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

Kurt Cobain and the problem of guilt

A mulatto. An albino. A mosquito. My libido [1]. So sang Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, in the song of my generation, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Last year a documentary about Cobain’s life was released and it uncovers so much of the tragedy surrounding his childhood; in particular the rejection he felt in being sent from home to home because neither parent wanted to take care of him.

In his typically candid and blunt way, Cobain talks about his teenage angst in search of sexual conquest:

In a community that stresses macho male sexual stories as a highlight of all conversation, I was an underdeveloped, immature little dude that never got laid and was constantly razzed. Oh, poor little kid. It bothered me, probably more so because I was horny, and frequently had to make up stories like, ‘When I went on vacation, I met this chick and we f***** and she loved it.’ [2]

He later goes on to tell the harrowing account of how he (actually) lost his virginity by taking advantage of a girl with learning difficulties, and the consequent self-revulsion and guilt that led him to attempt suicide. And all of this when he was still at school. Listening to him speak, you feel a curious mixture of disgust at Cobain’s actions, and heartfelt compassion over his brokenness and insecurity—something we all identify with.

Step back about 1,600 years and we encounter a North African philosopher called Augustine talking about his youth. He says he was warned by his mother not to go sleeping around, especially with married women, but her warnings sounded ‘womanish’ and he would have been ‘embarrassed to obey them’. So, instead… 

I went headlong on my course, so blinded that I was ashamed among the other youths that my viciousness [referring to sexual conquests] was less than theirs; I heard them boasting of their exploits… And I set about the same exploits not only for the pleasure of the act but for the pleasure of the boasting… and when I lacked opportunity to equal others in vice, I invented things I had not done, lest I might be held cowardly for being innocent, or contemptible for being chaste. [3]

It’s strange how little the times change. Take a man born in the 300s or the 1960s, and both need to feel accepted, to feel loved, to feel that they could run with the pack. Both do things they regret, and for reasons they later see to be weak and inexcusable. Both men experience gut-wrenching guilt on account of their actions, guilt that brings an unbearable weight upon the soul.

But you see, the two stories take very different directions. While Cobain and Augustine both end up famous and well-regarded in their respective fields of philosophical musing—one in music and the other in writing—somewhere along the way one experiences a tragic hopelessness leading to despair and suicide, while the other encounters life-changing hope and a new start.

And what made the difference? 

One of Augustine’s most memorable and stunningly succinct descriptions of the human problem goes like this: ‘For you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you’ [4]. The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is God.

What does Augustine mean when he talks about finding heart rest in God? For one thing, he found this rest in forgiveness for all the things he felt guilty about. Augustine read the Bible and came to believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be; the Son of God and the one who can save us from guilt and sin. Whereas so many people go on through life with the nagging sense that they can’t fix what they’ve broken, Augustine discovered that God offers forgiveness, a clean slate, a new start. That experience gave him profound rest.

But he means more than just forgiveness, since being forgiven may only get us back to where we started; it doesn’t necessarily address the underlying brokenness, longings, and insecurities that are driving destructive behaviour in the first place. If a hungry boy steals a loaf of bread and gets caught in the act, the judge might let him off and allow him to go free but the boy is still hungry; in other words, he’s forgiven, but that hasn’t solved his deeper problem. So how did Augustine discover healing that not only made him feel forgiven and clean, but also satisfied his soul’s most secret longings?

For Augustine, forgiveness was the door into the most profound and life-changing reality: a relationship with God that finally offered him the sense that he had come home. Our hearts are restless till they rest in you. In a sense, then, the question of whether we have found this rest means that we are all either Cobain or Augustine.

[1] Smells Like Teen Spirit, by Nirvana on the album Nevermind, 1991
[2] Kurt Cobain in the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, 2015
[3] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book Two, III.7, translated by FJ Sheed in 1942
[4] Ibid. Book One, I.1

This article originally appeared at salt.london

Am I the captain of my soul?

Just over two years ago I happened to be in Johannesburg with my family at the time Nelson Mandela passed away. As outsiders looking in, we felt that it was an amazing privilege to hear so many stories of the difference Mandela made in South Africa, preventing a civil war by his message of reconciliation. We joined the crowds who streamed for days to pay tribute at his home, and we reflected on the impact that one man can make.

It’s said that during his incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela would recite William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus (1888) to his prison mates. It’s a stirring call to stoical grit and determination in the face of life’s hardships.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit From pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I defy anyone to read lines like ‘my unconquerable soul’ and not feel something like a gut-level growl to be a better person, to do more, to rise higher, and to face the challenges of life with more dignity and determination. We want to feel triumphant in life. It is part of our very human effort to justify our existence, to bolster our self-esteem, to feel a sense of our own worth.

And yet, I think that if we’re honest most of us will admit that this poem is mostly wishful thinking. ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’ But I still overslept this morning. I got irritated with my partner. I’m behind on my project at work. I disappoint myself on a daily basis. In that sense, the triumphant ideal of Invictus is not true to experience. And nor is it true to fact.

I didn’t choose most of the circumstances in which my life has been shaped: my parents, my culture, my influences. How can it be truly said that ‘I am the captain of my soul’ when, in reality, I didn’t even choose to get in this boat?

The idea (myth?) that you rule your own life can only lead to one of two possible outcomes. Either you will achieve all you dream of, and become one of those unbearable Trump-esque characters who cannot see their own flaws. Or you will be crushed under the weight of your own failures, realising that you’re not all you’re cracked up to be, and life is mostly out of your control.

Few people realise that Jesus Christ was relentlessly critical of people who thought they could make something of themselves. He saw this as a kind of pride, and worse, a pride that feeds self-righteousness and priggery. In many ways Invictus is the polar opposite of what Jesus taught.

Instead of encouraging us to get a grip and learn self-mastery, Jesus promised that there was grace and mercy for those who see that they are failing at life, that they are emphatically not the masters of their fate, or captains of their souls. He put it like this: ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.’ In other words, Jesus tells us that it’s okay to feel that things are not all right, that you don’t have it all together. He came for the very purpose of helping people who know their weaknesses.

This article originally appeared at salt.london