Dawkins and the meaning of life

Many people have come face-to-face with the possibility that life is meaningless and have given up as a result. Others have said something along these lines: ‘Sure, life has no meaning. But so what? It’s about whatever meaning you give to it.’ Still others think life has significance, and that it’s found in some Greater Purpose, be it religious or otherwise.

I’m interested in the second group — those who think life has no meaning, but still live as though it does. And if you think about it, that’s probably most of the people you know.

Back in 2006, I had the opportunity to hear Richard Dawkins at an event at LSE [1] marking the 30th anniversary of his first book, The Selfish Gene. In his inaugural work, Dawkins gives us an explanation for life and the way we behave based on little more than the accident of our genes. Many who have read him have been forced to conclude that whatever meaning they thought life had, they were wrong.

As Dawkins gave his speech, he began to comment on this response to his work: ‘One of the oddest reactions to The Selfish Gene has been the desire expressed by more than one person to un-read it.’ He then went on to quote from a letter he’d received from a reader:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it […] On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes […] But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade […] Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper — trying to believe, but not quite being able to — I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.

When I heard him read the letter, I considered it a reasonable response from the reader. If Dawkins’ conclusions are correct, and your behaviour is effectively pre-programmed by your genes, then how can that be meaningful at all? In fact, why shouldn’t we feel depressed at this? But, bizarrely, when he finished reading the letter, the audience laughed. They actually laughed at someone experiencing a crisis of existence.

How does one answer this? How can life possibly have meaning when we’re just an accident of chemistry + physics + who-knows-what? Dawkins gave his answer, and it’s fascinating. First, he said, ‘If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it.’ In other words, there’s no point believing in some idea about life that you or someone else has made up. The truth is the truth, he says, so let’s face up to that.

I can agree with that. We’re not supposed to believe in nonsense, especially when we know it’s wrong.

But I wasn’t expecting what he said next: ‘There really never was any reason for these despairing reactions at all. It is a complete misunderstanding of what science can tell us about ourselves if we conclude from it that we are somehow diminished by it, by the truth. Our life is what we make of it.’

Hang on a second. Can you see the contradiction?

I absolutely agree that we don’t want to buy into wishful thinking about life; but how can we just invent the meaning, and then believe in it? Can we ever be truly (and lastingly) satisfied with a life that only has the meaning we invent? Is that really meaningful at all? Isn’t that the very essence of wishful thinking?

And yet, this is exactly the contradiction so many of us embrace in our day-to-day lives. We’re convinced that when we die, we rot, and in the end the whole universe is going to dissolve in heat. But then we act as if we’re doing stuff that’s meaningful, important, fulfilling, purposeful.

What if there was another way? What if we could rebel against the great narrative of our age that we are here by accident, and will vanish as quickly as we arrived? What if we could truly know what we’re here for, and why? I think that is exactly what Jesus Christ offers. The Christian faith is not wishful thinking, it is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Come face-to-face with Jesus; his message and his claims, and you will find something utterly compelling. What hope can Dawkins offer people? None. Under the guise of self-defined truth and intellectual liberation, his conclusions have actually led many to despair. On the other hand, Jesus offers us the greatest hope we could ever have. In relationship with him, we no longer have to invent meaning, for infinite meaning is given to our existence. Isn’t that an explanation of life worth investigating?

[1] Darwin@LSE Public Lecture, The Selfish Gene: thirty years on, 16 March 2006. Transcript and audio available online: http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/publicEvents/events/2006/20051215t1557z001.aspx

This article originally appeared at salt.london

Conversations and cringing embarrassment

‘What do you do?’ That is a question I’ve come to dread. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been enjoying a good conversation with a stranger until the moment I’m quizzed on my profession. As soon as I say, ‘I lead a church’, there’s often an icy chill that visibly runs down their spine, and the conversation seems to just dry up. It’s not as though I’m a pimp, a cow inseminator, or a charity mugger. 

So why the awkwardness? It seems we have become awkward around the subject of religion in general. In The Guardian a few months ago, there was an article by Andrew Brown entitled ‘“We need to talk about Jesus”: cue cringing embarrassment’ [1]. He was discussing this whole phenomenon of embarrassment around talking about our religious beliefs. 

He explains it like this: apparently, the ‘language’ of embarrassment is universal, so it doesn’t matter whether you know the other person or not, you can still ‘accurately identify an embarrassed expression or posture on a stranger’. Since we are no longer expected to be religious these days, the moment religion comes up, someone (you or them) is bound to start getting embarrassed, and then it all gets a bit weird. 

In other words, embarrassment begets embarrassment, and because embarrassment is infectious, it pulls a veil over the important conversations in life.

Given how religious London is (church attendance is much higher in London than elsewhere, and the massive diversity of cultures contributes to a rich mix of beliefs), you’d think that things should be a little different here. But are they? When was the last time you really probed and questioned a person about their faith? When was the last time the subject even came up? 

I think this is sad and even tragic. How can we allow embarrassment to stifle the most important conversations of life? There have been rare moments when I have seen a friend drop their guard—perhaps after a few drinks, or in a moment of emotional vulnerability and openness—and really ask me what I believe and why. I live for those moments. I wish I had them every day. In fact, one of the reasons Salt exists is to try and find that one person in a hundred, or in a thousand, who will engage.

It’s no exaggeration to say that embarrassment kills. My brother is a consultant anaesthetist. He’s seen people come into hospital with strange items inserted ‘where the sun don’t shine’. Now, laying aside the obvious questions (like ‘Huh?’ and ‘How?’—usually answered by, ‘I fell while trying to hang a curtain… wearing no clothes’), there was one awful case where a man died because, out of sheer embarrassment, he failed to come to hospital until it was too late.

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the issues that really matter, we are just as bunged up with verbal constipation. Whether that’s down to British reserve, or the veneer of polite superficiality that is so normal in a big city like London, we find it hard to converse on the very issues that faith speaks into.

I’m speaking of our fear of death and uncertainty of what lies beyond the curtain. Or our constant nagging sense of guilt and the question of how we can feel spiritually clean. Or our anxieties about life, when so much is outside of our control and we long to know if anyone is hearing our prayers. These, and so many other thoughts that keep people awake at night, are the very reason we mustn’t stifle conversation.

And even if none of these questions is bothering you, there is the more fundamental issue of whether, in fact, a particular religion could be true. I’m not a Christian simply because it feels right, but rather because I have become totally convinced that it tells a true account of the life, death, and subsequent resurrection of Jesus; an event that has sent shockwaves through history and convinced many an honest skeptic [2]. 

To be frank, I don’t expect people to easily accept any of this as true (or, indeed, the claims of other religions). But I find it baffling that we are so hesitant to even engage. Personally, I welcome the challenge. I encourage the debate. I would rather a person grill me and try to poke holes in my worldview than that they simply avoid the subject altogether. My belief in Jesus is the deepest part of me, so how can we truly know each other unless we can broach the subject?  

Let me lay down a challenge for you: if you know anyone who says they’re a Christian, why not sit them down for a coffee and ask them a simple question, ‘Why?’ It’s quite possible that they won’t know how to answer (which is sad, but not uncommon). In that case, your question may well help them to think harder, rather than blindly go along with their faith. 

On the other hand, you might have one of the best and most stimulating conversations you’ve had in a long time. 

If you don’t know anyone who can speak to you in this way, then why not simply contact us at Salt?

[1] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/04/christianity-evangelical-embarrassment-jesus-religion
[2] For example, Lee Strobel’s excellent book The Case for Christ tells the account of the things that persuaded him despite his prior atheism

This article originally appeared at salt.london