. Therefore, I cannot help but seek to understand the implications and rationale for Craig’s claims. Furthermore, I spent ten years in pastoral leadership in Christian churches so, according to Craig, I once had ultimate meaning but now I am doomed. That’s right, Craig states in his essay that “If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, they await their unavoidable execution.” By stoking the fears of existential distress, Craig constructs a simple argument in an effort to show how his ideology is supreme.
The superiority complex and vitriol it engenders is quite distressing. His claim that only theists can have ultimate values, meaning, and purposes is polarizing. It unjustly elevates Christian ideals over all other altruistic non-Christian ideals. This means that a Christian who joyfully gives her life to serving the poor is experiencing ultimate meaning but a non-Christian who joyfully does the same is engaging in a meaningless and valueless endeavor. It follows, then, that purpose and meaning is easily minimized with non-Christians. It’s appalling when you take Craig’s thesis to its limits and you are compelled to acknowledge that all noble acts done by non-Christians are absolutely futile. Not only does it elevate Christian ideals over everyone else, but it emboldens Christians to view themselves on a higher moral plain. How could it not? When I was a Christian, I felt morally superior to others, as if I was on the winning team. And in my Christian communities, I saw and experienced the moral superiority all the time. It’s inevitable, but it’s also wrong and dangerous.
For the sake of brevity, I will focus on Craig’s notion of ultimate purpose rather than ultimate values; even though my logic runs consistently through purpose, meaning and values. The crux of Craig’s argument is this: we can have ultimate purpose and meaning because God is the ultimate being; and because his essence is good and just, then his purpose is ultimately best. Thus Craig concludes: if there is no God, then life itself is meaningless. I want to note here an extremely important observation in Craig’s essay: Craig does not simply claim that the non-Christian lives without “ultimate” meaning and purpose, but the non-Christian’s life is all-together meaningless and purposeless. In other words, the compassion and altruism that dominates the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dali Lama which leaves an indelible and profound impact on the world was an ultimate waste of time.
The Word “Ultimate” as a Great Marketing Strategy
It is important that I acknowledge that Craig’s use of “ultimate” is his own marketing strategy. As a pillar of the theist camp, he has put out a product that has selling power. In marketing 101, when advertisements put “ultimate” in its verbiage, it sends a message that says, “The verdict is out and final! This deodorant is it! Interestingly enough, Craig uses “ultimate” sixteen times in his essay and never defines it. This complicates things because the dictionary defines “ultimate” as “final” or “last”, but that doesn’t seem to be Craig’s point. Judging by his argument I can only surmise that he means “unending”. Notice his words, “our lives can have ultimate significance only if they never end.” It seems that Craig uses “ultimate” to fit his wishes for an attempt at a successful conclusion. I got to hand it to Craig, his selling pitch catches your attention just like my favorite Old Spice commercials
The Logic of Craig’s Claim
Notice Craig’s logic when he states, “we can have ultimate purpose and meaning because God is the ultimate being.” This is a logical fallacy of petitio principia (begging the question). In other words: claim X assumes X is true; therefore, claim X is true. William Craig is infamous for framing Christian arguments where the conclusion is assumed in one the premises. It’s similar to me saying, “Paranormal activity is real because I have experienced what can only be described as paranormal activity.” From the very beginning, his logic is fallacious. How can we know God is ultimate? Sure we can argue by definition and say, well, God is ultimate because God is ultimate. But this circular reasoning gets us nowhere. Perhaps because the Bible tells us so? The Bible tells us a lot of things, just as the Koran, Vedic texts, Hadith, and Buddhist Sutras do. Ancient writings shed light on how people at that time and in that place understood the world; it is not, however, a gateway to truth. I ask again, how can we know God is ultimate? We cannot. In order to buttress his presupposition, Craig is forced to insert in his premise a claim (that God is ultimate) which has no justificatory epistemic content.
Duration as a Measure of Significance
Craig’s argument hinges on duration and immortality. After all, if there is no everlasting afterlife then everything is pointless. Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has significance or its implication that all temporary things are equally insignificant. He only repeats it, many times, as if it should be obvious. But is it true that nothing temporary has significance? Does this mean, for example, watching the birth of your child is meaningless because it has a finite time? Would it have more significance if it never ended? Craig creates a false dilemma by leading you to believe that that anything that goes on for infinity is the only ultimate way to experience meaning. I believe we need a better measure of significance that duration of time.
