Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Meaning of Life

I have once again been asked how an atheist like me could possibly find meaning in life -- if it not to be found in serving God.

Imagine a distant land, occupied by humans, but whose customs differ from our own. In this land, a young girl faces her eighth birthday. On this special day, her parents give her a small paper box that fits in her hand, and they tell her, "This box contains an egg. It is very fragile, and you must take very good care of it. You must keep it with you at all times, but you must always make sure that it never gets too warm. You must keep it from being struck or dropped, because if this happens the egg will surely break."

These egg boxes are made at a temple. There is an elaborate ceremony in which a priest puts a box together according to time-honored rituals. It is sealed shut then, with a prayer, it is said that an egg enters this world from a land beyond space and time. However, if the box is ever opened or the egg is damaged, it will return to the land from which it came.

If the egg survives until death of its owner, the person's essence will enter the egg. When the egg returns to its own land, it will carry that essence with it.

These children are told that they are not to even shake the box a little, even to try to hear the egg inside. Even a mild shaking may destroy the egg.

So, this girl goes to school, where all of her friends are eager to see her box. She shows it to them proudly, but warns them that they cannot open the box to see the egg inside. As a child, she makes mistakes from time to time. Each reprimand brings the child to a renewed determination to treat the box with extra care.

Besides, she is told, this is the most important thing that she can do with her life. There are others, she is told, who have no egg, because they have thrown theirs away or their parents never gave them one. These people have nothing special to do with their lives. Their lives are purposeless, empty, and miserable (though some of them hide their misery very well).

Of course, caring for the egg requires sacrifice. There are many things that one cannot do, because it would threaten the egg. Some of those without eggs spend their lives doing things that those with eggs cannot do. However, it is said that they are not to be envied. The lives of the eggless are purposeless, empty.

Caring for her egg becomes the most important thing in this person's life. She has children of her own and, when they have their eighth birthday, she goes to the temple where she is handed a box. She gives it to her children, and teaches them how to care for it. She raises them to take good care of their egg box. She is a good parent.

Eventually, she grows old, and she dies. She is laid in her casket with the egg box that she has cared for through her entire life.

At the funeral, mourners enter with their own egg boxes. With death a vivid reminder of their own mortality, they are particularly careful with their egg boxes on this day.

Except, one person, Alan, enters the room carrying no egg box. His hands hang uselessly at his side as he makes his way among the crowd. He gets something to drink and he looks around, and finds himself being stared at. Their stares are a mixture of pity, concern, and contempt.

Some parents direct their children to go play outside. They are fearful. What if their children decide to become eggless? Then they will have no vessel to take their essence into the afterlife. The thought is too dreadful for the parent to contemplate. Some want the eggless shut away, for the sake of the children.

Alan understands. He does not like it, but he understands it.

Yet, here, at this occasion, they struggle to be civil. They exchange condolences.

Alan finds his tall, dark-haired cousin in the crowd. "Hello, Patty."

Patty turns around. When they were children, Patty moved in with Alan's family for a year while her parents struggled to find work and make a home. It takes her a moment to recognize him, then she puts her arms around him for a hug, taking care not to jolt her egg box. When she steps back out of the hug, she looks at him and says, "Still no egg box, I see."

Alan leans forward and whispers, "I'm sorry, Patty. I have more important things to do with my life than tend an empty box."

"There is nothing that has importance without the egg," Patty answers. "Without the egg to carry our essence to the next world, everything is temporary."

"Why do you think that temporary things are not important?" Alan asks. "Let me hold a hot iron to the sole of you foot, temporarily, and then you tell me whether or not it is important that I not do this."

"Alan!" Patty protests, but the smile at seeing him did not leave her lips.

"Just making a point," says Alan. "Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, the universe does not care whether you are tortured or not. But you care. I care. James and your mom and your daughter all care. If the universe does not care, screw the universe. Why are you dismissing the concern of your friends and family as unimportant?"

"I doubt if mom cares," Patty says sadly.

"She is still not talking to you?"

