When we're confronted with some tragedy, for example, we seem to instinctively seek some significance, some overall silver lining, something to give the awful event meaning. The thought that there really is no such meaning is almost unbearable. Yet that's the implicit, and sometimes explicit, message modernity relentlessly hammers home to us. Modernity teaches us that there's nothing beyond nature, that the physical is all there is, but if this is true then it's hard to imagine what meaning there could be to human existence.
Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom of Yale talk about this in an article in the New York Times. They write:
As the phrase goes, everything happens for a reason. Where does this belief come from? One theory is that it reflects religious teachings — we think that events have meaning because we believe in a God that plans for us, sends us messages, rewards the good and punishes the bad.There are a couple of points to make about this. First, the belief that things happen for a reason is logically incompatible with the prevailing cultural embrace of naturalistic materialism. Reasons are products of minds. If there is no mind controlling events, or at least able to control events, there can be no reason for whatever happens. In the universe of the materialist nothing that happens independently of human volition happens for a reason and for a materialist to hold that things do have reasons behind them is simply a case of cognitive dissonance.
But research from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, where we work, suggests that this can’t be the whole story. In one series of studies, recently published in the journal Cognition, we asked people to reflect on significant events from their own lives, such as graduations, the births of children, falling in love, the deaths of loved ones and serious illnesses.
Unsurprisingly, a majority of religious believers said they thought that these events happened for a reason and that they had been purposefully designed (presumably by God). But many atheists did so as well, and a majority of atheists in a related study also said that they believed in fate — defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.
In other studies ...we found that even young children show a bias to believe that life events happen for a reason — to “send a sign” or “to teach a lesson.” This belief exists regardless of how much exposure the children have had to religion at home, and even if they’ve had none at all.
Whatever the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences. It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate a reflexive bias in favor of the status quo — seeing poverty, inequality and oppression as reflecting the workings of a deep and meaningful plan.
Not everyone would go as far as the atheist Richard Dawkins, who has written that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” But even those who are devout should agree that, at least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice or karmic retribution, the world we live in is not the place to find it. Instead, the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.
If Dawkins is correct in his atheism then he's also correct in his assessment of the meaninglessness of life in a cosmos that cares nothing about us. Nothing the vast majority of us do matters much at all beyond the span of our own lives.
Second, if there is no "divine justice" there's no real justice of any sort. How can the world provide justice for the parents of a child brutally tortured and murdered by someone? Does executing the criminal satisfy justice? Imprisoning him for life? Nothing that could be done to him will ever remove the pain he has implanted in the hearts of those parents.
The secular man is caught between a rock and a hard place. Not willing to acknowledge the existence, or relevance, of God on the one hand, and not willing to give himself over to nihilism on the other, he denies the relevance of God while living nevertheless as if God undergirds his entire world. He hitches a ride on the train of a theistic worldview - living as if there are reasons for what happens in life, living as if his life has meaning, living as if justice exists, living as if there are objective moral duties - until it comes time to acknowledge the only sufficient ground for any of these and at that point the secular man jumps off the train, declaring that the ground, theism, is all foolishness and superstition.
How for example can philosopher Bertrand Russell write this and not be a nihilist:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.As Dostoyevsky's character in The Possessed, an atheistic anarchist named Kirillov, asks, "How can a man know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot?" Indeed, Kirillov ultimately shoots himself. Man can't live, at least not happily, with the worldview Russell portrays. He can't live with unyielding despair. Nor does he have to. Why he chooses to try is one of life's great mysteries.
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.