You may know Adam Driver from his role as Kylo Ren in Star Wars. I listened to a clip from his 2016 Ted Talk about his journey from being a Marine to becoming an actor. He explained how hard it was to transition from military life to civilian life and that one of the most challenging aspects of the transition was the sudden lack of meaning:
“Emotionally, I struggled to find meaning. In the military, everything has meaning. Everything you do is either steeped in tradition or has a practical purpose. You can’t smoke in the field because you don’t want to give away your position. You don’t touch your face—you have to maintain a personal level of health and hygiene. You face this way when ‘Colors’ plays, out of respect for people who went before you. Walk this way, talk this way because of this. Your uniform is maintained to the inch. How diligently you followed those rules spoke volumes about the kind of Marine you were. Your rank said something about your history and the respect you had earned.”
He didn’t find that in acting school. I don’t know if he ever found it.
A broader cultural struggle exists to find that meaning, especially among atheists.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch politician who apostatized from Islam, became an atheist, and received death threats for being an outspoken critic of Islam. She later moved to the United States and wrote several bestselling books about her journey.
Once a promoter of the New Atheism, Ali recently converted to Christianity (what kind, I’m not sure). She felt that secularism could not meet the Islamic challenge. But she also gave this reason for rejecting atheism:
“I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realization that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable—indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?”
Ali came to realize that atheism can’t provide meaning to life. Given a naturalistic worldview, nothing has a purpose other than what you will for yourself in the face of ultimate pointlessness.
Not every atheist will admit that. Some avoid the question. They don’t want to think about the deeper issues. Or they refuse to acknowledge the problems. But intelligent atheists will.
Ali found atheism couldn’t answer the simple questions about meaning and purpose. That’s what I concluded, too, when I first began to reconsider my casual atheism as a teenager. I started asking the fundamental questions: Where did the universe come from? What was the purpose of it all? If we’re here by accident, why bother with anything? How is life not all pointless? What’s the meaning of life? And I found that atheism failed to answer them. At best, you make up your meaning as you go and try to live with the absurdity of a life that makes no difference in the long run.
I don’t know that I would have said atheism was unendurable, but I came to believe it was irrational—it didn’t make sense of anything.
By contrast, I became convinced that the Christian God made sense of the world. He makes everything meaningful. I recently came across this quote from Anglican philosopher E. L. Mascall:
“To put the matter quite simply, I hope to show that the affirmations about God, man and Christ which the Christian Church has taught throughout its history, and the manner of living which those affirmations imply, are more satisfying to our intellect, more enriching to our imagination and more fulfilling to our whole personality than either the secular humanism which is so widespread today or the etiolated substitutes for orthodox Christianity which are frequently offered for our consumption. I hope, in short, to show that the Faith which the Church has proclaimed throughout the ages is fuller, more interesting, more comprehensive, more demanding, more liberating, more satisfying, that it synthesizes a wider range of human experience, opens up more possibilities of human living and offers in the end a deeper and richer ecstasy of fulfillment than any alternative way of life and thought; that it is in the very way grander, more inspiring and more fruitful (Mascall, The Christian Universe, pp. 10-11).
Atheism sucks the meaning out of life, but God re-enchants everything.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.