Patty nods. "She thinks that if I raise her granddaughter to care for her egg as the Reds do, Jennifer will not make it into the afterlife. Blues like mom think that an egg has to be kept cool until death or it will not work. Reds think that eggs must be kept warm. Mom fears that if I teach Jennifer to keep her egg warm, it will not work to carry her essence to the next life. She thinks that I am destroying her chance for eternal life."

"And you have no way to find out whether an egg is supposed to be kept warm or cool," says Alan. "There is no way to test this, because none of us has ever seen an egg carry an essence to the next world."

Patty shrugs. "It makes sense. Hens must keep an egg warm, or it will not hatch."

"Yet, we keep our eggs in the refrigerator until we are ready to use them," Alan answers. "Every year people introduce another hue or shade, convinced that theirs are the only instructions that will get them to the next world, and insisting that if you accept any other color or none at all, then you are doomed to eternal death. Yet, none can prove that they have the right formulae, because there is no way to test the ideas they come up with. We cannot experiment. Instead, we grasp, taking the same options as our parents, and we can only hope that they were right. Besides, how much have we lost in fighting and factional disputes among the different colors?"

"Don't start."

"I haven't," Alan says, spreading his arms wide to show that he carries no egg box. "You think that my life lacks meaning or purpose. I think that you are wasting your life caring for that box. You could be caring for the people around you instead. That box is empty, Patty. If you spend your life caring for that box, you end your life with one well-cared-for empty box, and that's it."

"And what do you have?" Patty asks.

"I care about things that are real," Alan says. "There is real pain, suffering, and death in the world. These are things that you can see. We know they are real. When there is joy and happiness, that joy and happiness is real, too. I can help reduce the pain, suffering and death, and increase the joy and happiness. These are my eggs. Real people. You care about your imaginary egg in a box. I care about people."

"But your life will end," Patty protests.

"As will yours," says Alan. He sees a burst of pain in her eyes and he flinches. "I'm sorry. The fact is, you will die, just as I will. Only, you will die with a well-cared-for empty box, and I will die having done what I could to bring less pain and suffering, and more happiness and joy, than the world would have had. You care for people, too, Patty. You do it because you care about them."

At that moment, Patty's daughter, Jennifer, comes running up to her and starts pulling on her hand, shouting, "Come see! Come see!"

"Patty," says Alan, gently putting his hand on her arm, speaking too softly for the persistent child to hear. "Tell me, if you left that box behind on this table, would your daughter be any less precious to you? Would you quit caring about her if you were to lose your egg?"

Patty did not answer. Her daughter was pulling at her with growing impatience, and Patty was giving in to her protest.

As Patty moved away, Alan added, "Patty, those boxes are empty. Don't let them come between you and the people around you. Those people are real, and their love is real, and that makes them more important than any invisible egg."

17 comments:

Maurya said...

hello mr. fyfe!
all thru ur text, u kept my interest. i am an atheist as well. but i prefer not adding a negative connotation that the word 'atheist' implicitly carries. in other words, i mean that i do not mind if people around me believe in god. though, do prefer a world full of atheists. i am not against religion and god but at the same time not for them. though ur anecdote is quite big, it carries something basic about how i think about atheism.
i believe that one should not waste his life for something which has no proof or which cannot be known. what makes me write back to u is, u have mentioned about all the issues u have confronted in ur life. i too have confronted many as have all people on earth. but, i think no non atheist can turn into an atheist reading ur text. that may not have been ur aim though. for instance, u ask a student to write an essay on capital punishment, u would probably receive many dimensions to the topic concerned. but does every full blown student believe and practise what he or she has written? i don't doubt the degree of atheism in you nor do i think that u bother about others thinking about ur beliefs. but your thesis seems very abstract. despite that i get lured to ur 'issues confronted'.
i would like to know what made u become an atheist. it is true that a process and long sequence of events leads us to making new decisions. but, there must have been a sigularity-the day u felt, if not said to ur self, that u would now turn into an atheist.

Alonzo Fyfe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alonzo Fyfe said...

