Yesterday, somewhere in the world, a mother and father cried tears of joy, love, and happiness while watching their daughter get married. Just the same, yesterday, there were parents crying tears of sorrow, pain, and loss because their daughter died of cancer before her 16th birthday. Something else happened yesterday. My favorite soccer team gave up a two-goal lead in an important game. They lost 3-2 and, as a result, are sitting outside the playoff positions with only a small number of games remaining. There were no tears, but it was a punch to the gut.
Ask a group of people in what order would they wish these events upon another person, and the answer would likely be unanimous: daughter’s marriage, soccer team’s loss, then daughter’s death. Each option seems genuinely better than the one that follows it. If we’re being particularly callous, we may well wish these events upon our greatest enemy, just in reverse. Likewise, each option seems genuinely worse than its predecessor.
Today, we wake up to news that it has been unquestionably determined that there are no gods. What are we to make of yesterday’s events? Were yesterday’s tears cried for nothing? What of the order in which we’d wish yesterday’s events upon others?
The answer, according to many theists, is that those tears become meaningless. What we would or would not wish upon others becomes arbitrary. Consider Rick Henderson’s comment from his HuffPost piece I discussed previously:
“Anything and everything that happens in …a [godless] universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”
Henderson insists, in no uncertain terms, that goodness, meaning, and value cannot exist if there is no god. This is an interesting situation. In a godless universe, we have wildly different reactions and responses to different events, and we hold strong views about which events we prefer, but we don’t do this by referencing goodness, meaning, or value.
Well, obviously Henderson isn’t entirely correct. If we can assign a preference to things, then those things have value. Of course, noting this doesn’t establish much for a godless universe, as this value may be of a purely arbitrary sort. Love may only be more valuable than an untimely death because I think so or because the culture in which I live holds it to be so. There may be value, but Henderson would be within his rights to argue that it is not a meaningful value.
In his piece, Henderson contends that “[a]ny atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.” This leads straightforwardly to Henderson’s conclusion: “If your worldview can’t makes [sic] sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance.” In other words, we should accept that there is a god. We know there are goodness, meaning, and value. Atheism cannot account for these. Therefore, theism. Well, there is a question we can ask: how does God account for goodness, meaning, and value?
For God to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he must be sovereign over them; otherwise, God is not that which accounts for them. Well, that’s easy. God is omnipotent. God can just make it such that something is good, meaningful, or valuable. So, God can make love good. That is why parents cry joyful tears when their daughter celebrates love in the form of a wedding. Similarly, God can make an untimely death bad. This is why parents cry sorrowful tears when their young daughter succumbs to cancer.
But God could also reverse the above. Untimely death could be good and love could be bad. The reason for yesterday’s tears would swap. The parents who lost their teenage daughter to cancer would be crying tears of joy, and those parents seeing their daughter get married for love would cry tears of sorrow. Moreover, God could deem a Portland Timbers victory the greatest good and a Timbers loss the greatest evil. None of yesterday’s tears would matter in comparison to the evil brought upon the world by Toronto FC’s comeback win over the Timbers. If goodness, meaning, and value come from God’s omnipotence, then that which is good or meaningful or valuable is so simply because God made it so. There is no reason God should make love good. Likewise, there is no reason God should make love bad. This is clearly not correct, as it is just as arbitrary as something being valuable because a culture says it is. As such, it is not God’s omnipotence that accounts for goodness, meaning, and value.
In fact, this basic recognition eliminates a lot of the ways we might think God could account for goodness, meaning, and value. God’s will, desires, passions, and beliefs all suffer from the same concern of arbitrariness. God may will for, desire, be passionate for, and believe in the goodness of love. However, it is not clear why he should. For God to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he must be sovereign over them without being able to actively choose which things are ultimately good, meaningful, and valuable. This appears paradoxical, but there may be an explanation: God’s nature.
If God is to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he cannot have a say over those things which are good, meaningful, and valuable. Presumably, we cry tears of happiness at a wedding because love is good. God is loving. Perhaps love’s goodness has to do with it being a part of God’s nature. Let us presume that God’s ultimate nature is good. We may argue that God’s good nature makes love good. At bottom, God is good. God has other qualities: loving, merciful, and so on. God’s at-bottom good nature can cause goodness to supervene on his other qualities, making those qualities good.
This frees us from arbitrariness. Love isn’t good because God chooses love to be good. Likewise, love isn’t good because God is loving. Love is good because goodness supervenes on love via God’s ultimate nature. Moreover, love cannot cease to be good, for God’s nature is eternal and non-contingent. Lastly, this makes God’s commands reliable, for God does not choose his good nature, but his good nature will always inform his commands. It appears that God can account for goodness. We are left with one last question: Considering goodness is God’s at-bottom nature, what is goodness?
Yes, those are crickets you hear. To maintain God’s non-arbitrary sovereignty over goodness, we have to strip goodness of all its content. However, in doing so, we’ve rendered goodness a completely vacuous concept. Anything you say is the content of goodness will strip God of his sovereignty over goodness, as it would be a constraint on God’s nature that is external to God. That concept must get its goodness via God’s at-bottom nature supervening upon that concept. So, the theist can claim that God’s existence accounts for goodness, but this has added nothing to the universe for God’s sovereign accounting of goodness means goodness is a vacuous term. That’s a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.
In the Wake of Yesterday’s Tears
Henderson asks an important question:
“How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?”
He insists that such things cannot robustly exist in an atheistic universe. However, as we’ve just seen, they cannot exist in a theistic universe; at least, they cannot exist without being completely vacuous and unintelligible. Henderson informs us that “[i]f a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.” Hence, Henderson wants us to abandon atheism. Well, we must now abandon theism as well. But this is impossible. Atheism is the logical opposite of theism. Atheism and theism account for 100% of the options. What are we to do?
One thing we can do is acknowledge that robust, objective versions of goodness, meaning, and value do not exist. If we’re following Henderson’s suggestion, this is not an option. As he says, robust, objective versions of goodness, meaning, and value are things “that we know are true[.]” All we’re left with is to acknowledge that, whatever accounts for the existence of goodness, meaning, and value, it has nothing to do with God. Thankfully, this is untroubling for everyone. We get goodness, meaning, and value in a godless universe as well as a universe with god. We may not know what accounts for their existence. We may have to admit that goodness, meaning, and value just exist. But we can rest assured that yesterday’s tears were not cried for nothing.