It is illogical that Craig creates an interdependency between immortality and meaning. If our solar system, is to be ultimately incinerated, we would still be concerned about meaning. What if experiences do pass into memory and then ultimately fade? What relevance does that have for meaning? That happens to the nature of experiences. How could it be otherwise? Experiences are temporal, and one cannot exist outside of time. When they are over, they are over, and nothing can be done about it. We are dealing here with value judgments, not with statements of fact. It is by no means an objective truth that nothing is important unless it goes on forever or eventually leads to something else that persists forever.
Meaning ought to be desirable on its own account; not because finality is imminent. If not ends were complete unto themselves, if everything had to be justified by something else outside of itself which must in turn also be justified, then there is infinitum regress: the chain of justification can never end. Certainly there are ends that are complete unto themselves without requiring and endless series of justifications outside ourselves.
The Impossibility of Ultimate Purpose
Craig’s argument simply doesn’t work. For any purpose we begin to understand, we can step back from and question. We have numerous theistic religions that offer God’s purpose for our lives that include (1) glorifying God and enjoying him forever and (2) having a relationship with God. Surely we can ask, “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the questions “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” I am not trying to be difficult or ask a flippant question like “Why is here here?” In fact, Craig and any theist would surely question any life purpose that an Atheists proffers – and rightly so.
Suppose I said that our purpose on earth is to give 80% of all our income to those who earn less than $20,000 a year. I can easily make an argument that frames this purpose as a virtuous and noble act which leads to positive ramifications. Moreover, this purpose may even embolden my life with an all-consuming passion for goodness. However, you would be right in scrutinizing this purpose by asking “Why is that ultimately worthwhile?” Nor would I expect you to be content with the promise that someday you’ll see that purpose counting as ultimately satisfying. Such a promise merely appeals to mystery.
That Craig takes liberty to slap on “ultimate” in front of “meaning” does not nothing to revolutionize how humans confer meaning on experiences. The same is true for God being an “ultimate being” who is the arbiter of “ultimate good”. Just as an Imam at your local mosque may feel inclined to put ‘ultimate’ in front of Allah doesn’t substantiate anything by doing so. Atheists do indeed lead lives that lack ultimate significance; and so do theists. While lives of ultimate meaning are impossible, meaningful lives are not.
Why it’s Wrong
Secular morals and values have been denigrated and mischaracterized for millennia. But in the 20th century, Christian apologists capitalized on the notion that secularism has no basis for doing good. Like Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “Without God, all is permissible.” This dangerous and unjustified meme has metastasized, such that, in recent studies rapists are described as more “trustworthy” than Atheists (see Azim Shariff’s study noted in USA Today). This type of false characterization has prompted Christian leaders to monopolize the entire panoply of morals to the point that even Presidential elections become a platform for Christian morals to show off their illegitimate superiority.
But the facts show differently, as atheistic Scandinavian countries continue to flourish, secular organizations lead the charge during disaster reliefs, and secular activists in America continue to fight for virtues such as women’s rights, economic equality, and rights of minorities. You may ask, “on what basis does the secular person fight for virtues?” Such a question is absolute nonsense. We use our senses to see and experience the positive impact when engaging in compassion, empathy and cooperation. We know what it’s like to see society thrive. Just as I thrive when my environment is taking care of my basic well-being, so do societies that share in the moral ethic of reducing needless pain by increasing the well-being of the whole society. The basis is not “out there” in the heavens; it’s all around us when consider the values, policies, and legislation that maximizes flourishing in the world.
William Craig, however, ignores the meaningful experiences that secular people possess and advocate for. Instead, he stages the game by inserting “ultimate” as if to say “game over, the final verdict is out.” Perhaps I would agree with Craig if, say, all non-Christians walked around depressed with suicide notes in hand. I mean, if absolute despair encompassed the psyche of every non-Christian to the point that they brought nothing of value or nobility to this planet, then, we could conclude: “Hey, maybe Craig’s got a point.” But this simply is not that case, in fact, far from it. Christians have just as much, if not more people with depressive disorders, high divorce rates and violent crime. But more importantly, both Christians and non-Christians have the benefit of living extremely meaningful lives that find peace, engage in loving relationships with their partners, and abstain from crime because they are in a society that is concerned about their well-being. The ideology that William Craig espouses unjustifiably segregates society while moving us farther away from moral progress.
Craig’s ideology is the type of irrational thinking that weaponizes culture with an us vs. them mentality. It is an argument that simply does not hold up. It’s polarizing and only widens the divide that separates religious and secular citizens from having a rational dialogue about morals and values that impact our country. When you possess the dangerous belief that says a secular person has no basis for doing good, it easily follows that they also have no meaning in life. To the contrary, the secular person the same opportunity to love, flourish and thrive within a meaningful life. Craig is wrong, no one has privileged access to some kind of ultimate meaning.
~ Wes Fornes