I love the word ‘meaninglessness.’ I love adding ‘ness’ to ‘less’ words. The condition of being without meaning. Reading through this LA Times story about atheists seeking recognition in the US military called up several responses in me. The main focus of the story, Capt. Ryan Jean, apparently felt troubled by the fact that answers on a psych exam such as: No, he does not believe his life has lasting purpose, “won him a trip to the post chaplain, who berated him for his lack of faith.” This led him, and similar experiences have led a few others, to seek official recognition and lay representation and chaplaincy in the military. First let me just say: yes, it is not okay for the military to promote the attempted conversion to Christianity of atheistic service members. If some of these soldiers desire spiritual counsel from people who aren’t affiliated with an organized religion, or if they consider humanism their religion and would like a humanist chaplain, that seems fair enough to me. At the very least it does not seem fair to require them to consult someone who will berate them for not believing in Jesus. Come on.
And yet, before getting to my actual question of interest, I am simultaneously troubled by the need for this statement: “The military does not recognize atheists or humanists as members of an organized religion.” Right, well, that’s because it isn’t. “Fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members of the armed forces identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Atheists say many more are hidden among the 285,000 who say they have no religious preference.” (This implies they do have official recognition, doesn’t it?) They’re probably right about the hidden, “closeted” atheists among them. That seems to be true all over the population – secret nonbelievers. I, of course, find this troubling, but I also wonder whether responding with calls to recognize atheism as an organized religion are not… misguided. Atheism is a lack of belief in god(s). I, for example, can be accurately described as an atheist, seeing as I do not believe in a theos. But ‘Atheist’ is also an identity, one which I do not apply to myself. You can describe me as an atheist, but I won’t call myself an Atheist. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I don’t identify with the identity. Some “Atheists” seem to actively believe there is no god. I personally don’t bother making this move. (Some would say this makes of me an Agnostic, which, again, when capitalized seems to imply a philosophical position many people describe as: “I don’t know.” There are reasons for me not to take on this identity, either.)
But additionally, some Atheists seem to make an additional move: to believe the universe (or life, or their own lives, or w/e) is essentially meaningless. Further, given a-theism, given there being no god, this meaningless necessarily follows. Suffice it to say, I don’t agree with this supposedly logical move. (The whole atheism = rationality idea is clearly flawed; the evidence for this is in poorly reasoned atheistic claims made sometimes by some Atheists.) It strikes me as a somewhat reactive negation in light of the strains and styles of Christianity that most offend the atheistically minded. But this is just a sense I get. (My trouble with writing these kinds of posts is that I way too easily get way too distracted by thoughts that are not at all well enough thought out. Forgive me!) So,okay, here’s the point: no god ≠ no meaning. Why not? For one thing, why undercut the human capacity for making meaning? Aren’t we all constantly making meaning for ourselves? Choosing to believe that no god = no meaning is making meaning. Calling this ‘reason’, and relying on reason as a foundation for getting by in the world is making meaning. Who cares whether the meaning is already there? (I don’t understand why we’re so concerned about ‘objectivity,’ and why we think ‘subjectivity’ is so far removed from it.) But additionally: just because you do not believe in an all-powerful meaning-maker, what then makes it correct to deny the lasting meaning you’ve made in my life?