This article was first published on Culturewatch.org.
Two recent events made a strange conjunction. First, I met a student who argued passionately that life has no meaning – nothing means anything. Second, I read Philip Pullman’s latest book, Lyra’s Oxford, in which he suggests that everything means something.
These two atheists share some assumptions. Both deny the evidence for God’s existence. Both believe that death is the end.
But in other ways they see things very differently. The student insisted that we cannot tell whether or not the world is real. The evidence for Jesus cannot be trusted because it’s part of the world. We can’t trust our beliefs because we can’t know that the thoughts in our heads are real.
Pullman, however is adamant that the physical world is real and claims that ‘there ain’t no elsewhere.’ For Pullman, our senses give us information about the world, and we use our human reason to work out what it means. Lyra says, ‘Everything means something. We just have to find out how to read it.’
The student is a more consistent atheist than Philip Pullman. If there’s no God, how can we be sure of anything? Without God there is simply a material universe entirely governed by physical processes – a closed system of cause and effect, with no possibility of free will. How can I trust my beliefs when they are entirely the result of my genes and my environment? The student recognises correctly that it leaves us adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. Why should anything mean something if there’s no God?
In another respect, the student is less consistent than Pullman because he doesn’t live out the consequences of what he claims to believe. If he took his ideas seriously he would despair. Instead he’s clearly enjoying himself. In practice, he values some things as good, not meaningless.
Lyra’s Oxford is about finding meaning. Pullman writes that ‘There are many things we haven’t yet learned how to read.’ But aren’t people prone to misreading things? I see the world as a pointer to God’s existence; Pullman thinks it shows that God does not exist. One of us is misreading things.
The student isn’t interested in finding meaning, Pullman is. But I believe he’s as uninterested as the student in finding out how to read the spiritual urge in human hearts and the amazing evidence for Jesus and his claims.
Ironically, Makepeace in Lyra’s Oxford seems to echo Jesus when he says: ‘You’ll find the meaning if you search for it.’