Alonzo Fyfe said...
Sophomaniac

If you would like the long version of how I came to be an atheist, you will find it in Chapter 1 of a book I have posted on my web site:

Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist’s Quest for Moral Truth

The short version is that I was always an atheist. When I was young, I thought that this whole "god" stuff was like "santa clause" -- something that people had fun with, but nobody could ever really believe it was true. It made no sense.

So, there was no moment in which I decided that I ultimately came to say, "I am an atheist". There was, however, a rather shocking and disturbing set of events when I was a young child when I came to realize that other people are not.

Oz said...

Very well done.

Anonymous said...

Yea!!! I love metaphor!
I don't suppose any theists have seen this?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anonymous:

You, and anybody else, are free to show this to any theists, using whatever medium you wish. (Email, link to this site, or posting in a bulletin board).

I would be interested in their comments.

India said...

You said you were interested in theists' comments, so here goes. :-)

First, I'd rather atheists took the attitude you seem to be taking here rather than saying, "I think you're wasting your time and/or doing something wrong by worshipping God/following your religion, but that's your business." If there is no God, then I am wasting my time, and I'd rather that someone had enough concern for me to try to point this out. Cf. this passage from 1 Cor 15: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 1More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead...If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

However, I think a lot of the points in your essay are not applicable to Xianity.

> The lives of the eggless "are purposeless, empty, and miserable."

While I do believe that those who have Jesus in their lives have access to something (God) that will enable them to be fulfilled and at peace, it doesn't follow that all Christians are happy and all nonbelievers are miserable. The next time a Christian tells you this, refer them to Paul and Barnabas' speech to unbelievers in Acts 14:17: "[God] has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy."

> Their stares are a mixture of pity, concern, and contempt...Some want the eggless shut away, for the sake of the children.

While I am sure there are many Christians who display this attitude towards atheists, it is not a right attitude (except for showing concern).

Concerning the Blues vs. Reds: Yes, this is an attitude that is displayed among many theists and is often wrong, e.g. Christians who insist that you must read the KJV or belong to their particular denomination. However, disagreements of this sort do not disprove theism or Christianity, any more than moral disagreements among atheists (or DUists, should DU become widely accepted) mean there are no true moral statements. It is also not the case that all statements of the form "you must do X to be saved" are false, any more than all statements of the form "you must do X in order to be a moral person" are false.

> I think that you are wasting your life caring for that box. You could be caring for the people around you instead.

Ever read the book of James?

Finally, concerning the whole concept of not being able to tell there's really an egg in the box: I don't think this is completely analogous to the theist's position. Many theists have good reason to believe in God through experience as well as reason. I'm sure you disagree as to the quality of their reasoning and evidence, but my point is that there is evidence. A better analogy is that the egg box owner has heard and/or felt something inside the box, even if the eggless think it's debatable that the something is really an egg or is of supernatural or extraterrestial origin.

Minyaliel said...

I just wanted to say thank you for writing and posting this text. I came across it on atheism.about.com and was amazed - it is very beautiful and deep. Thank you for sharing. :)

Love,
~Min

Anonymous said...

On with the Mexican hats!!! DEny the egg apostles!!! Follow the hat!!!

Gurp!

Anonymous said...

Dear India,
Perhaps when you make your arguement I think you have forgotten some points of Christianity. I don't know if you fall on the Calvinist or Armenianist view point in regard to the debate of predesitination. But there is something to be said for the hardening of hearts if you read the passage in Romans chapter 8 you may be surprised. Also in John it says 'you did not choose me for I chose you.' There is a cetain theme within the teachings of Christ that give air to a selective revelation. Also, I guess for the benefit of those who have no back ground in Theology or Christian Studies, Christians do not view each other as being of greater value then the other. I will quote Soren Kierkegaard just so that we are a little more aware of where the Christian disposition ought to be when engaging in this discussion.
"“… but just as the well-disciplined child has an unforgettable impression of rigorousness, so also the person who relates himself to God’s love, unless in a ‘soft’ (1 Timothy 4.7) or like-minded way he takes it in vain, is bound to have an unforgettable fear and trembling though he rests in God’s love. Such a person will surely avoid speaking to God about the wrongs of other against him, of the splinter in his brother’s eye, because such a person will prefer to speak to God only about grace lest this fateful word 'justice' ruin everything for him through what he himself has invoked, the rigorus like for like.”1

