The Value of Absurdity

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.

This bit from William Lane Craig is an argument of wishful thinking.  Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal provided a delightful expression of that logic:

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Technically, it is referred to as argumentum ad consequentiam. If there is no God, that is, no god as defined by Christian fundamentalists, then there can be no immortality, and therefore no meaning to life. That would make us sad, which we do not want. Therefore God exists. Not just some vague abstract god, but the God of traditional Christianity.

Churches, particularly within the evangelical community, use this angst as a tool in retaining their membership. My ticket out of this cultic mentality was the concept of hell.

When I experienced being “born again,” when I surrendered to the LORD and accepted Jesus, I felt as if a great weight had been taken off me. I had the sense that all the evil I had done in my life had been canceled, forgiven. It was a very emotional experience, like being dragged out of a burning building or rescued from a sinking ship.

Oh, Hell

I soon joined a church and began to study the Bible and church doctrine, which was purportedly based solely on biblical teachings. The very first thing I was led to try to understand, an idea that had always bothered me, was the concept of eternal punishment in hell. I was relieved that I needn’t worry about any punishment myself, but it still concerned me that there would be billions of souls who, through rebellion or just lack of understanding, would face eternal torment. I could see no way that eternal punishment is justified, even for the most heinous crimes, much less for lesser offenses.

My first attempt to reconcile this injustice was to conclude that hell must not be eternal. Perfect justice would demand punishment exactly equal to the crimes committed, no less, no more. God’s mercy permitted an out for the saved, who would face no punishment, but all the rest must be burned for their sins, yet only to the measure of the evil they had done. So I imagined, and justified with Bible verses, a hell in which the the burning was actually the souls being destroyed, their amount of pain being exactly equal to what they had inflicted on others.

That satisfied me for some time, and I put my concern on the back burner while I dealt with other studies. But I eventually had to face a problem my concept left unresolved. What is the purpose for that suffering? Why does justice demand punishment for crimes, if there is no chance of redemption? My sense of fairness led me to conclude that the only way it made sense is if there is, in fact, a chance of redemption. The torment souls experience must be the struggle they go through while learning the hard lessons that would lead them to the truth, at which point they would be welcomed into the presence of God.

Yes, that sounds a lot like universalism, but it does leave the option that some souls might forever reject the truth. You have to allow for that “free will” thing, although it seems odd that God would create souls in the first place, who would reject the truth no matter what. In any case, God, knowing all, would know in advance if particular souls would eternally reject him, and he could either destroy them without unnecessary suffering, or not create them in the first place.

All In or Forget It

You may begin to see that this led to problems in relating to my church family, with their view of an inerrant Bible. The Bible says nothing about second chances after death, about hell as an additional school of hard knocks to lead us to heaven. It seems to speak of hell as a one-way trip. It leaves no room for mercy for those who don’t “repent” before the end of their lifespan. My only options were to turn off my thoughts on these matters and accept the traditional teachings, or to regard the Bible in a different way, as a spiritual guide that is somewhat malleable.

I went the second way. I really didn’t have a choice. I am not capable of walling off my beliefs from reality as I perceive it, at least not for more than short periods of time. I am not able to make myself believe something I know to be untrue or irrational. Now, many (fundamentalists) would say that once you admit to the possibility of error in the Bible you begin down the slippery slope toward rejecting it completely. That is a reasonable fear. If you aren’t forced to believe in biblical inerrancy, then you will have to judge the Bible on its own merits. Then you have to admit that it may contain contradictions or even errors in moral teaching. That is in fact what I found, once I knew I could examine it without fear of divine retribution.

I have now slid all the way down that slope, and I find it quite comfortable here on solid ground. I no longer have to walk on the eggshells of religious sensitivities. I am free to see the glory of nature, without having to distort the evidence of my senses to fit nature into some kind of divine plan. Is life absurd, as Craig claims it would be in my worldview? It often is, but not because it is finite, nor because it lacks the threat of eternal punishment and reward.

There is no divine plan. Life can be absurd because absurd things happen. Life can be beautiful and meaningful, because we can make it so, because we can show love and generosity and creativity. Sometimes we can show mercy and tenderness when ugly things happen to others. Sometimes things overwhelm us and people die. And when a person dies, that does not nullify what that person was in life. Things have beginnings and endings, and so do people. That does not take away their meaning, it makes them precious.

Image title credit: A Wanton Woman: The Life of Ida C. Craddock
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7 thoughts on “The Value of Absurdity

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  1. It looks as though your experience has been in predestination. I believe that God gave a free will to accept or reject him otherwise you are right Christianity is absurd. Thanks be to God for free will.

    1. I studied the predestination idea, but the churches I was part of weren’t big into it. Free will is something I will have to expand on in another post. I need to get my thoughts together a little more on that.

