Benedict’s first point is that the famous atheist philosopher Nietzsche was right that, without God, life is inherently meaningless:
At first sight, it seems as if we do not need God or indeed, that without God we would be freer and the world would be grander. But after a certain time, we see in our young people what happens when God disappears. As Nietzsche said: “The great light has been extinguished, the sun has been put out”. Life is then a chance event. It becomes a thing that I must seek to do the best I can with and use life as though it were a thing that serves my own immediate, tangible and achievable happiness. But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being.
If you can’t read that, Long says,
“I sat on the bed. I looked at the Rorschach blot. I tried to pretend it looked like a spreading tree, shadows pooled beneath it, but it didn’t. It looked more like a dead cat I once found, the fat, glistening grubs writhing blindly, squirming over each other, frantically tunneling away from the light. But even that is avoiding the real horror. The horror is simply this: in the end it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.”
Fittingly, the chapter closes with a quote from Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” In other words, if atheism is true, nihilism is true, too: life is a meaningless black abyss, and the meaning that we project on to it is just self-delusion to escape that horrible reality.
Let’s be clear about what this argument is (and isn’t) saying. Certainly, atheists can experience joy and even beauty (itself an argument for the existence of a loving God, but that’s an argument for another time and place). But what they can’t credibly claim is that they have any absolute purpose, that their lives have any inherent meaning, that they’re here for any reason beyond random chance, etc.
This distinction between whether life is enjoyable and whether life is meaningful is an important one, and one that plenty of people muddle, atheists and theists alike. For example, the atheist Daniel Florien takes issue with this claim by Gene Edward Veith:
[The atheist’s] worldview lacks all appeal. They get hung up on the last remaining absolute: Atheism is not beautiful. It is so depressing.
If there is no God and this physical realm is all there is, life is pretty much pointless. A person might believe such a bleak worldview, but no one is going to like it.
Here’s why that matters. First, because it provides a possible explanation for why so few atheist children remain faithful to their unbelief later in life. While it might be diverting fun to imagine that the clouds form specific shapes, or to veg out in front of meaningless (but enjoyable) television, a life where that’s all there is is inherently unsatisfying. As Pope Benedict explained above, it’s fun for a while, but the fun runs out. Second, it presents an implicit argument for God: if our lives aren’t meaningless, then God exists. That is, if each of us is correct in feeling that we exist for a reason, we have to recognize that this is an argument against atheism.
Pope Benedict rightly criticizes the silly debates over evolution as being a red herring in the question of whether or not God exists. While Creationists insist that since Christianity is true, evolution is false, and atheists insist that since evolution is true, Christianity is false, Benedict bluntly rejects both of these arguments as “absurd”:
Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.
In other words, there’s absolutely no reason why a Christian can’t simultaneously affirm that we have a natural and a supernatural origin. There’s no evasion here: in fact, Christians frequently acknowledge that we are both individually created by God (Jeremiah 1:5), and created by union of sperm and egg. If sexual reproduction doesn’t disprove the idea that God creates us, neither does evolution. Or put another way, if we can individually have a supernatural and natural origin, we can collectively have a supernatural and natural origin, too.
It’s interesting that so much of the rhetoric of New Atheism seems to really be directed at Evangelical Christians—those specifically who take the Bible literally word for word. Many New Atheists seem to think anyone who is religious holds similar beliefs. Yet, this cannot be equated with the mainstream Catholic point of view. After all St. Augustine wrote about allegorical interpretations of Genesis in the 4th Century CE.
The final point that Benedict made so well is that the very existence of reason, and an intelligible universe points to the existence of an Intelligent Creator. This is his argument from intelligibility, which I like:
This is what I wanted to say in my lecture at Regensburg: that reason should be more open, that it should indeed perceive these facts but also realize that they are not enough to explain all of reality. They are insufficient. Our reason is broader and can also see that our reason is not basically something irrational, a product of irrationality, but that reason, creative reason, precedes everything and we are truly the reflection of creative reason. We were thought of and desired; thus, there is an idea that preceded me, a feeling that preceded me, that I must discover, that I must follow, because it will at last give meaning to my life. This seems to me to be the first point: to discover that my being is truly reasonable, it was thought of, it has meaning. And my important mission is to discover this meaning, to live it and thereby contribute a new element to the great cosmic harmony conceived of by the Creator.
In other words, it isn’t just that this or that scientific discovery or fact points to the existence of God. It’s that the very fact that we live in a universe that is governed by immutable laws of science, and that is capable of being discovered and understood and discussed, is itself a sure sign of an Intelligent Author. You can tell a book from a series of randomly-pressed buttons on a keyboard (“oiafnsafkdnsafo aosdifdofsdaf,” for example): one makes sense, the other doesn’t. You may love or hate the book, you may adore or despise the author, but you’re not left with any serious question that an author does, in fact, exist.
Even to say, “that plot twist makes no sense,” you have to concede that there’s an intelligibility in the thing that you’re reading, that there is a plot, and things should have happened in a certain way (in your opinion), and didn’t. Likewise, the criticisms of God’s designs for the universe begin by conceding that the universe is intelligible, and makes enough sense even to us that we can speculate about how things should operate. None of this is consistent with a meaningless randomly-created universe.
In discovering that the universe shows clear signs of Authorship, Benedict draws us back to his original point. Once we discover that we’ve been authored, we can know at once that our lives do have meaning. He chose to create us, and He could have chosen not to. This begins the next phase of our journey, a phase that will last us until the day we die: seeking to understand and cooperate with the Author’s plans for us.