Besides all this ambiguous talk, ultimatly as Kierkegaard has pointed out, the Christian ethic is essentially one that if filled with grace because he knows of his own faults.
I mentioned this bit about revelation
only because not all are going to accept Christianity, and Christianity transcends human rationality because there is an element of faith required. And not all have faith.
I would like to suggest however that the rationalist also has a faith of his own, only it is a faith in himself and on the emperical senses; I wonder how it is that the rationalist can justify such a stance because as we all know, we simply do not know beyond our own subjectivity. We in our ethical systems are essentially starting in the middle, we don't start from scratch nor do we look back in heinsight, so rationality almost to me appears even more irrational.

1S├śren Kierkegaard Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong Works of Love (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1813-1855 [CW 1995]) 337

India said...

Anonymous,

I think you have forgotten some points of Christianity...But there is something to be said for the hardening of hearts if you read the passage in Romans chapter 8 you may be surprised.

What did I write that was contradictory to essential Christian doctrine? What did I write that was contradictory to Romans 8?

Christians do not view each other as being of greater value then the other.

In practice, some probably do this, but I agree with you that they ought not to.

I will quote Soren Kierkegaard just so that we are a little more aware of where the Christian disposition ought to be when engaging in this discussion...

Sorry, I'm not quite following you - what part of my comment are you taking issue with?

Anonymous said...

"I would like to suggest however that the rationalist also has a faith of his own, only it is a faith in himself and on the emperical senses;"

Yeeeargh. This is crap, and I will explain exactly why.

You, as a "believer", have just as much faith in your empirical senses as any rationalist. You prove it every day as you go through your ordinary life, getting up in the morning, greeting your family, and so on.

You have just as much faith in your own thinking as any rationalist: you are the one who thinks he sees evidence of a God. Just you: and you have faith in your own thinking in order to accept that evidence.

The rationalist has no faith that you do not have. You, however, have gratuituous faith without evidence (in the doctrines of Christianity, perhaps) which the rationalist does not have. The rationalist is a faith-minimalist, who is skeptical of as much as s/he can be, and accepts as little as possible "on faith". You accept "on faith" everything the rationalist does, and much more besides.

I may be wrong. Perhaps you have less faith in your own empirical senses than I do. (As someone who has hallucinated, I seriously doubt it: I have faith only that *most* of what I sense is accurate; and of course that all of what I sense is in fact sensed by me, which is a tautology.) Perhaps every morning you get up and wonder "Is that really a bed, or just a very convincing illusion placed there by the devil to confuse me? Both possibilities seem equally likely." Perhaps when you meet your family, you wonder "Have they all been replaced by alien clones from another planet? How can I possibly tell? I'd better consider both possiblities, just to be safe." I suspect you do not do either of these things; the people I've known who do do things like this are generally locked in psychiatric institutions.

Now, it is possible to mistrust yourself to a great degree without going quite that far. I do know someone who believes very firmly in her own inadequacy and incompetence, and "trusts to God" instead. This means that she always does the opposite of her own instincts. The pitiable part is that she actually has pretty good instincts, and has therefore ruined her life.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the theist asking about a "meaning of life," is irrelevant to the questino of whether theism is true or false.

Saying "If there is no God, then life has no meaning! There must be a god!' is akin to seeing a balance of $200.00 on your bank statement and saying, "If this is true, then that means I'm not a millionaire! I so want to be a millionaire! This bank statement must be wrong!"

Anonymous said...

India said, "I'm sure you disagree as to the quality of their reasoning and evidence, but my point is that there is evidence."

What evidence?

Personal experience that cannot be measured or evaluated is not evidence. Coincidence is not evidence. What evidence?

Anonymous said...

If there is no GOD, then you are a god.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anonymous

Your statement is as sensible as saying, "If there are no leprachauns, then you are a leprachaun."

Please explain what it is you were trying to say?

Anonymous said...

If God has no authority over us for the fact of not existing, then His place befalls to us.

We then assume the authority of God in the place of God.

Thus we are gods.