Theists and atheists are different. While both groups think life means something, they understand that meaning in different ways.
Yesterday, the Yule Blog featured an essay about how theists and atheists are the not all that different from each other; we are almost all transcendentalists in the sense that almost all of us find some kind of moral, ethical, and even spiritual meaning as we encounter the world. Life, we feel, amounts to more than eating, buying cool products, and scratching our various itches. Whether or not we believe in God, we want to do something real with our lives. We have one itch that mere scratching won’t fix, and that is the itch to understand what life is all about and to live meaningfully by the measures that really count.
So much for what we have in common. On this sixth day of the Yule Blog, approaching the midpoint of the season, I want to blog (respectfully) about how theists and atheists are different. While both groups think life means something, we understand that meaning in different ways.
Virtually all human beings encounter something in life that seems to transcend ordinary experience. This is true whether or not we believe in one God, many gods, or no god at all. Almost all human beings have “peak experiences” from time to time. There are moments, relationships, or experiences that point beyond the business of life toward its meaning. Painting a picture, talking with a friend or a loved one, holding the hand of a small child, volunteering in a homeless shelter, watching the surf roll up the beach as the sun rises on the horizon: at certain moments in our lives, these very ordinary experiences connect us with something that somehow feels more real than the superficial and trivial concerns that usually engage us.
That feeling of deeper, truer perception seems to illuminate the rest of our lives. Something triggers a moment of special clarity and insight that puts the issues and problems of our daily lives into a new and more meaningful perspective. Mystics and people with strong religious beliefs see these moments as encounters with God. But others feel that these experiences are “spiritual” rather than “religious”: they experience a feeling of intense meaning and perception that isn’t grounded in any specific religious or theological context.
Some of us have these moments more than others, and they seem to be more common at some stages of life than at others. But I’ve never met someone who doesn’t have and doesn’t cherish these moments when things all seem to come together, when the universe seems to make more sense than usual and we feel somehow at home.
A second way that theists and non-theists are in touch with something bigger than themselves comes when we perceive the power of ideas and ideals. Things like justice and freedom can’t be bought in a store or seen on TV, but we feel they are important and real. They have no physical existence, yet not only do we know what they are, if we are deprived of them we hunger for them as much, if not more, than we hunger for real, physical food.
The idea of truth has the same kind of power. Whether we think about scientific truth or moral truth, we want to know what it is, and we want to see it recognized and honored. People spontaneously hate lies. We dislike hypocrisy because it is a crime against truth. We hate censorship for the same reason. We believe that human reason ought to be free to operate, free to reach its conclusions, free to share its findings with others.
None of this necessarily has anything to do with religion. You don’t have to be a religious believer to feel, for example, that there are causes in whose service you should be prepared to die—or that you ought to be willing to make financial sacrifices to help the poor. You do not have to believe in God to believe that there is an objective standard of fairness by which your conduct is judged, and that some human actions are clearly right (as when a soldier throws himself on an exploding grenade in order to save his or her comrades) and others are clearly wrong (as when a fraudster establishes a Ponzi scheme to bilk the credulous and the elderly out of their life savings). “Right” and “wrong” are abstract ideas, but they are ideas with great power over us; both religious and non-religious people acknowledge their sway.
You don’t have to be a saint or a monk to discover these truths. Values that speak directly and powerfully to our hearts in ways that cannot be denied are means by which almost everyone on earth experiences the power of transcendence in ordinary life. Having these experiences is part of what it means to be human; interpreting these experiences is what often divides people into different theological and political camps.
Most of the atheists I’ve known have a profound and moving faith in the meaning and value of human life and in the value of abstract ideas and ideals. Some believe in these virtues and values enough to stake their lives on them, and they have faith that doing so results in a life that is more meaningful and more real than one squandered simply on the pursuit of material goods or prestige and success. The late Christopher Hitchens was one such person; Hitchens passionately believed in social and political ideals and thought it was his duty to speak up for them, whatever the consequences.
Theists take things another couple of steps. Like Hitchens, religious believers look at values like justice and truth and find them to be compelling in their own right. But theists also think these values point beyond themselves and tell us something about the way the world is made. The concept of justice isn’t just a product of our evolutionary upbringing, a flicker of sensation in our synapses that points to nothing beyond our conditioning or our genes. Justice claims to be a real value, objectively rooted in something beyond human perception, a legitimate demand on our consciences based on the nature of reality. Theists think that this sense of justice is much more than a state of mind caused by chemical reactions in the brain, a byproduct of random human evolution in a meaningless world.
