Something I wanted to mention, in case you ever have time to look into it: I've recently been reading the works of Peter Singer, a controversial Australian philosopher of ethics (the real irony to him being that he gets the most press on his views regarding euthanasia, when by his own philosophy, charity and animal rights are far more important issues). I find his arguments very easy to parody, but very difficult to dismiss outright -- at the very least they point out some very troubling inconsistencies with common ethical beliefs, ones that are worth considering, even if only to formulate a principled rejection of his solutions.
But that's not exactly what I wanted to tell you about (I'm long winded, and even a short preamble tends to balloon). I've also recently read through several letters stored on PAM regarding people who are incredulous as to the possibility of atheists having meaningful lives or the ability to commit to ethics. You refute such ideas quite handily, but I wanted to point out some excellent sources you might also want to direct such people towards.
One such is the final chapter of Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement. Whether one agrees with Singer or not, or Henry Spira or not, the final chapter of Singer's biography of Spira, "A Meaningful Life," is immensely moving, and very relevant to the question at hand, because Spira truly did live a life imbued with passionate purpose, and a great deal of meaning. Even if one thinks the things which gave Spira's life meaning (working for the Civil Rights movement and then being one of the most pragmatically successful leaders of the Animal Rights movement) are silly, one cannot deny that the man found peace and purpose in fighting for the ethical beliefs that he had been convinced of. As such, it is an excellent primer for anyone cynical about an atheists' ability to live a meaningful and ethical life. Spira not only dedicated his life to acting on his ethical principles, but he did it because it was what made his life meaningful and fun -- "not a sense of duty, rather this is what I want to do ... I'm best when I'm doing it well."
Another short quotation:
"Henry's life has lacked many of the things that most of us take for granted as essential to a good life. He has never married or had a long-term, live-in relationship. He has no children. His father and one of his sisters committed suicide, and his mother was mentally ill for much of her life. His relationship with Renee, the sole surviving member of his immediate family, is not close. His rent controlled apartment, while spacious and well-situated, is Spartan. He doesn't go to movies, to concerts, to the theater, or to fine restaurants. He hasn't taken a vacation for twenty years. Yet at the age of sixty-eight, he was able to contemplate his own imminent death with no major regrets about the way he lived."
This very brief chapter also begins with the statement: "To say that life is essentially meaningless is to express an attitude, not to state a fact." I've thought a great deal about this idea, and have to say that I find it exceedingly wise -- for I think I do well to realize that I alone am accountable for my attitudes, and if I cry that out that my life is meaningless, I have only myself to blame for such a situation. The fact that I care at all (and for whatever reason, I do) is reason enough to go out and find meaning, or to stop whining about the matter. A meaningful life cannot not an article of faith -- a discovering of an external purpose that justifies one's life -- in that case one would be meaningful to the purpose (in the theist's case, humans are meaningful, which is to say, useful, to god) -- not neccesarily finding meaning in what you are doing. It has to be something you decide that you are going to have. Some seem to find meaning in Chirst. I don't see anything wrong with that, per se, though I personally wish they would acknowledge that they create and power this meaning, not Christ.
Yet what I often find additionally very troubling in discussions with some theists is that many hold the belief that without the existence of god, meaning is impossible. While I suspect they have a different understanding of the word "meaning" (perhaps one that capitalized without explantion?) than any that's intelligible to me, the idea that life, on its own terms, is without meaning seems like a form of outright nihilism to me. If someone is going to take a leap of faith to believe there is a god that is against murder -- why should I feel safe that they will not someday, for no reason, take a leap of faith and believe that god wants me dead? Thankfully, I doubt they will do this, because in my experience, human psychology is, whether genetically or culturally, remarkably and laudably empathetic by nature -- and only takes extraordinary violent actions in cases of extraordinary. It never fails to amaze me that the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived have been entirely pacifist. Even in the cases of wars, governments have had to expend a tremendous amount of propaganda energy, bribery, and threats, to turn ordinary people into soldiers willing to kill for a cause. So I feel safe with believers because they are humans like anyone else, and they probably decided that killing was wrong long before they ever started seriously believing in god (many believe in god simply because god seems to agree with their own moral senses.)
Singer himself is another fine example of a meaningful atheist life -- again whether you buy his philosophical principles or not. He has also written extensively not only on the good life, but why Christian morality has so distorted people's concept of "morality" that when one reads a newspaper headline that says, "Bishop Attacks Declining Moral Standards," we expect "to read yet again about promiscuity, homosexuality, pornography, and so on," instead of actual ethical questions like our possible obligations to help other people, or how can found our ethical claims, instead of just letting them sit there (and he makes a pretty convincing case that sex itself "raises no unique moral issues at all. Decisions regarding sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so, but there is nothing special about sex in this respect, for the same could be said about driving a car." (Practical Ethics). There are truly serious ethical issues out there, dealing with such concepts as honesty and concern for others themselves -- not particular applications of them. That people should fail to consider them, and instead worry about sex, is a real loss.
I'll suggest more such biographies and sources as I compile them.
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