  2. Posted by FreeFox on 2013/11/01, 9:26 am

    I am always baffled by views like yours (or Paul’s). First – why is immortality only possible with God? Or why is immortality certain with God? Both concepts can exist independently from each other. Next, can you define “free will”? Free of what? God’s control? Clearly it is not, at least not of the biblical God, as you can see by how he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, for example. Nor any God concurrent with scientific reality, since our decision making process is controlled by our brain, and our brain is part of deterministic physical reality. (And no, quantum mechanics are no help – their possibly undeterministic nature only goes for a level clearly far below the electrochemical reactions that govern mental processes.) Thirdly: Isn’t your rejection of a divine plan the same as the fundamentalist’s acceptance of God? You said you didn’t want to believe in a God so cruel as to condemn billions of humans to eternal torment and then jumped to the conclusion that therefor there can be no divine plan and everything is absurd… come again? Relatedly: Who ever said that God’s plan wasn’t absurd? Or that absurdity was the same as chaos? Monty Python’s humour clearly is absurd. It clearly is the expression of intelligence and purpose.
    And lastly, and possibly most importantly: How could there be anything like a clean slate? No matter what you believe, or how many children of God died, or what other sacrifices were made, how could the past, with all it’s many intricate and unmappable consequences and all the incurred responsibilities be “unmade” or invalidated? Can you be forgiven? Clearly… But remade so that you have no more moral connection to your former self? That negates the very definition of self. If that is possible then it happens automatically, every nano-second. The very flow of time determines that the you that started reading this comment is not the same as the you right now, which won’t be the same that will finish reading it. By any other definition of self, how is “rebirth” possible? And even more importantly: Why would you want that? Remember what I said about tattoos and mistakes? Why would you want to cut yourself off from all you have experienced?
    “I am a part of all that I have seen, yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled land whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.” (Tennyson)
    I could add more questions, but I guess I’ll start with those…
    (Just to reveal my own bias: I believe in an omniscient, omnipotent interventionist God as well as the multitude of divinities, powers, and principalities, I believe in the immortal soul (or at least a soul as immortal as information in the physical universe), I believe in salvation, and the forgiveness of sins, and I believe that the sunset’s are a bloody beauty, no matter what else the Old Bastard fucked up.)

    1. I have lost my original reply, but this is probably better:

      I’ll agree that immortality and a supreme being are independent concepts. They both seem unlikely to me. Free will is a strange concept. I can think of no way to unhook what we do and think from the world of cause and effect. It’s a useful fiction that enables us to feel good about making decisions, as if we were in the driver’s seat of our bodies.
      I don’t reject any divine plan, I just don’t see any evidence of one. How would we know if there were one? The Bible is no help—the stories there sound very much like the creations of superstitious Iron Age nomads. But if some god were to make itself known to me and reveal its plan for me, I would happily go along with it, at least while the god was watching. I have principles, but I’m not stupid.
      Clean slate? No, that belief was a necessary part of my evolution. I don’t think that way now. I don’t think we need to be forgiven of our sins; we need to be reunited with our true natures. When I was part of the church, I experienced being forgiven and accepted by a mysterious higher power. Now that I am free of that particular mythology, I have been able to forgive and accept myself, as I am and was in the past. I see the wrong turns I made then not as the result of evil, but ignorance, and what good I do is not the result of divine grace, but skill, luck, and helpful companions.
      I don’t think there can exist a god like Yahweh. Too many self-contradictions. I don’t believe in your god either, Freefox, but I grant that it is at least plausible.

        1. I’m glad to see you’re still around after the disruption of my blog. I will be restoring more of the posts and comments that were dropped.
          Any god that requires faith for its existence is no better than Tinkerbell. Not that there’s anything wrong with imaginary faeries. I just don’t want to make life decisions based on their mandates.

        2. I found my original reply from November 1. You be the judge.

          “First – why is immortality only possible with God?”
          I don’t know, is it? I did state the argument to that effect put forward by W.L. Craig, and I thought I made it clear that I do not now believe that to be true.
          Can I define “free will”? Maybe. I will take a stab at it in the near future. I suspect we have similar ideas on that.
          “Isn’t your rejection of a divine plan the same as the fundamentalist’s acceptance of God?”
          No. I don’t have any reason to trust in a divine plan, but I am open to new evidence. I have heard fundies say that they wouldn’t change their minds, no matter what evidence was presented.
          “You said you didn’t want to believe in a God so cruel as to condemn billions of humans to eternal torment and then jumped to the conclusion that therefor there can be no divine plan and everything is absurd… come again? Relatedly: Who ever said that God’s plan wasn’t absurd?”
          I don’t believe things on the basis of what I want to be true. I know from experience that that is an unreliable way to learn the truth. What I tried to say was that that God’s nature, as I was taught it, was clearly incompatible with the injustice of eternal punishment for finite crimes.
          Craig thinks life would be absurd without his god. I did not say that everything is absurd, and I don’t think that everything is. On the other hand, I do think absurdity is sometimes a good thing, e.g., Monty Python. Perhaps, given the title of my post, I should have developed that concept more. Be assured I will in future.
          And on clean slates, I am not sure to what you refer; I didn’t use that terminology. Are you referencing my “born again” experience? It was indeed a life-changing experience, but I didn’t lose my memory of what went before. There was a dramatic change in my attitude toward what sins I felt I had committed. Come to think of it, I can see why the concept of sin is taught in that way, since it enables the conversion experience, which perpetuates the religion. Wow. Thanks for provoking that insight.
          I believe in salvation. I’ve been saved a few times, but not by Yahweh or any of his offspring. I believe something may be immortal, but I think calling it “soul” may be confusing. I think the unique combination of events and materials that is me exists for a limited time. Between my birth and my death, I am immortal. You’re right, sunsets are the best. Watching your grandchildren play is right up there, too.

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