For theists, the universe isn’t just a place with scattered bits of meaning in it. Meaning isn’t decoration or illusion, a subjective human response to hardwired stimuli in our brains or grace notes that accompany us on our meaningless journey through the dark void. Existentialists and others who believe that the universe is ultimately meaningless but who still choose to act as if meaning was real are among the moral heroes of the world, but theists believe there is more to life than the brave but doomed affirmation of meaningless ideals in the face of an idiot, uncaring universe.
Theists are people who have come to believe that meaning really means something, that it all adds up. The transcendence that comes to us in life doesn’t just happen in our heads; it points to the nature of ultimate reality. That ultimate reality transcends our ability to comprehend, and we only get scattered glimpses of it here and there. But whatever it is, it is greater than we are.
When theists think about that meaningfulness we experience in peak moments, we find ourselves thinking about its source. Theists believe it makes sense that the source of meaning and existence hang together. “Meaning” for theists is like “justice” and “truth”; it is something we don’t completely see or grasp, but it is real. And because meaning is the ground out of which such meaningful ideas as justice and beauty grow, its existence is even more important and more consequential than the existence of these other ideals for which people are willing to die. Theists are people for whom this concept of the meaning of life is so powerful, so present, so active that they find that it can’t be talked about except as a supreme force of transcendence and world-shaping power, the truth behind all truths. Something this beautiful, this lively, this intelligent, this powerful, this transcendent, theists believe, cannot be less than alive and self-aware. Meaning is a Person, not just a Thing.
Part of this comes from experience; theists often feel that they have directly experienced God in some of those moments of transcendence that we all feel. They feel they are encountering Somebody in those out-of-the-ordinary experiences of intense perception and awareness, not just Something. At those peak moments of insight, and even in the midst of everyday life, for many theists, there is an experience that the universe doesn’t just sit there while we experience it. It responds to us in a meaningful way that can only be called personal.
For Christians, the core of the meaning they experience in their lives and see around them is love. The feeling we have of transcendence, the connections we experience with the people around us, the beauty we find in works of art, the power and glory of the ideals by which we try to steer our lives: these all come down to love in the end.
This leads very naturally to the concept of a personal God. Love is a personal quality; there are a lover and a beloved. If this is a universe built on love, then it is a universe of persons, of community, of connection.
Many people who aren’t religious or don’t have much religious education or experience in their backgrounds think that believers are buying some kind of mythological package that attempts to explain the world. Non-believers often think that the difference between belief and unbelief in God is comparable to that between believers and non-believers in Santa Claus. People with more mature minds, more fully developed scientific understandings of the world, say many skeptics, understand what the naive and the emotional do not. Once an individual or a culture grows up, it puts away these childish beliefs and deals unsentimentally with the world as it is.
But for believers, the question isn’t why there are presents under the tree. It is whether the love around the family circle speaks of a larger reality and in some way reflects the meaning inherent in the universe as a whole, or whether that happy Christmas morning feeling is nothing more than the biologically conditioned response of a collection of primates in a kinship setting.
I won’t try to speak for Islam or Judaism, but to understand where Christians are coming from with this whole God thing, it’s probably more useful to start your thinking about God as the Heart of the universe rather than as its King. God isn’t the Santa Claus who brought the presents to the tree; He’s the Source and the Power of the love the family members feel for one another on Christmas morning. He’s found in the trust the child feels in the parent, the commitment and love the parent feels toward the child.
Christmas is so widely celebrated because it expresses as well as celebrates some essential Christian ideas. God is the baby in the heart of his family, the adored child whose presence gives new meaning and hope to the parents and friends. This is not God as the Punisher and the Avenger; it is God giving Himself to the world out of uncontrollable, unstoppable, and vulnerable love. As an adult, Jesus would show through His teaching and death that God loves people with the deep and sacrificial love that parents have for their children; as a baby and child, Jesus taught us that God yearns for us and turns to us with the absolute attachment that children have for those who feed, shelter, clothe, teach, and love them to maturity.
For Christians, the familiar scene around the manger reminds us that the universe is a home, a family circle; despite the immensity of stars and space stretching away from us on every side, it is love and intimacy and sharing that make it all go round.
There is something else to celebrate: Love doesn’t just exist, Christians believe. It rules. That baby in the manger isn’t just the center of a circle of affection that includes his family and the adoring shepherds; He is the King and Lord of the universe. Meaning lives and meaning loves and meaning rules; that is what Christians are celebrating at this time of year.
Love is here, love is real, love rules. That is what Christmas means to Christians.
Walter Russell Mead, a Providence contributing editor, is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of numerous books, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.